Scene of the Crime and Miscellany

melville-room-e1365663613191

So, there it is: Herman Melville’s view from where he wrote Moby Dick. I’ve gone over this photograph with all of the dedication that the CIA used to bring to bear on the photos of Soviet leaders on the May Day parade platform during the Cold War, but I can’t find a single interesting or funny thing to say about it. It explains nothing. We are just left with the stark, senseless fact of this novel, so aptly described as a decent short story packed into a whaling encyclopedia.

But the discovery of this photo also allows me to inform you that the project alluded to in a digression from my discussion of Chapter 44, that of having famous people with nice voices each read a chapter aloud, seems to be complete. You can get it here or on iTunes. I listened to the first chapter, read by THE SWINTON, as she is known on the fabulous blog Go Fug Yourself. She did a lovely job, but the book itself still put me to sleep. And while I do have to wonder why so many of the illustrious list of readers of this, the seminal Great American Novel, seem to be English, I am gratified to see that none other than the original transgressive provocateur John Waters reads Chapter 95, the Cassock (which, she added in a transparent attempt to boost her google search results, is the chapter about the penis being turned into a robe).

I also need to let you know that my Kitchen Aid carafe, first ordered in December 2012 (as in last year) is, through a process so boring that to tell it would make me nod off again, due to arrive on Monday. I feel that I owe it to Kitchen Aid to acknowledge publicly that they finally got me the thing, but I leave them with this valuable piece of free manufacturing advice: Make more carafes.

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The Daily Dick – The End of the End

Adios

How could I have finished the book and found that I still had 18 pages left, you might be asking. There’s something so deliciously warped about my struggling gamely through this book, calculating with each post how much I had left to go, only to get it wrong. It seems kind of like malpractice, but of the sort I hope you’ll forgive.

This epilogue must be a doozy, I thought. Eighteen entire pages to wrap the whole thing up and perhaps throw a moral into it. I figured I’d get a nice epic about Ishmael clinging to a spar and fighting off sharks until he landed on a small island and was nursed back to life by Queequeg’s third cousin only to go on to have 15 children and become a Polynesian king before moving to Seattle and opening a chain of coffee shops named Starbucks, or something. Alas, it was instead one page of him bobbing on Queequeg’s coffin before being plucked from the jaws of death, followed by one blank page, and then 16 pages of the licensing agreement for Gutenberg e-books, which I’m happy to say is unexceptional and seems to permit what I’ve done in this blog. Thank goodness.

My final post here will be similarly unrewarding. What started out as a series of one-line summaries posted as Facebook status updates grew to something – um – more elaborate and eventually so voluminous that I had to move to a blog where an act of volition would be required to read it. I have to acknowledge that the whole thing got kind of meta: I grew as obsessed with finishing the book and the blog as Captain A did with killing his silly whale. Of course, I succeeded where he failed: I live to read another book, but I suspect he will enjoy more fame over the long arc of history.

It was fun to write about reading a not-especially-fun-to-read book. I learned a lot about whales. I also picked up a great improvement on the recipe for making popcorn (found in the About page): use coconut oil. My thanks to Mike Canzoneri of Costa Rica for that.

I have officially completed my New Year’s resolution for 2012: Read Moby Dick.

My New Year’s resolutions for 2013:

  1. To never use the word “robust” in a business setting.
  2. To never use the word “passionate” at all.
  3. To use the word “granularity” only when describing particulate matter.
  4. To continue eschewing microwave popcorn.
  5. To read something that doesn’t involve quite so much vivisection.

Thanks for reading with me.

1140 down; 0 to go

The Daily Dick – Chapters 133 – 135 & Epilogue – The Prophecy Fulfilled

TRADITIONAL WHALE HUNTING STILL GOING ON

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:

Jet Engine_exhaust_condensation

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.

