Saturday, March 21, 2009

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Just finished Moby-Dick for the sixth time. It may be my last. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it. If you don't think I like this novel, scroll down and read the blog entries I wrote about it the last two times I read it. Oh, and then there's the little matter of me naming my freaking blog after it. This book and I have a special bond that will never perish no matter how many times I read it.

But at the same time, there are just so many books I'd like to read, and Moby-Dick takes such a long time to get through. It has long stretches of page-long paragraphs where, even after six times, I still find myself wondering what the hell is going on, and my impatient eye just starts skipping ahead. It's too dense, too old, too impenetratable, too...inscrutable.

And then I get to that paragraph in The Symphony, the one I wrote about last time, the one that goes like this:

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! That smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!”

And my heart races and my eyes well up and I think maybe I should read this damn book one more time.

I didn't pull quotes out this time like I did the last time. I had decided that I was just going to read it for fun this time. But I did pay half attention to the flow of the chapters and to major shifts in the narrative. It's been something I've wanted to do for some time now—track which chapters are about the story of the Ishmael, Ahab and the Pequod, which ones are about whales and whaling, and which ones are about something else—and examine how Melville shifts and transitions from one form to another. I think it might reveal something, so here goes.

These preliminary pieces are all about whales and whaling, the vessel within which Melville will clothe his allegory. In that respect, they make an appropriate beginning, albeit an often confusing one.

I. Loomings
II. The Carpet Bag
III. The Spouter-Inn
IV. The Counterpane
V. Breakfast
VI. The Street
VII. The Chapel
VIII. The Pulpit
IX. The Sermon
X. A Bosom Friend
XI. Nightgown
XII. Biographical
XIII. Wheelbarrow
XIV. Nantucket
XV. Chowder
XVI. The Ship
XVII. The Ramadan
XVIII. His Mark
XIX. The Prophet
XX. All Astir
XXI. Going Aboard
XXII. Merry Christmas
For the first 93 pages, Moby-Dick is very much Ishmael's story. He is our narrator, and it is through his thoughts, reflections and experiences that we see both the people he encounters and the actions of the story. We start with his reasons for going to sea, and then journey with him through the steps it takes to get him there. We meet several interesting characters along the way—Queequeg, Bildad, Peleg, Elijah—but they are all minor characters and only seem to exist as they relate to Ishmael.

XXIII. The Lee Shore
This is a key pivot point in the narrative, where the "simple" story of Ishmael going to sea on a whaling voyage ends and the fullness of Melville's allegory begins to take shape. Like Ishmael embarking on the Pequod, we are embarking on a much larger adventure, and Melville gives us a key clue in this brief chapter written as an epitaph to sailor named Bulkington who, after a previous whaling voyage of four years and only a few days on land, has embarked on another voyage with Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod. In explaining Bulkington's motivations Melville compares him to a storm-tossed ship, fighting with all her might against the very winds that would blow her homeward, seeking the sea's landlessness instead of the place of man's safety and comfort, suddenly transformed into his bitterest foe. And in this comparison we are directed to see glimpses of that mortally intolerable truth—"that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous slavish shore." We, it seems, are going to sea with Ishmael, and our souls will be doing battle with more than just whales.

XXIV. The Advocate
XXV. Postscript
As another signal that the narrative has changed, Melville here begins what will be a good number of chapters purely about whales and whaling. They do not advance Ishmael's story in an appreciable way—but they do provide a deeper context for the allegory Melville is constructing. Through these chapters we learn more than we would have ever thought possible about whales and the 19th century process of hunting them and processing them for their oil—and in the process Melville reveals to us the deep mysteries of life they will come to represent.

XXVI. Knights and Squires
XXVII. Knights and Squires
XXIX. Enter Ahab; To Him, Stubb
XXX. The Pipe
XXXI. Queen Mab
Another new narrative technique is introduced here, one which Melville will return to at various times until the end of the novel. Unlike the first-person narrative of the first 93 pages, Melville will begin to present the action of his story in a dramatic form, almost as if he is writing a play. We're first introduced to the main characters, then the chapter titles begin to resemble stage directions, and then we hear soliloquies and long stretches of character dialogue with no interruptions from the narrator. Ishmael is still there, he is still the teller of the tale, but he retreats more fully into the background in these play-like chapters. Melville is giving us another clue about the allegorical nature of the action about to be performed on the stage of the Pequod's decks.

XXXII. Cetology
XXXIII. The Specksynder
XXXIV. The Cabin Table
XXXV. The Mast-Head
Four more chapters about whales and whaling, although Melville does weave members of the Pequod crew into the latter three, which may indicate that they are part of the drama he is building. But it's important to note that the action in these chapters is not driven by the novel's major plot line. The way in which Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb and Flask go to and come from their evening meal in "The Cabin Table" is primarily meant to show how life is conducted aboard a whaling ship, and are not part of the book's rising action.

XXXVI. The Quarter-Deck
XXXVII. Sunset
XXXIX. First Night-Watch
XL. Midnight, Forecastle
These chapters, by contrast, are clearly part of the "play." Ahab pledging his entire crew to the purpose of his mad quest by nailing the doubloon to the mast-head and distributing the rations of grog—his harpooners toasting their success by drinking from the up-ended sockets of their harpoon heads—followed by the soliloquies of Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb, and a chapter in which the crew reacts, the lines of each sailor preceded by his name or designation, exactly as if the chapter was meant for a group of actors to perform.

XLI. Moby-Dick
XLII. The Whiteness of the Whale
I'm putting these in the "whales and whaling" category, even though they are clearly about Moby-Dick and the reputation he has created among the whalers as a killer and something best avoided. In them Melville also begins to connect Moby-Dick—especially through his whiteness—as representing something far more than just an aggressive sperm whale. The mystery of the whale—personified in Moby-Dick—is something Melville will return to again and again in these "whales and whaling" chapters, and only rarely will he give a clear indication as to the specific riddle that lies beneath that mystery. As he says early on, it is the ungraspable phantom of life, and to confront it is to confront our own mortality and the extent to which we "matter" to the universe.

XLIII. Hark!
The play again and another dramatic device—foreshadowing the later appearance of Fedallah and Ahab's secret crew.

XLIV. The Chart
XLV. The Affidavit
XLVI. Surmises
More "whales and whaling" chapters, again partially clothed in the trappings of character and plot, but really about the habits of sperm whales and the practices associated with hunting them. "The Affidavit" starts with this interesting line: "So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume..." Melville himself seems to be saying the the "whales and whaling" chapters both are and are not part of his narrative. We'll see this theme again and again regarding whales. The are and are not the same thing at the same time.

XLVII. The Mat-Maker
XLVIII. The First Lowering
XLIX. The Hyena
L. Ahab's Boat and Crew. Fedallah.
LI. The Spirit-Spout
LII. The Albatross
These are clearly part of the novel's major plot line, but Melville seems to have abandoned his play-like structure, and returned to a more traditional first-person narrative from Ishmael. Indeed, some of these chapter seem to verge percipitiously on the edge of what I would call a "whales and whaling" chapter, almost as if Melville is, having just called into question what is and is not narrative in his book, deliberately challenging us to try and tell the difference.

LIII. The Gam
LIV. The Town-Ho's Story
LV. Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales
LVI. Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes
LVII. Of Whales in Paint; In Teeth; In Wood; In Sheet-Iron; In Stone; In Mountains; In Stars
LIX. Squid
LX. The Line
But "The Gam" is totally "whales and whaling," describing what happen when two whaling ships meet each other on the high seas. As are the ones that follow, "The Town-Ho's Story" being somewhat unique, almost an interlude, a story within a story, preserved in its orginial telling that takes place at some point after the chronology of the novel.

LXI. Stubb Kills a Whale
Back to the plotline, but not in the form of a play, in Ishmael's first-person narrative.

LXII. The Dart
LXIII. The Crotch
Back to whales and whaling, and Melville is setting up a pattern here, using a chapter to advance the plot, and then spending a chapter or two expanding on the elements of whaling referenced in the plot-based chapter just previous or just forthcoming. Again, intertwining his plot with the metaphor and deep and meaningful ways.

