Monday, December 22, 2008

Moby Dick: Chapters 1-4

Moby-Dick: A Pop-Up Book I'm so glad several people are reading along. You can find the ebook here at Project Gutenberg. You can get the free audio download at Librivox. Perhaps my buds and I can read some favorite sections at our Sunday lunches. I've been advised reading this aloud is a good thing. I received an email from the author of an online annotation of the entire book. A person could read the book there, and show or hide the notes as needed. No doubt when I'm out and about and need a definition I'll make use of the handy Google text service, using d for 'define'.

A fellow St. John's alumn who befriended me on Facebook (yes I'm now a convert to Facebook) referred me to Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. He says:

Consider the opening line of one of Kurt Vonnegut's novel, "Cat's Cradle," ; "Call me Jonah..." Vonnegut simultaneously points to Moby Dick, and also to the Old Testament account of Jonah and the whale, and ALSO, to Ishmael, son of Hagar, ancestral hero of Islam.
I'll have to put that on my re-read list. He also pointed out Milton's neighbor to whom the book is dedicated...Nathaniel Hawthorne.

A co-worker who is also going to the book group said she got the Modern Library edition. It has great illustrations that help break up the lengthiness of the text. The professor leading the book group says this:
Part Shakespearean tragedy, part Miltonic epic, part homoerotic pastoral idyll: Melville's masterwork blends all kinds of literary styles to consider the position of humanity in a dangerous and threatening universe that bids to annihilate it.
Just a reminder, here is my planned schedule:

Moby Dick
  • December 21-27: Chapters 1-34
  • Dec 28-January 3: Chapters 35-68
  • January 4-10: Chapters 69-100
  • January 11-17: Chapter 101 to The End
  • January 25: the book group meets
The Aeneid
  • January 18-24: Books 1-6
  • January 25-31: Books 7-12
perhaps I'll revisit these later

Chapter 1: Loomings

"Ishmael" gets a certain suicidal itch, and relieves it by going to sea as a sailor. Interesting name this erstwhile teacher would use for his possibly secret double life. He contends everybody is drawn to water. "There is magic in it."

He finds deeper significance in the water in the tale of Narcissus.
But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
Hmmm. The human propensity for water is as simple as needing it to live, and collectively, it allows us to connect to each other. I'm not sure this somewhat suicidal impulse to lose our selves in water as Narcissus did can be said to be universal, but Ishmael experiences it so...wants to experience it so. Certainly in a narcissistic way, he appears to take pride in his choice to be a common man, a sailor as opposed to a captain. It is partly the Fates (I wonder how much of Odysseus is to be found in Ishmael?) and partly his cheeky wanderlust that sends him to a whaling ship, when he had previously signed on to merchant ships.

Chapter 2: The Carpet Bag

He's from Manhattan? City boy goes on a junket, but gets paid for it, or so he makes it sound. But then, he gets to New Bedford, and we find out he has little money left and patched shoes. Has he just allowed his money to dwindle, or does a school teacher make little money? Is there more money in the dangerous work of the sea? Which is it, his seagoing wanderlust: a narcissistic death wish, or a need to make more money? He passes by several inns and taverns as too expensive and jolly, until he comes to the cheapest, Spouter-Inn.
It was a queer sort of place--a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly. It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling then ever it did about poor Paul's tossed craft.
What is this all about?: Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sights, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

Ishmael is fascinated by a painting so spoiled with smoke and defacement that you can't tell what it depicts. It sounds like a whaler's rorschach test. He sees in it a whale jumping over a ship and about to be impaled on it's three masts. All would be doomed.
The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears.
Again I think of Odysseus and the weapons in his home hall. With him, I wondered how much of his wanderings were really due to fate decreed by the gods, and how much due to wanderlust. It seems Ishmael likes to toy with the idea that the Fates send him on this epic voyage.

I love this little glimpse of a barkeep's pecuniary swindling:
Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison. Though true cylinders without--within, the villanous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards to a cheating bottom.
There is no room at the Spouter-Inn, so he is offered part of a bed with a "dark-complexioned" harpooner. The fastidious city boy emerges...he really wants his own bed, even tries to sleep on benches and chairs.

When a crew arrives and gets boisterously drunk, Ishmael notices one who holds back. Could this be the notorious Ahab? We shall see.

The potential roommate takes forEVER to show up, so finally the city boy takes the landlord up on the bed. Indeed it is large, as promised. Ishmael snoops, and scares himself when he tries on a mysterious garment that is like a cross between a doormat and a poncho. When the harpooner finally arrives, Ishmael quakes in the bed.
There was no hair on his head--none to speak of at least--nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead. His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull. Had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker then ever I bolted a dinner.
Ishmael cannot speak and alert the man to his presence. The harpooner could kill him as an intruder. Finally he yells for the landlord, who just grins.

Chapter 4: The Counterpane

You know where a shared bed leads, don't you? Ishmael "found Queequeg's arm thrown over [him] in the most loving and affectionate manner." The patchwork tattoos all over the man blend in with the quilt. This brings up a childhood memory, perhaps a sexual one.

Ishmael was sent to bed early by his stepmother. Intense feelings follow, and he finally falls "into a nightmare of a doze."
and slowly waking from it--half steeped in dreams--I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken.
Ah, Ishmael. No wonder you are prone to melancholy which must be remedied by life-threatening work. Of course he can't move Queequeg's arm, and he wakes him up, then brazenly watches the heathen get dressed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if anyone else is finding these beginning chapters humorous and intentionally so. Ishmael's initial intense fear of Queegqueg flips to total acceptance even infatuation in a sentence or two:"He's not such a bad cannibal, quite nice actually"[not a real quote]. And the church with the former sailor for a pastor who addresses his congregation as "shipmates" and preaches from a pulpit shaped like a ship's crow's nest & bow-it's quite Monty Pythonesque.