Before I launch into an account of the final three chapters of the book, I’d like to take a moment to welcome my new reader from Turkey, who found his way here by searching google for an image of “whale cock”. It’s a big tent here at the Daily Dick. I hope you enjoy.
Chapter 133 – The Chase – First Day: In the middle of the night Captain A smells something in the air and changes course. You might think that sounds kind of whacked, but it’s not unprecedented. For instance, we go back again to the Titanic. Elizabeth Shutes (governess to first-class passenger Margaret Graham) told fellow survivor Archibald Gracie that the smell of the air on deck the evening before the collision reminded her of the air inside an ice cave she had visited. Several crew noted the same phenomenon. All I am saying here is that if you can smell ice, you can probably smell whale. And, yes, I know that I’ve misused the word unprecedented in this example, but we’re soooooo close to the end here; cut me some slack.
Come dawn, a long smooth streak in the sea suggests that a whale has been there, kind of like a whale contrail. You know, these things that planes leave in the sky:
Captain A goes up in his basket. Daggoo and Tashtego are also on watch and the three of them simultaneously sight MD. They all shout “There she blows”, which I love as much at the end as I did at the beginning.
Now. Does everyone spring to action as one, united in their common mission, stoked to go kill the enemy? No. They start arguing about who won the gold piece. Captain A claims that he got there first and so won the gold piece, from himself. I mean, really, what a Dick. And not in the Moby sense. In the phallic object sense. And not in the phallic object that is going to find a place in Iceland’s Museum of the Phallus sense. Nor in the “whale cock” sense that is going to make my Turkish reader happy. It’s more in the Lance Armstrong self-righteously-hounding-people-to-financial-ruin-for-telling-the-truth-about-him sense.
For reasons not explained, but which probably have to do with lays and profit, the crew does not immediately throw Captain A overboard for his dickishness, but instead obeys his orders to lower the boats. Captain A orders SBUX to stay with the Pequod. And, finally, on page 1006, 93% of the way through this book, we finally see MD, who is, indeed, white.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. Way back, in chapter 42, I condensed 18 pages of rambling discourse on the nature of whiteness to a few amusing paragraphs. You’re welcome. White is purity, white is evil, white is a good omen, what is a bad omen, blah, blah, blah. One of the beautiful things about the end of a book is that we can tie up loose ends. On this particular point – what Moby Dick’s skin coloring tell us about Moby Dick – I can tell you the truth, as revealed by technology (and communicated to me by more than a few of you): It’s a skin disease.
Here it is, folks, sighted a mere two days after my 50th birthday off the coast of Norway, a white whale.
The condition the unfortunate Moby Dick suffered from is called leucism. We have quite a bit of ocean and plot to cover today, so I am just going to be brief about this condition:
- It’s called by a recessive allele, which I know nothing about except that the word allele will always remind me of OJ Simpson;
- It is not albinism, which is a reduction of all types of skin pigment and not just the melanin drop that leucism causes;
- It in no way excuses this whale for inflicting this type of damage, let alone giving rise to this book. Lots of whales have had worse childhoods like this and not turned to murder.
Just to point out one other little detail here, the whale in question – unfailingly called a latter-day Moby Dick in press reports – is a humpback. Although one might tempted to conclude that a whale is a whale is a whale, I didn’t read this book for nothing. I read it in order to be able to tell you, courtesy of the irredeemable cetology chapter: “[T]he sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases.”
Skin disease or no, Moby Dick in action is an awesome sight. We are first invited to admire the whale in action, moving powerfully through the water without a care in the world, except several harpoon poles sticking out of his hide. The hump rides majestically just above the waves, carving out a clean, furling wake. The boats draw near and see birds circling around, one or two of them even landing on the harpoon pole like those birds that are always riding on hippopotamuses.
