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?

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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.

Reading Moby Dick, Chapters 4 and 5: Ishmael learns to see Queequeg as a human being.

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I got some interesting responses to my last post on Facebook.   A fellow wrote to complain about my usage of the term, “White privilege,” which he then proceeded to equate with paying taxes.   He then wondered if I had every paid any taxes, and asserted that if working hard and paying taxes affords one “White privilege,” then he would be happy to stand accused.

The writer is right on one point: Whiteness does have something to do with paying taxes, since we live in a society in which it is easier for a person with White skin to get a job and to earn money.  The writer is wrong, however, to maintain that White people pay more in taxes than Black people because they work harder.  The argument is patently racist. 

It seems a more precise definition of White privilege is required.  White privilege is a system that arises as a consequence of racism.  For a definition of racism, go here:  White privilege is a system that arises from and perpetuates racism.  As Jennifer Holladay explains,

White skin privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create or enjoy on purpose. Unlike the more overt individual and institutional manifestations of racism described above, white skin privilege is a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates our society. White skin privilege serves several functions. First, it provides white people with “perks” that we do not earn and that people of color do not enjoy. Second, it creates real advantages for us. White people are immune to a lot of challenges. Finally, white privilege shapes the world in which we live — the way that we navigate and interact with one another and with the world.

Holladay observes a number of perks that she recevies as a White person in a racist society

• When I cut my finger and go to my school or office’s first aid kit, the flesh-colored band-aid generally matches my skin tone.

• When I stay in a hotel, the complimentary shampoo generally works with the texture of my hair.

• When I run to the store to buy pantyhose at the last minute, the ‘nude’ color generally appears nude on my legs.

When I buy hair care products in a grocery store or drug store, my shampoos and conditioners are in the aisle and section labeled ‘hair care’ and not in a separate section for ‘ethnic products.’

 I can purchase travel size bottles of my hair care products at most grocery or drug stores.

White privilege is not limited to perks like band aids and hair care products,” Halloday continues. 

“The second function of white skin privilege is that it creates significant advantages for white people. There are scores of things that I, as a white person, generally do not encounter, have to deal with or even recognize. For example:

• My skin color does not work against me in terms of how people perceive my financial responsibility, style of dress, public speaking skills, or job performance.

• People do not assume that I got where I am professionally because of my race (or because of affirmative action programs).

• Store security personnel or law enforcement officers do not harass me, pull me over or follow me because of my race.

Ishmael enjoys White privilege.  When he goes to apply for a job on the Pequod, no one asks him about his religious views.  Yet when Queequeg, a far more experienced sailor, appears, the captain objects to having a “son of darkness” in his crew.  Melville wrote Moby Dick at time when most White Americans and Europeans utterly denied the humanity of the Africans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans, and for this reason subjected them to cruel working conditions and slavery.  As many fine historians have demonstrated, our country was founded on brutality and bloodshed.  The original settlers sickened, slaughtered, and stole from the original inhabitants.   The United States became an industrial powerhouse based on the enslavement of Africans and the near enslavement of Asians during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Irish and Italian people were not considered to be “white” until just before the 20th century. . 

Melville examines racist prejudices in his countrypersons as well as in himself via Ishmael, who is White, poor, and not nearly as capable or valuable a seaman on a whaling ship as his dark-skinned, tattoed companion, Queequeg, who becomes his bedfellow.

Ishmael refers to Queequeg frequently as a “savage” and an “infidel,” betraying his common assumption that anyone who does not share the same cultural practices and religious beliefs as the majority must not belong, cannot be “civilized,” and actually requires the alleged improvements that the dominant culture would impose upon him– a correction of his diet and a conversion, by force, if necessary, to the approved God and dogmatic system.  By making Queequeg a cannibal, Melville locates him outside the pale; he is the Other, the not-me, the absolute antithesis of White, Protestant, bourgeois American culture.  And therefore Ishmael’s adoption of him is a stunning feat.     

