Reading Melville at Sea: Going Aboard

Chapter 21:

Whaling
Whaling boat, 19th Century

Somehow I have gotten off track.  Or got off track.  Now not sure.  As am off track.   I thought I was writing about chapter 21 but seem to have commented twice on chapter 20.  Not as though I kept track of these things.  Clearly I don’t as a rule.  And therefore am frequently off track.

At any rate have a general thought about Moby Dick as it pertains to our times.  Melville wrote this novel about different cultural actors interacting with one another during a period of intense political poloarization.  We as a nation are horribly fractured, divided, at odds, off track. Radical Right versus Radical Left, and deadly divisions within each party.  As it was so it shall be.  So what can we learn about this world that we live in by meditating upon a mirror nearly 200 years old?

What’s interesting about chapter 21, ‘Going Aboard” ?

Elijah once again accosts Ishmael and Queequeg the night before they sail, with impertinent and nonsensical questions, such as

“See if you can find ‘em now, will ye?”

Perplexed, without maps, Ishmael and Queequeg step aboard the Pequod and go below, where they find a man sleeping across two chests. Queequeg sits on the man’s face.  Ishmael protests that he is grinding the face of the poor and makes him get off.  Then Queequeg tells Ishmael that in his country the wealthy people enslave poor people and make them serve as cushions and couches.  Queequeg flourishes his tommahawk and boasts that it would be very easy to kill the man sleeping before them. That unfortunate awakens.  Queequeg and Ishmael hear a noise upon deck.  It is Starbuck.  The sun comes up and more crew boards.  But Ahab does not appear from his cabin. 

I have gone off track. I have nightly nightmares about being lost.  I want to go home to “rescue” my son who can’t be rescued, who seems determined to drown. I will stay here, grit my teeth, set my sails and keep my own vessel on course.

Thinking about it Queequeg is pretty scary and unpredictable.  So Ishmael is one brave dude.

I have so many regrets but also believe I have had a very happy life.  So many happy experiences, such great passions, such rich encounters.  And also great sorrows and heartbreaks and frustrations and periods of intense pain and yet still perhaps not as much as I could bear.  No, it has been largely good, rich, and beautiful.   But so intensely painful, like a blade sharp and cold, at times.  The immense losses: mother father husband sister son.  Not that last loss, no, no. Please no. 

Reading Melville at Sea: Chapters 14-19

queequegChapter 14

“Nantucket is no Illinois.”

Ishmael spins a tale about the Nantucketers, who learned to sail from the natives, and then overran the watery world “like so many Alexanders.”

Chapter 15.

Fish-Chowder_18646.jpg

Queequeg and Ishmael eat fabulous chowder at the Try Pots, where the cook is a Mrs. Hussey, not the nicest name.  There are very few female characters in this novel, but does this detract from its greatness?  Perhaps it does.  As a commentary on 19th-century racist, classist society, it has little insight into the role that women played in the emergence of White Supremacist ideology and class oppression.   Indeed Melville demonstrates little insight into women all together.

Chapter 16:

Yojo

yojoQueequeg and Ishmael agree, upon the advice of Yojo, Queequeg’s god, that Ishmael will chose the ship that they will take a-whaling.  Ishmael describes the Pequod as “apparalled like any barbaric Ethoipian emporer; “ a “thing of trophies, a cannibal of a craft” and meets Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad, one hot, the other cold.  The latter is the more blood-thirsty, parsimonious, and cruel of the two.  He is also a staunch Quaker who quotes Bible verses to justify his selfishness.  Ishmael learns about Captain Ahab, and finds out he has a wife and a child. 

Chapter 17

Ramadan

cracked in the head.jpeg

Ishmael argues for tolerance for Queegueg’s “absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan,” and then concludes that “Presbyterians and Pagans alike—we are all dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”  Ishmael tries to persuade Queequeg that his Ramadan fast is bad for him but admits, finally, that he has had little influence over him. 

Chapter 18

Son of Darkness

queequetCapatin Peleg suspects Queequeg on account he is a pagan and Captain Bildad addresses him as a “Son of darkness.”  Ishmael insists that his friend is a member of the church to which they all  belong, “the great everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world,” and Peleg commends him as a missionary. 

Chapter 19:

This ragged Elijah

homeless man“A Soul’s a Sort of fifth wheel to a wagon,” mutters a strange old sailor, called Elijah.  He is talking to our hero and our hero’s favorite “savage,” Queequeg.  What could he mean?  Do you believe you have a soul, dear reader?  Why do you think so?  Who told you to think this way?  Why should you believe the people or the institutions who want you to believe that you are so burdened?  How do you imagine it?  What makes your soul so special, anyways?  What good is it?

I just sent an email to my son’s father.  I wrote, “I don’t know what to do, to say.  I am trying.”  I want to help B but do not know how.  He seems determined to be homeless. I don’t understand why.

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.”