Suddenly Moby Dick lifts his entire body out of the water in a big arch and heads under for a sounding. That would probably look a little like this:
Yikes. Captain Know-It-All announces that it will be an hour and kicks back to wait. Except that men in the surrounding boats notice the flock of birds continue hovering around Captain A’s boat. Take another look at that picture above of the white humpback whale. I’ll wait. Yes, a lot of birds means a whale is in the neighborhood. Moby Dick’s reputation for cunning and nastiness turns out to be completely accurate. It was all a trick.
Captain A looks down and sees a small open whale mouth getting bigger every second until it surfaces and starts chasing them. Captain A steers away from MD, switches places with Fedallah, and grabs the Holy Harpoon. MD rolls aside, grabs the boat in his jaws and starts shaking it. Only MD’s head is above water and Captain A is right next to his tooth, so if this were a dentist’s office, they’d have him right where they want him, but it’s not. So MD gets the last laugh by biting the boat in half, sending Captain A into the water, where he bobs like a little one-legged apple while MD starts churning up the ocean with a series of moves that would seem like an awesome dance under any other circumstances, but here devolves into MD swimming ever tighter concentric circles around Captain A and the rest of the crew. Finally, an astute SBUX brings the Pequod over and Captain A orders him to chase MD away.
Stubb’s crew picks up Captain A, who collapses in a heap and yowls a bit, but quickly recovers to ask if his Holy Harpoon was saved. Stubb says it was. As an added bonus, nobody in his crew died. Which is good, because now they are all ordered to double up on the oars and chase the receding figure of MD, who, for all I know is laughing maniacally and swimming with one fin tied behind his back. So far, this looks like watching Serena Williams demolishing an unseeded player in straight sets.
Everyone finally decamps to the Pequod to give chase. This goes on all day. Captain A alternately paces and goes up in his basket. His wrecked boat is on deck and Stubb makes the type of joke that Bill Paxton would make 130 years later in Aliens (“Yeah, but it’s a dry heat.” at 2m:11s into this clip). SBUX gets very self-righteous and explains that this is no laughing matter and tries again to get Captain A to accept that his leg is gone and it’s really time to just let it go. Captain A dismisses them both as morons in equal and opposite directions before returning to pace and watch until nightfall.
Perhaps realizing that claiming the gold piece and then nearly killing them all might have been a real buzzkiller for the crew, Captain A declares that the gold will now go to whomever sees the MD on the day MD is killed. If Captain A is the person who sees the whale, then he will give 10 times the value of the gold piece to each member of the crew. My advice to anyone who thinks that this is a well-designed set of incentives is to never run a business of any sort and to go immediately into either law or civil service. Captain A has already proven himself capable of smelling this whale a million miles away, why even try if you can let him do it and get 10 times the gold?
Moby Dick 1; Pequod 0
Chapter 134 – The Chase – Second Day: Except that Captain A doesn’t sight the whale, one of the lookouts does. Keynesians and Hayekians alike might despair at the failure of incentives to tease out the proper behavior from the rational self-interested man, but everyone on the Pequod is super-psyched about heading out for another day of it. The fever of the hunt has gripped them all. They view themselves as 30 made one, and I am absolutely at a loss to explain it. Captain A goes aloft and they all see MD breaching (see the picture above of the whale in the air). Captain A orders all three boats lowered (he’s commandeered the spare to replace his demolished boat), but again instructs SBUX to stay with the Pequod.
MD is ready for them, though. Instead of fleeing, he turns toward them and attacks. Captain A orders a head-on attack in order to make the most of a whale’s blind spot in the front. MD swats this maneuver away like a fly, charging in among the boats, taking the harpoons they throw, snapping his jaw, lashing his tail, and twisting his body so that their lines become hopelessly entangled. Again, remember that landing one harpoon leaves another one lashed to it and flying around loose. All the lines become entangled and MD has become a big buzzsaw bristling with unlanded harpoons and lances. Captain A, like a huge badass, pulls a big mass of ropes toward him in order to get some slack to try to untangle them, but winds up simply cutting the line and throwing all the extra weaponry overboard.
