Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Hadj

Just as every Christmas I think of the Pequod setting sail, so every January one thinks of the Moby Dick Read-a-thon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Jan. 4 through 6, with a webcast available. 'Aft here, ye sons of bachelors!

Omoo and Typee: Sophisticated reading and eroticism in the early Melville

We have a marvelous post today over at the Lectern on Typee and Omoo. This is a must-read for Melville fans. It is a brilliant review; I wish I'd written it myself!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Melville's Marginalia

The next time you want to lose yourself in Melvilliana, check out this site on Melville's marginalia. Go ahead, find the books and start clicking on them.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Confidence-Man and Money

This looks interesting. An exhibit of artwork inspired by The Confidence-Man. Yup, click on Confidence-Man. I must make spend some more time futzing about the Berkshires this summer.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

My friend Mac has a review up of another friend's book, "A Circumnavigation of Maritime History". I've not yet read it, but, from reading other Rick Harsch, I can promise it will be memorable, and the topic is more than appropo for this Blog! Great review from Mac!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Summer of Melville

There are the makings of a serious Melville summer going on out in the Berkshires, starting with a reading of the Great Whale at a chapter a day pace (doable!). Here is the obligatory link to Events I may have to add some more thoughts to the chapters I missed and fill out this blog a bit!

Murr on Mardi

Perhaps an even more perplexing voyage:
Murr on Mardi

Friday, May 11, 2012

Signifying the Whale

I came across a wonderful set of photos on flickr "signifying the whale". The whale is everywhere. Here they are.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Anchors Away....

Ahab spent but little time at home before heading back to sea, seeking to satisfy his megalomanic obsessions. And so I too seem lured to sea too soon. Redburn is now underway.

A story of a boy who grew up in a Hudson River village only to be lured by the sea and foreign travel, a contemporary critic praised the book for showing off Melville's narrative prowess without displaying signs of his "anti-religious temper". We'll see, we'll see.

Review of Robert Alter, Pen of Iron

Five chapters and a prelude bring forth American voices in a new way; a way that draws out from the diction and rhythm and word choice of that Good Book, the King James Bible, and, in particular, its rendition of the Old Testament, the unusual mixture of the literary and colloquial that defines American literature over the last two centuries. Robert Alter's Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible is a history of linguistic dynamics, from Moby Dick and Lincoln's speeches through to The Road and Gilead, and I can think of nothing like it out there in the reading world. I have read reviews suggesting this is an academic book of interest to specialists; do not believe those who would so limit it. If you read Faulkner and Melville and Hemingway, you should read Alter. You must read Alter. Really.

Alter's chapter on Moby Dick is truly and particularly brilliant, and one of the best things written on The Whale in the last half-century. He writes with the insights of a translator, yet writes of his own language and the subtle structures imported into it from the Hebrew in Elizabethan times and then again from the Elizabethan to the American, and traces the millenia for us in Melville's taut and oppositional prose. He finds Biblical poetry nestled among the many voices of the Great Whale, and carefully teases it out, comparing it to the other strands in Melville's voice, and highlighting its interaction with Melville's always deeper meanings.

Alter gets Melville's voice, he truly digs it, and he lets its light shine in a way that will enrich every reader's experience. His chapter on Faulkner is merely very good, but the chapter on Bellow and the discussion of Lincoln in the preface each challenge those Melvillian peaks.

If you are going to read contemporary literary criticism, put Alter on top of your list. I can think of only one other living American critic I would put on his level, and her focus is not the American corpus. (

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Moby-Dick Reading

With the reading of Moby-Dick completed, I thought this blog needed a better table of contents to help someone stumbling upon it read it in and order that is more useful than reverse chronological. I learned much as I went on; these are in rough (but not perfect) chronological order of writing, so if you read through, you will learn with me. Also note this table of contents doesn't contain my postings on Melville subjects other than Moby-Dick or on a few tangential or procedural things that came up during the read.