LXIV. Stubb's Supper
The plot.

LXV. The Whale as a Dish
LXVI. The Shark Massacre
LXVII. Cutting-In
LXVIII. The Blanket
LXIX. The Funeral
LXX. The Sphynx
And then whales and whaling, with "The Whale as a Dish" exploring the metaphorcial meanings associated with the eating of whale meat.

LXXI. The Jeroboam's Story
I see now that I'm beginning to get into trouble with this exercise. I've gone ahead and set up this dichotomy between the chapters that drive the plot forward and the chapters that explore the allegorical meaning of the story through a mechanical and philosophical examination of whales and whaling—but now I see that Melville is intentionally frustrating that dichotomous interpretation by continuing to present chapters that are a little of both. And in doing so he is driving home the point that his story is allegory and his allegory is story. What was once two separate threads have by this point been deftly interwoven into one, and I can no longer tell them apart. Brilliant! This new thread continues for the next hundred pages, through the following chapters:
LXXII. The Monkey-Rope
LXXIII. Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; And Then Have a Talk Over Him
LXXIV. The Sperm Whale's Head—Contrasted View
LXXV. The Right Whale's Head—Contrasted View
LXXVI. The Battering-Ram
LXXVII. The Great Heidelburgh Tun
LXXVIII. Cistern and Buckets
LXXIX. The Prairie
LXXX. The Nut
LXXXI. The Pequod Meets the Virgin
LXXXII. The Honor and Glory of Whaling
LXXXIII. Jonah Historically Regarded
LXXXIV. Pitchpoling
LXXXV. The Fountain
LXXXVI. The Tail
LXXXVII. The Grand Armada
LXXXVIII. Schools and Schoolmasters
LXXXIX. Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish
XC. Heads or Tails
XCI. The Pequod Meets the Rose-Bud
XCII. Ambergris
XCIII. The Castaway
XCIV. A Squeeze of the Hand
XCV. The Cassock
XCVI. The Try-Works
XCVII. The Lamp
XCVIII. Stowing Down and Clearing Up

XCIX. The Doubloon
And here is another one of those key pivot-points in the novel, like "The Lee Shore" marking a clear narrative transition between what came before and what's going to follow. Melville's story and allegory are so effectively intertwined now that he can take something directly from the drama—from the "play" he's writing—and give it the mythic proportions of allergory, similar to what he's been doing with whales and Moby-Dick since "The Lee Shore." His device is, of course, the doubloon that Ahab nails to the mainmast in "The Quarter-Deck," and in this chapter we see what it has come to represent in the eyes of Ishmael, Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, Pip, and the other sailor—to each of them something different, but to each of them the same, the very navel of the ship that they all which to unwind, even at their own peril.

C. Leg and Arm. The Pequod, of Nantucket, Meets the Samuel Enderby, of London
CI. The Decanter
CII. A Bower in the Arsacides
CIII. Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton
CIV. The Fossil Whale
CV. Does the Whale's Magnitude Diminish? — Will He Perish?
CVI. Ahab's Leg
And what follows "The Doubloon" is what I consider the final ride to the end of the novel, a series of inter-related and symbolic events that drive the final action forward to the book's conclusion. "Leg and Arm" begins to examine the meaning behind Ahab's artificial leg of whalebone, contrasting it in the chapters that follow with several images and symbols of bones and death. Ahab, as a man who walks on one leg of life and one leg of death, is a creature forever straddling these two essential states of being and non-being.

CVII. The Carpenter
CVIII. Ahab and the Carpenter. The Deck—First Night Watch
CIX. Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin
CX. Queequeg in His Coffin
CXI. The Pacific
CXII. The Blacksmith
CXIII. The Forge
Then a series of chapters rife with symbols of creation and creators—the carpenter and the blacksmith being called "manmaker" and "Prometheus"—and the poor, humble beings who try to make sense of what has been created—Queequeg with his dualistic understanding of life and death (somehow encompassing both at the same time) and Ahab forever chasing one with the hope that it will reveal the true nature of the other.

