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Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Final Fourth of Moby-Dick: or, The Whale

I did not think to finish Moby-Dick: or, The Whale, as you could tell from my last post about it, but as if in the final sucking whirlpool round the Pequod, I was pulled in until Ishmael drifted away into the Epilogue and was found an orphan.

I felt that the book was a nineteenth-century voyage in itself. The structure of the novel was like the whaling journey of the Pequod: fast-moving when a favorable wind blew, becalmed at times, almost backwards-moving when it suited Melville to discuss one of the many discursive-but-related topics; stormy, placid, beautiful, and horrible by turns; ending in a grandly sublime tragedy.

Here are my favorite passages from the final fourth of the book:

Chapter 96: this one is wonderfully full of portent:
“As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.”

Chapter 104: such style!
“Having already described him in most of his present habitatory and anatomical peculiarities, it now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view. Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan—to an ant, or a flea—such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered.”

From the same place, with irresistible whimsy! And because I bought my own edition of Johnson’s Dictionary when in college because His dictionary is a marvelous thing to read:

“Fain am I to stagger to this emprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer’s uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me.”

Same chapter: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” No kidding!

Chapter 105: the culmination of all the precocious environmentalist statements in the novel:
“Whether owing to the almost omniscient look-outs at the mast-heads of the whaleships, now penetrating even through Behring’s straits, and into the remotest secret drawers and lockers of the world; and the thousand harpoons and lances darted along all contintental coasts; the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
“Comparing the humped herds of whales with the humped herds of buffalo, which, not forty years ago, overspread by tens of thousands the prairies of Illinois and Missouri, and shook their iron manes and scowled with their thunder-clotted brows upon the sites of populous river-capitals, where now the polite broker sells you land at a dollar an inch; in such a comparison an irresistible argument would seem furnished, to show that the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction.”

Melville goes on to say that the whale will not go extinct like the American bison because there cannot be so many taken by each hunter as there were of the bison. Little did he know how much more efficient the whalers would become at killing!

Chapter 111: This expresses my feelings about my ocean:
“It rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian ocean and the Atlantic being but its arms. The same waves wash the moles of the new-built California towns, but yesterday planted by the recentest race of men, and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans. Thus this mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth. Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan.”

Chapter 124: this makes me want to be right there:
“Next morning the not-yet-subsided sea rolled in long slow billows of mighty bulk, and striving in the Pequod’s gurgling track, pushed her on like giants’ palms outspread. The strong, unstaggering breeze abounded so, that sky and air seemed vast outbellying sails; the whole world boomed before the wind. Muffled in the full morning light, the invisible sun was only known by the spread intensity of his place; where his bayonet rays moved on in stacks. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings and queens, reigned over everything. The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat.”

Chapter 132: I like the allusive allure here:
“It was a clear steel-blue day. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.”

Later in that same chapter occurs a two-page speech of Ahab to Starbuck, reading like King Lear, or like something Miltonian, crying his fate and yet powerless to change to what ends he is heading: “I feel deadly faint, bowed, humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!—crack my heart!—stave my brain!—mockery!” At the end of the speech, as at the end of the novel, one feels pity, grief, and a curious catharsis.

How glad I am that I finally read Moby-Dick!

Illustration of the Voyage of the Pequod from the 1851 First Edition.

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