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Moby Dick Chapters 34 and 35
I hope Robert won't mind if I say something about these chapters. I think it's true that chapter-by-chapter can be too labor-intensive for this book and that a thematic approach might be better. What struck me about the chapters was the contrast between the minds of Ishmael and Ahab. "The Masthead" was of course mostly digression, as we've come to expect from our narrator. Imagine having him as a college professor. He wants us to know any fact pertinent to whaling. But towards the middle he talks about the kind of dreamy, philosophic, broad-thinking young man that sometimes signs up for whaling voyages. For this man, the duty of standing on watch in the masthead affords the pleasure of contemplation amid the vastness of the sea, and the loss of a sense of the self separate from nature. It's a wonderful passage that Mellville gives us:
In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant the mast-head: nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner- for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable.
The contrast in the next chapter, when Ahab reveals to his crew--and infects them with--his monomania for the white whale, couldn't be more stark. It's chilling to see him enlist the crew in his mad quest for vengeance and brutally subdue the objecting Starbuck to it. He has a Svengali-like ability to manipulate the mind of the first mate. Ahab is a brilliant theologian and as narrow and devious as Ishmael is broad and honest.
"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
"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 though 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. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines. Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends' glarings is a doltish stare! So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn- living, breathing pictures painted by the sun. The Pagan leopards- the unrecking and unworshipping things, that live; and seek, and give no reasons for the torrid life they feel! The crew, man, the crew! Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! See yonder Chilian! he snorts to think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck! And what is it? Reckon it. 'Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck. What is it more? From this one poor hunt, then, the best lance out of all Nantucket, surely he will not hang back, when every foremast-hand has clutched a whetstone. Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see! the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak!- Aye, aye! thy silence, then, that voices thee. (Aside) Something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion."
"God keep me!- keep us all!" murmured Starbuck, lowly.
But in his joy at the enchanted, tacit acquiescence of the mate, Ahab did not hear his foreboding invocation;
A Shakespearean dramatic quality has often been noted in MD, and you can see it here in Ahab's long speech. There is even an aside. The editor of my edition points to Macbeth as a strong influence.
Joined: Oct 2005 Posts: 5893 Location: Canberra
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Re: Moby Dick Chapters 34 and 35
Hey its a free country. Anyone can start threads. Going through one by one reminds me of the poetry discussion a while back where the gradual movement towards a climax had a je ne sai dramatic tension. I'm about fifty chapters ahead in reading, but going back and reading each chapter again has its therapeutic illuminations.
Melville is quite the master of the slow build. No whales yet, no Moby Dick, barely a word from mean Old King Neptune of the ivory leg, just this slow boring beauty, the waves gently lapping the keel, that when you actually read it has an intense depth of insight and evocaticitatiousness.
The description of the pleasant experience of eating with Ahab is about
"witchery of social czarship which there is no withstanding. ... to this consideration you superadd the official supremacy of a ship-master ... Over his ivory-inlaid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his warlike but still deferential cubs"
Like some hierarchical religious ritual, each officer in turn speaks to his subordinate, who speaks to his subordinate down the line, with the order of arrival, the silence of the meal, and the reversed order of departure governed by "holy usage".
"There's the fruits of promotion now; there's the vanity of glory: there's the insanity of life!"
The harpooneers by contrast have a frantic democracy at table, enriched by a pretend scalping. The harpooneer's mealtime repast is worth quoting for its cultural inversion.
In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain's table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers. While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their food with such a relish that there was a report to it. They dined like lords; they filled their bellies like Indian ships all day loading with spices. Such portentous appetites had Queequeg and Tashtego, that to fill out the vacancies made by the previous repast, often the pale Dough-Boy was fain to bring on a great baron of salt-junk, seemingly quarried out of the solid ox. And if he were not lively about it, if he did not go with a nimble hop-skip-and-jump, then Tashtego had an ungentlemanly way of accelerating him by darting a fork at his back, harpoon-wise. And once Daggoo, seized with a sudden humor, assisted Dough-Boy's memory by snatching him up bodily, and thrusting his head into a great empty wooden trencher, while Tashtego, knife in hand, began laying out the circle preliminary to scalping him. He was naturally a very nervous, shuddering sort of little fellow, this bread-faced steward; the progeny of a bankrupt baker and a hospital nurse. And what with the standing spectacle of the black terrific Ahab, and the periodical tumultuous visitations of these three savages, Dough-Boy's whole life was one continual lip-quiver. Commonly, after seeing the harpooneers furnished with all things they demanded, he would escape from their clutches into his little pantry adjoining, and fearfully peep out at them through the blinds of its door, till all was over.
It was a sight to see Queequeg seated over against Tashtego, opposing his filed teeth to the Indian's: crosswise to them, Daggoo seated on the floor, for a bench would have brought his hearse-plumed head to the low carlines; at every motion of his colossal limbs, making the low cabin framework to shake, as when an African elephant goes passenger in a ship. But for all this, the great negro was wonderfully abstemious, not to say dainty. It seemed hardly possible that by such comparatively small mouthfuls he could keep up the vitality diffused through so broad, baronial, and superb a person. But, doubtless, this noble savage fed strong and drank deep of the abounding element of air; and through his dilated nostrils snuffed in the sublime life of the worlds. Not by beef or by bread, are giants made or nourished. But Queequeg, he had a mortal, barbaric smack of the lip in eating—an ugly sound enough—so much so, that the trembling Dough-Boy almost looked to see whether any marks of teeth lurked in his own lean arms. And when he would hear Tashtego singing out for him to produce himself, that his bones might be picked, the simple-witted steward all but shattered the crockery hanging round him in the pantry, by his sudden fits of the palsy. Nor did the whetstone which the harpooneers carried in their pockets, for their lances and other weapons; and with which whetstones, at dinner, they would ostentatiously sharpen their knives; that grating sound did not at all tend to tranquillize poor Dough-Boy. How could he forget that in his Island days, Queequeg, for one, must certainly have been guilty of some murderous, convivial indiscretions. Alas! Dough-Boy! hard fares the white waiter who waits upon cannibals. Not a napkin should he carry on his arm, but a buckler. In good time, though, to his great delight, the three salt-sea warriors would rise and depart; to his credulous, fable-mongering ears, all their martial bones jingling in them at every step, like Moorish scimetars in scabbards.