MD then uses the lines still attached to the harpoons landed by Stubb and Flask to crash their boats together and wreck them. He then dives down so fast and deep that he creates a huge whirlpool before surfacing directly underneath Captain A’s boat. The boat is thrown into the air and capsized, its occupants land in the sea. MD does a little victory lap through the wreckage, smacking it now and again with his tail before heading on his leisurely way. Distant whale laughter is again heard.
The Pequod comes to pick everyone out of the water again, this time the toll is a little higher. Some of the men are banged up, three boats have been reduced to toothpicks, and Captain A’s leg has been splintered. The carpenter is quick to blame the blacksmith for the failure of a key part, but Captain A dismisses it as a mere scratch and orders another leg made from whatever is left of one of the boats. But later, of course. First, Captain A wants to launch the remaining spare boats and get back to the chase.
SBUX insists that he needs to rest and it is only now that it occurs to anyone to see if anyone is missing and – cue ominous music here – Fedallah has been dragged under in the tangles of line. Captain A and SBUX have a brief argument about going out again. SBUX insists that they have gone from recklesslness to depraved indifference and to go out again would be blasphemous. He’s convinced that God is anti this mission. Captain A is having none of it. He acknowledges that he and SBUX shared a moment a few evenings back, but this is God’s will and tomorrow is definitely the day. My analysis: I don’t think you need to finish this book to understand that whenever someone falls back on God’s support to get you to do something that will obviously result in your death, it’s time to become an atheist. But it helps.
This little mini-drama with SBUX doesn’t stop Captain A from noticing that Fedallah has now pre-deceased him, which is the first part of the prophecy. Captain A doesn’t understand how he will see Fedallah again as prophesied, but I don’t think any of us really has any trouble imagining what’s coming.
Moby Dick 2; Pequod 0
Chapter 135 – The Chase – Third Day: This day also dawns beautiful, if a tad breezy. Captain A, who really can turn just about anything into a downer, feels cheated that the wind can attack him, but he can’t attack back. That’s certainly one way of looking at it, but perhaps the more pressing problem for the moment is that they’ve sailed right past MD in the night and now MD is chasing them. Captain A turns the Pequod around, into the wind, and goes into his basket in the rigging. Finally the lookouts all see MD and Captain A is lowered to get back to it. On the way down he takes a valedictory look around at the sea, where he has wasted his entire life and now appears to know he is going to die. He says goodbye to SBUX, who begs him not to go. We see now why SBUX wound up being the symbol of a chain of shops serving the weakest coffee imaginable; this guy has not accomplished one thing on the entire voyage except failing to kill Captain A when he had the chance.
As the boat lowers, Mrs A calls from the cabin to warn Captain A about sharks. The honeymoon seemingly over, Captain A completely ignores Pip and the boat heads down. But Mrs A was right: The second they hit the water sharks surround the boat, nipping at the oars and waiting for some breakfast.
Back on the Pequod, SBUX feels strangely calm and, just like that flight attendant on final approach, knows that they’ll be on the ground shortly. Yeah, lady, one way or another, we’ll be on the ground shortly. SBUX looks up and sees a hawk tearing off the Pequod’s flag.
Captain A is out in the water, watching Moby Dick dive, feeling pretty cocky about the prophecy: if he can only be killed by hemp, then a whale isn’t going to get him. One thing you have to like about Moby Dick, though, he doesn’t waste any time. He leaps into the air and crashes into the water. As the boats approach, MD attacks and disables both Stubb’s and Flask’s boats, but not without doing an ostentatious little barrel roll that reveals the dead Fedallah lashed to his side by the twisted mass of harpoon lines.