Here we go:

The Preliminaries, for reading prior to tackling the book, to give you some notion of the world you are about to enter:

1. Why People Don't Finish Moby-Dick: My general head's up on approaching the book.

2. Some Background Research: a bit of humor

3. Some critical background:
a. Bruce Franklin, Vishnu and Melville's Humor: Some words on and with one of my favorite critics
b. Melville and My Critics
c. Of Useful False Dichotomies
d. A book to be read, not decoded
e. The Americans before the great revival
f. The revival
g. Review of "Why Read Moby Dick"

4. A few bits of color on Melville's world, including some suggestions for background reading:
a.Prelude to a Ship
b. Hawthorne's World
c. Some reading before reading
d. The Wide World (written about 1/3 of the way along in the book)

Introductions to Key Characters:

1. "Comical Obligations: The religions of the characters
2. Enter Ahab
3. Notable savage: Queequeg
4. The Cadet: Ishmael
5. The Harpooners
6. The Whale:
a. The Whale and how to know it
b. The Whale and what it is not

The Book itself:

1. Random thought or two on etymology
2. Loomings
3. Massachusetts' First Gay Marriage
4. The Try-Pots: food fit for a beast
5. Fanciful Reality: The Pulpit
6. Sermonizing, Literature and Currency
7. The Ramadan: a Hindu interpretation
8. Primordial Divinity
9. A break
10. The Pipe
11. Of Cetology and chaos
12. Head well, ye Pantheists
13. The stage, the storm, enter: Pip
14. Whiteness
15. Filling bottomless bellies
16. The voice of the whale
17. Ishmael and cetacean foreskin
18. Homeric visions
19. True religion
20. Song of the Typhoon: first verse
21. Song of the Typhoon: second verse
22. Identity of Job; other courses to sail


My review

Moby Dick Review

I have read so many, many books, articles and reviews try to boil Moby-Dick down to the purest most refined elements. But, like Russian television and Nietzschean abysses, when you deconstruct Moby-Dick, Moby-Dick deconstructs you. Ultimately, every reviewer finds, somewhere in this oceanic work, their own gods and demons.

Boil, boil, trouble and toil. Tell me of ships, whales and oil. Melville’s words are a mashup of all that comes before. There is Shakespeare. There are sailor’s ditties. There is Biblical poetry. There are songs from the kids in the street. There are myths. There are encyclopedia entries. It is a hip-hop book wrought of minnesang and hula and kathakali, ending in a glorious danse macabre. Most of all, there is humor, there is seriousness, and there is drama. Come, more wine! There is a roaring furnace before us and we’ve tales to tell!

Melville does not so much challenge the novel’s form as disregard it, crafting a tale that makes sense to him, pulling together his whaling canon from all the literary and philosophical flotsam gathered in a life of global wandering. He sprinkles acts of a drama among tableaus and stories and treatises, he throws in footnotes, he steps out of the book and comments upon it, and steps back in and takes on a new voice. Throughout, ever writerly, the story plods on, in those wonderful words and phrases and rhythms, slowly building, building, building into a drama like no other (however much it borrows from others - is this the fish that sank a thousand ships!). There is a typhonic crescendo at the end, and then the music tails off.

Since this review must ultimately devolve into a deconstruction of myself reading, since the book is beyond knowing, I might as well tell of this particular reading of Moby-Dick, which has been quite different from prior readings. In this reading, I see a book of uncommon dramatic energy and careful construction that seems to pull all the diverse threads of our deepest myths and creation tales together, building out of them a misty, mystifying fabric, diaphanous as Cleo’s gown, a sort of alternative mythology for a world in which science and technology are emerging and removing us more and more from nature itself, and putting us more in opposition to it. He offers us this mythology because he knows that this new, scientific world, this world of observations and answers, will ultimately provide no more answers than the ridiculously pious (piously ridiculous?) world that came before.

But, whatever my reading, you must tell me yours, for the book lends itself to many.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Identity of Job; Other Courses to Sail

"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. JOB" Thus reads the perfect quote at the top of the Epilogue. Job has received multiple mentions and discussions in this book, particularly the Whirlwind passages, but this quote is a masterful identification of Ishmael. Let us look at the passage of Job from which it is taken:
Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house;
And a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them,
When the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house,
And suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!”
Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped.
And he said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.

There is not one but four different messangers in Job who "alone" escape to tell the tale. Ishmael is identified with all those survivors of all those tragedies. Meanwhile, we are left to ask, well, who is Job? If we draw out the analogy, as Melville baits us to do, the White Whale is either one or all of these divine misfortunes, Ahab and the crew are the slaughtered children and servants of Job, and Job, of course, is the person to whom Ishmael brings his message. That is, you, dear reader, are Job.

Now, we may be overplaying that quote, but, Moby-Dick gives us fertile ground for flights of readerly imagination. In the some fifty or so blog posts that have gone up since the beginning of December, I have focused in on a few major themes of Moby-Dick, particularly the allusions to mythology and non-Western religions, Melville's "epistemology" and the questioning of our ability to know or perceive, his approach to reading, and his dramatic technique.

As we close, I remind you how few aspects of this book I have touched on. Here are some of the threads in the book I would love to explore further:

Melville's argument with the Christian God; this book relies heavily on references to the fast-fish-and-loose-fish chapters of the Bible, chapters like Job and Jonah dealing with power and obedience. I have genuflected at some of these discussions, but they run far deeper than this blog would suggest.

Melville's commentary on contemporary politics, and especially his depiction of the crews of the various boats who visit with the Pequod: I have devoted not a single post to these visits, yet, they are one of the central threads on the loom.

Melville's parrying with various philosophers (beyond epistemological thrusts), and particularly his ongoing discussions with Locke (who was accepted in America, in spirit, as a sort of virtual founding father), Hume, Hobbes, the Germans, and, particularly, the locally ever-looming Emerson. No small part of this book is a dialogue with the transcendentalists, the inescapable intellectual groundlings of New England.

The book's musicology. If you open a dozen pages, expect to see musical references on nearly half. The harps sing; there is a symphony before the chase; music appears at the very heart of the book. This is not random.

The symbolism. I acknowledged the Great Loom, and I mentioned Queequegs accoutrements, but for many of the early revivalists to read Moby-Dick was to divine symbols and their meaning. Every wave spoke, and the symbols would, should, ought to build into allegories bearing masonic meanings. I find Melville more of a literalist, willing to tell us just what he means. But, still, there are still symbols here, and great ones, ones that will give a laugh as well as a moment of recognition. More can be done with them; uncovering the phallic symbols alone is worth a read.

Job-like, we have only begun to imagine what challenges Melville, with his foot on the Treadle of the Press, has set for us in this book. Is this reading, or perhaps even this book, but the first appearance of the Ishmaelian messanger? Or is he, simultaneously, telling us all four tales?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Song of the Typhoon: Second Verse

We have heard the Typhoon sing in our first verse. We are on the quarterdeck, where Starbuck would turn the ship toward home, but Ahab, "Old Thunder", has appeared to sing with the storm. At this very moment, the action pauses briefly, and we have a short discussion on lighting rods. Rods have been fixed to the masts, but they attach to chains which must be thrown over-board to ground the boat. These chains, on the Pequod, have not been thrown overboard.

Starbuck, seeing mad Ahab lit up by lightning, yells to the crew to drop the chains. To this, Ahab cries to let them be. Ahab is looking to wage an old war here, not a modern one; the ancient Ahab is engaged in a primal quest. In the prior chapter, he crushed his Quadrant, choosing to steer by the old arts; here, he refuses the lightning rods. He is pulling the Pequod into an id of time.

And at this moment, before any chains have gone over, the flames appear: St. Elmo's fire. The boat's masts mystically light up, and now Melville weaves magic. Watch the two pages after the fire lights. There is so much here.

The crew falls silent, free of oaths; Melville notes that while for sailors oaths are but a common part of speech, he has
seldom heard a common oath when God's burning finger has been laid on the ship; when His "Menne, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" has been woven into the shrouds and the cordage.
The phrase is from the book of Daniel, which reads:
And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it;
TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
In Daniel, God writes these words on the wall at a banquet at Belshazzar's Feast, where the nobles are sacreligiously toasting to other gods from Jewish sacrimental vessels. Note that Melville, or Ishmael, seems to have seen God send this message to whalers on more than one occassion. The art shows Rembrandt's depiction of the "writing on the wall" scene in Daniel, from the National Gallery.

During the silence, Queequeg's tatoos light up "like Satanic blue flames"; as the corposcants die, the Pequod is "wrapped in a pall". Finally, the silence is broken with Starbuck looking to Stubb for his read of the meaning of the corposcents, and while Stubb tries to read them as a good omen (as lit up spermacetti candles), Stubb quickly pleads for mercy on their souls as they light up once again. A moment of very dark humor at Stubb's expense.

At this point, Fedallah is lit up fitting out Ahab for the next coming strange ceremony; stepping on Fedallah, beside the Doubloon, Ahab gives a speech to the storm and the crew, telling of his prior wounding by lighting on these seas, his prior dismasting, when he "as a Persian once did worship". He calls to the fire, "Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee." This is the third great sermon, preached from on high, of the book, following Father Mapple's sermon in Nantucket and The Reverend Cook's sermon to the sharks. It is worthy of a close reading and comparison, though I will not do so now, since we are looking for a broad overview of this critical chapter.

Now, as you might imagine, Franklin with his Osiris myth has a field day with this chapter. There is no shortage of references that fit the myth including the anticipation of a pall for Ahab. However, other commentators, with different favorite myths, also see much in this chapter. Myths come together. In particular, many have focused on the Zoroastrian theme that sits right on the surface obvious to all: from the "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" reference to Fedallah's role as Ahab's alter-boy and footstool to Ahab's statement that he "as a Persian once did worship". You will find fire imagery throughout this book, and fire is a key symbol in Zoroastrianism. The sun is a character all its own in Moby-Dick, whether beating down on poor Pip or floating in the upper half of the Doubloon. Here in "The Candles" is where you will best gain insight into the role of fire. Watch closely; it is a mighty force, and closely associated with Ahab. In Christian mythology, first is most often associated with hell, but in Moby-Dick fire does not play so clear or simple a role.

Ahab's speech is answered by yet more lightning and flame, and, in particular, the corposcents now light up his harpoon, which sits on his boat, just as it has lit up the masts. The lighting of the harpoon is magnificent and awe-inspiring. The crew is completely panic stricken. References to "The Forge" and earlier chapters involving fire abound. And, at this critical moment, Starbuck knows what he must do: he tells Ahab, in no uncertain terms, that God is against him and it is time to set the sail for home or face God's wrath. As the crew comically prepares to set sails that have been shredded to rags, Ahab reminds them their oaths to hunt the Whale are binding, as is his. We end the chapter with all in terror, with Starbuck and Ahab opposed, and with the crew in dismay at Ahab's orders.

In unpacking this chapter, I would focus you on two truly exquisite strands, recognizing there are others: first, the pivot to a fast-paced action-adventure and the movement into the final part of the book is a masterful exercise in writerly craftsmenship; and, second, the way in which many different mythological strands are brought together is a phenomenal set-up for our grand finale, with first the drama among the sailors and then the chase of the White Whale. The Book of Daniel melds both Judaic/Old Testament and Persian/Parsee mythological streams; the use of fire sets up an opposition of Parsee/Pagan and Christian themes (watch all the pagans in this chapter: they each receive a mention); the Typhoon captures it all in the ancient Egyptian myth. Suddenly, Ahab's central role in each different mythology seems to be coming together, even though the role he plays in each does not seem to allign. Is this song contrapuntal? Is Ahab simultaneoulsy a hero of a Parsee, a God to the Egyptians, and a Blasphemous Rebel to the Jews?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Song of the Typhoon: First Verse

When first we meet Ishmael ashore, and we learn of his plans to escape the damp, drizzly November of his soul by going to sea, Melville graces us with some twenty beautifully wrought witty and easily read chapters. Then, we begin drifting asea, and things get strange, turgid, and considerably slower. For almost a hundred chapters, we timelessly drift, learning of whales and whaling as one after another whale's spout goes red as the whale turns. Other boats are met and other characters emerge as Melville encourages our speculation, prepares us for what is to come, and waxes philosophical. There is a sea-rhythm to it all. We sail towards South America, cross the Atlantic to the horn of Africa, and cruise through the Indian ocean. Passing the west of Australia, we cross into Asian waters at the Sunda Straight, sail the South China Sea, and enter the Pacific just south of Taiwan. We have passed every continent, save only Europe, though on these waters we have met one set of Europeans after another.

But, after entering the Pacific and heading for the Japanese hunting grounds, the pace quickens and the intensity builds. In "The Candles", St. Elmo's Fire lights up the boat's masts as we turn south toward the Equator and a typhoon hits. With all the drama and charged meanings of this chapter, as signs and signals literally light up around us, we enter a very new, different and exciting part of this book.

"The Candles" is packed. The pace now is that of a page-turner, the language pushes us forward, and the form is dramatic. Let us unpack this chapter a bit.

"Warmest climes but nurse the cruellest fangs" begins the chapter; "[s]o, too, it is, that in these resplendent Japanese seas the mariner encounters the direst of all storms, the Typhoon." The Pequod enters a Typhoon, its masts are shorn of sail, and thunder and lightening blaze about, showing the rag-tattered masts in profile. This is a stormy setting, remiscent of the storm that hit in the first act of our dramatic chapters, in "Forecastle - Midnight", when Pip and his tambourine were introduced to us. The storm, the "Typhoon" with a capital "T", has been read as repleat with meaning, as a storm demonstrating divine intelligence, for in this chapter, besides bearing that capital "T" name, it will respond to the actions of the crew. Here is the chapter where Franklin's reading of Ahab as the personification of the Osiris/Typhoon myth of ancient Egypt rings most true.

Once the stage's background is set and our storm is upon us, the characters enter: Starbuck on the Quarterdeck, attempting to contain the damage, Flask and Stubb before him, vainly securing the boats. Vainly because, our storm-with-a-will sends a sea to crash Ahab's whale-boat, in the very place where Ahab stands. Stubb laughs, tells Starbuck the sea will have its way, and sings a song for us, with a refrain "Such a funny, sporty, gamy jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh!" Stubb is steeling his will with song; the fact is, he is frightened to hell by the storm's power.

Starbuck, however, reads the storm, and understands its will. To Stubb's song, we get a grand line from Starbuck: "let the Typhoon sign, and strike the harp here in our rigging". The harp has sung in just one other place in the book: right after Ahab blesses his harpoon in pagan blood, he attaches the harpoon to a rope and makes it hum "like a harp-spring" in "The Forge". The exchange between Stubb and Starbuck here focuses on music and bravery, but note throughout the references to other chapters: Stubb talks of "singing the doxology", and the doxology is likewise referenced in "Fast-and-Loose Fish" as the song sung by the victor making fast a fish another had harpooned but left loose. As a pivotal chapter, you will find many strands of the story, many references, pulled together here. Expect this to continue in these fast-paced final chapters. Also note the changes to the sense of humor, which becomes much more gallows humor in its bent; the slapstick abates as we hit hight drama, and the humor takes on deadly irony.

As Starbuck reveals to us, the rapt audience, that the storm will turn fair if they turn for home, but will continue to hammer them if they instead head for the Line and Moby-Dick; at this moment, Ahab appears as a disembodied and unintelligible voice in the dark; finally, when asked who is there, he answers, mid-Typhoon, "Old Thunder!" Ahab identifies with the storm and embraces the very typhoon that is assualting them.

