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.”

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Reading Moby Dick, Chapter Three: Ishmael Goes to a Bar

If you are really into small-town Christmas, and are White, heterosexual, and maybe also an alcoholic, consider spending the holiday in Hopetown.  It’s very nice, very safe, and very…as a new friend observed, “it’s the way small-town American used to be 40 years ago,”…  Norman Rockwellian.  Think, for example, about race relations, attitudes towards homosexual and transgender people and atheists and people with mental illness and women in the United States 40 years ago. Not pretty.

I suppose my friend was right to observe that homogeneity and the illusion of social equality is a pleasant experience.  It’s pleasant to be White and relatively well-off in a society where White people control most of the property and businesses as long as you don’t think too much about the Black people who live here, too, and who have lived here just as long.  My friend is not a bigot but, like most of us White people, he may not always think about the White privilege implications of things that he says.

What I enjoyed most about the Christian winter holidays here in the Abacos was getting to know many interesting new people, most of whom come from Canada and the UK and the Northeastern US.  I have so far met only two women who sail solo, one a psychotherapist from Chicago and the other a salty beauty born who just brought her schooner up from the Grenadines. 

When you go to a bar here, you will find yourself among a lot of people very much like yourself, White, well-off, and heterosexual (which I am, for the most part).  As long as you avoid politics and religion, you will probably have a very nice time.  If you are lucky enough to meet with someone who shares your political point of view, then you will probably have a better time.   There are Black people here, of course, but you will usually encounter them behind the bar or on a fishing boat or behind the register at the Post Office or raking the grounds of second home on a lovely beach.  Race relations do not feel very different to me here than they do in the US.  They trouble me. They troubled Melville, too. 

Ishmael enters the Spouter Inn because it looks like a place he can afford, and there he finds that the only bed he will get that night is one with a “harpooneer.”  Here Melville has a bit of fun with his readers, I suppose, by cracking a sexual joke in which Ishamel declares that if he must sleep with another man in a bed,

it would depend upon who the harpooner might be.”  That this particular harpooner happens to be a dark-skinned man does not worry our hero so much as the  thought that he he “should tumble in upon me at midnight—how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?  Landlord!  I’ve changed my mind about that harpooneer.

But Ishmael soon agrees to share the bed after all, since he can’t sleep on the hard chairs in the  bar, and admits that he might after all “be cherishing unwarrantable prejudices against this unknown “harpooneer.”  After a number of furious questions to the landlord, Ishamel finds out that this harpooner is not only dark-skinned, but not Christian, and business of selling shrunken human head..  Still he agrees to share his bed.  After the landlord shows him to the room and shuts the door, Ishamel tries on an article of his clothing, views himself in the mirror, and throws it off. 

The Harpooner himself, when he finally appears, frightens his future bedmate with his all-over body tatoo, yellowish-purple skin, bald head and long, black pigtail, and his oblations before a “black mannikin,” which he also calls a “Congo idol,” and “little negro.”  Not only this, but the “savage,” and “wild cannibal,” as Ishmael calls him, also possess a “tomohawk” pipe.  Queequeg displays characteristics of various diverse peoples oppressed in Melville’s time: Africans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans.

Ishamels’ attitude towards him seems refreshingly tolerant:

For all his tatooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.  What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thougth I to myself—the man’s a human being jsut as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.  Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. 

Perhaps its not very nice of Ishamel to assume that Queegeg is a cannibal—he has learned that he only eats red meat, but has not yet found definitive proof that the man eats human flesh. Does his assumption proceed from his White perspective?  I wonder how the White folks of Abaco would have read this scene, where Ishmael, the protagonist and hero of this strange epic, finds being groped by dark-skinned, tatooed, tomahawk-wielding, yellow-skinned, pigtailed man.  It’s so juicy!  So exciting, so funny, so delightful.

I wonder if my son got this joke right away?  He probably did.  His generation is so much more forward thinking than our own, as evidenced by the LGBT group he joined in junior high in mainstream, Arlington, Virginia.  The members came together not necessarily because they had identified as one type of sexuality or another, but for quite the opposite reasons—-because they understood that sexuality is something that culture imposes on us, and that it takes time and open-mindeded and listening to the body and spirit to understand how one really feels, sexually, which is also to say spiritually. 

Normative sexuality is not all that different from normative religiosity.  It is a way of being that parents, schools, communities, courts, and governments impose on us—by making it easier to for those who agree to behave in a certain way, and harder for those who don’t fit in to the normative, heterosexual, “faith” adhering mold.  There is no evidence that our universe was created by a god.     And why should have have to identify as one way or another any way, if not to conform to an institution—the family, the educational system, the juridical system—that insists on this particular ordering of society? 

Society is not simple, not orderly, not easy, as Melville knew. Through Ishmael the outsider he seems to be exploring the viewpoint of the insider, the White, heterosexual, Christian man, sympathizing and communing with the people that his society had defined as “outside,” outside the same system of justice, denied the same rights and freedoms that Ishmael, and Melville himself, enjoyed. 

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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.