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.

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