What have we so far to our drama: a storm with a will, a crew whose leader reads the signs in the storm, but whose other members are simply terrorized, and a captain who embraces the storm and its terror. Reading this with the Osiris myth, we are approaching the time of Osiris' dismembering by Typhoon, before Osiris wanders the earth in his coffin for six months, in a natural, eternal, and recurring progression.

This is the first verse of the Song of the Typhoon; in our second verse, the next posting, the stage, with Ahab on it, will be reset slightly as we get a short scientific discussion of boats, lightning, and lightning rods, and following this, the corposcants, or St. Elmo's Fire, will appear, and Ahab will take center stage from Stubb and Starbuck.

Monday, February 6, 2012

True Religion

"The Whale Watch", chapter 117, is, to my way of thinking, the single most devoutly religious chapter in this book filled with every religion born of Babel. After a day in which four whales were killed, far apart around the boat, Ahab and Fedallah (and their crew, but they are silent) float all night by a dead whale that they could not get back to the boat during the day. As the lamp casts its glow across midnight seas, Fedallah provides Ahab with a prophesy, a prophesy that we and Fedallah know to be grim, but that cheers Ahab:
"But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America."

"Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee: - a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see."

"Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man."

"And what was that saying about thyself?"

"Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot."

"And when thou art so gone before - if that ever befall - then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still? - Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it."

"Take another pledge, old man, said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom, - Hemp only can kill thee."

"The gallows, ye mean. - I am immortal then, on land and on sea," cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision; - "Immortal on land and on sea!"

Melville casts no doubt or ridicule on the prophesy; he does not even color it. Where other prophesies are made, as with Elijah, they are delivered with more than a touch of madness. Where other outrageous, difficult to verify statements are made, whether regarding the swallowing of Jonah or the chance of meeting up with the same whale twice, we get some discourse attempting to explain, justify or even just gild the extraordinary statement. This is bare, dramatic, and, most of all, true to what will occur.

Only here, in the words of this Zoroastrian, in the dark of night, lit only by a bit of oil and Fedallah's eyes, do we find true and unquestioned prophesy. Is this Melville's Pauline moment?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Homeric Visions

I love hearing when someone can identify a favorite moment in Moby-Dick. My own is in "The Castaway" chapter, when Pip goes mad. Our favorite moments say much about each of us, and what attracts us to this unweildy, diverse, frolicking work. Favorites are personal moments, moments that seemingly have little to do with any objective assessment of the work.

Nathaniel Philbrick, in Why Read Moby-Dick, dwells on his favorite moment, in the first paragraph of Chapter 85, "The Fountain":
That for six thousand years—and no one knows how many millions of ages before—the great whales should have been spouting all over the sea, and sprinkling and mistifying the gardens of the deep, as with so many sprinkling or mistifying pots; and that for some centuries back, thousands of hunters should have been close by the fountain of the whale, watching these sprinklings and spoutings—that all this should be, and yet, that down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1851), it should still remain a problem, whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapour—this is surely a noteworthy thing.*

Melville writes down here the very moment of his writing, fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1851 (though the date of first writing was actually one year prior, and the year was changed prior to publication in 1851). Philbrick describes his reason for "favoriting" this passage of Moby-Dick: "Melville did something outrageous. He pulled back the fictive curtain and inserted a seemingly irrelevant glimpse of himself in the act of composition." In Philbrick's assessment, the "seemingly" in "seemingly irrelevant" is everything. This is not an irrelevant glimpse, but central to the work and one of the many engaging facets of what, in our discussions, we have called Melville's epistemology.

First, let us look at this passage, then, let us look back at another passage that pressages this one. You will find more.

