Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Voice of the Whale

Throughout Moby-Dick, we look at Whales from many perspectives, considering their classification, the function of a whale's body, the whale's phrenology, the uses of various body parts, from blubber to skelaton, hide, muscle and brain, the history of whale hunting, the taste, and many more, too numerous to usefully catalog. We try to understand what The Whale is to Ahab, and what it is to Ishmael. Melville teases us throughout, however, with our failures of knowledge and the limitations of each perspective.

In the chapter, "The Sphynx", Melville very nicely has Ahab summarize the frustrations of our limitations, and highlights the one perspective we will not get: the whale's own:
"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 hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this 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; hast 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!"

Is the whale a divinity? Is the whale endowed with godlike power, the power of omnipresence, the power of life and death? Or is the whale simply the faceless, voiceless and ever-distant observer of history? Mid-way through the book, in a chapter that serves as a bit of a finale to the gory chapters of the cutting in and dissection of the whale (we will revisit the dissected whale and its parts later, as they are fed to the try-pots and the oil is rendered), Melville wishes only to heighten our questions, and brings Ahab on the stage to ensure we are paying attention.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Filling Bottomless Bellies


When we began Moby-Dick, there was foreshadowing aplenty, with the early chapters working very hard to build up the tension for the coming half-knowns. But once we are at sea, beginning with Ahab's speech to the crew on their true mission and the sudden emergence of Fedallah and his crew from the hold as the first boats are lowered, that which has been prophesied and foreshadowed begins to play out. As we emerge from those wild chapters just after they find the open ocean, the first dramatic chapters, the first tempest as Pip appears, the early Cetology chapters, the epic tale itself begins playing out. Now, our references as often look backward, to the first inklings and the small bread crumbs dropped for us, as they do forewards, building to the still grander and more untamed heights of the finale.

The cook's sermon to the sharks is one such moment, where the foreshadowing of the early chapters is reflected, and shown in a new and different light, in the heart of the book. This chapter, to me, is but a revisiting of Father Mapple's sermon, wherein he retold, in somewhat mangled form, the story of Jonah, heightening the conflict among men, increasingly the role of money, and focusing the Biblical messsage of obedience on the particlar role of speaking God's truth to evil. Now, however, instead of the noble father who rises to the pulpit to preach to a congregation of rough but pious sailors, we have the cook speaking to a congregation of blood-maddened sharks:
"Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don't blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can't be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not'ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now, look here, bred'ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don't be tearin' de blubber out your neighbour's mout, I say. Is not one shark dood right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o' you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts sometimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness ob de mout is not to swallar wid, but to bite off de blubber for de small fry ob sharks, dat can't get into de scrouge to help demselves."

It is a simple speech, humbly told. Watch the accent: is that "sartin" a play on "satan" as well as "certain"? Does "gobern" suggest not just governing but "burning"? And, what can you do with "Gor" for "God"? Melville is having a grand time here, but I often sense that he is most serious when he is most comic. The sermon on land, with its pomp and its practiced drama, gives way to the truer heartfelt sermon at sea, a sermon which speaks to a congregation in the midst of its grand and bloody gluttony. The sermon quickly takes a quick philosophic turn:

"Well done, old Fleece!" cried Stubb, "that's Christianity; go on."

"No use goin' on; de dam willains will keep a scrougin' and slappin' each oder, Massa Stubb; dey don't hear one word; no use a- preachin' to such dam g'uttons as you call 'em, till dare bellies is full, and dare bellies is bottomless; and when dey do get em full, dey wont hear you den; for den dey sink in de sea, go fast to sleep on de coral, and can't hear not'ing at all, no more, for eber and eber."

We are all sharks, with nature governing even as we spin our sermons. No use preaching to us until our bottomless bellies are full. Father Mapple's Jonah has nothing on Cook's High Feast of the Sharks, and, indeed, Cook to me is the compelling counterpoint to Mapple's opening argument. Cook's closing lines prophesy anew for us, foreshadowing that which is still to come, punctuated with yet more guffaws for the groundlings, when Cook says of Stubb "'I'm bressed if he ain't more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself,' muttered the old man, limping away; with which sage ejaculation he went to his hammock."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Whiteness?

We have talked of many different categories of chapters: the mystical chapters like "The Mast-Head", the comic chapters like "The Cabin Table", the encylopedic chapters like "Cetology", the dramatic chapters like "Enter Ahab; To Him, Stubb". There are two things about "The Whiteness of the Whale" that stand out for me.

First, this chapter fits into all of those categories but the dramatic; it is simultaneously mystical, comical, and encyclopedic. This sudden unity of strands in a single chapter is critical to the broader architecture of the book. Yes, there are elements that predominate: the mystical, here, it strikes me, dominates the tone of the language, even as comic and encyclopedic elements are worked in, and even as bit of dramatic language, Shakespearian in character if not dramatic in presentation, also bubbles to the top.

Secondly, the chapter comes to us right after we are told, in the prior chapter, "Moby-Dick", that the Whale is not actually or entirely white.
For, it was not so much his uncommon bulk that so much distinguished him from other Sperm Whales, but, as was elsewhere thrown out - a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump. These were his prominent features; the tokens whereby, even in the limitless, uncharted seas, he revealed his identity, at a long distance, to those who knew him.

The rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same shrouded hue, that, in the end, he had gained his distinctive appellation of the White Whale; a name, indeed, literally justified by his vivid aspect, when seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.
Whiteness is an apperance; the reality is mottled, streaked, marbled, only partly and not fully white.

In fitting with the only partial whiteness of the Whale, this chapter itself, describing what the Whale is to Ishmael, seems intensely vaccilating even while increasingly emotionally intense. The chapter begins with Ishmael's focus on how "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me", but then immediately launches into many positive conceptions of white, from marbles and pearls to royal connotations to mythical ones. The appallingness of white is but an introduction; Melville now graces us with the beauty and splendor of Whiteness.

He then transitions into "elusive" qualities and indeterminicies, and, in a staggeringly original moment, graces us with a massive footnote on the Albatross, a footnote which at once engages in a direct literary conversation on Coleridge and his symbols, an encylopedic dicussion of birds, and a mythical exposition on angels and Abraham, all of which is resolved in the mechanics of a capture and release of the bird. It is a grand moment of foreshadowing, yet one that works neatly into the story.

It is only after we work through the long and positive discourse on whiteness that the dread-inducing aspects of it arise, and the fundamental ambiguity of the color is explored. Look carefully at the chapter: you will find in it references and anticipations of many prior and later chapters, discussions that will resound as we move through mist or as we meet a Goney of another type.

