MASTER and COMMANDER.
If yer happen ter have accompanied me in my Serf Under_ground, minnow voyages of discovery, yer may have noticed a few ocean references, a serf’s fascination with harbours ‘n such, a fateful attraction seems I share with quite a few other land lubbers.
Says Ishmael in the opening chapter of Herman Melville’s masterpiece, ‘Moby Dick’:
‘Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see? – Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousand upon thousand of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against spikes, some seated upon the pier-heads, some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging as if striving to get a better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster – tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they do here?’
What do they there watching the water come ashore? Why they wish to embrace the Mysteries and escape the narrow certainties of life on shore, they wish to put to sea.
Here’s Ishmael again:
‘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 at the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking peoples’ hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.’
And if you can’t take to the ship, what’s the next best thing? Why it’s read the great stories about the sea, none greater than Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick, Ahab’s hunt for the white whale, and Patrick O’Brien’s grand historical fiction, ‘Master and Commander’ series, set in the Napoleonic era sea battles between England and France.
So let’s begin our great ocean circumnavigation of the globe with Captain Ahab’s quest to destroy the white whale. But if you happen to think Melville’s focus is this narrow quest, think again. Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ is so much more, the theme of whales and whaling a metaphor for the mystery of life itself, its glory and the terror, no less. For while the fanatical commander of The Pequod may drive the action, the action is enlarged by the book’s master narrator, Ishmael-Melville.
‘Moby Dick’ begins with a catalogue of extracts from the Bible, Pliny, Shakespeare, Milton and on to Nantucket whalers. Its narrative encompasses sermons, descriptions of the hunt and other experiences transmuted and transcribed through Ishmael’s expansive sensibility.
Says Ishmael, in the chapter, ‘The Fossil Whale’:
‘Give me a condor’s quill. Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an ink-stand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere thought of penning my thoughts of this leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with the outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past present and to come with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole earth, not excluding its suburbs.’
Mysteries and More.
There are the mysteries. Sailing in the Azores, south of St Helena, mysterious midnight sightings of the ‘spirit-spout’ of a distant whale:
‘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.’
And there are the glories. Travelling the long and narrow peninsular of Malacca, The Pequod sees on the horizon a semi-circle of whale jets up-playing and sparkling in the mid-day air. Coming closer the whalers find a great multitude of sperm whales herding as a continuous semi circle. When three boats are set down from The Pequod and approach the whales, they begin to display irresolution and consternation, swimming hither, thither and in ever expanding circles, Ishmael observes that had these leviathans been a flock of sheep pursued by three fierce wolves, they could not have evinced more dismay.
Gliding between two whales Ishmael’s boat enters the inner-most centre of the shoal:
‘We were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks in the heart of every commotion. And still in the distracted distance we beheld the tumults of the outer concentric circles, and saw successive pods of whales, eight or ten in each, swiftly going round and round like multiplied spans of horses in a ring; and so close shoulder to shoulder, that a Titanic circus-rider might have easily over-arched the middles ones, and so have gone round on their backs.’
With no chance to escape from this inner centre, Ishmael’s boat must wait for a breach in the living wall. And as they wait, becalmed, they are visited by young whales, evincing a wondrous fearlessness or perhaps a still becalmed panic:
‘Like household dogs they came sniffing around us, right up to our gun whales and touching them.; till it almost seemed that some spell had domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads, Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance…’
Gazing over the side of the boat another wondrous world beneath the surface:
‘For suspended in these watery vaults, floated the forms of nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girths seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and yet while drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; – even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.’
Ishmael observes one of the babies, some fourteen feet long, seemed hardly a day old:
‘He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarcely recovered from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the maternal reticule, where, head to tail, and all ready for the final spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar’s bow. The delicate side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby’s ears newly arrived from foreign parts.’
And thus within circle upon circle these inscrutable creatures at the centre indulge in all peaceful concernments. Meanwhile a wounded whale, carrying half of a harpoon line along with it, in the extraordinary agony of his wound is dashing around in the revolving circle:
‘that by one of the unimaginable accidents of the fishery, this whale had become entangled in the harpoon-line that he had towed; he had also run away with the cutting -spade in him; and while the free end of the rope attached to that weapon, had permanently caught in the coils of the harpoon-line around his tail, the cutting tool itself had worked loose from his flesh. So that tormented to madness, he was now churning through the water, violently flailing with his flexible tail, and tossing the keen spade about him, wounding and murdering his own comrades.’
Then the entire herd of whales came tumbling upon the inner centre ‘as if to pile themselves up in one common mountain.’ Calm is transformed into horror.
The Expanded Self.
The reader experiences scenes like the above from Melville’s chapter, ‘The Grand Amada,’ through the expansive intelligence of Ishmael, always making connections between things and at the same time discerning differences.
In the Wordsworth Classics edition of ‘Moby Dick,’ there’s an insightful introduction by David Herd in which he explores the writing process of Ishmael-Melville:
‘Generous enthusiasm’ is the key. ‘Enthusiasm,’ one of Emerson’s favorite words, ‘in which any man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other,’ Melville calls it ‘the all feeling.’ But Ishmael is no naïve Emerson. Seated at the masthead on a summer’s day, he warns of the dangerous complacency of living too fully in the moment:
‘There is no life in thee, now, except the rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek, you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists.’
For Ishmael, enthusiasm does not mean the disappearing self but the expanded self, for Ishmael, like Melville himself, feeds on reading, his narrative expanding, growing in stature with the texts he takes on. As he says in his chapter, ‘Cetology,’ I have swum through libraries and sailed through oceans,’ and observes David Herd, ‘with the enthusiasm of the autodidact,’ David Herd observes, Ishmael ‘ thinks of himself, and would think of his reader, as contemporaries of the ancients.’
‘Oh! The metempsychosis!’ says Ishmael. ‘Oh! Pythagorus, that in bright Greece two thousand years ago, did die, so good and wise so mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage – and foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope!’
Melville’s opening ‘Extracts’ suggest what Melville has learned in the composition of Moby Dick writing with his books around him, but indicate also something of the enthusiasm, of reading pushed out as writing and transmuted into something else, that Ishmael-Melville is sharing with his reader.
‘… if we begin the book with an image of the writer or narrator as a antiquarian (accumulating books on his favorite subject), as we read, we soon understand that the extracts enfold a much more noble, generous enthusiasm. Melville, after all is not just a collector but a reader, and not just a reader but someone who reads to write.’
Herd makes a comparison with Robert Burton, anatomist of melancholy who says of his relation to the writers he has used and learned from, ‘The matter is theirs most part, and yet mine, (which Seneca approves),yet it becomes something different in its new setting.’
What Melville shows through his narrator, Ishmael, says Herd, ‘is that reinvention or self-expansion is an effect of going to the library. Ishmael never stops changing throughout the novel, displaying not the integrity of a conventional character, but the capacity for growth of a curious mind.’
I’d say, that between Ahab, the single-minded enthusiast and Ishmael the generous enthusiast, there hovers a Descartian void. Ishmael is able to tell Ahad’s story, Ahab could never tell Ishmaels’. Ahab is unable to deal with uncertainty and is horrified by any form of exchange, Ishmael can accept complexities and is able to appreciate what it means to live in what he calls ‘a joint-stock world.’
A voyage with master narrator, Ishmael and single-minded commander, Captain Ahab, a sea-trip like no other …