White Humpback 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:

  1. It’s called by a recessive allele, which I know nothing about except that the word allele will always remind me of OJ Simpson;
  2. It is not albinism, which is a reduction of all types of skin pigment and not just the melanin drop that leucism causes;
  3. 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.

hippo

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:

Sperm Whale Jumping

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.

The Daily Dick – Chapters 129 – 132 – The End of the Beginning

Fast-Forward-Costa-Concordia-1

Because today’s chapters are all about the rich, inner lives of our characters, I don’t really have a good action shot. I decided instead, as part of my campaign to get everyone to subscribe to @Smithsonianmag twitter feed, to post one of their pictures from today’s article on the salvage of the Costa Concordia, which looks to me like one of those things that just isn’t possible – like aviation.

Chapter 129 – The Cabin: Captain A is rushing off to work, but has a tender parting moment with his new wife: Pip, who tries to go with him. Captain A says that there will come a time when he wants Pip with him, but this isn’t it. Perhaps he feels the crew is on to them, but there is also a subtle little dynamic emerging here that I am going to go ahead and name: Zero Sum Insanity Syndrome, in which Pip’s sanity loss is Captain A’s sanity gain.

Those of us who have seen the film Breaking the Waves will recognize this dynamic immediately.  In that film, the simple-minded wife of a man rendered a paraplegic by a drill rig accident begins, at her husband’s urging, to have random and increasingly sordid sex with random strangers. And, lo!, the more she sullies herself, the better goes his recovery. Until at the end she is dead and he lives to drill oil another day. Am I managing to do justice to how much I hated that film? I certainly hope so. I won’t even put a link to it, it so loathsome, which I would not say about Dancer in the Dark, and not just because Bjork is in it.

I’m more sympathetic to ZSIS here because Lars von Trier isn’t involved and also because I appreciate having a window on the psyche of a man so ruined by his own isolation and calcified rancour that he retains only enough to sanity to know that he needs to hang on what insanity he has if he is to accomplish his goal. So Captain A steels his heart and leaves Pip bereft under deck bemoaning the loss of his beloved, but comforted by the sound of his peg leg pacing overhead.

Chapter 130 – The Hat: Here we are in Designated Whale country and things sure are getting grim on the Pequod. First of all, both Captain A and Fedallah now spend all of their time on deck. It’s all well and good to feel like you’re there on the high seas with George Washington, asking you to go not one step farther than he goes himself, but Captain A’s proximity to MD has made him so dark that he now does not reflect light. If this were Paris in the 20’s he’d be chainsmoking Galloise and pounding espresso and pastis. This can’t be great for morale.

Ahab’s purpose now fixedly gleamed down upon the constant midnight of the gloomy crew. It domineered above them so, that all their bodings, doubts, misgivings, fears, were fain to hide beneath their souls, and not sprout forth a single spear or leaf.

Fedallah is definitely not helping matters. He and Captain A don’t exchange two words a day, but they are always there: two dark, brooding shapes that seem more ominous than the sum of their parts. Even though Captain A seems as frightened by Fedallah as the crew is by Captain A, no one is in any real doubt who is the Head Tyrant.

Let’s just remind ourselves, though, that a watched pot never, ever boils. Yelling up to the watch every ten seconds to ask whether they’ve seen MD is not helping anyone’s nerves. Finally, Captain A decides that if he wants MD sighted, he’ll have to do it himself. He rigs himself a little basket to be hoisted into the highest point of the mast in order to keep watch, because, in the end, it takes a white guy.

A little peculiarity of sailing vessels comes up here: There is a lot of rope lying around and not everyone knows what everything does. So, if you are up in a basket, you want someone on deck to take personal responsibility for the safekeeping of the rope that keeps you aloft. Otherwise someone might carelessly unwind it on the theory that the line holding you up, is in fact, an outhaul and then you’re in the drink or a raspberry sundae on the deck.  And who does Captain A choose to watch over his line? Not Fedallah, the person Captain A has smuggled on board expressly to be his personal hunting buddy, but SBUX, the Pequod’s very own Cassandra.