A beautiful, simple chapter, yet one that pulls strands from the whole work together, weaving them into a more complex and multi-fibered yarn.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Stage, The Storm; Enter Pip


I have a few thoughts today on several of the most critical and dramatic chapteers of Moby-Dick: the dramatic chapters beginning with "The Quarter-Deck" and ending with Pip's speech as the tempest breaks in "Midnight - Forecastle". There is an obvious and radical technique interjected here, where Melville begins each chapter with stage directions and very explicitly frames them as a dramatic production. This is a work-within-a-work, a framed story, in the tradition of the Thousand-and-one-Nights, the Panchatantra, The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare's Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream.

Now, there is little I can say here that you cannot read. It may be helpful to know that there are four such dramatic sequences in Moby-Dick; the first one, a more subtle one that launches into the play format mid-way through the chapter, is "Enter Ahab; to him Stubb". The next is a short, one chapter interlude, "Ahab and the Carpenter", surrounded by other dialogue heavy but not fully dramatic chapters. The final one is the long sequence that begins during "The Candle" and ends with "The Cabin" immediately prior to the final chase scenes. These dramatic chapters are of a piece, and highlights a play among a subset of the human characters in the book.

Also, look carefully at the key curtain scenes. Perhaps the only character whose entrance is built up nearly to the same degree as Ahab and Moby-Dick is Pip; he is first introduced, silently, in Knights and Squires, and he receives the curtain speech at the close of this critical act.

One of the elements of the play-within-a-novel technique that is so effective is that Melville can foreshadow far more effectively and with more subtlety than the average playwright; the novelist elements beforehand introduce and color each of the characters when they show on the stage, giving them the depth of character that might not appear until the third act at the very point where the curtain rises.

The contrast between these chapters and what comes before also heightens the drama: we move from our yarn before the fireplace with Ishmael to find the fireplace pulled back and a sudden congregation of the players that were heretofore just words in Ishmael's mouth in front of and above us on a stage, suddenly larger, better lit, and more colorful than we might have imagined them, and, in each case, no longer mute. Our prior intermediary, Ishmael, drops away entirely and we commune with them directly; he may be sitting in the back of the audience with us, but he takes on the former muteness of many of the characters. We no longer suspend disbelief: we are to believe.

Now, let's take a quick look at the curtain speech for this act, delivered as a storm breaks (the image above is Turner's "Tempest") after a rowdy, drunken, multi-cultural dance act, perhaps the single most pagan moment of the whole pagan book:

Jollies? Lord help such jollies! Crish, crash! there goes the jib-stay! Blang-whang! God! Duck lower, Pip, here comes the royal yard! It's worse than being in the whirled woods, the last day of the year; Who'd go climbing after chestnuts now? But there they go, all cursing, and here I don't. Fine prospects to 'em; they're on the road to heaven. Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet - they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale - shirr! shirr! - but spoken of once! and only this evening - it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine - that anaconda of an old man swore 'em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!


Is Pip's speech the speech of the fool or the tragic hero? Or the speech of a fool delivered by a tragic hero? Watch Pip.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Heed Well, ye Pantheists!

Melville, realizing that he made extraordinary demands on the reader in that Cetology chapter, generously rewards the reader afterwards: after a short interlude contemplating Ahab's multi-tiered crown in the "Specksnyder", we get some good old-fashioned slapstick in "The Cabin-Table" and a blissful reverie in "The Mast Head".

The Cabin-Table continues some of the formal innovations that began being introduced as we left shore. Now, Ishmael's voice is wavering, and a third-person narrator seems to be trying to edge his way into the book. Suddenly, we have scenes told by Ishmael where he is not present. Melville begins the transition carefully, almost imperceptibly, but it will become more pronounced quickly.

The Cabin-Table, like many chapters, easily splits in two, with the first half emphasizing Ahab's royal table, which is carried out each day with great ceremony and deference, much to the dismay of the lesser nobles who serve Ahab. Watch carefully the language here, and remember throughout that at least two of the harpooners have already been identified as royals in their own right. Part two of the chapter features the more lively and democratic table of the harpooners, one which none-the-less plays havoc with the servants. Here is where the real slapstick occurs, as the poor Dough-Boy finds himself at the mercy of hungry savages who gleefully salivate over the prospects of having the Dough-Boy himself on their plate. The bifurcated chapters beg for comparison (indeed, Melville introduces the second part with the words "in strange contrast"). When comparing, expect a richness of ironies almost folding in on themselves. The democrats are baronial while the nobles suffer privation.

This is a rudely comic chapter for Ahab to play a role in, though Ahab does not speak and the true comedy is contrasted with his own mute and formal table. Watch the closing description of Ahab in this chapter, as telling and interesting a description as you'll get (and you will get many!):

Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it. He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri. And as when Spring and Summer had departed, that wild Logan of the woods, burying himself in the hollow of a tree, lived out the winter there, sucking his own paws; so, in his inclement, howling old age, Ahab's soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom!


We do not stay long in the sullen paws of a gloomy soul, however, we rise quickly in the next chapter to the height over which the great ocean can be surveyed. Here, let us start from the last and weighty language of this chapter (note how often the last language is the most important of the drama), where Ishmael addresses himself to the gently swaying mystics atop the mast-heads:

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently 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!


That is wonderful, lulling and rhythmic language, but there references are themselves worthy of ponder. Let yourself be mesmerized as you read, but go back and scratch your head a bit when you're done.

The phrasing is fraught with religion, history and mythology. Read in it claims of ancient Egyptian primacy, and the genuflections to monastics and early Christians and Rhodes; the references to heros of many lands (Washington, Napolean, Nelson); progress from there to historians and fablists; and finally, arive at the philosophers and poets. Like the man on the mast head, blissfully bobbing with his mind adrift, we survey a broad expanse here before reaching the end, where we are reminded that there are dangers to our reverie. Reveries interfere with commerce; indeed, they even threaten survival.

Yet, it's been a pleasant read, and Melville's set up a great transition from one daring and difficult chapter in Cetology to a series of truly unexpected chapters to follow from here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Of Cetology and Chaos


Much has been written about Cetology.

For example, there are some for whom Cetology is what it purports to be: a Cetological classification of whales based on a review of the literature and personal observation. See, for example, this discussion in Wikipedia, which neatly summarizes the Cetological classification among different books (e.g., Folio, Quarto, Duodecimal), and contrasts it to modern Cetology, which has over ninety categories of whales, far more than known by Ishmael.

Others, however, perceive the deeper import of Cetology. In CallmeIshmael, for example, a particularly melodic blog, we can see a reading of Cetology which focuses on the chapter's exceedingly random classifications of whales as a critique of racism and the random classification of people.

Yet others classify the chapter based on its relative length, and it is, of course, among the longest of chapters in Moby-Dick. These scholars often note Melville's painstaking efforts to do everything possible to accentuate the apparent length of the chapter, just as many an "usher"(*) knows how to make the most of the last five minutes of every hour.

Still others emphasize the role played by the knowledge imparted in this chapter and its utility in the narrative sections of the book, where the discussion frequently uses terms with some technical precision in the whaling industry. Confer, for example, Howard P. Vincent, The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, p. 123.

Finally, there are those who view all cetological discussions, and all discussions on whaling in general, as "in essence metaphorical", comparing whales and in particular the whale to the condition of man. A fine example of this is found in J.A. Ward, once of Tulane University, in his "The Function of the Cetological Chapters in Moby-Dick", which first revealed this reading to a here-to-fore unsuspecting public in the May, 1956 issued of "American Literature".

I, however, would propose that we reject each of these approaches to Cetology, and instead focus simply on one small statement at the beginning of the chapter, where Ishmael tells us what he is doing:
It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you. Yet is it no easy task. The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed.

Now, usually, I too would not look for answers to great questions in so plain a statement, but, in this case, I would ask that you just humor me. Ishmael describes the whales as "chaos"; could he perhaps mean that they are, indeed, chaos? Chaos is often used in two ways: a collection of disorderly things, or, alternatively, the unformed matter at the beginning of the universe.

If the whales are a collection of disorderly things, perhaps what Ishmael is doing is trying to make order of them, that is, trying to find way to make the chaos make sense to him. Perhaps this is why he classifies based on, for example, size and commercial utility. Under this use of chaos, I might suggest that the classification speaks not to us about the whale, but about the classifier.

With respect to the other definition of chaos, the disordered welter and waste at the beginning of the universe (above is a NASA image of the congealing of matter after the big bang), what can we say of it other than that it is even more unknowable than the God or natural force that ordered it? Is not this chaos, of mythological and scientific reknown, the most puzzling thing of all, and thus the task of putting order to it very much a fictional rather than scientific undertaking, one that relates more to the crafting of myths than the examination of things?

Perhaps, what Melville is trying to do here is show Ishmael doing both things, that is, not just classifying but ordering chaos; but that would put Ishmael, or perhaps Melville, at the treadle of the loom, which is too presumptuous to be believed.

This is all, of course, conjecture on my part. Luckily, Ishmael will examine whales from many perspectives, not just this cetological one, and, perhaps, when we explore these creatures, and the White one in particular, from all angles, and in all ways, we shall gain some knowledge, useful or not, of them.

* Note that the word "usher", as used in Melville's etymology, references a then-obsolete and now even more so use of the word to mean an assistant teacher in a lower school; note further that footnoting this provision through a cross-reference to an etymology does for my discourse much what Melville's thirteen pages did for his Cetology.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Pipe


The Pipe is a short chapter. Let us quote it in full:

When Stubb had departed, Ahab stood for a while leaning over the bulwarks; and then, as had been usual with him of late, calling a sailor of the watch, he sent him below for his ivory stool, and also his pipe. Lighting the pipe at the binnacle lamp [pictured, left] and planting the stool on the weather side of the deck, he sat and smoked.

In old Norse times, the thrones of the sea-loving Danish kings were fabricated, saith tradition, of the tusks of the Narwhale. How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized? For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.

Some moments passed, during which the thick vapor came from his mouth in quick and constant puffs, which blew back again into his face. "How now," he soliloquized at last, withdrawing the tube, "this smoking no longer soothes. Oh, my pipe! hard must it go with me if thy charm be gone! Here have I been unconsciously toiling, not pleasuring, - aye, and ignorantly smoking to windward all the while; to windward, and with such nervous whiffs, as if, like the dying whale, my final jets were the strongest and fullest of trouble. What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapors among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I'll smoke no more - "

He tossed the still lighted pipe into the sea. The fire hissed in the waves; the same instant the ship shot by the bubble the sinking pipe made. With slouched hat, Ahab lurchingly paced the planks.



Note that the first part of this chapter is quite explicit. Ahab is sitting on a whale-ivory stool, and Ishmael is talking about the symbolism of Ahab sitting there. We don't have to guess that there is a symbol at play - Melville says as much.

Now look at the second part of the chapter. Well, something is happening with this pipe. There is whiteness there, in the smoke, in the hair, and oh how we know white means something here; we are approaching a long discourse on whiteness. More than that, there is fire here, and Ahab will be associated with fire over and over in this book. Ahab is renouncing a firey pipe, but one he gets no pleasure from any more. He seems done with the white, the mildness, and the fire. Thers is regret in the air.

Ah, now there are symbols afoot, and here Melville lets us guess! But, beyond symbols, there is a drama, a short, intense drama of a man having just had hard words with his officers looking for a smoke and a break; he is a restive, somewhat troubled man who can find no satisfaction. Ah, Thomas Mann, can you offer him a Maria Mancini?

This chapter is a wonderful microcosmic read of Melville's method. It is slim, it is dramatic, and one can light one's pipe and think on it for no short period of time. After that thought, you may still not be fully satisfied - blame it on the pipe and toss it aside if you must.

A Break

As Queequeg and I are now fairly embarked in this business of whaling; and as this business of whaling has somehow come to be regarded among landsmen as a rather unpoetical and disreputable pursuit; therefore, I am all anxiety to convince ye, ye landsmen, of the injustice hereby done to us hunters of whales.

So begins the chapter, "The Advocate", where Ishmael pauses the action in his story, much as Krishna on the fields of Kurukshetra, to lay before us his argument for treating whaling as both reputable and poetic. The argument is twofold: first, we are asked to pay attention to the honor and glory due to the whalesman, and, secondly but more subtly, that going to sea in search of whales has "aesthetically noble associations".

Up until now, this book has been a traditional narrative, at least on the surface. On a Saturday in December, Ishmael arrives in New Bedford and has his first night with Queequeg; on Monday, they are off to Nantucket, on Tuesday, Ishmael signs up for the Pequod while Ishmael has his Ramadan. Wednesday, Queequeg makes his mark, and a day or two, perhaps a bit more, passes before notice is given that the ship will sail. Sailing happens on a Christmas - they get to the ship just before six in the morning and are off about noon. There is a story and a pace to it.

Once at sea, however, change is afoot. The first thing we have is the six inch tombstone of a chapter titled the "Lee Shore" and the next thing is this multi-page "advocacy." I see Ishamel before the fire, pausing in his telling, pulling the pipe from his mouth, setting it aside, leaning it forward, and with great urgency telling us listeners to forget all that, we're about to get down the real thing, we're going to Sea! But, first, he has something to get off his chest. This chapter and those like it are addressed directly to the reader, and can forcefully pull us right into the discussion. We are asked to have an opinion on myriad strange things.

This break in the narrative, coupled with the Lee Shore chapter before it and the postscript chapter after it, tell us this shall not be an ordinary read. While this is not a radical departure in form, as shall come later, it is the inkling of a brewing rebellion.

This is also the place where grand philosophical themes are talked of free from association with the narrative or an image. Melville's images and tableaus in the other chapters will reinforce these discussions, and certainly he waxes philosophic often enough, particularly as some of those chapters move forward beyond their intitial setting, but in chapters like this, mini-essays of chapters, he brings the big themes together and makes them quite explicit. Let us look at some of his questions:

Why did the Dutch in DeWitt's time have admirals of their whaling fleets? Why did Louis XVI. of France, at his own personal expense, fit out whaling ships from Dunkirk, and politely invite to that town some score or two of families from our own island of Nantucket? Why did Britain between the years 1750 and 1788 pay to her whalemen in bounties upwards of lb. 1,000,000? And lastly, how comes it that we whalemen of America now outnumber all the rest of the banded whalemen in the world; sail a navy of upwards of seven hundred vessels; manned by eighteen thousand men; yearly consuming 4,000,000 of dollars; the ships worth, at the time of sailing, $20,000,000; and every year importing into our harbors a well reaped harvest of $7,000,000. How comes all this, if there be not something puissant in whaling?


The special role of American whalers will be a special theme, despite, I would note, American whalers most clearly including crew from all the world, the Isolatoes, as this ship does. Likewise, the economics of whaling are emphasized here; we are driven to these pursuits, we are driven to all the happenings on board, however far from commerce they may be, by fundamental economic forces, not just spiritual ones.

What other themes might we see:
True enough, but then whalemen themselves are poor devils; they have no good blood in their veins.

No good blood in their veins? They have something better than royal blood there...

Drive down your hat in presence of the Czar, and take it off to Queequeg!

There is an interesting tension here between the royal and the common (note, of course, that Queequeg, though royal in his own county, is a savage elsewhere). Ah, but we are just at the beginning of this trip; this chapter is just the first hint. But as you pass by it, look at the methods, the style, the approach: he builds the chapter out of questions and exclamations, leaving ample ambiguity. He maintains Ishmael's voice and persona, something that will not be true in all these chapters. Note particularly that Ishmael's history is often quite mediocre, but feeds the themes:
That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman. After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale-ship touched there. The whale-ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony.

In addition, you will find the sense of time now becoming vastly more vague. When Peleg and Bildad leave the boat, they take with them the days of the week. Markers will be seasonal at best. For the rest of the book, there will be one or two mentions of the sabbath, a few mentions of the time of day, and several mentions of location, but no other way to pace the actions of the book with real precision. Our pacing will be set by the currents, the skies, and the appearance of whales and of other boats somewhere on the horizon.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Wide World

We are starting to get under the blubber of Moby Dick, and it has become clear to me that one issue in reading, as often with a book over 150 years old but perhaps in particular with Moby Dick, is understanding the context of the book and some of the current or recent historical events that the book references.

Melville comments generously on current events. One of my new favorites, for example, relates to the "Fast Fish, Loose Fish" discussion later in the book, in Chapter 89 (I know, we aren't there yet, but this is foreshadowing!). In this Chapter, Melville talks about the process of capturing fish that may have been injured by another boat but are untethered, and outlines the rather broad rules among whalers as to when a fish is "fair game". If you go back and look in the set of quotes in the extracts, and find the corresponding quote for this discussion (since, thanks to Murr, we know that these quotes are in the same order as the chapters), it is "Spain -- a great whale stranded on the shores of Europe. Edmund Burke (somewhere)." Ah, Spain, circa 1850 - it really did not have a very stable government, and looked ripe for the plucking! Someone who knows Burke better can give us detail on why the attribution is to Burke. He makes similar comments about Britain's relationship with India and the United States' to Mexico in the same chapter.

For today's reader, many of these references inevitably go by the wayside, and because Melville looks at almost every issue from many angles, few of these points are essential to understanding the core of the book. But, with some background, placing one's self a bit more carefully in the precise time frame, the book is much richer.

So, what was going on in the world at 1850 and 1851 proceeded, as Melville wrote this book?
In the United States: Zachary Taylor is signing the Missouri compromise, just after the Mexican-American war significantly expanded the country; battles over the extent to which slavery will spread internally are heightening. The Gold Rush has just swelled westward movement and is changing a lot of shipping patterns; railroads cover the east, especially the northeast, but cross-continent railroads are just a dream. The Seneca Falls Convention has just occurred and women's rights are just beginning to be talked of more broadly. The South is solidly slave, with a still expanding plantation economy feeding mills in New England and England. Immigration has just undergone the first great wave of the 19th century, with Irish immigration in particular during the years of and following the potato famine.

In American literature this is a time of great interest: Emerson and Thoreau, the great Transcendentalist writers, are pominent; while Emerson has written much of his finest work, Thoreau's Walden is still a few years in the future (1855). Whitman is well-known, but has not yet written Leaves of Grass (1855). Longfellow's Evangeline has been written, but Hiawatha (1847), like Leaves of Grass and Walden, is still four years away. Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850) and House of the Seven Gables (1851) are being written. Dana and Melville are both writing furiously and corresponding with each other. Poe is dead, we think (1849).

In the broader world, the revolutions of 1848 in Europe are over and reaction has generally set in. Darwin has published the Voyages of the Beagle (1839) but not the Origin of the Species (1859). The British Raj has not yet risen in India, though the British have the upper hand in rather intense court politics there. In China, the Taiping Rebellion has just begun. The Atlantic Slave trade has been formally abolished for more than a generation, and the rush to colonization in Africa had not yet begun. Nicholas I is championing autocracy in Russia, but in the Austro-Hungarian empire, the core of the 1848 revolutions, Metternich is in exile and the counterrevolution is tenuous. While the Turkish empire has caught a rather bad cold in Greece, which may be starting to spread, there is still thought that constitutional reforms and modernization may prove a cure. The Prussians are consolidating increasing amounts of German territory.

In literature and philsophy, the great Germans - Goethe, Kant, Hegel, the Schlegels, Holderlein, Hesse, even Hoffman, are all dead, though some lesser lights are still running around. But the great German minds are adored all over and seem well-known to Melville. Dickens is not only the height of British culture, but he has even deigned to visit America to spread the word and close the sales. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have captured fancies in the UK (and their genre is attracting enough attention with Melville, who owned Jane Eyre, that he will devote Pierre to spoofing them). Like the great German philosphers, the Great British ones have seen fit to die, including Locke, Burke and Hume, all long dead but still read widely. Authors that appear heavily in Melville's library include Charles Lamb and Thomas Carlyle, and you will see each of them make their appearances.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Primordial Divinity


In the chapter "the Advocate", Melville writes:

I freely assert, that the cosmopolite philosopher cannot, for his life, point out one single peaceful influence, which within the last sixty years has operated more potentially upon the whole broad world, taken in one aggregate, than the high and mighty business of whaling. One way and another, it has begotten events so remarkable in themselves, and so continuously momentous in their sequential issues, that whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb. It would be a hopeless, endless task to catalogue all these things.


The reference to the "Egyptian mother" is a reference to the myth of Isis and Osiris. Osiris, Isis' twin brother, impregnantes her in the womb of their mother, Nut. This is not the last mention or reference to Egypt or Egyptians. In just a few pages, Starbucks will be described as having the strength of a "revivified Egyptian"; later, Ahab will be described as having an "Egyptian chest", and a whale head will be described in a chapter called "The Sphinx".

Bruce Franklin, in The Wake of the Gods, argued that the "central myth" around which Moby-Dick was constructed was the myth of Osiris, a myth that was chosen in part for it's "unfathomable antiquity", prior to the Hebrew scriptures and to all the known scriptures of the Mediteranean world. For Franklin, Egypt is the "birthplace of the Gods" and Melville's use of Egyptian themes and images is intended to root the book in the most primordial of all worlds.

Here is Franklin's summary of the core of Osiris myth that Melville used, involving Osiris' battles with Typhon (as opposed to the Isis story or some other myths involving Osiris) which he notes is drawn from several somewhat divergent strands in Plutarch and in Thomas Maurice's Indian Antiquities:

Osiris is a priest-king-god who sails the world in a ship that later becomes the consellation Argo. He hunts Typhon, who is usually represented by some kind of aquatic monster and who symbolizes the ocean and all in nature that is malignant to man. Once a year, Typhon dismembers Osiris. When this happens -- the date is variously given as the autumnal equinox, the winter solstice, and the period in between -- Osiris disappears for a certain length of time, which is also variously given. During this absence from earth, he rules the infernal regions and a ship sails the world bearing his coffin. During this time, also, his phallus is missing and the land lies infertile. In a vernal phallic ritual, Osiris is healed and the fertility of the land is restored. His dismemberment in the fall or winter symbolizes the seasonal disaster in nature. The seasonal ressurection of the sun causes, symbolizes, or is symbolized by his resurrection.


I will not try to provide you with all the many details, analyses or wonderful turns of phrases offered by Franklin; there are some deep and convincing discussions (the comparison of Ahab's dismemberment and recession to Osiris), some "Oh My God!" revelations (Osiris' symbols were the hawk, the coffin and the phallus!), and highly questionable assumptions (as discussed in an earlier post, that humorous discussions of myths should be discounted in importance), all melded together with a close reading of Melville's own words. Franklin approaches the book with a fascinating methodology, steeping himself, over an extended time, in the comparative mythology of Melville's own time, giving short shrift to the more modern, and trying to resurrect himself as something of a 19th century comparative mythologist.

For us, armed with Franklin's description of the myth, here at the first mention of Egypt, it is time to start looking for the small bits of Egyptian bird seed sprinkled about the book and seeing where they lead. My own view is that the Osiris myth is "A" very important part of this world Melville has created, but by no means "THE" central mythology. There's more afoot! But I want to inject Osiris into the discussion now, so we can visit the myth again in the coming pages, and see what we find.

Oh, and do note closely, that while Osiris is undergoing the death phase of his cycle of death and resurrection, he rules over the underworld.

Let the Typhoon Sing!

This fellow decided to do an illustration for every page of Moby Dick. Now that's a way to do a careful reading of the book. I have ordered the book and will do a review.

And this fellow is doing a song for each chapter to accompany them. We're going to need a multimedia production. Note that he's also pushing a Moby Dick film competition.

A sort of great flood of sounds and images.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Ramadan: a Hindu Interpretation


In the first book of the Mahabharata, The Book of the the Beginning, King Pariksit chases a deer he has shot with an arrow into the forest; as he searches for the deer, he comes upon a hermit undergoing a vow of silence. As the King tries to ask first one question and then another of the sage, all while eager to get on with the chase, the Brahmin sits, unmoved and unresponsive, without any explanation, for none can be given without breaking his vow. The king drapes a snake carcass over the sage's shoulders, which the sage also does not react to, and returns to the chase. The sage, however, becomes an object of ridicule, sitting there with a dead snake over his shoulders, and his son, in shame, curses the King, setting the wheels in motion for Pariksit's death at the hand of the King of Snakes.

The vow-of-silence-hijinks is a trope in Indic cultures. In the Ramadan chapter, Melville appropriates it for Queequeg, having him undertake, as part of his religious celebrations, a vow of silence behind locked doors, and having the misconstrual of that silence lead to panic from Ishmael and ensuing mayhem as Ishmael and the landlady consider the possibilities and their outcomes. Suicide? Muder? Break down the door? Not my door! Get the doctor!

Finally, Ishmael breaks in and finds the silent and still Queequeg, to whom, unresponsive, he gives a small, dramatic speach; still no response, and none shall there be until the middle of the night.

When Queequeg finally completes his ceremonials and joins Ishmael in bed, Ishmael looks to reason with him:

"Queequeg," said I, "get into bed now, and lie and listen to me." I then went on, beginning with the rise and progress of the primitive religions, and coming down to the various religions of the present time, during which time I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense. I told him, too, that he being in other things such an extremely sensible and sagacious savage, it pained me, very badly pained me, to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his. Besides, argued I, fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved. This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans.

I then asked Queequeg whether he himself was ever troubled with dyspepsia; expressing the idea very plainly, so that he could take it in. He said no; only upon one memorable occasion. It was after a great feast given by his father the king, on the gaining of a great battle wherein fifty of the enemy had been killed by about two o'clock in the afternoon, and all cooked and eaten that very evening.

