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 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.

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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