Here, the narrator is pondering on the long length of our ignorance concerning the whale's spout. Look at the opening phrase: "That for six thousand years -- and no one knows how many millions of years before", and think on this contrast. The six thousand reference is Biblical, the approximate age of the world as calculated by Biblical sub-subs, and so reference's God's creation of the world; the millions of years could be geological, referencing then-common scientific thoughts about the possible world's age, or it could be a reference to the unformed world of welter and waste before Genesis, or to the Hindu cycles of prior worlds, or to something else before the dawn of human time. The phrase, like just about everything here, is half-satirical, but, still, our setting tells us that we are dealing with the ultimate of human time or divine time, and that, throughout this ultimate stretch, with regard to this topic, we have but ignorance. But we are as ignorant of what this time may be as we are ignorant of what the whale's spout truly is.

I have observed already that once at sea time becomes almost irrelevant; we cease to mark days or even weeks, references come only to where we have gotten, not how long we spend there or how long it has taken to get there. In the vast hundred chapter stretch of drifting timelessness, there are just two or three places where time suddenly and meaningfully errupts into the narrative, and, here, it erupts with overwhelming precision, down to a fraction of a minute. Yet, the time that matters is not of the story itself, but outside the story, and that is where Melville is pulling us. He wants to remove us at this point from the narrative, bring us into his library, and talk to us about what we are doing. Later in the chapter, he makes the conversation even plainer:
But why pester one with all this reasoning on the subject? Speak out! You have seen him spout; then declare what the spout is; can you not tell water from air? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as for this whale spout, you might almost stand in it, and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely.

Melville is pulling out out of the book to talk about the mistical spout of the whale, which is the whale's very life breath yet a thing that defies our attempts to understand it, whether through observation or divinitation. He pulls us out of the book to talk about the difficulty of knowing and the ultimate mystery of knowing the very things he is telling us. Melville's epistemology applies not just to the world of whales, but to the world of books and stories as well.

I am reminded here of the great Hindu bards, whose own stories interweave with the stories they tell, replete with protestations about their own ignorance and inadequacey to tell the story or explain its meaning. In these passages, the challenge of writing and telling and reading the story, the challenge of the hunt for the whale, and the challenge of perceiving, knowing or understanding anything all come together, no so much in an allegorical way as in a direct comparision of the underlying struggles we face in each endeavor. Melville is stepping out of the novel so as to avoid it becoming a mere allegory.

Now let us go back to the chapter "The Affadavit", where our narrator is discussing the unlikely occurance, in the near-infinite breadth of the world, that a sailor should not only meet but actually harpoon the same whale more than once. This is a chapter, or at least an opening of a chapter, about chance and determinism, about the extent to which the world itself avoids randomness. The chapter begins with a commentary on the proper way to read the book:
So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affair.
The prior chapter was "The Chart",** where Ahab set to charting his course to seek to intersect the White Whale. In "The Affadavit" and "The Chart", again stepping into his book, Melville provides us with a series of underlying stories, all assertedly factual, that, regardless of the incredulousness of the proposition, show us that sailors do come upon and harpoon the same whale more than once. Like many a chapter, however, there is a mid-narrative pivot, where the discussion moves from the lack of randomness of these meetings to the extraordinary power of the whale upon a meeting. Throughout, however, the voice of the narrator is one that is concurrent with its reading, that steps out of the stream of the book and back into the narrative layer. It is in this tension, between the story, the telling of the story, and the interpretation or meaning of the telling of the story, that we lose Ishmael's voice and gain a narrator's voice -- and perhaps, in places, a narrator named Herman.

Philbrick rightfully revels in the outrageousness of Melville's approach. I look at it, and wonder, given Melville's own concern with the difficulties of knowing, perceiving, understanding, is this approach almost self-evident? Doesn't Melville's story and his approach to the story almost demand such that the Bard present himself to us to explain? Reading Moby-Dick, I come to more fully appreciate the blindness of Homer.

* An utter aside but an irresistable one: isn't Melville's use of the word "mistifying" wonderful? Those spouts, which so mystically adorn the horizon in "The Spirit-Spout", are but spreading mist. Their etymological roots differ, mist being a fractured part of compound words used in the Old English and Icelandic - misthleoðu "misty cliffs," wælmist "mist of death" - and mystic coming to English from Old French but going back to the Greek "mystikos"). So these words floated about for some thousand years before Melville found and married them.