Ishmael is indeed left wondering if there might be worse things than undigested apple-dumplings; perhaps the heathen's empty stomach is a better alternative than some other celebrations?

Much is going on here, but part of what I'd like to look at is the form. Melville has pulled into this book an "eastern" trope, used it for comic effect, and simultaneously put Queequeg in the role of the sage whose piety is misunderstood and Ishmael in the role of the duped man who misconstrues the events. This trope usually would highlight the wisdom of the sage, or Queequeg, and the comic degree to which we, the mass of people, fail because of our lack of piety.

However, the references for Melville's tableau would be obscure for most of his readers, save a few sailors, world travelers, and linguists, and the role of the pious Brahman would not be understood as the natural hero of the scene and laden with the same mythic status. I suspect Melville, ever fascinated by non-Western stories and myths, would understand this chapter differently than his general readers, and would have enjoyed the play of meanings and contexts here. Indeed, reading through this chapter a couple of times, I think he has down-played Queequeg's piety, and done his best to insert good Western rationalizations and post-hoc justifications for Ishmael. And, indeed, Ishmael drapes a bearskin jacket rather than a snake-skin around Queequeg's neck, helping to warm him rather than trying to ridicule him. Melville has altered and westernized the trope.

There is always a question of how much one should bring to reading: should you go beyond the novel, is the novel understood to be a strong, closed world unto itself, a play on a stage which the audience should not interrupt? There are several points in Moby Dick, though, where Melville disregards this fiction, striding on to the stage himself or inviting us to do so. There is a way in which this is meant to be a very personal work for we readers, one we shape as we read, and Melville seems to have thought intensely about that process of reading, as we shall see in some later discussions. For me, the Ramadan is one particularly personal chapter, where I think I read it somewhat differently than many of its readers, thanks to a little secret handshake Melville left for others who might have travelled a bit in his wake.

The image is a decorated form of an Indonesian shadow-puppet of King Pariksit or, as spelled here, Parikesit.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sermonizing, Literature and Currency



One of Melville's most stirring literary contemporaries was Henry Ward Beecher, a preacher at a Brooklyn mega-church frequented by the high and mighty of the 19th century. Beecher was not just a preacher: he was an icon, a scion, a bit of a rascal, and a movement all his own, credited with enormous influence among first abolitionists, then suffragettes, and later advocates of immigration. Presidents came to him, and his sermons could break people with their withering, influential criticism. It is worth a look at Debby Applegate's well-titled book, The Most Powerful Man in the Country, for a bit more on Beecher. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote one of the best-selling works of all American fiction, published the same year as Moby Dick, and his father was credited with launching the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement that helped define the century for the country. Henry Ward Beecher's sermons were printed and disseminated like dime-store novels; he was born in Litchfield, a town along the road between Melville's place in Pittsfield and Melville's haunts in New York.

I call Beecher a literary contemporary of Melville's, even though his only true claims to fame were his sermonizing and his indiscretions. To what extent were Beecher's sermons literature, and to what extent philosophy, religion, essays or politics? Clearly, they were dramatic, they were embellished, they were fanciful and imaginative, and, even more certainly, they were deeply entertaining. Beecher's Brooklyn church likely offered higher-brow acting than the new, rowdy theatres over on Broadway. Beecher's sister wrote a novel, a best-seller, and it was perhaps preachier and less entertaining than any sermon he ever wrote. America's nascent literary life was in many ways more diverse and less compartmentalized than you see today; we do not mistake our church for entertainment or our novels for religion anymore. There was something about America at the time that made it hard for us to separate our sermons, our essays, and our fiction: as in Moby Dick, they all jumbled together sometimes.

Melville's book includes fictitious sermonizing in the amazing Father Mapple's sermon. Ishmael's visit to Father Mapple's church is a very clear early sign that we will be seeped in the divine in the upcoming pages. The story of Jonah is greatly embellished by Father Mapple, who adds far more color than is present in the simple biblical story. In Father Mapple's hands, for example, Jonah is ready to overpay for his journey, in a manner which gives great reason for suspicion. Focus on the payment issue; Ishmael has already waxed on the beauties of being paid for his sail, and he will soon be negotiating his price, and much of what comes next will focus on the intersection of commerce and divinity. Likewise, the captain and the boat crew, bare sketches in the Biblical version, let us into their heads in Father Mapple's sermon as they speculate on Jonah's sins and prepare to mob and toss him. There are plenty of models for Mapple, and I do not want to propose Henry Ward Beecher as somehow the singular model, but they both were of a type, they both embellished and fictionalized the word of God for the entertainment and edification of their congretations.

As we read Father Mapple's sermon, I'd suggest remembering two key things that won't be obvious in the text: First, Melville was not befriended by these sermonizers; he lived in fear of them and he earned their wrath with his depiction of missionaries in his early books. The scenes of Ishmael and Queequeg that bookend the sermons were dangerous ones in a world where these preachers roamed. Second, there will be a pair to this sermon later on, when a not dissimilar sermon is delivered to hungry, attacking sharks in "Stubb's Supper" in one of the funniest passages in all of Moby Dick. Mark Father Mapple well; even if this is the last you see of him in body, he will reappear in spirit.

Another point to mark here on these preachers is the outsized roll they and their sermons play in American culture of the time. Melville's astonishing collection of literary techniques (the book is almost a show-room of them) and his melding of fact, fiction, and the in-between seem presciently modern. However, America produced few worthy 19th century examples of the classic form mastered by Dickens, Austen and others. American literature produced Irving's tales, Poe's oddities, Whitman's revelries, and Beecher's blasts. The strange brew of Moby-Dick perhaps seems a bit less out of place in this wild world than it does in the more compartmentalized British world of 19th century novel writers.

That statute of Henry Ward Beecher in the photo is one I passed most every day I had literature classes in college; he loomed above us on the way, staring us down as we walked up that hill, taking his measure of us as we nervously took our measure of him. More than once I thought of Father Mapple as I climbed that hill, as Father Mapple was my own pre-established image of a 19th century American preacher.

The Try Pots: Food fit for a Beast

Melville devotes a chapter to Chowder, and well he should. Here's the recipe, much praised by Ishmael:


It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.


Now, at least one thing is missing here, which is potato; few chowders are served in New England today without potato in them, and, I would say, there is good reason. Ishmael's chowder is an inferior sort; Melville should have known better.