Things now are looking better for the prophecy. Not only does Captain A understand that this is the first of the two hearses he will see before he dies, but also why Fedallah might be thought of as his “pilot”. In the meantime, Captain A orders the damaged boats back to the Pequod for repairs and to come back and help when they are ready. Moby Dick swims away, seemingly ready to turn the other cheek and call it a day. SBUX hails Captain A and points out that this would be a good time to take yes for an answer and cut their losses.
Captain A responds by following MD and orders the Pequod to follow him. Tashtego, Queequeg, and Daggoo no longer have boats to hunt from and so go into the rigging to act as lookouts. Captain A notices that the flag is gone and orders another put up. I confess to wondering why anyone would care about this seemingly trivial detail, but there it is. Meanwhile, Captain A is gaining on MD, the sharks are circling, and the oars are getting smaller and smaller as they get munched on.
Captain A finally pulls up close to MD and buries the Holy Harpoon in the whale’s side. This pisses the whale off. He rolls against the boat and throws three men overboard. Two of them manage to get back into the boat, but the third is left behind, bobbing, just like Pip. MD pulls away with such force that the harpoon line snaps and is turning around to face Captain A’s boat when he sees a much more meaningful target behind it: the Pequod.
Of course, thinks MD, that is the mother ship that is giving birth to all of these annoying boats and these crazy men with their designer harpoons. Cue the Jaws theme as MD goes after the Pequod. Captain A immediately understands the danger and orders his men to go after MD, hoping to distract him and save the Pequod, but the oars have been whittled down to toothpicks by the shark and the boat has been damaged by being tossed into the air and starts to take on water. The men stop to bail.
SBUX sees what’s coming and stands there and resolves to meet his doom with as much courage as he can muster under the circumstances, which is considerable. Stubb sees what’s coming and resolves to meet his end with humor. His dying thought is a wish to taste some cherries. Flask resolves to meet the termination of his employment with a care for financial planning. His dying thought is that he hopes his mother has taken an advance against his salary.
Moby Dick crushes the starboard bow of the ship with his forehead, sending men into the air and over the side. The ship begins to take on water and Captain A realizes that this is the second “hearse”, made, as prophesied, of American wood. Not only is Captain A disappointed that he didn’t get to go down with his ship, but he is also enraged by the sudden presence of MD, who has swum off a ways to get a better view and is all but eating popcorn, Captain A goes after him with a vengeance, screaming a speech that will later be stolen by Ricardo Montalban for his kamikaze turn in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but which bears setting down in full because it’s so drenched in spite and rage and fury and bile:
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! THUS, I give up the spear!
It doesn’t turn out any better for Captain A, than it did for Khan. The harpoon line (hemp!) wraps around his neck and pulls him underwater to his death. In the background, the Pequod is sinking into a whirlpool and dragging Captain A’s boat into it. Only the harpooners, still clinging to their lookout perches are visible. Tashtego, with admirable dedication to duty, is still nailing a flag to the mast and a hawk is still trying to steal it so Tashtego’s final act is to nail the hawk’s wing to the mast and they all disappear under “the great shroud of the sea [that] rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Game, set, match: Moby Dick
Epilogue: If nothing else, this book should teach you never to skip the epilogue. Every reader of this book asks how Ishmael comes to write a book about a ship that killed everyone aboard. And here it is revealed that when Fedallah disappeared, it fell to Ishmael to take his place in Captain A’s boat. And that when three men were tossed out, and only two were able to scramble back into the boat, the one left in the sea was Ishmael. And Ishmael, bobbing at a distance, escaped the whirlpool and saw the Pequod go down. And out of the whirpool, straight into the air, pops the life buoy – Queequeg’s erstwhile coffin. Ishmael lay on it for for nearly one whole day and night until, on the second day, the Rachel, still searching for its lost boat and the captain’s lost son found Ishmael, “only another orphan.”
Moby Dick 29; Ishmael 1
1122 down; 18 to go!
How can that be? Have I really gotten the page count wrong this entire time? All will be revealed in the next, and final, post, which will also give some final thoughts and my New Year’s Resolutions for 2013.