Moby Dick – Sanchez 2.1 – Chapter 29 “Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.”

"Call me Kevin Costner"

“Call me Kevin Costner”

To Officer Cole

Before I get into the meat of my discussion, I thought I’d make two movie recommendations as companion pieces to Moby Dick, to be henceforth called “the Dick”. The first would be Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, because apparently Kahn quotes the Dick” for dramatic effect and literary/cinema allusion. The second movie we should watch is Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, A. because I’ve never seen it, and B. it might just be fun. The 1950s film version of Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck should probably wait until we’re done with the book. Isn’t that a nice little touch about reading classics? We don’t have to worry about the film ruining it for us.

And just one other little side note before getting into the (whale)meat of this: what are your assumptions when we call a book a classic? For me, it’s all “white” literature written in the last 300 years or so. Is the Bible a classic, cause that was written by all manner of non-whites.

Anyhow, let’s get to it.

So I’ve finally met Ahab. with his ivory peg leg and the stub hole in the deck for said peg leg, his pivot hole. The man is fierce. Although I’ve come to trust Ishmael a little more now (only a little), I’m definitely mistrustful of Ahab. At the same time, there’s something drawing me in. Obviously, I have an investment as a reader of literature to know the character, but Melville is definitely making some magic. “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness.” He’s a fighter, set aflame by the attach, what must have been a near-death experience. But I can’t help but think there are other stories, too. In any case, that one image is what I picture when I picture vigilance. “…an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance.”

You don’t fuck with this guy.

In this last chapter I read, Ishmael is waxing poetic about nights at sea:

“The starred and stately nights seemed haughty dames in jewelled velvets, nursing at home in lonely pride, the memory of their absent conquering Earls, the golden helmeted suns! For sleeping man, ’twas hard to choose between such winsome days and such seducing nights. But all the witcheries of that unwaning weather did not merely lend new spells and potencies to the outward world. Inward they turned upon the soul, especially when the still mild hours of eve came on; the, memory shot her crystals as the clear ice most forms of noiseless twilights. And all these subtle agencies, more and more they wrought on Ahab’s texture.”

Now to address something you wrote about last time, I want to speak to Ahab’s archetypal-y-ness. You said that Melville might have shot his wad a bit on Queequeg, making him overtly a type, the noble savage, that in my opinion might be bordering on no-harm-no-foul unintentional racism (oh god, I can already see some of your responses). As nice as it is to be able to say, see, even savages can be humane, is kind of racist, right? It’s like saying, Oh see, even (insert any ethnic type or race) people can be good. I might be pontificating a bit much, BUT I bring up your worry about Queequeg in light of Ahab as an archetype probably only because I haven’t read much about him yet. I can tell this man has secrets. And I’m probably going to feel sorry for him at some point during this book. At least, that’s my hope. There’s got to be tragedy in there somewhere, right, Josh?

At the same time, the part that fascinates me about him is also the part that unnerves and unsettles me. There’s something debauched about it all, what with the ivory being used for his peg leg and even a deck chair made out of ivory, too. Then the man doesn’t even show up until they get to the sea, like a ghost, which sort of supports my early impressions that this book felt like I was reading a ghost story.

“Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death. Among sea-commanders, the old greybeards will oftenest leave their berths to visit the night-cloaked deck. It was so with Ahab; only that now, of late, he seemed so much to live in the open air, that truly speaking, his visits were more to the cabin, than from the cabin to the planks. It feels like going down into one’s tomb,’ – he would mutter to himself – ‘for an old captain like me to be descending this narrow scuttle, to go to my gravedug berth.'”

Which Ahab am I?

Alright, a paradox and a flaw in my argument. That description could suggest a man with a lust for life. Or he could be a  member of the undead! A zombie as a matter of fact. Let’s think about how the book starts. Ishmael starts on the first pages saying that when he feels off, he goes to the sea to right himselfAhab seems to be doing the same, but I get the feeling that he’s a bit more…well, let’s just say that if Ishmael is a recreational user of sea voyages, Ahab is a full-blow user and addict. No one sees the man until they’re well away from shore. It’s a perversion of existence, escapism to a hilt, otherworldly and not belonging to dry land.

Doesn’t Ishmael say something about how it disconcerted him to not meet the captain before agreeing to work the ship? Does Ahab live on the ship? Do we know where he was staying while they were in Nantucket? Will he ever return to land? And why does he feel so slighted by the whale? Is that the only reason he’s here, or did this vendetta start from purer usage and relations with the ocean? Ahab, like Ishmael but to a greater degree, is a vagrant not just in (dis)connection with society but to the entire living world. He’s a sea-ghost.

When I first started reading, it all felt like a ghost story. All the epitaphs and carvings at the church. The drabness of Nantucket and Bedford in winter. The bartender sitting in the whale’s jaw bones. In any case, this book is haunted.

A quick story: when I was a kid, say about 4 or 5 years old, I either drowned or had a dream I was drowning. I had to learn how to master myself in the water because I was scared of drowning. Water in astrology is all the spiritual, emotional stuff of life, that essence. It nurtures and is one of the cornerstones of life if it is channeled correctly. It can be soothing, placid, cooling. In a storm, typhoon, or tsunami, water can also be a destructive force. Moodiness, delusion, all-consuming. Water can drown. I think these are all apt comparisons to all of our sea-voyagers.

A quick response to Queequeg: sure, the guy just saves people with no thought of reward, which is all very admirable, but Josh, the guy eats other people. That’s Melville painting Queequeg in shades of gray. Can he change? We’ll see. Wait a minute, Queequeg is a zombie!!!

Your friend,

Private Sanchez

P.S. We should really watch Water World. Here’s the trailer:

Moby Dick – Letter 1 To Josh (through Chapter 8)

Hello Joshua. And welcome home. Also, I swear this picture I’ve inserted of Three’s Company will make sense by the end.

From left to right: Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab

I’m stoked that we decided to read this together. I’ve never read a book along with someone else, other than school. And I happen to miss  school. And I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I haven’t been reading much these days. 😉 Because, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I’ve been playing a lot of … video games. And I happen to miss books. AND while I did play the Moby Dick Facebook game where you got points for reading the book, it only contained the first chapter. So this should be a much more comprehensive experience.

Moby Dick has been on my list of must-read classics for a long time. I wanted to tackle it, almost like the great whale itself (but I don’t know what that means because I haven’t even gotten that far. No spoilers from you!) Literature and whales. We dissect all the materials and bits that from the outside look elegant with amazing cover art. We make use of its parts and try to ingest it or use it to enlighten ourselves (oil lamp…for the mind? Is this metaphor going too far?) All joking aside, even as a reader I feel the impulse to conquer a piece of literature sometimes, to arm myself with some new knowledge. Like if I read this book, I’ll be better equipped in my life than I was before reading it.

So how to break down all that weighty stuff? Well, let’s just start at the beginning. Melville starts with that compiled list of quotes and allusions to whales. One that stuck with me is the opening sentence from Hobbe’s Leviathan and goes: “Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State ( in Latin, Civitas) which is but an artificial man.” A lot of the prior quotes Melville uses describe and allude to the whale as the leviathan, a Biblical monster. Leviathan = whale = state? Too easy? Probably.

Anyways, from the little I get in the Wikipedia article, Hobbe’s was a hardcore materialist and rationalist who thought that morality was a sham. The idea of the greater good and societies that operate under the greater good have nothing to do with goodness at all. There is no summum bonum, or greatest good, and any society that operates with that in mind will ultimately collapse and fall into civil war and because, most importantly, people are not good. But the opposite, summum malum, greatest evil or our fear of violent death, does exist. Convenient, don’t you think, and a bit pessimistic? Not only does it exist, but it’s exactly the kind of thing a society could and should be built around.

I’m not quite sure how that might connect yet, but what do you think? (No spoilers! I’m not as far as you!)

All lofty thoughts and talk of Literature aside – with a capital L, dammit! – I’m really enjoying the book as a fantasy, or more accurately, a ghost story. The entire book feels haunted.

I’ve been trying to get through Infinite Jest, and I love it, I do, all 280 pages and 90 or so footnotes I’ve read so far. But even though David Foster Wallace (you have to say his whole name, don’t you?) has crafted an immensely complex book both thematically and linguistically that also goes down easy, the content feels a bit close to home right now. (Or maybe I’m just making excuses). And yes, Moby Dick is doing all that boring shit, too, like exercising my mind and getting me to think and reflect and yada yada schma schma, but it’s escapist for me, too. “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” Ishmael says at the beginning.

Speaking of Ishmael, what a great narrator. I don’t know whether I trust him 7 chapters in, but man, there’s something so alluring about him, even admirable. On the one hand, he’s observant and seemingly self-aware. He’s also, from all clues so far, a vagrant, which perhaps makes me, a member of the State and Commonwealth identity, a little bit nervous. In the beginning, he talks about going to the sea, and on the one hand it could be seen as an escape (a la my reading of the book), away from the State and the streets and other members of the commonwealth. But there’s also an intention to make himself feel right again. The sea is a tonic for everything perverted and misaligned in his spirit and soul and society. Why the hell wouldn’t we want to get away from all this, right, Josh Cole?

“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet….then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

I left out the bit it takes every ounce of moral strength to not go out in the street and go “methodically knocking people’s hats off.” He’s like Dostoevsky’s underground man, but ennobled by the ocean. Then he says, “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” Do you think that’s true? And why might that matter?

That moment when he talks about how a man cannot abide with having another man sleep in bed with him because he wants to feel suited up in his own skin says a lot about the struggle in this man to be more, for lack of a better term, morally upright and humane(probably two terms Hobbes would find disagreeable). On the one hand, there’s no room for him. But he doesn’t want to share a bed either. And that scene where Queequeg’s introduced is so funny, almost like a Three’s Company episode. (Super weird find: a YouTube search for “Three’s Company Jack’s Gay Moments” brings up an audio book version of Moby Dick. Weird, right?! And looked up gay Jack moments because the first Queequeg scene is mildly and comically homoerotic.)

Anyways, back to Queequeg, “the savage” uses a harpoon to shave. Bad. Ass.

And this scene, too, is another moment where I really start to admire Ishmael. There’s a moment of empathy after the landlord comes in during the ruckus. Remember, after Ishmael decides it’s more important to get a bed, even if he has to share it, he is told that Queequeg will probably not be coming back for the night. So Ishmael gets into bed alone, but Queequeg shows up after all. The landlord comes in to smooth things over after a really tense misunderstood moment, and Queequeg offers Ishmael half of the bed, pulling aside the cover.

“He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself – the man’s a human being just 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.”

After that moment, Ishmael has absolute respect for this man. It’s astonishing to him that the man can be so cool and act with such civility and (my words, not Ishmael’s) grace and dignity. I don’t know if you ever read Brave New World, but there’s a savage in that, too, who ends up being more human than so-called civilized people.

What do you think Hobbes might say about these guys?

Anyways, that seems like enough for the first letter to you. I hope it didn’t sound too academic and that it wasn’t too looooooooooooooooong. It’s nice having someone to talk to about literature as you’re reading it, the really important, weighty, and beautiful stuff of life. Oh shit. This was supposed to be escapist.

Anyways (again), can’t wait to hear what you have to say. And remember, no spoilers! I haven’t even met Ahab yet. I’ll get to chapter 25 by this weekend, at which point you’ll probably be done with the book. This might be difficult, but let’s see what happens.

Oh…and it’s good to have you home.

Early concept art of Starcraft 2 unit, The Leviathan.

Your friend,

David

P.S. Does the picture make sense now? Please don’t hate me for this final picture. I just had to.

 

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