Little Harbor

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Rachel’s wells–Exuma Land and Sea Park

How cool is this?  We’re sitting on a mooring at LIttle Harbor (it’s not possible to anchor here) and the boat next to us is playing beautiful, romantic French vocal music.  Ryan is doing the dishes and complaining because, actually, it was my idea that we clean up after our lovely dinner of fresh-caught mahi, baked potatoes, and grilled peppers.  He got down below before I did, and there really isn’t room for more than one person in the galley, so….here I sit, writing.  There isn’t anything I can do, really, and he is vociferously complaining.  “It wasn’t my idea and here I am doing the actual clean up.  It isn’t quite fair.”  No, it’s not.  I’m happy not to be down below for once, sweating over the oven or stove.  He’ll get over it. 

And he is over it.  And all the dishes are clean, hooray!  After all, I got up at 6:30 this morning and washed all the dishes from last night’s dinner, which I also cooked, partly.  Well, it doesn’t matter.  These are the little spats that you forget about.  We are happily listening to the distant tunes from Pete’s pub, which are largely drowned out by the roaring surf.  What an amazing place Pete’s parents came to back in the day.  His father was an artist at a university who sailed his family away from civilization to work on his art, found this place, settled here, in caves for probably 10 years, built a foundry, and drove on .  What a tyrant he must have been.  What an adventuress his wife must have been!

Ryan tells the story of the last time he was here.  He was with his friend Robert and his brother Brady.  There were two other boats, all anchored out.  There was no mooring field then.  They joined the other boats at sundown for cocktails and brought a bag of wine.  They were drinking and goofing around and talking about their adventures.  At one point, very early on, the elderly mother on the boat grabbed the mylar bag of wine and said, “this thing, it’s disgusting, it feels like a ball sack!”  

Maybe you had to be there.  There was nothing here then, only a few shacks and Pete’s pub, made out of an old sailboat, with a sand floor and, often, no bartender.  It operated on the honor system.  You poured and paid for your own drinks.  Now it’s all developed, with fancy moorings and piers and shops and condos.  We haven’t gone ashore, yet.  More to come.

Chapter 28: Ahab

Once again Ishmael draws a contrast between the dark-skinned harpooners,

a far more barbaric, heathenish, and motley set than any of the tame merchant-ship companies which  my previous experiences had made me acquainted with,

and the three White sea-officers,

every one of them Americans; a Nantucketer, a Vinyarder, a Cape man.

Race is on Melville’s mind.  No doubt about it.  But where he stood on the issue, how he felt about slavery, that’s the question that critics can’t decide on.  Because the novel is not simplistic.  It’s not a pro- or con-anything kind of book.  It’s not a politician, or a manifesto, or a vehicle for any particular ideology, but rather a complex portrait of a complex, violent society of violent injustices.

At last, also, we meet Ahab, who emerges on deck for longer and longer periods the further south the ship sails.  Ishmael compares the Captain’s “whole high, broad form” to a Cellini bronze statue of Perseus.

The myth of Perseus,son of Danaë, whom Zeus impregnated as a shower of gold, is worth considering here, for it is deeply bound up with the sea, with brutality, murder, and money.  Again and again, beginning in his infancy, Perseus is exposed to terrible dangers that should but don’t kill him.   

Here is the story that Robert Graves assembled from various ancient sources, which suspiciously blame women for starting all the trouble:  

Danaë’s father, Acrisius, having heard that his grandson would kill him, locked Danaë and the infant Perseus into a wooden ark, which he cast into the sea.  It washed to Seriphos, where a fisherman, Dictys, nets it and takes it ashore.  The King of that place, Polydectes, adopts Perseus and tries to marry his mother, who resists him.  Polydectes tries to trick Perseus by sending him after the Gorgon Medusa’s head, which he ostensibly wishes to present to another princess as a marriage gift.  

Athene helps Perseus because she hates Medusa, originally a beautiful woman who led the Libyans of Lake Tritonis in battle.  Somehow she offended Athene, who transformed her into a hideous creature with venom-dripping snakes for hair and a face so ugly that she turns all who look upon her to stone.  Hermes also helps Perseus to kill Medusa by teaching him how to obtain winged sandals and a helmut that renders its wearer invisible.

