Reading Melville at Sea. Chapters 22-23

After a Storm on the Lee Shore.jpgWhat does it mean to be reading at sea?  To be reading while at sea, at loss, in grief, in loss of sense, in madness.

at sea confused, perplexed, puzzled, baffled, mystified, bemused, bewildered, nonplussed, disconcerted, disoriented, dumbfounded, at a loss, at sixes and sevens; informal flummoxed, bamboozled, fazed, discombobulated; archaic mazed. 

For personal reasons which have nothing to do with sailing or cruising, I am very much at sea for the past few months.  Lately things have gotten worse.

Chapter 22: Merry Christmas. 

No tree, no candles, no singing, no feasting, no warmth at all.

Parsimonious Bildad pilots the boat out of the harbor while drunken Peleg kicks sailors to make them “jump.”  Ahab remains below, unseen, unheard, allegedly ill, possibly mad. Ishmael stands on board shivering with “wet feet and a wetter jacket” and describes the ship moving out of the harbor:

…as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor.  The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curiving icicles depended from the bows.

Bildad, at the helm, sings “Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood/ Stand dressed in living green,” and shivering Ishmael dreams of “many a pleasant haven in store.”  Bildad and Peleg take their leave of the ship and drop into a boat that will carry them back to shore. 

Ship and boat diverged; the cold, damp night breeze blew between; a screaming gull flew overhead; the two hulls wildly rolled; we gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the Atlantic.

Interesting that Melville writes that they plunged “like fate” as thought fate were a thing that could plunge or dive or swim through an ocean.

Chapter 23: The Lee Shore

The Pequod is like fate.  It “thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves.”  And as it does so, Ishmael spies Bulkington, the gnarly old sailor previously encountered in the dismal New Bedford pub, a man who had only just returned from one dangerous ocean voyage to head out for another.

  The chapter is called “the lee shore,” which is the line of land downwind from you on a boat.  It is dangerous to sail along a lee shore, because the wind constantly blows you against it, and you have to work hard to stay off the rocks.  Our narrator observes,

deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land…in that gale, the port, the land, is that ships direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.  With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing fights ‘gainst the winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks asll the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlorly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

Melville compares the paradox of seeking shelter where none can be had to the search for truth itself:

“all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea.”

Reading Melville at Sea: On Women

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My friend Karen driving her dinghy in the Ragged Islands.

Captain Bildad’s sister, Charity, steps into and out of the narrative in the blink of an eye in this chapter.  She seems more like a symbol than a character, for she really plays no role in the movement of the plot.  She personifies goodness, largesse, generosity, thoughtfulness:

Never did any woman better deserve her name…and like a sister of charity did this charitable Aunt Charity bustle about hither and thither, ready to turn her hand and heart to anything that promised to yield safety, comfort, and consolation to all on board a ship in which her beloved brother Bildad was concerned, and in which she herself owned a score or two of well-saved dollars.

She’s sexless and, interestingly enough, an investor in the whaling ship.  Not simply a fountain of good works for others, but also a woman who promotes her own financial interests, and seeks to make a profit through her good works.  She’s the perfect Protestant capitalist. 

She’s also a Quaker.  Melville’s Puritan ancestors used to strip and whip Quaker women through the streets of town, punishing them for thinking differently, indeed for thinking at all, and for speaking their thoughts in church.  Ishmael seems to regard her as a somewhat frightening force:

But it was startling to see this excellent hearted Quakeress coming on board, as she did the last day, with a long oil-ladle in one hand, and a still longer whaling lance in the other.

The oil-ladle for dispensing the substance that burns and provides light; the lance the weapon that castrates. 

It seems that many male sailors still regard women in these absolute, polarized terms.  They want us to be kind and merciful to them, to cook and clean and shop and provide, but they don’t want us to drive the dinghy or steer the main vessel, and they certainly don’t want us to have the upper hand. How many women captains do you know?  How many men would consent to the status of “admiral” or “first mate?”  None that I know.  And we women go along with the game, and fail to do our homework and allow them to wield the power. 

At any rate, we’ll hear no more about Aunt Charity in this novel, and no women will sail with the Pequog.  Does that make it a “man’s book,” as many of my women cruiser friends assert?  More to follow.

Reading Melville at Sea: God is a Usurer

god usurerChapter 10: The Puritan God is a Usurer and Queeqeg does not owe him.

Well, it’s obvious that Ishmael, whose name means fugitive, has not been converted by Father Mapple’s sermon.  He finds yet more reasons to admire Queequeg, who worships a different god and who, unlike the melodramatic and miserable Father Mapple, displays no guilt or shame or self-hatred. 

“He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had a creditor.” 

This is my favorite line in the book. 

You have to know something about Puritans to really get the joke here, and it is a joke. Of course, Melville, like Hawthorne, was a 19th-century American Puritan.  His ancestors were Puritans and his typology, his religious classification of the world and world-view, was Puritan.   

Ishmael, like earlier Christians, frequently compared God to a creditor and themselves to debtors.  They believed they had to repay the loan of life not only in full, but with interest.  It was not enough to live your life; you had to demonstrate through action or outstanding faith that you were really, really grateful for what you had received, but most of all you had to show that you recognized that you yourself were worthless because anything of value that showed itself in you or that you brought about in the world came not from you but rather from God, the Father. 

Right.  I’m talking about the old White man who runs the bank and has a right to everything you ever thought you owned or had a right to.   Queequeg lives outside this viewpoint and therefore does not suffer the constant doubt and worry that he will be unable to pay what he owes.  He is free in a way that Ishmael is not.

Melville takes the joke further, of course, by having Ishmael demonstrate that he is a good Christian by turning “idolator” and worshipping alongside his new friend.  “That done, we undressed and went to bed.”  There Ishmael and Queequeg have a loving chat like “man and wife” and experience a “honeymoon” as a “cosy, loving pair.”  Melville was a rascal, wasn’t he?  Can’t you just imagine how this passage would affect those radical Christians who terrorize people who insist on loving people of the same sex?

Melville is so timely.  The same nasty-minded, racist, xenophobic religious wackos who imposed the Fugitive Slave Act (which, remember, gave every White person the power to clap any suspicious-looking Black person into irons and torment them) in his time are still alive and kicking among us today, nearly 200 years later. 

Reading Melville at Sea: Jonah and the Fugitive Slave Law

Fugitive-Slave-Act-Newspaper-headlineChapter 9: Jonah and the Fugitive Slave Law

The sermon really is very good.  Father Mapple’s marvelous interpretation of the Biblical story about Jonah and the Whale is both an allegory and a confession.  Although I am currently doubting my original suggestion that this book as an epic novel, there are loads of epic elements in this chapter.  There is the lofty language; the Satanic hero, and this wonderful simile.

Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience yet pricking him,

as the plungings of the Roman race-horse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him;

as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anquish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels, a deep stupor steels over him,

as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there’s naught to staunch it;

so, after sore wrestling in his berth, Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep.

I broke it apart so that you can identify the parallel elements.  Jonah is intoxicated, supersaturated with a painful, nearly fatal fit of guilt.  But for what?   Doesn’t it bother you that we never find out what crime Jonah committed? 

Father Mapple says he disobeyed God, but how he did it he never tells.  He describes Jonah as a ‘God-fugitive,” theoretically someone who runs from the inevitable wrath of the Deity.  But why is this god mad?   What has Jonah done? Something so terrible that can be forgiven only once he goes to the very bottom of the ocean in the belly of a fearful beast! Here, beyond the jaws of death, in darkness and squalor, he finds peace.  And why does he feel peace?  Because he has been punished!  For what?  For running away?

What a strange religion!  Here is a sadistic god who punishes people who refuse to acknowledge his authority, and who favors those whom he scourges.  And his victims thank him for whipping them.     

But think a little futher about Jonah, the fugitive.  Father Mapple describes him thus:

O! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas.  So disordered, self-condemning is his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck.  How plainly he’s a fugitive! no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag, —no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux…in vain essays his wretched smile.  Strong intuitions of the man assure the mariners he can be no innocent.

As allegory, the story that Mapple delivers corresponds to the story about slavery that Melville is telling in his novel.  Did it not occur to you that Jonah figures as a slave or a freed Black man running not from God, but, rather, his master?  Did it not occur to you to understand the sermon as a kind of allegory that White ministers used to preach to justify the Fugitive Slave Law?  I’m sure I’m not the first to assert this.  Surely whole dissertations have been composed to demonstrate this very point; articles advancing the same claim have made careers. 

Not convinced?  Consider the way Melville describes Jonah’s last desperate moment when he is tossed by the sailors into the sea, and the storm follows him:

“He goes down in the whirling heat of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment…”

(my emphasis).

Jonah’s crime is what, again?  We are not told.  I will tell you.  Jonah’s crime is that he is “masterless.”  He will not obey his master and he has run away. 

This is not to argue that we should read the novel as an allegory.   In Moby Dick Melville creates a “historical allegory.” It makes reference to its time, its political and historical reality, but not through verisimilitude, as in the European novel of the same period, or in a point-to-point fashion, like a roman-a-clef.   A historical allegory, like science fiction, comments on the present in a story that seems to be about something else.  So here, we have a historical allegory with epic elements in which the fictional story comments on the political, social, spiritual, and economic realm in which it was composed: a politically complex, industrial capitalist, Christian society in which dark-skinned men, women and children were bought and sold for profit and light-skinned men and women were generating arguments for White Supremacy.

As Michael Rogin astutely observes, Moby Dick is more than a political allegory, because it remains,

“paradoxically, above politics, neither losing itself in political complexity nor transforming its political present into something new.  Allegories take positions inside a given structure of controversy.  Those who see Moby Dick as a political allegory choose one side or another in the political debates; Moby Dick undercuts it all.  It points to no fixed political truth above and outside its own story.”

Reading Melville at Sea: Chapter 8

I am getting very bored describing what happens in each chapter. I am also beginning to wonder if any one cares what I have to say about Moby Dick.  It really doesn’t matter, does it?  Whether anyone out there reads or likes what I have to say about this book, or anything at all.  That is the beauty of it. 

I shall therefore observe as I like, on what I fancy.  And I do like the maritime pulpit and chapel and salty minister Melville describes.  But the best line in this chapter is the last.

“Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”

But what does it mean?  It seems to be a variation on Shakespeare’s famous “all the world’s a stage.”  The idea of the world as a ship on its passage out, a vessel always beginning a voyage that is never finished, makes a good deal of sense, astronomically, cosmically.  The world turns and turns and turns in its endless passage around the sun in a solar system that travels round the spiral Milky Way galaxy, which itself moves through the universe.  We can’t measure whether the universe is going somewhere, since it is ALL that we know, but we do know that the universe, the ALL, is expanding, and everything in it moving away from everything else.  Or we think we know this.  

But the idea of the pulpit as a prow, as, in Ishmael’s words, “earth’s foremost part,” makes little sense to me.  Whatever could he mean?  It seems an awfully religious statement for someone who demonstrates little faith.  “From thence [i.e., the pulpit] it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt.”  The “God” invoked here would seem to be the angry, monotheistic deity Christians worship.  Yet the next line indicates the polytheistic faith of sailors: “From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul invoked for favorable winds.” 

What is Melville up to now, I wonder? 

 The world is a ship traveling through the Bahamas?  What could this possibly mean?

If only my son, B, who is currently facing homelessness and total despair, could book a passage.  He hates the sun and hot weather.  How would he manage?  I don’t know how to help him.

Christmas in a strange world

December 26, 2015. 

If you are really into small-town Christmas, and are White, heterosexual, and maybe also an alcoholic, consider spending the holiday in Hopetown.  Here the locals and the cruisers build a “Christmas village” at the center of town, complete with an “ice” skating rink made of slippery plastic and plastic skates and lots of evergreen Casurina (sp?) trees stuck into the sand, tents, a manger with a white plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby, which also served as the backdrop for the stage where kids read religiously themed storeis to the crowd, gift shops that supported local charities (the school, the community center, the animal rescue leagues) and an outdoor bar where you got rosemary margeritas and a gin or vodka based Bahamian “switcha” made with sweetened sour orange juice.   Everyone is very nice and very clean and very friendly.  Ryan and I joined the carolers and enjoyed the lights and small-town cheer at the Christmas village, but frankly its a depressing holiday for me, always the seaon when I regret how far away I am from my family, not only physically but also emotionally.  It’s a very lonely time of year for many people.

We celebrated with our friends aboard “Seahorse,” Travis and Mary Fowler and four of Travis’s five daughters, Lauren, 23, Mary Kate, 16, Mary Helen, 15, and Lily, 9.  They flew down for a few weeks with their kids. 

We also met a number of other truly great and fascinating people from Canada and the UK and the US

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Interesting art on Man-O-War Cay, Bahamas.

.  The cool thing about cruising is you go around meeting people with whom you already have a lot in common, even though you may have grown up on different continents.  Most people are gregarious, open-minded, and helpful to others. Every now and then you meet folks with whom you feel a very strong connection.

While I’ve really enjoyed Hopetown and, as I’ve said in previous blog posts, can see why people sail into the harbor and stay for a lifetime, I’m happy to be moving south.  The mooring field was starting to feel very crowded, and dinghies and fishing boats and ferries and freight carriers constantly weave through the boats until well after sundown.  For the past two nights loud music from somewhere on shore or a boat somewhere in the harbor blared late into the early morning.  Many people who come and go from Hopetown are one-week vacationers chartering a boat, and they can be inconsiderate, loud, and even dangerous, when inexperienced. I’m looking forward to getting away from crowds.

Last night I met only the second solo woman cruiser since I got onto this road.  She, like eveyrone else I have encountered so far on this journey, is White, heterosexual, and Christian. Where is everybody else? There are Black people in boats but I have yet to see who cruise.  Black and White Bahamians are civil to one another but seem to live separate lives.  Nearly everyone here appears to be Christian, and most of them are Protestant.  Like the American South, from which many of the original settlers, Black and White, came in the late 18th century, this is a very stratified, homogeneous society.   

My tone may sound particularly cranky because I have been sick for the past couple of weeks, and am actually getting worse.  I think I’m anemic and have started to take iron pills.  I’m not sleeping well, am really fatigued, and get stomach cramps every time I eat.  I’ve been drinking a lot of water, and did get a nap today while Ryan went snorkeling with our friends.  I took a nap on the boat.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to connect to the internet again.  It was hard enough to do in Hopetown.  We still haven’t been able to fix our M2 Bullet and therefore have to go ashore to get a signal in a coffee shop or bar, where the connection is always extremely slow.  Even with a good connection, it takes 1 hour to upload a 15 second video, and photos are only a little bit faster. 

I’ll keep up with the blog, for the sake of discipline, I suppose.  But I’ll have to post everything all at once, and will probalby not even bother with pictures.  When you’re anchored off a gorgeous beach in turquoise water and a soft wind is blowing your hair, you do not want to be tethered to a damn machine drumming your fingers while you wait and curse and wait and curse and wait for photos to upload.  And most of the time you can’t connect at all, and you’d much rather be swimming or snorkeling or walking or paddle-boarding or reading.

Moby Dick, Chapter Two: Euroclydon, The Northeast Wind

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No, I did not practice yoga here today.  I practiced here three days ago.  And it was glorious.  The Low Point, Man-O-War Cay, Abacos, The Bahamas

My goodness it is blowing here today!  Early this morning, Euroclydon, the Northeast wind, howled in at about 30 knots and spun us completely round on anchor.  We are now nose to the north and nothing not nailed, screwed, or lashed down above board will stay put.  The wind stole our nylon purple shopping bag and sent it floating past the boat behind us.  Our friend, Muffin, who lives on that boat, rescued and delivered it to us at about 9.  Ten minutes later, it was in the water again, and Ryan had to go after it in the dinghy. 

Defying the gale, I practiced yoga on the bow this morning.  The wind tore my mat out from under my feet and tried to yank it into the water.  I finally threw it down the forward hatch.  Sun salutations went okay, but standing poses were hard.  Triangle was the most difficult. I didn’t even attempt one-footed forms, like tree or dancer.  I did side plank with my feet propped against the hatch, which seemed like cheating, but really was pretty impressive, because the wind kept trying to knock me down and I held out for ten breaths.  Chair was awkward, since I had to plant my feet wide apart to stay upright on the foredeck, which is not flat but slightly hill-shaped.  If I broke a sweat, which I usually do, the wind whisked it off my skin before I noticed.

I found it impossible to relax during corpse pose.  I tried to imagine myself dead, the flesh falling off my bones and all my muscles falling slack.  Usually I come up with a lovely image of myself in a white shroud, surrounded by candles and flowers in an oval, narrow cave with lovely ochre walls, and I feel quite serene contemplating myself while ever thought falls away from my mind.  But this time I just thought, death, death, death and about how hideous I will look when I am dead, my cheeks all saggy and my body heavier than ever.  Narcissism really gets in way of inner peace. 

Euroclydon will not stop blowing.  The long leaves of the coconut palms are rustling furiously, and their trunks, like the many breasted Lady of Ephesus, are leaning, perilously loaded with green globes.  The coconut gives life and takes it away.  With a machete, one could live a long time without money on these islands, where the coconuts litter the ground.  Locals never tire of telling me that more people die from getting hit on the head with a coconut than by being struck by lightning. 

We have three coconuts awaiting the machete in our dinghy.  We made the rookie mistake of opening a coconut on board, and had to spend half a day scrubbing and bleaching the stains that the pith created in the gel coat.  The fibers are very good to plant in, as they have nutrients, but they make a terrible mess.  When the wind dies down we might take the three coconuts to the beach and whack away at them.  Fresh coconut tastes divine. But we are probably too lazy to do that today.  In fact we have been too lazy to whack them for the last ten days or so.  Lucky for us, the wind is going to blow into next week.