CXIV. The Gilder
CXV. The Pequod Meets the Bachelor
CXVI. The Dying Whale
CXVII. The Whale Watch
CXVIII. The Quadrant
CXIX. The Candles
Ahab's journey into the supernatural continues through these chapters, the Parsee cryptically fortelling his own death in "The Whale Watch," Ahab spurning his race's scientific understanding of reality in "The Quadrant," and the ship literally alighting with the fire of mysticism in "The Candles."

CXX. The Deck Towards the End of the First Night Watch
CXXI. Midnight—The Forecastle Bulwarks
CXXII. Midnight Aloft—Thunder and Lightning
CXXIII. The Musket
CXXIV. The Needle
CXXV. The Log and Line
CXXVI. The Life-Buoy
CXXVII. The Deck
CXXVIII. The Pequod Meets the Rachel
Back to the structure of a play, and the final act begins with Ahab standing firm in his determination to face the White Whale while a typhoon batters his ship, and again as their compass loses its magnet, and as their life-buoy is lost and replaced with the tar-caked coffin the carpenter had previously built for Queequeg. Nothing will deter Ahab from his quest, and he seems to proclaim a death wish for him and all his crew when he refuses the request for the captain of the Rachel to assist him in locating his lost son.

CXXIX. The Cabin
CXXX. The Hat
CXXXI. The Pequod Meets the Delight
CXXXII. The Symphony
And knowing the irreversible course he has set, Ahab grows wistful in these last remaining chapters before his death struggle. He bids a painful farewell to Pip in "The Cabin," and, as I have so often quoted before, he comes within an inch of turning the Pequod towards home in "The Symphony," as he remembers the bright and sunny days of his youth and how long he has spent struggling away from home. But in the end, his desire to know, his desire to confront the final reality of his existence, compels him forward into the novel's ultimate climax.

CXXXIII. The Chase—First Day
CXXXIV. The Chase—Second Day
CXXXV. The Chase—Third Day
Moby-Dick does not reveal his secrets in these three chapters—chapters that sometimes read more like an adventure story that the allegory they truly are. But he does prove himself to be something more than a dumb animal as Starbuck has so often classified him. He is intelligent, spiteful, powerful, and victorious against those who would choose to challenge him. Knowing that this is allegory, therefore, what is Melville trying to tell us about that inscrutable thing?

In one last reference to the play we have witnessed, Ishmael declares the drama done in this short epilogue, stuck on the end perhaps only to provide a justification as to how our narrator could have survived. Saved from drowning by the coffin-turned-life-buoy, he is eventually rescued by the Rachel who, looking for a lost son, only found another orphan.


Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

I’m reading Moby-Dick again. This is the fifth time, and when I’m finished with it, I’m going to go buy another copy and put it on the bottom of the reading pile and let it work its way forward again. I told a friend I was reading it again and she asked me why, asked me what was it about it that I found so compelling, and I tried to explain it to her in the back of the cab on the way to the airport.

Think of the crew of the Pequod as representing man, civilized man, man at the height of his technological development and earthly power, and think of the White Whale as representing an intelligence that exists in a world separate from man, an intelligence that is ultimately more powerful than man, but at the same time is totally indifferent to him, and in this indifference is unknowable and unimaginable. Now put them in conflict with one another, and have one of the crew, Ahab, glimpse the unknowable reality of the White Whale and have him become infuriated and obsessed by it, by the indifference and the inscrutability, and make him determined to conquer what cannot be conquered nor understood, and have him inevitably fail in misery, madness and death, never in the slightest piercing the enigma that denies the force of his own existence.