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Pompeiian fresco depicting Andromeda and Persesus.

On his way back to save his mother from Polydectes, Perseus falls in love with Andromeda, the Ethiopian princess chained to a cliff to be devoured by a female sea-monster.  Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia, had boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids, and Poseidon responded by insisting that she be sacrificed to the beast. Perseus slays the beast and wants to marry Andromeda, but her parents attack him with a force of 200.  Perseus turns them all to stone with the Medusa’s head and returns home with the marriage-gift and discovers his adoptive father threatening his mother, Danaë, and the fisherman Dictys.  He rescues them, turns Polydectes and his aggressors to stone, and then gives the kingdom to Dictys.  Then he sails with his mother and Andromeda to Argos, where he accidentally kills his grandfather with a discus.

Perseus is a tragic hero who, like Ahab, kills female monsters and sails oceans.  He murders the King who wishes to marry his mother, his wife’s parents, and his only grandfather, along with hundreds of others who oppose him.  The gods help him to commit these deeds for arbitrary reasons of their own.

persee-florence1The author of an on-line guide to reading Moby Dick observes that Melville alludes again to Perseus, whom he calls the first whaleman.  He leaves out Medusa’s head altogether and suggests that the monster the demigod slays to save Andromeda is a Leviathan. Ahab’s skin is bronzed from his time at sea and his singular, mad pursuit has made him hard.

What strikes me when I look at Cellini’s statue is the prone, sensuous body of the Medusa under Perseus’s feet and the beautiful visage on the head he holds up.  I’m wondering if Melville, whether consciously or not, imagined Ahab as a dominating man, whose patriarchal power derives from his ability to conquer the dangerously sensuous feminine elements in the world?

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.

Women Who Won’t Drive the Dinghy

The number of women who either cannot or will not drive a dinghy in our times astonishes me, especially when you consider that 99.9 % of cruising boats have two crew members: a man and a woman.    It’s a simple safety issue.  If he falls over or gets sick and you can’t drive….

Perhaps this should not astonish me, given the astonishing difficulty that so many Americans seem to have in electing a woman for President. 

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Who is at the helm?

Reading Melville at Sea: On women and chapter six

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The women of New Bedford, Ishmael informs us, bloom only in summer and their bloom is unmatched everywhere except in Salem, where

The young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.

Is this some elaborate, juvenile joke whereby Ishmael means to say that women smell like fish ?  Or that for all they look to be of an entirely different species—the pale, blue-eyed Puritan species, they smell just the same as the darker girls in the Spice islands?  He is speaking of ambergris, which was obtained from Sperm whales and used by perfumers after it had aged.  When it first comes out of the whale’s gastrointestinal tract, it smells like faeces. 

Like the women of New Bedford, the  women of Spanish Wells also seem to bloom only in summer, and when they are young, they appear to do very little other than strike fetching poses while seated next to young men driving boats.  For example, as we exited Channel Cut—which is nerve-wracking because the current rushing through it is so strong, and the channel between the coral on both sides so narrow, that it is only safe to go through it at slack tide— we saw a small fishing boat come roaring out behind us.  The young man standing on the bow, with one hand locked into the painter as though he were riding a bronco, the other ready with a spear, could have been one of the Pequod’s crew.  The other young man at the helm steered the tiny craft straight into the waves with what seemed an insane speed.  And the girl?  She just sat there, utterly passive, indifferent to the brave action around her, completely useless!  She might as well have been a statue.  And so common!  I found it very strange that I did not see a single woman driving a boat, not even a dinghy.

Ishmael takes a stroll around New Bedford and admires the strangers from distant shores he sees there: “actual cannibals chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom carry on their bones unholy flesh.” I wonder if vegans look at those of us who rejoice as we sink our teeth into bloody, red flesh, find it amazing that we, too, walk around in public, unhindered?  Do they regard us as savages? But that is the point Melville is making, isn’t it?  That the very people who think of themselves as refined and civilized are, in fact, quite brutal and bloodthirsty? 

Consider Ishmael’s observation that all the lovely, tidy mansions in the town have been “harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”  He reminds us that the tidy, civilized life on shore comes not just from the unruly, savage life on the sea, but also from the labors of the dark “savages” who toil on the ships owned by the White men on land.