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.'”
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 himself. Ahab 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!!!
P.S. We should really watch Water World. Here’s the trailer: