Thursday, February 2, 2012

Moby Dick Readalong Ch 94-epilogue

We've done it! We've finally conquered the white whale! When Melissa told me on twitter that she'd finally finished, I threw some virtual whale-shaped confetti her way. Here's some more for all of us! *throws handful upon handful of whale-shaped confetti*

I also read Nathanial Philbrick's short book Why Read Moby Dick last week, so I'm going to include some insightful quotes from his essays in our summary this week. Here we go.

This section starts out with possibly the weirdest chapter of this book, entitled "A Squeeze of the Hand." (Come on, Melville. I read your chapter title and I'm already uncomfortable here.) Ishmael describes how the blubber is dealt with after it is actually cut off the whale. Philbrick explains, "Eventually, the spermaceti [blubber] (so named because that's what it now looks like, semen or sperm) becomes so thick and lumpy that it must be squeezed back into a liquid form before it can be heated in the tryworks." Well that's gross. So here's how Ishmael describes this little situation:

"Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! All the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm til a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gently globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,--Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness."

Well then. (I'm a little scared to look at search keywords that bring traffic to our blog after this post.) You honestly cannot say that is not some extremely homoerotic imagery here. We still don't know why, or what it's supposed to mean, but it's there. Moving right along.

One man's special job includes cutting up the blubber - but this can be a messy job, so he makes himself a little body suit by cutting off the foreskin of the whale's penis, cutting a few slits in it, and climbing right it. (I swear that's what he does. Melville doesn't straight up write those words, but that's what Philbrick said it was.) Ishmael then compares this man in his little outfit to a clergyman standing at a pulpit-like table cutting the blubber into bible leaves. Wow, that's quite the metaphor. Now we know how Ishmael feels about clergymen.

Since we've finally finished,
we can all officially wear this
shirt without looking like jerks.
(Jerks wear shirts of books they
haven't read.)
Anyway. Now the blubber is melted down in big try pots, and the smoke smells terrible. It is then sealed in casks and stored below deck. Then, the whole ship is meticulously cleaned.

The sailors admire the gold doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast. The Pequod meets a British whaling ship whose captain has a fake arm made from whale bone because, like Ahab, he also lost a limb to Moby Dick. Ahab and British Captain tap their whale bone limbs together in solidarity. Ishmael tells us about British whaling ships and the kind of food and drink they keep on board.

Ishmael saw a sperm whale skeleton on an island once, he tells us. He gives us all the measurements and informs us that sperm whales can be up to 90 feet long. He discusses whale fossils. He makes the argument that whales will never become extinct.

Meanwhile, Ahab's whale-bone leg is giving out, so he orders the ship's carpenter to make him a new one. The casks of whale oil are leaking. Starbuck thinks they should take it ashore to avoid further loss of oil into the sea, but Ahab says no - they will keep going in search of the white whale.

Queequeg gets sick. He makes a big show about having the carpenter make him a fancy floating coffin for when he dies from his sickness. Queequeg gets better.

The Pequod finally reaches the Pacific ocean. Ishmael tells us about the ship's blacksmith. Ahab works with the blacksmith to make a special harpoon with which he plans to kill the white whale. The ocean is peaceful. Ahab talks about death.

The Pequod passes the Bachelor, a happy ship with dancing sailors. They haven't seen the white whale, they tell Ahab. Philbrick writes, "There are occasional brief reprieves when the Pequod meets yet another whaleship with news of Moby Dick (each ship representing its own alternative to the Ahab way), but as the final showdown approaches, we have become so scorched and crushed and otherwise slapped around by Ahab in his magnificent emergence as an evil superhero that it becomes increasingly difficult to care. But that is precisely the point."

The Pequod kills more whales. Ahab spends the night in a small whale boat next to a whale he killed because the Pequod can't get it until morning. He and Fedellah talk about death. Fedellah tells Ahab he will die by hemp.

Ahab measures his lattitude by the sun. The Pequod sails through a typhoon. Ahab's harpoon catches fire with the ship is hit by lightening. Conversations on various topics are had. There is more thunder and lightening. The typhoon ends. The lightening of the storm turned the compasses in the exact opposite direction. Ahab makes a new one to instill in his men confidence in his abilities as captain.

Ahab and Pip become BFFs. A man is lost overboard along with the life buoy. It is replaced at the boy of the ship by Queequeg's coffin, which becomes the new life buoy. (Ironic.) Now a sad part. The Pequod meets The Rachel. The Rachel's captain begs Ahab to help him search for his young son, who is lost at sea on a small whale boat. Ahab refuses and orders the ship to keep moving forward in search of Moby Dick. Ingrid cries inside.

Ahab goes to the masthead to keep an eye out for the white whale. A bird steals his hat. The Pequod meets the Delight and witnesses a sea burial. Starbuck tries to convince Ahab to go back to Nantucket, but he won't. Ahab leans over the side of the ship and meets Fedallah's gaze in the reflection. Philbrick says, "This is where Melville is perhaps the most profound in his portrait of Ahab as the demagogue and dictator. In the end, even the fiercest of tyrants is done in, not by his own sad, used-up self, but by his enablers, the so-called professionals, who keep whispering in his ear."