Euroclydon has been pushing Sophia back and forth on her anchor lines like a kite, rolling us this way and that.  A satellite image shows the blow bearing down on us as the whip-like tail of a great white swirl at the center of the Atlantic ocean.   I’m sitting, safe and sound, but shivering, on the comfortable veranda of the Hope Town Inn and Marina. A girl in jeans and jacket just slapped past in thongs, complaining, “It’s soooooo cold!  I’m not used to this.”

2981517e808ad36fbe4154803daa15baIn chapter two of Moby Dick, Ishmael quits “Manhatto” and arrives in New Bedford, just missing the last boat to Nantucket for the next three days.  He searches for shelter on a “very dark and dismal night, bitingly cold and cheerless.”  In a funny moment, he stumbles into an ash-box at the door of a Black church, where he sees “a hundred back faces” and “a black Angel of Doom” preaching on “the blackness of darkness, and weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing.”  Ishmael backs away from this “wretched entertainment” at the bar he’s named “The Trap.”  That’s the joke.  But the meditation on blackness here is a puzzler.

He wanders on and stops in front of the Spouter Inn, a wooden house with a sign that speaks ominously of coffins and spouters, also known as whales.  It’s just drab and dreary enough to appeal to our hero,  standing as it does on a

sharp bleak corner where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul’s tossed craft.

Ishmael is thinking of that story in Acts, where the tempestuous northeast wind stirs up a storm that rages for two weeks, nearly sinking the vessel that carries the Apostle as a prisoner to Rome.  After three days, Paul tells the sailors not to worry, because an angel stood next to him in the night and promised that God will protect them all.   Euroclydon rages on 11 more days, and the sailors throw things off the boat, and generally freak out.  It’s one of the Bible’s best sea tales.  Ishmael mixes it up with the saga of Lazarus, who may or may not actually be in the street by the side of the Spouter Inn:

Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shivering, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob pipe into his mouth, and ye that would not keep our the tempestuous Euroclydon. 

Perhaps Ishmael is just imagining him there, thinking as he is about the myth of Paul, who heals many sick people after his boat runs aground at Malta.  The foreshadowing is pretty straightforward.  We are to expect a storm at sea and a miraculous survival.  But the guy who rises from the dead, poor Lazarus, does not seem to be doing so well.  And then there is the fact that Ishmael has just referred to a church as a trap.  Juicy stuff for the atheist reader!

Throughout the chapter Ishmael has been thinking about the difference between being on the inside or outside of warm houses in cold climates. He passes by “The Crossed Harpoons” and the “Sword-Fish Inn,” and the sight of the jolly warmth within them only seems to underline his own misery.  Now standing before a “palsied” house that looks “as if it might have been carted here from the ruins of some burnt district,” (perhaps a reference to Gommorah, with which Ishmael associates the ash-box at the Trap) he considers that Euroclydon might be experienced as a “pleasant zephyr to any one in-doors, with his feet on the hob quietly toasting for bed.”   The opposite viewpoint is not, as you might expect, from the cold outside looking in at the warmth, but rather from the inside looking out through a “sashless window, where the frost is on both sides, and of which the wight Death is the only glazier.”

Attempting, perhaps,  to make light of this dark thought, Ishmael compares his body to a frigid house and his eyes to the panes that Death has fashioned:

What a pity they didn’t stop up the chinks and crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there.  But it’s too late to make any improvements now.  The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago.

It’s witty but bleak, finally, and myopic.  It is here that Ishmael evokes the image of Lazarus, chattering his teeth against the curbstone.  He rouses himself with a pun on blubbering and whaling, and ventures into the inn. 

If Euroclydon can make even the Bahamas feel cold, imagine what it does in New England, or Pittsburgh, or even as far south as Richmond, where my son proposes to go for New Year’s Eve?

B has lived for short periods on the street before, and goes about in ragged clothes. A friend took pity on him and gave him a pair of shoes.  Another kind soul presented him with some sturdy boots.  He won’t accept new shoes from me.  Nor can he buy them for himself. 

No, he doesn’t take drugs.  In fact, I wish he would.  If he would only take the medication that three different psychiatrists have recommended, he would feel better, steadier, calmer.  But he is afraid of side effects, I guess.  I’m not sure. 

When I think about Ishmael as a young man alone, depressed, stuck in his head, a person who could be my own child, alone, in the wilderness, forlorn, lost, friendless, cold, meditating on death—I know this is not a conventional way to read the novel, but it is the way I come at it—I worry. Ishmael is  just a character in a novel, I tell myself, get a grip!  But what can I do?  I’m like the mother who sends a text to her son, “start worrying, details to follow…”

Q: What’s the difference between a Rottweiler and a Norwegian mother? A: Eventually, the Rottweiler lets go.