Queequeg terrifes Ishmael at first.   But he becomes beloved, the bosom friend, the bedfellow of our hero, because his morality and decency exceeds that of  “civilized” White people whom Ishmael encounters.  Is he a noble savage?  Does Ishmael romanticize him?  I haven’t decided yet.  I haven’t finished the novel!!  

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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Of the Barracuda and other animals

barracuda

December 30, 2015.

We sailed with Seahorse to another island nearby.  On its windward side, the Atlantic roars over an underwater reef and surges in great round swells, rolling boats side to side as they head through the strong current.  Here we are protected from that rollicking bay.  We found lovely calm, clear water on its leeward side. 

We sang Happy Birthday to Lily, who turned 10 today.   Ten is an excellent age for a girl.  She is not yet self-conscious of the pressure on her to be a sexual being and thus inhabits her body and mind without pretense or anxiety.  

On the island the Fowler girls met a dog, a black and white lab mix, female, very friendly.   We heard her barking during the night and saw a light or two.  They assumed someone was taking care of her.  I didn’t think anyone was there, as I hadn’t seen any boats and there were no footprints on the beach.

We spent the rest of the day on the water. It seems we are becoming more and more like those floating villages in the South Seas, where people spend their entire lives without touching solid ground.  “Land” is the cockpit, the foredeck, the galley, the salon, the tiny patch of teak floor in the v-berth, in the head.  These are the areas where we do our eating, our walking, our yoga, our lunching, our lounging, our reading, our writing, our preening, our teeth-brushing.  We create parties on rafted paddleboats and dinghies.

The water at this anchorage is swimming-pool blue and green, clear, and full of colorful fish.  Some of them, like the silvery, Bluerunner Jacks, swim freely in the open, but most of them stick close to the little boulders of coral, which spread out into flatter, lacy mounds with hidey-holes.  We saw small, pale, spotted Groupers lurking under the larger coral hills, magenta Squirrel fish and pink Blackbar Soldier fish sheltering in nest-like sandy hollows, tiny blue Wrasses, blue-yellow Damselfish, and larger black-and-yellow striped Sergeant Majors nibbling around the brain coral.  Two or three green and blue Queen Triggerfish with clownlike blue frown lines swam sideways and peered up me with star-burst eyes.  A three-feet wide, brown, Southern Sting ray hovered over the sands and then winged away.  Clouds of thin Yellowtail Snappers raced around and through the coral, while tiny, blue-white Fairy Basslets and baby-pink, -yellow, and -blue Cardinalfish hid in the grasses and poked their heads under the conch shells.

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Live conch coming out of its beautiful shell

We were diving for conch and other edible treasures, so I tied the painter of my paddleboard to my wrist and followed the Fowler sisters out towards the northern tip of the island, where the current flows strongly and the conch like to grow.  Lauren, who was swimming without flippers, met a four-foot Barracuda, who swam right up into her face to take a better look.  They are very curious fish, and not really dangerous when unprovoked, but sight of them sets off some ancient alarm in the reptilian brain that rings, “DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!”  She panicked and kicked at it.  Fortunately, she did not meet its teeth and it swam away peaceably. 

Back on our boats, Ryan and Travis tackled the shells in the cockpits, gloating and shouting to one another enthusiastically as they got better and better and the art of conch cleaning. Men.  I chopped up pearl onion, garlic, celery and red cabbage for the salad.  We didn’t have any fresh tomatoes, but I did find a box of tomato soup that had a few lumps that did the trick.  To this mess I added the conch, of course, which Ryan helpfully diced, hot pepper sauce and lime juice.  We had lovely curried beans and rice leftovers.  Ryan insisted we add pork to the mix, and  I made him do the frying since I was already sweating and wanted to get out of the galley. We still have one more bag of frozen pork, which was organically raised and humanely slaughtered near Oriental, North Carolina.  The pork is very tasty, but it did nothing for the beans and rice, which ended up very bland.  Mary made a rum cake for Lily’s birthday.  I drank too much red wine, which always gives me a headache.  The girls turned in at around 9, signalling that it was time for us to go home, too.  We dinghied back under a brilliant, starry sky.  Ryan stayed up for a rum nightcap.  I collapsed gratefully into bed, delightfully exhausted. 

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.