That is a book worth re-reading and I think I’m going to keep re-reading it until I can get my brain around it. But like Ahab’s own quest, mine may also be doomed for failure, as the novel is clearly a White Whale in and of itself, denying in its aloofness our attempts to define and understand it. It is a very complex work of fiction, and one that I find more in every time I read it. This time around, I’m focusing solely on the passages that circle most closely around this sense of the unknowable and indifferent intelligence, the long sought after and never realized meaning that underpins the world we live in, and the way it moves about for its own purposes and without acknowledgement of our poor attempts to capture it. The quote above is the first and it comes very early in the book, in Chapter I as a matter of fact. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

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In what census of living creatures, the dead of mankind are included; why it is that a universal proverb says of them, that they tell no tales, though containing more secrets than the Goodwin Sands; how it is that to his name who yesterday departed for the other world, we prefix so significant and infidel a word, and yet do not thus entitle him, if he but embarks for the remotest Indies of this living earth; why the Life Insurance Companies pay death-forfeitures upon immortals; in what eternal, unstirring paralysis, and deadly, hopeless trance, yet lies antique Adam who died sixty round centuries ago; how it is that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss; why all the living so strive to hush all the dead; wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. All these things are not without their meanings. But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.

All these things are not without their meaning. Melville uses that phrase several times in his opening chapters, here in Chapter VII in talking about death when Ishmael is examining the tablets erected to the memory of fallen sailors in the whalemen’s chapel, and earlier in Chapter I about the sea when Ishmael is talking about being drawn to it. In doing so, he is calling our attention to the world that lies beneath the one we know and see, the one we can all sense in our feelings about the sea and about death, but which no one of us can really explain or understand. All these things are not without their meaning. We know that. We don’t know what their meaning is, but we know the meaning is there. It has to be.

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Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.

Ishmael is a good Christian, and this is one of several passages in the book that reflect that. And although I don’t agree with his theology, I pull this quote and quotes like them out because they, too, reflect an awareness of a world beyond the one that we see, of things going on beneath the surface for purposes beyond the cares of our day-to-day lives.

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And if the idea of peril so much enhances the popular conceit of the soldier’s profession; let me assure ye that many a veteran who has freely marched up to a battery, would quickly recoil at the apparition of the sperm whale’s vast tail, fanning into eddies the air over his head. For what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God!

Another passage in which God is being used as a metaphor for that which exists separate from man, especially with an emphasis on its power and inscrutability. This one in Chapter XXIV where Ishmael is defending the dignity of whaling as a profession.

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“Why, thou monkey,” said a harpooner to one of these lads, “we’ve been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up here.” Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of the deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over. There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists.

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I finished it. Read Moby-Dick for the fifth time and am going to read it again. It was nice. I read the last four chapters, The Symphony and The Chase – First, Second and Third Days, all at once, reclined in my bed before going to sleep. And it’s that paragraph near the end of The Symphony, isn’t it? That paragraph spoke by Ahab just as Starbuck thinks he has talked the old captain out of his mad quest.

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! That smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!”

That’s the one the sums it all up for me, that makes me think of this book as the book I could have written, as the book I have written, as the book I keep writing again and again. But there's more. When Starbuck chides Ahab, calling it blasphemous to be enraged by a dumb thing, Ahab says:

“Hark ye yet again,—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Be the white whale agent or be the white whale principal. What is that inscrutable thing? Is it the whale? Or is the whale just a reflection of that which is inscrutable? And will we ever know? Will we ever be able to tell the difference? At the most fundamental level, the search for that inscrutable thing is why I read and why I write, thinking that some combination of ideas I pick up from books will translate into some combination of words I write, and the inscrutable thing will finally be laid bare before my eyes.

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Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

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Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby-Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.

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There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.

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But though, to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling; though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of those very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.

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It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou has dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; has slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed—while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! Thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”

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Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.

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But why pester one with all this reasoning on the subject? Speak out! You have seen him spout; then declare what the spout is; can you not tell water from air? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as for this whale spout, you might almost stand in it, and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely.

+ + + + + + + + + +

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwrapped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

+ + + + + + + + + +

Who can show a pedigree like Leviathan? Ahab’s harpoon had shed older blood than the Pharaoh’s. Methuselah seems a schoolboy. I look round to shake hands with Shem. I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over.

