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.”

Advertisements

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: 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.