This all gets off to a bad start, though, when the first time up in his little basket, Captain A is dive bombed by a hawk, which steals his hat. Perhaps while he watched the hawk fly off into the middle distance with his hat, Captain A might be wondering what a hawk is doing this far from shore. I certainly was, but I couldn’t find anything on whether hawks venture this far out. I have to admit that Ishmael has rarely steered us wrong, so I’ll just grant the point and we can together watch the hawk grow more distant, and shrink to a dark little pin point, and just as it is about to disappear, drop a black speck into the ocean.

I’m no expert on omens, but I’m willing to say that that’s a bad one.

Chapter 131 – The Pequod Meets the Delight: I always think that the ship names in this book are kind of ridiculous, until I remember a day that I spent on a boat in Annapolis and saw some strained monikers that makes me realize that 1851 might have been a high point in the fine art of ship naming. Here are a few I found on a tumblr dedicated to the topic:

Breakin wind”
“Blow Me”
“Poopy Express”
“Master Baiter”
“My Assiss Dragon”
“Wet Dream”
“Norwegian Woody”

Still Delight has to be in the running for misnomer of the year, as long as the year happens to be 1851, because this ship is anything but one. For starters, it’s got the remains of a shattered whaling boat hanging from the rigging. When Captain Broken Record asks the Question, the captain of the Delight answers by pointing at the splintered firewood that used to be a whaling boat.

Yeah, yeah, says Captain A too bad about your little boat, but did you kill MD? And when the captain of the Delight asserts that the harpoon that could do that has not been forged, Captain A grabs his racy little, twisted, razor-wired, blood-tempered, lightning-struck custom number and begs to differ.

Which impresses the captain of the Delight about as much as Indiana Jones when confronted with the master swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He points out to Captain A that the Delight lost five crew to Moby Dick only yesterday, four disappeared under the waves and the final one the captain is getting ready to bury.

Captain A doesn’t like funerals much evidently, and orders the Pequod to make tracks without so much as a Fair Thee Well, or whatever it is Quakers say when they really mean Screw You Loser, I’m Outta Here. And as the Pequod sails away, a sailor from the Delight has the last word, pointing out that you can’t really avoid funerals, when you have a coffin hanging from your bow.

Chapter 132 – The Symphony: Another fine lovely day at sea on the Pequod. The air and blue sky and light breeze are like a woman. The heaving, tossing deep with all of the sharks and whales lurking underneath is like a man. They meet at the horizon and do whatever men and women do, but you can’t see it from here because it’s too far off. But even Captain A is moved by it all. He stands looking over the side of the ship when “from beneath his slouched hat Ahab drop[s] a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.”

Who should see this happen but SBUX, who comes and stands by Captain A’s side – not daring to touch him – until noticed. The defenses lower and SBUX gets an earful about Captain A and his life and regrets that would melt a heart of stone, like that horrible woman at Kitchen Aid who refuses to acknowledge that backordering my coffee pot for three solid months is cruel and, at a minimum, poor customer service. For this man has been at sea for 40 years, since age 17 when he killed his first whale on a beautiful day like the present, and has since known nothing but the pitiless isolation of the captain of a vessel that “makes war on the horrors of the deep.”

In those 40 years, he has not spent even three full years ashore. The rest has been a desert of waves and sky and eating food that has been reduced to salted leather. All this he endured knowing that on dry land others walk freely and eat fresh fruit off trees. With his young wife, taken at age 50, he spent one night  before making her an effective widow.  His child, born of that night (now that is an impressive fertility rate), who never sees him is for all practical purposes an orphan. And for all of this hardship Captain A has little to show but some phantom pain where his leg used to be. As Captain A gazes into SBUX eyes, Captain A sees his own wife and child and vows that SBUX shall not lower with the boats to chase MD, but will stay with the Pequod.