+ + + + + + + + + +

“Hist, then. How dost thou know that some entire, living, thinking thing may not be invisibly and uninterpenetratingly standing precisely where thou now standest; aye, and standing there in thy spite? In thy most solitary hours, then, dost thou not fear eavesdroppers? Hold, don’t speak! And if I still feel the smart of my crushed leg, though it be now so long dissolved; then, why mayst not thou, carpenter, feel the fiery pains of hell for ever, and without a body? Hah!”

+ + + + + + + + + +

“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whencesoe’er I came; wheresoe’er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in they lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”

[Sudden, repeated flashes of lightning; the nine flames leap lengthwise to thrice their previous height; Ahab, with the rest, closes his eyes, his right hand pressed hard upon them.]

“I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. Take the homage of these poor eyes, and shutter-hands. I would not take it. The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground. Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my geneaology. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her? There lies my puzzle; but thine is greater. Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it. Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!”

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…now that a vessel had been spoken which on the very day preceding had actually encountered Moby-Dick;—and now that all his successive meetings with various ships contrastingly concurred to show the demoniac indifference with which the white whale tore his hunters, whether sinning or sinned against…

Well, that’s the last one. The last quote from this latest reading of Moby-Dick. As stated previously, this time around I was paying special attention to those quotes that helped underscore the whale as the embodiment of the ineffable and indifferent force that exists outside of man, outside of a single man and outside all of mankind, which possesses power he will never understand or harness and which moves with total unconcern for the puny power he seeks to bring forth on the planet and in his life. No special magic about this last one, but it sums that sense up as well as any of the other ones I marked.

FROM MARCH 13, 2003

Introduction by Alfred Kazin

One of the first introductions I’ve read that made sense to me, probably because I’ve read the book twice before and I agree with most of his thoughts. I won’t dwell on it too much because I want to develop my own interpretation of this book, the book I sometimes think I could have written, the book that seems to be in some indefinable way about everything I ever wanted to write a book about and tried. That’s in fact what this exercise is all about, trying to put some definition on that sense I get when reading this book that something big, important, and utterly contemptuous of my own understanding is swimming just beneath the surface of the prose. More on that later. For now, Kazin’s conclusions seem to be:

1. Moby-Dick is not just a book about Ahab’s quest for the white whale, Moby-Dick is a quest for the white whale, a quest for an understanding of man’s place in the cosmos.

2. Melville’s characters each represent a different approach to this question—Ishmael searches for meaning from the prison of his own mind, Ahab by confronting the forces that may seek to ignore him, Starbuck by clinging fast to his Christian faith, etc.

3. That when all is said and done, no matter the approach we take towards this quest for understanding, there will always remain something deep and mysterious hidden from our view and ambivalent to our desire.

I’ll try to keep these things in mind as I go through the book, but I don’t want to become too reliant on them. They may be signposts for me, and they will probably help me find my way, but the journey ahead is mine, and I want to be careful not to let someone walk it for me.

Etymology and Extracts

Three times I’ve wondered why these things are here and three times I’m left with no good answer. The best I can come up with is that if Melville uses the whale as a symbol of nature ambivalent to man, then these two sections show that whales have been part of human history from the very beginning and, in all that time, our interactions with them have been nothing but antagonistic and violent.

I. Loomings

We are introduced to Ishmael, the narrator of our tale, who tells us that whenever he is feeling tired of life he goes to sea. As Cato throws himself onto a sword, Ishmael takes to a ship. We are, he says, all drawn similarly to the sea. It contains the ungraspable phantom of life, and somehow is the key to all our understanding. This particular time he decides on a whaling voyage, and ascribes that decision to the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has constant surveillance of him, secretly dogs him, and influences him in some unaccountable way.