And Captain Ahab is not easy to talk to
socially, Ahab was inaccessible. 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!
the business of standing mast-heads, ashore or afloat, is a very ancient and interesting one, let us in some measure expatiate here. I take it, that the earliest standers of mast-heads were the old Egyptians; because, in all my researches, I find none prior to them. For though their progenitors, the builders of Babel, must doubtless, by their tower, have intended to rear the loftiest mast-head in all Asia, or Africa either; yet (ere the final truck was put to it) as that great stone mast of theirs may be said to have gone by the board, in the dread gale of God's wrath; therefore, we cannot give these Babel builders priority over the Egyptians. And that the Egyptians were a nation of mast-head standers, is an assertion based upon the general belief among archaeologists, that the first pyramids were founded for astronomical purposes: a theory singularly supported by the peculiar stair-like formation of all four sides of those edifices; whereby, with prodigious long upliftings of their legs, those old astronomers were wont to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars; even as the look-outs of a modern ship sing out for a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight.
The apex of the Great Pyramid is indeed like a masthead, at the position of the capstone where the phoenix is said to miraculously phosphoresce, combust and return to life. And like a ship of the sea, the pyramid is ideal for stargazing. More could be added to Melville's comment on the use of pyramids for astronomy, but the digression is already bad enough. Where are those whales!
In Saint Stylites, the famous Christian hermit of old times, who built him a lofty stone pillar in the desert and spent the whole latter portion of his life on its summit, hoisting his food from the ground with a tackle; in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntless stander-of-mast-heads; who was not to be driven from his place by fogs or frosts, rain, hail, or sleet; but valiantly facing everything out to the last, literally died at his post.
He was not driven from his post by rain because he lived in the desert. I've just read the wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simeon_Stylites and can see the strange fascination this novel lifestyle must have exercised for those who spent days on end on top of a tall timber at sea scouring the horizon for blubber.
Of modern standers-of-mast-heads we have but a lifeless set; mere stone, iron, and bronze men; who, though well capable of facing out a stiff gale, are still entirely incompetent to the business of singing out upon discovering any strange sight.
ah, yes, a decline from the golden age of polesitting set by Saint Simeon! The poles of Napoleon, Nelson and Washington are examples of this strange fetish.
For a job to which the sailor devotes a total of months of his life, mast-standing is surprisingly uncomfortable, often standing on narrow sticks and constantly risking a plunge to certain death. Much room for existential meditation, as long as one remembers sound footing, and forgets the rodeo comparison.
you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t' gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull's horns.
Then there is the superior narwhale popping Greenland model - must keep down the verminous infestation of sea unicorns...
the then recently invented CROW'S-NEST of the Glacier, which was the name of Captain Sleet's good craft. He called it the SLEET'S CROW'S-NEST, in honour of himself; he being the original inventor and patentee, and free from all ridiculous false delicacy, and holding that if we call our own children after our own names (we fathers being the original inventors and patentees), so likewise should we denominate after ourselves any other apparatus we may beget. In shape, the Sleet's crow's-nest is something like a large tierce or pipe; it is open above, however, where it is furnished with a movable side-screen to keep to windward of your head in a hard gale. Being fixed on the summit of the mast, you ascend into it through a little trap-hatch in the bottom. On the after side, or side next the stern of the ship, is a comfortable seat, with a locker underneath for umbrellas, comforters, and coats. In front is a leather rack, in which to keep your speaking trumpet, pipe, telescope, and other nautical conveniences. When Captain Sleet in person stood his mast-head in this crow's-nest of his, he tells us that he always had a rifle with him (also fixed in the rack), together with a powder flask and shot, for the purpose of popping off the stray narwhales, or vagrant sea unicorns infesting those waters; for you cannot successfully shoot at them from the deck owing to the resistance of the water, but to shoot down upon them is a very different thing. Now, it was plainly a labor of love for Captain Sleet to describe, as he does, all the little detailed conveniences of his crow's-nest
Not sure which is more meditative - the bull's horns of the southern seas or the unicorn eradication program of Greenland.
Melville obviously spent too much time writing Moby Dick while perched at the top of a mast. Perhaps that is a good thing, since this book is worth more than the few spermaceti candles he might have otherwise produced. Hence he says
Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I—being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude—how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships' standing orders, "Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time."
...whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber.
And finally, the absolute classic description of oceanic feeling
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 that 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 Crammer's sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.
But the existential mystic must take care of these inscrutable divine lappings before the mysterium conjunctionis becomes all too real and splattering.
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!
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Re: Moby Dick Chapters 34 and 35
chapter 34 I agree heis commenting on both the class and caste system? The rigid class system ensures a pecking order amongst the officers, while the harpooners, who have similar privileges are kept apart. The harpooners are all ‘barbarians’ yet they have more sense of democracy and fairness between them than the officer’s system. I love the description comparing Ahab to a bear ‘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 caged trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom’
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