SBUX pleads with Captain A to seize the moment and call the whole hunt off. It’s a last-ditch effort. SBUX seems to know that he will only have this one shot to talk Captain A out of a plan that only SBUX realizes is suicide. He paints a picture so elegiac and nostalgic of the lives they might yet return to, that you might almost believe they did actually once lead those romanticized lives. For a moment, it hangs out there, a tantalizing, realizable future that they have only to embrace. For a moment, you think Captain A might just say yes.

But then this would be a crappy book, so Captain A instead goes back to staring at the water and wondering what is in the nature of man that he pursues so diligently his own destruction. When he looks up, SBUX is gone and Fedallah is in his place.

“Hell”, as the Reverend William Sloane Coffin once said, “is a truth realized too late.”

1063 down; 77 to go

The Daily Dick – Chapters 121 – 128 Shame About That Quadrant

quadrantI’d like to thank one of my loyal readers for adding a table of contents. I don’t know why anyone would want to read this from the beginning, but, if you do, click the page to the right and have at it.

Chapter 121 – Midnight – The Forecastle Bulwarks: Back to the play format, but only for a few brief chapters. In this, the first, Stubb and Flask are carrying out Captain A’s orders to lash down the anchors. This gives them the opportunity to compare notes on whether they found it all relaxing to have their captain grab lightning rods during a lightning storm and deliver a protracted speech with Satanic overtones. Stubb thinks it falls well within maritime best practice, or at least a calculated risk that is unlikely to go wrong. The analysis:

  1. There is no meaningful difference between holding a holding a mast’s lightning rod and standing next to a mast that doesn’t have a lightning rod.
  2. The mast would have to be struck first for a holder to be in any danger.
  3. Only 1% of all ships carry lightning rods at all, so they were lucky to have them at all.
  4. Therefore no one was really in any danger.

I refer you now to the Titanic, which had a sane captain, but which, among its other deficiencies failed to carry enough lifeboats for the people aboard (although more than legally required). This was all done on a similar theory: What are the odds? What could go wrong?

More to the point, it seems to me that holding lightning rods during a lightning storm was really the least frightening thing that was going on at the time. Perhaps they are resigned to it, but Stubb does point out that the anchors are lashed as if they were never going to be used again.

Chapter 122 – Midnight Aloft – Thunder and Lightning: So, we know that the top main-sail has worked loose and the Pequod really should be stopped to fix it, and that Captain A has refused to do so. Which means someone has to go up there and deal with it while underway and that means, of course, that one of the non-white harpooners is going to get sent up. This falls to Tashtego, who, in a chapter that is about half the length of this summary, asks the wind to stop howling and pleads for rum.

Chapter 123 – The Musket: Almost every time SBUX shows up in this book, it’s difficult not to remember how Captain A masterfully neutralized him back on the day of nailing the gold to the mast. Masterful because intentional: Captain A waited until they were well at sea, sized up the crew, identified SBUX as the only potential source of trouble, drew out his objections in front of the ship’s company, and then produced the gold piece that laid everyone’s doubts to rest. And it has worked. Every ten chapters or so, SBUX has some sort of misgiving, raises a timid objection, and is shot down (once almost literally).

We finally see in this chapter that it’s all gotten under SBUX skin. Not because he’s feeling emasculated, but – I theorize here – because his emasculation has kept him isolated. He has no allies among the crew and his misgivings have metastasized into fear. In other words: he is the only person on this boat thinking clearly.

