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.

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