Moby Dick is spotted. All whale boats are lowered to pursue him. Ahab finally confronts his foe. Melville writes, "then it was that monomaniac Ahab, furious with this tantalizing vicinity of his foe, which placed him all alive and helples in the very jaws he hated; frenzied with all this, he seized the long bone with his naked hands, and wildly strove to wrench it from its gripe." Philbrick again:
"In our age, we all love whales and wish them nothing but the best, but you've got to hand it to the castrated, one-legged, fifty-eight-year-old lapsed Quaker; he doesn't mess around." [Ahab was castrated ?]

The whale bites Ahab's whale boat in half and menacingly swims in circles around Ahab, who struggles to keep afloat in the water because of his crippled leg. One of the other boats picks him up.

The next day, Moby Dick comes back again and destroys more whaling boats along with Ahab's new fake leg. Starbuck begs Ahab to give up the fight, but of course, he won't.

The next day Moby Dick returns again. Ahab, in his fury, tries to harpoon the whale, but the rope gets tangled around his neck and drags him into the ocean, and he dies. Moby Dick rams his head against the Pequod, and the ship sinks.

Ishmael is the only one to survive the wreck and is picked up by the Rachel, "that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan."


Ok, so what's with the whale?
Philbrick writes, "The White Whale is not a symbol. He is as real as you or I. He has a crooked jaw, a humped back, and a wiggle-waggle when he's really moving fast. He is a thing of blubber, blood, muscle, and bone--a creation of the natural world that transcends any fiction. So forget about trying to figure out what the White Whale signifies. . . . This is the fundamental reason we continue to read this or any other literary classic. It's not the dazzling technique of the author; it's his or her ability to deliver reality on the page."

As I was thinking about Melville's funny little chapters about every aspect of the whale, I realized something. One of my favorite professors in college used to always tell us that the most important lesson one can learn is how to differentiate between things, and to do this, you need to know details. Since we were comparative literature majors, he told us we should memorize the definitions of every literary term we could, we should know the difference between a trend and a movement, we should learn to read every text in its original language. (Do I remember most of those things? No.) I did learn, though, that knowledge is in the details.

This is exactly what Melville is doing with his little chapters - he's laying out every single little detail about the whale so we can most fully appreciate and understand the significance of this story. We learn about the skeleton of the whale so we can better understand how menacing this huge whale was when he was swimming in circles around Ahab. We learn about the shape of his head so we can understand how he was able to ram into the Pequod and sink it. We learn about its whiteness so we can appreciate what makes it ominously stand apart from other Sperm whales.

Sculpture of Moby Dick (via)
After considering what could be important about these funny little chapters, I decided that I loved how Melville used them as the organizing principle for this story.

I have been reserving judgment of the book until I finished it, because my experiences with Kazuo Ishiguro have taught me we must sometimes patiently await the aha moment. For me, that moment came in this section when Ahab has a heart-to-heart with Starbuck about the meaning of life.

Ahab says, "Forty--forty--forty years ago!--ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea!"

And perhaps Melville has crafted the book so that we, the reader, don't sympathize with Ahab -- we are Ahab. We, too, on the inside, cry, "Forty--forty--forty hours ago! Forty hours of continual reading about whaling! forty hours of boredom, and little peril, and homoerotic imagery! forty hours on a pitiless book!" Come the end, we, too, are sick and weary and maybe a little mad.

All the omens warn Ahab to turn back from his pursuit of the whale, the most potent of which is when Ahab looks into Starbuck's eyes and sees his family. 
"Starbuck, let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God...this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and child in thine eye." and Starbuck begs, "Oh, my captain! my captain! Noble soul! grand heart, after all, why should anyone give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home!"

But perhaps we understand why Ahab has to go after Moby Dick. Ahab has spent 40 years of his life on whaling, and though his natural instinct begs him to relinquish his quest and return home to his family, he insists upon pursuing Moby Dick. He has to make all the sacrifice mean something.

Maybe that's why we persisted through Moby Dick. Because, at the end of it all, we had to make all those chapters about spermeceti and cetology and the bizarre stage directions mean something. So we had to keep reading. We, too, had to go after Moby Dick.

In this way, perhaps Moby Dick really is the first post-modern novel -- not in the way I think most people mean, referencing Melville's use of experimental forms-- but because it illustrates man's desperate need to ascribe meaning to life.

When Ahab looks into Starbuck's eyes and sees the eyes of his wife and child, after all the omens, he is presented once more with a choice -- a choice to either accept that the most meaning life has is in the relationships one nurtures with other people, or to keep searching in the hope that he will find greater meaning as he pursues the whale. Ahab fatally chooses the latter, because choosing the former would mean accepting that his life's work and his lifelong search have been in vain. Though Ishmael claims the story is no allegory, Ahab's is a cautionary tale against looking too deeply or for too long for the meaning of all things.

Now, we are desperate to hear your thoughts. What did you think of the end? Of the book as a whole? Would you read it again? Would you recommend it to others? What did you take away from Moby Dick?

What do you think of the emerging theme of death in the second half of the book (Queequog deciding not to die because he remembered an errand he has to run back home, the use of the coffin as the life buoy and what saves Ishmael's life and the only thing to float to the surface after the Pequod's wreck. the sea burial they witness of that sailor)? What is Melville saying about death?

To wrap up this long post, here's Philbrick's answer to the question why read Moby Dick? - "In the end, Melville had found a way back to the view espoused by Ishmael in Moby-Dick: 'Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.' This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, irrational life, is why I read Moby Dick."

Why do you read it?

Feb 2: Chapter 94-epilogue