Here's the way to make chowder: First, start with butter. Many a debate is held over milk or cream, but the answer ought to be obvious: skim the cream, turn it to butter, feed the whey to the animals, and begin your chowder with as much butter as you can. It ought to lie thick in the bottom of the pot. Now, throw into that butter a minced potato or two and simmer it. Minced potato?! Most debates over potato and chowder revolve around chunks, and chunks are optional later in the recipe (I myself like them in moderation, especially when you don't have enough clams), but minced potato is critical to the whole chowder. Add some pepper here, too, for the spice is best cooked deeply into the food, not dashed on top.

Watch that butter and potato until you can see the starch oozing from the potato and thickening up the butter, and that's the point where you toss in some clams, so they can soak up the butter, and a little bit of finely chopped onion, to impart its flavor; after just a bit here, then add the brine or juice of the clam (that will be sufficient salt) and, if you so choose, chunks of potato and even a bit of celery, and any shredded pork (I leave out the pork, myself, but favor a small bit of celery or even celery seed where the vegetable is lacking, and my use of potato depends on the number and qualities of clams: potato is a stretcher), and simmer to thicken and soften. The idea is that the potato startch ought to thicken it up so your chowder is a solidly creamy and thick consistency without the use of any flour or floury substance and without any cream (which you've added as butter).

Potatoless ship biscuit chowder, on the other hand, will tend to be clumpy and watery, not properly thickened, almost as if you'd curdled the milk. And flour imparts a dry gluey taste to the clams.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Massachusetts' First Gay Marriage?

By chapter 3 of the book, Ishamel meets Queequeg in the Spouter Inn. Melville starts really laying it on by this chapter; Ishmael enters the Spouter as if it is the belly of the whale or, alternatively, the bowels of a whaling ship. The bar is a "rude attempt at a whale's head"; there is a "heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears". Ishmael painstakingly "reads" a besmoked painting, dimly and with difficulty through its layers of soot and grime finding a painting of a whale impaling itself on the three broken masts of a Pacific whaler. There are references to shades, shadows and the "stream of Time". The language is beautiful, flowing, and rich. We can feel this journey starting to take off, and sense an adventure in the air, and, once again, Melville is foreshadowing like there's no tomorrow.

It is, as we shall learn, just before Christmas, and there is no room at the Inn, but, after first experimenting (rather comically) with a rude board of a bed in the bar, the Inn-keeper sends him off to bed with a man with a fine harpoon and a useful smoking tomahawk, not informing him, of course, that this fellow is a man-eater, a cannibal.

After laying on the symbol-laden, foreshadowing imagery, Melville gets downright slapstick with the Ishmael-Queequeg relationship. Ishmael is full of fear at bedding with an unknown man, and he literally lies half-asleep in trepidation waiting for this unknown harpooner. When Queequeg arrives, Ishmael struggles to suppress shock and rage as he realizes his bedfellow is a dark-skinned, heavily tatooed pagan who carries his tomahawk pipe to bed, but fails to give Queequeg any notice of his presence, so Queequeg is shocked to discover any bedfellow when he jumps in bed:

...this wild cannibal, tomahawk between his teeth, sprang into bed with me. I sang out, I could not help it now; and giving a sudden grunt of astonishment he began feeling me.... "Who-e debel you? ... you no speak-e, dam-me, I kill-e." And so saying, the lighted tomahawk began flourishing about me in the dark. "Landlord, for God's sake, Peter Coffin!" shouted I.


So the madcap scene features a near-naked cannibal swinging a lit tomahawk pipe in the night talking in broken English while a half-clad green-horn hysterically screems for help. This is madcap stuff, worthy of the Marx Brothers, but very heavily charged with racial and sexual tensions. Nonetheless, by night two, they are a happy domestic couple, smoking together in bed, sharing their funds between them, and, as Queequeg says, becoming "married". The room, meanwhile, is a collection of phallic symbols capable of making a Freudian swoon.

What to make of all of this? While this may be a clean and sparkling narrative, we're being told a story full of naughty insinuations and tweaks at accepted moralities. Is the overwhelming gay-ness of the whole relationship acceptable in its time only because of its comic element and its intercultural element; the misunderstandings must be other than what they most seem, because what they most seem wouldn't be acceptable?

At the same time, the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael is far from accidental. After a respite from the comic early bonding between Queequeg and Ishmael while Ishmael goes to church, we get to Chapter 10, "A Bosom Friend", and the following chapters, where the relationship deepens and is sanctified. Setting aside the cultural differences, Queequeg is a person who took the same voyage from home that Ishmael is now taking, for similar (not identical) reasons. He, like Ishmael, is alone in New Bedford, and, just as Ishmael goes to find his place of worship, Queequeg seeks out his. These two are anti-podes of the same person, and the fundamental sympathy of the two figures for each other is built on deeper ties than the superficial differences.

What has Melville done here? He has dared to depict the first loving and legal union between two men in Massachusetts, more than a century and a half before it became legal. And if he uses some slapstick to obfuscate any physicality in the relationship, he makes no bones about, and uses but gentle humor toward, the profundity of the connection between their souls:
...[T]here is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg -- a cozy, loving pair.


There is plenty of symbolism, imagery, references, and meanings lurking about these chapters; but there is something else, too, that is central to the novel's dramatic progress: a romance.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Review of Philbrick's "Why Read Moby Dick"

If you have a couple of hours and are looking for a pleasant read that can help you to appreciate Moby Dick, this lovely little homage is well worth a read.

Philbrick gives us an entry into Moby Dick that is personal and easily accessible, and so does Melville's book a great service. All too often, Moby Dick is read at too young an age*, an age where the wry, often sardonic and subtle humor is ill-appreciated and the references are difficult and obscure, and this has given the book a bad rap - a rap as a difficult, daunting work, one a reader must steel themselves for and endure. In reality, for those who enjoy the humor, and who have enough reading behind them so that a not-too-subtle dig at the philosopher Locke, mentioning him by name, or a joke about Jonah or Job, can bring a chuckle, this is a most readable and enjoyable book, and Philbrick gets that across. He demystifies the book.

Philbrick also gives you some tools to make the read easier. By pointing out some elements of Melville's humor, which is sometimes so dry you only spot it if you're looking for it, and some of Melville's approaches to writing and characterization, he sets up an easier reading of the book. He gives you tools to climb that mountain (and, again, the mountain really isn't as tall as it looks).

Philbrick's reading of the book will not be everyone's reading. Philbrick, like DH Lawrence before him, reads Moby Dick as deeply intertwined with the pre-Civil War American experience and particularly with slavery. I have never quite bought that reading, but am happy to acknowledge it is both an interesting reading and a supportable one, one worthy of more discussion. Philbrick is so open and easy going and approachable about his reading that this book almost feels like a start of that discussion. I almost feel that he's pulled up a chair hear me in a Nantucket Inn and poured us a bit of grog, and we are off reading the great Moby together, and that is comforting. He's a good soul, a sailor himself, and a boon companion like Ishmael.

Thank you, Mr. Philbrick. On first hearing of your book, I was ready to dismiss it. Luckily, I picked it up, read it, and am now deep into my next read of Moby Dick and appreciating the companionship. You have done your job quite well.

* Harold Bloom says he first read it at age 9 and still sees Ahab as a hero - a reading I can only attribute to a too-early reading with limited comprehension having too lasting an influence.

Loomings: the Opening Narrative

Moby Dick, a book chock-full of multitudinous multifaceted multicolored coral gems, begins its narrative simply and cleanly, as if Ishmael has gathered some friends before a fire on a wind blown winter day so he can spin his yarns. First, there is that famous opening line, that great lead which must be the envy of any prize-winning journalist, and what comes afterwards over the pages of the first chapters is the kind of sparkling clear prose that would have made a Hemingway proud. Melville begins with Ishmael the story-teller, in this chapter called "Loomings", setting down to tell the tale.

I love this opening. I set aside all thoughts of the profound and am once again a boy imagining an adventure. There will be time for the exotic and obscure and, particularly, the religious, but later; for now, we are here with Ishmael, leaving his city life, feeling a bit blue, and heading for the wealthy but worldly port city of New Bedford. Who does not feel "a damp, drizzly November in [their] soul" anonymously wandering city streets some time? And who, having adventured before, does not want to take the next adventure one step farther? Ishmael has sailed before, in the Merchant Marine, but is looking to up the adventure with a Whaling voyage. Hurrah! That would cheer any of us up on one of these gray wintery days.

Melville does not overplay his hand in these chapters. He will let us enjoy this time with Ishmael, and he will draw it out through the streets of New Bedford and Nantucket, fine places for a bit of a vacation and hearty good chowder (and when we get there, expect me to offer my own chowder recipe, very different from Ishmael's) and cheer. But right there in the title is the warning of what is to come: "Loomings".

Ah, something is looming is right! I spy two meanings to this "loomings" title: the first, the obvious, is the looming outcome of that adventure, this looming is Melville's foreshadowing, and, really, there ought to be a stronger word than "foreshadow" for what Melville will do here. He will fore-show, fore-picture, fore-tell - he will lay out in full color but in bits and pieces all that is to come. Yes, "loomings" refers to all that looms there, in the future (or, because this is a story Ishmael tells of his own past, perhaps we should say it looms in the past?).

Just as much, and just as importantly, however, the looming refers to a "weaving": the loom is a favorite metaphor of Melville's that ties much of the book together. We will beat this metaphor to death over the coming pages; shuttle-cocks tied with yarns shall be passed through the "warp", or sturdy set threads, pulling the "woof" or "weft" threads behind them. This metaphor plays out about a half dozen times in the book, my favorite of which led to the naming of this blog: in the "Castaway" chapter little Pip, whom we shall meet soon on this blog, when abandoned in the wide ocean, overwhelmed by the unfathomable infinite, sees God at the Treadle of the Loom and is driven mad. It is not a subtle metaphor, but we should watch for it.

Oh, well, I seem to be mucking up the beauty of that opening narrative already. Enough of that now. Let's let Ishmael spin his yarn and we'll get to the weaving soon enough. The boy is resolved to go aboard a whaler "before the mast", as a simple hand on deck, but he will be paid for his efforts, and that is a great thing. I can see him counting the coin already.

A Random Thought or Two on Etymology

Like many a reader of Moby Dick, I'm really not sure what to make of the frontsmatter, even now, having had half a life or maybe even more (I shan't know until I'm done, of course) to contemplate the matter. Is the little section labeled "Etymology", followed by the much lengthier section "Extracts", just a way to give us a heads-up that what follows may be a bit odd? Are these sections ways of introducing to us the dry humor and tone, what with his consumptive usher and sub-sub librarian, knowing that in the absence of a huge red flag as to what passes as funny in Melville some may just miss the humor? How many of you chuckled or guffawed at the careful distinction between the Fegee form of "Pekee-Nuee-Nuee" and the Erromangoan* form of "Pehee-Nuee-Nuee"? Or are these beginnings integral parts of the book, the first of our myriad, diverse, and generally unsuccessful and quizzical attempts to figure the Whale?

While I do not know what they all mean, I can say that one thing that is evident is Melville's extreme care with the red pen. Let us look at this first page, Etymology, and at one entry on it, the entry for Webster's dictionary. Here is Melville's entry in the Etymology for Webster's, a book which may well have been in the homes of, and available for consultation by, most American readers of Moby Dick's first edition:
"WHALE. * * * Sw. and Dan. hval. This animal is named from roundness or rolling; for in Dan. hvalt is arched or vaulted.

Melville focuses on the Swedish and Danish word from Webster's. Here is the full entry in Webster's for the etymology (excluding the actual definition):
WHALE, n. [Sax. hwal, hwæl; G. wallfisch, from wallen, to: stir agitate, or rove; D. walvisch; Sw. and Dan. hval. This animal is named from roundness, or from rolling; for in Dan. hvalt is arched or vaulted; hvæller, to arch or vault, D. welven.]

Some of Melville's editorial omissions are supplanted by Melville's entry for Richardson's Dictionary:

WHALE. * * * It is more immediately from the Dut. and Ger. Wallen; A.A. Walw-ian, to roll, to wallow.

I know not exactly what Melville is doing here, but he's telling us half the story and setting up an argument between two etymologies where none exists. And he's getting me riled and argumentative before even introducing his first character (though I know he's likely gotten some others bored and confused).

What sort of dramatic tension is built up by this odd mix of humor, confusion and low dudgeon before the narrative even begins?


* Erromango, for those without intimate knowledge of the South Seas, is an Island that is now part of Vanatu, and lies about 500 miles due west of Fiji, with little but water in between.

The Reading

Next weekend is the annual Moby Dick reading marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I will miss it, but all reviews suggest it's a wonderful thing. Details of the marathon and the gathering of scholars and other events around it are here (click link).

We're off



Today, we begin the read. Follow this link for the discussion at the Salon. The map is from the Norman Levanthal collection at the Boston Public Library.