II. The Carpet Bag

Ishmael travels from New York to New Bedford and misses the last transport to Nantucket, from which and no other port does he intend to sail. Nantucket is the great original—the Tyre of this Carthage—the place where the first dead American whale was stranded. Looking for a place to spend the night and with only a few pieces of silver in his pocket, he passes by two inns which seem too expensive and jolly, and he enters a Negro church by mistake, falling over an ash box in the process, where the preacher’s text is about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there. Wanting no part of that, he leaves and finds The Spouter Inn, which looks cheap enough to accommodate him. Before entering, he speculates on the cold wind, and how it bothers those out of doors and not those inside beside the fire, and how the fire within ourselves is not hot enough to give us the same comfort.

III. The Spouter-Inn

A switch to the second person, putting “you” in the center of the action. A description of the painting on one of the walls of the entryway of the Spouter-Inn, so thoroughly besmoked and defaced that only by careful study and popular opinion can its meaning be defined. All else is whale-related—broken lances and harpoons on the opposite wall, a bar shaped like a right whale’s head, and liquor shelves framed by whale jawbones. Ishmael speaks to the landlord, agrees to share a bed with another lodger, and is fed a cold meal of meat and dumplings. The crew of a just-docked ship, The Grampus, comes in and begins to drink and rejoice, except for one man, a brawny Southerner from Virginia named Bulkington, who Ishmael says will soon become his shipmate. Ishmael decides he doesn’t want to share a bed with a stranger, and tries to make a bed out of a wooden bench, but can’t get comfortable, and decides to wait for the harpooner to come back to the Inn so he can get a good look at him and decide if he wants to share his bed. He and the landlord get to talking about the harpooner, and after a misunderstanding about the stranger selling shrunken heads from the South Seas, the landlord decides he won’t be coming in that night and urges Ishmael to go claim the bed for himself. This Ishmael does, retiring after looking through the harpooner’s belongings, including a strange doormat with needle-like tassels on the ends and a poncho-like hole in the middle. Eventually, the harpooner comes home, and Ishmael watches secretly from bed as he undresses—his body covered in small, black, tattooed squares—and makes a small offering of a cooked biscuit to a black, little idol he produces from his coat and places on the hearth. Then the harpooner comes to bed, bringing some kind of tomahawk/pipe with him, and Ishmael leaps up and screams for the landlord—Peter Coffin—to come save him. The landlord comes, introduces Queequeg (the harpooner) to Ishmael, and quiets everybody down. In the light, Ishmael sees that Queequeg isn’t such a bad fellow—a clean, comely-looking cannibal—and decides to share his bed after all. And never slept better in his life.

IV. The Counterpane

Ishmael wakes the next morning in Queequeg’s embrace, the tanned and tattooed arm of the harpooner draped over him and blending in with the stripes and colors of the patchwork quilt they shared. He feels strange, and is reminded of a time as a young boy, when sent to bed early for misbehaving, he awoke in the middle of the night with the sensation of some invisible, supernatural hand gripping his. Ishmael manages to wake Queequeg, and they agree that Queequeg will dress first and leave, leaving the apartment wholly to Ishmael. Ishmael starts to watch Queequeg dress, but Queequeg crawls under the bed to put on his boots, somehow thinking it indecorous to do that in front of someone. Ishmael calls Queequeg a creature in a transition state—neither caterpillar nor butterfly, just enough civilized to wear boots but not enough civilized to know that you don’t have to crawl under the bed to put them on. After washing up and shaving with his harpoon, Queequeg leaves Ishmael alone in the room. How is Ishmael like Queequeg’s wife? He waits for Queequeg to come home, they sleep together, he wakes in his embrace, and waits quietly in the morning while Queequeg gets ready to leave. What kind of relationship is this going to be? And how will Queequeg’s quest for understanding differ from Ishmael’s?

