Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Moby Dick: Chapters 81-86

Chapter 81: The Pequod Meets the Virgin

"Go along with you," cried Flask, "it's a lamp-feeder and an oil-can. He's out of oil, and has come a-begging."
What are they doing whaling, one wonders. Jungfrau = virgin. I wonder how long this poor ship will have to wait. When a pod of whales shows up, the formerly begging German races to get to them first, and for the Pequod crew it becomes a grudge match. This could be a great scene for comic relief in a movie. A friend was telling me the movie with Gregory Peck was good, though of course they had to cut a bit, and the people were all the wrong ages (weren't they always in older movies?). I'm interested in the miniseries with Patrick Stewart that said friend also mentioned. (Said friend said he happened to be reading the book but not reading my blog. uh huh. sure. ;)

The old bull whale they do follow is having difficulties, more opportunities for comic relief from Stubb. Hey, I wonder if Doctor Who has ever visited a whaling ship. He could have fun with this.
His spout was short, slow, and laborious...followed by strange subterranean commotions in him, which seemed to have egress at his other buried extremity, causing the waters behind him to upbubble.
They like the old bull because he's so big, and an easy catch. A hundred-barreler according to Flask. I wonder how big their barrels are? Of course I am not the first to ask. (30-35 gallons)

Ishmael the font of knowledge says:
In most land animals there are certain valves or flood-gates in many of their veins, whereby when wounded, the blood is in some degree at least instantly shut off in certain directions. Not so with the whale; one of whose peculiarities it is, to have an entire nonvalvular structure of the blood-vessels, so that when pierced even by so small a point as a harpoon, a deadly drain is at once begun upon his whole arterial system...
Is this true I wonder? I also wonder if he means veins, or arteries and veins.
Soon, while the crews were awaiting the arrival of the ship, the body showed symptoms of sinking with all its treasures unrifled.
So the ship does come to the boats on occasion, and so do the whales sometimes sink. Yet another reason for the sailors to cultivate a cheerful non-attachment.
But still more curious was the fact of a lance-head of stone being found in him, not far from the buried iron, the flesh perfectly firm about it. Who had darted that stone lance? And when? It might have been darted by some Nor' West Indian long before America was discovered.
Indeed I wonder when too, Ishmael.
It was not long after the sinking of the body that a cry was heard from the Pequod's mast-heads, announcing that the Jungfrau was again lowering her boats; though the only spout in sight was that of a Fin-Back, belonging to the species of uncapturable whales...
Be careful what you name your ship, I say.

Chapter 82: The Honor and the Glory of Whaling

Ishmael goes back to old myths to explicate the long noble history of whaling.
The gallant Perseus, a son of Jupiter, was the first whaleman; and to the eternal honor of our calling be it said, that the first whale attacked by our brotherhood was not killed with any sordid intent. ...Andromeda, the daughter of a king, was tied to a rock on the sea-coast, and as Leviathan was in the very act of carrying her off, Perseus, the prince of whalemen, intrepidly advancing, harpooned the monster, and delivered and married the maid.
It's true, he tells you...there's a skeleton from Joppa to prove it. Ishmael finds significance there: What seems most singular and suggestively important in this story, is this: it was from Joppa that Jonah set sail.

That would be fine, but then he stretches the stories, trying to make it seem a dragon is just another word for whale, and that's who St. George had a fight with.
Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnoo! there's a member-roll for you! What club but the whaleman's can head off like that?
Chapter 83: Jonah Historically Regarded

Now some Nantucketers rather distrust this historical story of Jonah and the whale.

A sometimes rational bunch they are. Various ministers respond to their arguments with sundry codicils to the bible story. The bible is all true, but...
Poor Sag-Harbor, therefore, seems worsted all round. But he had still another reason for his want of faith. It was this, if I remember right: Jonah was swallowed by the whale in the Mediterranean Sea, and after three days he was vomited up somewhere within three days' journey of Nineveh, a city on the Tigris, very much more than three days' journey across from the nearest point of the Mediterranean coast. How is that?
Ishmael holds on to his faith, and what is one resort to when one runs out of arguments to support such faith?
But all these foolish arguments of old Sag-Harbor only evinced his foolish pride of reason--a thing still more reprehensible in him, seeing that he had but little learning except what he had picked up from the sun and the sea. I say it only shows his foolish, impious pride, and abominable, devilish rebellion against the reverend clergy.
Chapter 84: Pitchpoling

Lance: 10-12 ft; pine; light; better for distance with the pitchpoling method
Harpoon: shorter; heavier; better for first wound
Next moment with a rapid, nameless impulse, in a superb lofty arch the bright steel spans the foaming distance, and quivers in the life spot of the whale. Instead of sparkling water, he now spouts red blood.
That would be Stubb.

I am reminded of a weapon I was shown at a little museum, years ago, Henschel's Museum of Indian History. The atlatl allowed them to throw a spear much further and more accurately. I wonder if the whalers could have used such a thing.

Chapter 85: The Fountain

Oh neat, some more on whale anatomy. I wonder if this is all highly symbolic for Melville, or if he simply wants to make good use of his research/obsession with whaling.
In man, breathing is incessantly going on--one breath only serving for two or three pulsations; so that whatever other business he has to attend to, waking or sleeping, breathe he must, or die he will. But the Sperm Whale only breathes about one seventh or Sunday of his time.
Ohhhh. 1/7th. One Sunday... Is he like the numbers/numerology people? Or or an anatomist biologist?
...the spouting canal of the Sperm very much like a gas-pipe laid down in a city on one side of a street. But the question returns whether this gas-pipe is also a water-pipe; in other words, whether the spout of the Sperm Whale is the mere vapor of the exhaled breath, or whether that exhaled breath is mixed with water taken in at the mouth, and discharged through the spiracle.
Even whalemen cannot get close enough to know. ...vapory shreds of the jet, which will often happen, your skin will feverishly smart, from the acridness of the thing so touching it.

Perhaps Ishmael will one day be the ex-sailor turned minister:
...and that vapor--as you will sometimes see it--glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d'ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray.
Chapter 86: The Tail
Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic.
Hmmm. I wouldn't agree, at least not 'strength' in the way he is using it...but this may have to do with what attracts Ishmael/Melville.

Five great motions are peculiar to [the tail]
  • Scroll-wise coiled forwards beneath the body, and then rapidly sprung backwards
  • Striking a blow: in air, deadly; in water, a recoverable wave
  • Sweeping delicately from side to side
  • Play: The broad palms of his tail are flirted high into the air; then smiting the surface, the thunderous concussion resounds for miles.
  • Peaking for a dive: when he is about to plunge into the deeps, his entire flukes with at least thirty feet of his body are tossed erect in the air, and so remain vibrating a moment, till they downwards shoot out of view
So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell. is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels. Standing at the mast-head of my ship during a sunrise that crimsoned sky and sea, I once saw a large herd of whales in the east, all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld...I then testified of the whale, pronouncing him the most devout of all beings.

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