Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Revenge of the review - Moby Dick (or, the Whale) Part 2: What do you do with a drunken sailor?

When there’s no land around you, you look to the horizon to keep from getting sea sick, an old sailor’s trick, but when a towering Melvillian wave of words comes rolling toward the Pequod, you really have no choice, you're going to go green. And neither do Melville’s characters, they have no choice but to spill their guts, and their secrets, into the sea and onto the page. The men dry heave both body and mind, whispering sweet nothings of spit into the sea. Into the great gaping maw of the South Pacific Sea they spill forth their silent reverie. Horizon and equilibrium gone, it’s always the same, this song. It ends with a man and a whale, an inevitable destiny for one, just another day for another:

“Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooners still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.”

But it also starts, and ends with our narrator. Enter Ishmael, a “quiet ghost with a clean conscience.” It is through his eyes that this story unfolds. He’s an innocent, ignorant of the ways of whaling, and, to a certain extent, the world. Excited for the adventure of the thing, he surveys the scene with a keen eye. He really is a ghost, blending into the background of the story, disappearing completely at times, haunting the narrative. In this respect, Melville is master. Ishmael makes fast friends with Queeqeg, and this theme of friendship and fellowship runs like a strong undercurrent throughout the rest of the story. These lives are intertwined, not only Ahab and Moby Dick, but Ishmael, Queeqeg, Starbuck and all the other crew members.

Melville’s prose is highly elaborate, with imagery and metaphor wound tight like the coils of rope attached to the harpoons Melville so loves to present to us, as if they were nothing but harpoons. Sometimes a harpoon is just a harpoon. But sometimes it isn’t. These aren’t just porous wet dreams, though. They are dense, heavy dreams. Soaked through and wrung dry and soaked solid. Layers of symbolism unfold in a holotropic manner, begging for interpretation and dissection. Most passages are labyrinthian and very easy to get lost in, but in a good way. It’s a good kind of lost to be. The imagery is indelible, once it enters your eyes:

“It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea…”

Ahab throws almost as big a shadow as Moby Dick. Before we even see him, it becomes clear just how unhinged he is, this captain. Oh captain, my captain. Then, when we do meet him, he becomes something more than just a man hell bent on revenge, he becomes an archetypal figure, tall and grim, hyper vigilante, wiry and distant. His dialogue often contains philosophical, possibly metaficitonal asides:

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?”

Etched upon his brow is the truth that he carries, the pain and loss he’s endured at the hands of the Whale, and this is something that Ahab uses to gauge others and feed his obsession and paranoia. He looks to their brow; he inspects them for signs of understanding, of acquiescence. But, the men respect him, Starbuck and the other crew members swear by his word, and, though they don’t understand his intentions, they still go along for the ride. Starbuck has a brief moment where he considers putting an end to the man, and, therefore, potentially saving the lives of everyone aboard, but he doesn’t. He takes a rifle to where Ahab sleeps but he doesn’t pull the trigger. Buy the ticket, take the ride. So, what is it about, then, but a Folie à deux, a shared delusion, a willingness to follow their captain to the bitter end, to go down with him, and the ship, as it were?

“And when he glanced upon the green walls of the watery defile in which the ship was then sailing, and bethought him that through that gate lay the route to his vengeance, and beheld, how that through that same gate he was now both chasing and being chased to his deadly end; and not only that, but a herd of remorseless wild pirates and inhuman atheistical devils were infernally cheering him on with their curses;-when all these conceits had passed through his brain, Ahab’s brow was left gaunt and ribbed, like the black sand beach after some stormy tide has been gnawing at it, without being able to drag the firm thing from its place.”

Ahab’s descent into madness is a failure of revenge. His obsessions ultimately doom everyone aboard the Pequod, save Ishmael, who ends up floating to safety aboard Queeqeg’s coffin. The White Whale, too, lives. He descends into the deep with his new chew toy in tow, Ahab on a stick. But Ahab’s memory is indelible; a lasting impression, a mark upon the stone of memory, that blackened tablet. Like the man himself says, presciently:

“I am immortal then, on land and on sea,’” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;-“Immortal on land and on sea!”

So, Ahab and Moby Dick live on. Fitting, that, for they are something more than just characters, more than a man and a whale. They are all encompassing symbols and forces of nature. But, the whale is ultimately impenetrable. We aren’t privy to his thoughts or consciousness. He is the unknown. He is the other. In New England and beyond, in our cultural imagination, there will always be that white whale, lurking in the deep, just below the surface of our lives. No matter how much oil is loosed upon the Gulf, he will remain white, pure, and untouched by man and all his pride and obsessions. He will forever remain Ahab’s nemesis, Queeqeg’s murderer, Ishmael’s muse. He will remain.

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