V. Breakfast

Ishmael goes down to breakfast and sees all the other boarders together for the first time. He can tell how long each one of them has been ashore by how dark or light their tans are. Queequeg again is something special. But who could show a cheek like Queequeg? Which, hued with various tints, seemed like the Anoles’ western slope, to show forth in one array, contrasting climates, zone by zone. Much to Ishmael’s surprise, the whalemen eat in silence. Men who board great whales on the high seas and dueled them dead without winking, look round sheepishly at each other at a social breakfast table among their own comrades. A curious sight; these bashful bears, these timid warrior whalemen! Queequeg sits at the head of the table, cool as an icicle, ignoring the coffee and hot rolls, spearing rare beefsteaks with his harpoon. After breakfast, Ishmael goes for a walk.

VI. The Street

Ishmael talks about New Bedford, about how it is the strangest of all strange places in the world, about how one casually sees whalemen and cannibals and country bumpkins strolling its streets. But for all its strangeness, New Bedford is also one of the most opulent places in the world, where rich men, men made rich from whaling, build brave houses, or better still, harpoon them and drag them up to New Bedford from the bottom of the sea.

VII. The Chapel

After his walk, Ishmael decides to visit the Whaleman’s Chapel, where whalemen of all sorts stop to visit before heading out on ocean voyages. There he finds a group of worshippers—sailors, wives and widows—all sitting silently and apart from one another. Several sit staring at memorial tablets, placed beside the pulpit in memory of men lost at sea or killed in whaling. Ishmael sees Queequeg there, and Queequeg notices him, unable to read the black stone tablets which so engross the others. In observing the others he thinks faith is like a jackal feeding among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope. Ishmael ponders on them, and knows that death may await him on his voyage as it had awaited these men on theirs, but shrugs off his worry, firm is his belief that he has an existence apart from his body, that after it dies he will continue. Come a stove boat and a stove body when they will, for stove my soul, Jove himself cannot.

VIII. The Pulpit

Father Mapple enters the church, dripping in the rain and sleet which had begun to fall when Ishmael first left for the chapel. Mapple was a harpooner in his youth, but had for many years been a minister and was now very old. He now ascends to the pulpit, which has only a rope ladder for access, and then pulls the ladder up with him, leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec. Ishmael searches for meaning in this action, and decides that to Mapple, the pulpit is a self-contained stronghold, a place he can go to spiritually isolate himself from the world around him. On the wall behind the pulpit is painted a scene of a ship beating against the waves and storm, and an angel on a small island whose face shines with a beacon light. The pulpit is also built like the prow of a ship and Ishmael finds this appropriate, thinking the world is nothing but a ship on its passage out, and the pulpit is the thing that leads it out and bears the earliest brunt.

IX. The Sermon

Mapple orders everyone into the pews, offers a quiet prayer, and then speaks the words of a hymn about being swallowed by a whale and then delivered by God. Mapple then begins his sermon on the story of Jonah, telling how Jonah, having disobeyed God, decided to sail to the farthest known land, where he believed the power of God could not reach him. He finds a ship bound for Tarshish and, after the crew try to determine if he is a man wanted for a parricide, Jonah is allowed to see the captain. The captain agrees to ferry him, at three times the normal rate, and knows when Jonah pays it that he is a fugitive from something. Jonah retires to his cabin where, after spending hours wracked by his conscience and reminded of his crookedness in the world by the way his room looks crooked to a free-hanging lamp, he eventually falls asleep. While he sleeps, a great storm comes upon the ship, the sea itself in protest to Jonah’s presence on it, and remains asleep until the captain comes to raise him. Coming above deck, Jonah is frightened by the power of the storm and knows that it has been sent by God to plague him. Confessing this to the sailors, he beseeches them to cast him overboard in order to save themselves. This they do, and the storm ends as Jonah falls into the mouth and belly of the whale. There, he prays not for deliverance, but only for forgiveness, for he knows he was wrong and that God’s punishment was just. God, taking pity on Jonah, delivers him from the whale’s belly. Mapple tells his parishioners to sin not, but if they do, repent like Jonah. But Mapple reminds them that there is a larger lesson in the story of Jonah, a lesson that he, as a pilot of the living God, is more responsible to uphold than they. For once delivered, Jonah became a prophet of God, just as Mapple has become, and woe to anyone who goes back to their selfish ways after taking on that awesome position.

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