**The Chart contains, in a footnote, another of the reference during the sea chapters to time. In commenting on the attempts to chart out migratory patterns of whales described in the body, the footnote cites to a circular, dated April 16th, 1851, released "since the above was written", another unveiling of the writer's work. The image above, by the way, is from Dalhousie University, and shows a current rendition of various marine animals' Pacific migratory patterns, including whales.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Of Ishmael and Cetacean Foreskin

In earlier posts, I looked at Melville's use of the Egyptian myth of Osiris, in which Osiris is, like Ahab, dismembered by Typhon each year and then reborn, and the Hindu snake sacrifice myth in the "Ramadan" chapter, where the devout sage is ridiculed and mocked while carrying out a vow of silence. We have also looked at the Old Testament myths of Job and Jonah, preached through Christian authority. But we would be remiss if we did not delve more into more purely classical and Hebraic mythology.

In an article in Poetics Today (1998), Elisa New rereads Moby-Dick as critically focused on the conflict between Ishmael, whom she sees as an Hebraic scribe and the hero of the story, and Ahab, whom she sees as the flawed and anti-heroic voice of Hellenism and, in particular, of Pauline Platonism, a sort of angry Emerson in a toga. Ishmael, forever classifying, forever spewing legalisms, becames a wise Rabbinical sub-sub authoring a story that is a new Deuteronomy and a new Ecclesiatics, upholding the power and logic of the Word. Ahab, forever soliquizing, is the embodiment of a Christian/Hellenic spirit which wishes to embrace, conquer, and unify the very essence of the world. Ahab is St. Paul to Ishmael's Moses. Ishmael lives; Ahab dies.

New's reading grounds itself on a number of chapters she sees as the ultimate expression of "Ishmaelic scribalism", "Cetology" and "Fast and Loose Fish" among them, contrasted with a handful of chapters she finds deeply imbued with Hellenism: most prominently "The Cassock". In "The Cassock", a mincer cuts thin sheets of the blubber to feed into the flames of the try-works while encased in protective clothing crafted from the whale's penis skin, and New quotes the chapter:
"Bible Leaves! Bible Leaves!" This is the invariable cry from the mates to the mincer. It enjoins him to be careful, and cut his work into as thin slices as possible, inasmuch as by doing so the business of boiling out the oil is much accelerated, and its quantity considerably increased, perhaps increasing its quality.

Here is what she makes of it:
Melville's caustic allusion to "Bible Leaves!" makes it ambly clear that his mincer is a satirized minister. Traducing the materiality and history of the world's body in pursuit of its perfect spirit, this cassocked divine is one of Melville's many figures of a sacrificial and deadly Christian Hellenism, whose essentialist legacy Melville opposes with all the textual resources he can marshal. In another context, the analogy between the rendering of whale fat and the extraction of essence from Scripture might seem merely playful....This tableau of the tireless priest feeding leave to the fire and working, moreover, in an apron fashioned from the whale's own stupendous penis is calculated to elicit laughter.

There is indeed something here in her quote and analysis; the whale oil as essence, the giver of light; the humor of a cassocked mincer dressed in a penis feeding the Bible to hellfire; the send up of preachers and their hellfire rants; the intermixture of the demonic and the sacred.

But, somehow, New, as earnestly scholastic as any sub-sub, boils down the whole book into a single conflict between Hebrews and Christians/Greeks; she peels away the chapters to reveal in them her own most favored and most despised mythologies, and in so doing, gives the role of sacred law-giver and true superhero to Ishmael. She even identifies the Hebrews as the winners; the book becomes an anti-Platonic diatribe.

While it is good to see Ishmael raised up to such heights rather than in his usual role as the mere Bard of the two great characters of Ahab and Moby-Dick, a sort of Cetacean side-kick, I can not help but find this approach, well, sort of essentialist and Hellenistic of her. Come now. We can't read out the Hindus and Egyptians. More is afoot.

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


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.