So it happens now that the typhoon dies down, SBUX and Stubb gets some new sails rigged and the helmsman, who’d just been trying to steer the best he could what with getting smacked around and the tiller flying out of his hands and the compass needle flying around in circles, finally gets on course: east. The wind is finally with them and all of these developments must be reported to Captain A. It falls to SBUX to go to Captain A’s cabin with the good news. Upon entering, he sees the very same musket that Captain A had so recently aimed at him. SBUX picks it up and launches into a soliloquy about whether he should shoot Captain A (who is on the other side of the door in his stateroom) or stage a mutiny or do something to throw a wrench into this very inexorable death machine that is moving metronomically towards its own destruction. SBUX points the musket at a spot in the stateroom door that would put a bullet through Captain A’s head and you get that no-jury-in-the-land feeling:

A touch [on the trigger], and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again.—Oh Mary! Mary!—boy! boy! boy!—But if I wake thee not to death, old man, who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck’s body this day week may sink, with all the crew! Great God, where art Thou? Shall I? shall I?.

But his nerve fails and SBUX puts down the musket and tells Captain A that all systems are go above. In return he gets some ravings from Captain A’s current dream about MD. SBUX gives up and sends Stubb down to deal with Captain A instead.

Chapter 124 – The Needle: Ah, the open sea in the morning, isn’t it refreshing? Still a little wave action, but just enough so that, if one were the captain, one might be able to lean down as the bow goes down and see the eastern horizon and look back as the stern rises and watch the sun as the Pequod seems to drag it along and isn’t it grand to be making some headway finally….except…well, that whole rising east/setting west thing is usually a good indicator whether one is heading east or west or if one is thinking one is heading east when one is heading west, as is the case here.

Once they’ve established that they’re sailing in the wrong direction, they also discover that this is because the compass has been ruined during the typhoon. Apparently this isn’t totally uncommon. Fortunately, you can just fall back on celestial navigation with the quadra….oops.

But Captain A is not one to be defeated. Having realized that the compass says the opposite of what reason would indicate, he orders the ship turned around. His officers at this point, seem about as eager to obey him as the crew of Rose-Bud did when asked to butcher those decaying whales, but they do it, because at this point everyone is pretty much terrified of Captain A.

In the meantime, Captain A decides to show the skeptics on board (i.e., everyone) that he earned his eagle scout rank through merit, not by seducing his scoutmaster, which would have been unthinkable in the Boy Scouts anyway (see, e.g., Boy Scouts of America v. Dale). Captain A demands that they bring him the top of a lance, a sailmaking needle, a hammer, linen thread,  a spinning wheel and some hay. There is a lot of hammering and “some small strange motions with it—whether indispensable to the magnetizing of the steel, or merely intended to augment the awe of the crew, is uncertain.” In short, he does everything but wave a blackthorn wand with dragon heartstring and say “Expecto Magnetonum”. Sure, I’m thinking, this is a scam. Except that it turns out that this is EXACTLY what the US Army Survival Manual tells you to do:

18-15. You can construct improvised compasses using a piece of ferrous metal that can be needle-shaped or a flat double-edged razor blade and a piece of thread or long hair from which to suspend it. You can magnetize or polarize the metal by slowly stroking it in one direction on a piece of silk or carefully through your hair using deliberate strokes. …….  When suspended from a piece of nonmetallic string, or floated on a small piece of wood, cork or a leaf in water, it will align itself with a north-south line.

So, hey, I’m sold, but few on the Pequod are so easily duped. They all file past the compass needle to see the miracle of it pointing east while Captain A stands there and “in his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.”

Chapter 125 – The Log and Line: Now that the quadrant has been reduced to a pile of sub-atomic particles, and the only working compass has been created from some duct tape and a q-tip, the crew of the Pequod casts around for a backup system and goes back in time to the 15th century: the log and line. Unfortunately, this system requires math, so I wouldn’t be able to explain it, much less use it. But this website does a nice job of talking a smarter person than I through the various ways one might use a duct tape compass and a block of wood on a rope to get a ship from Point A to Point B on the high seas. Basically, the log and the line is a glorified speedometer:

This is the process Columbus used to navigate. A compass determined the direction the ship moved in the water. Speed was measured by throwing the wood float [log] attached to a long rope [line] overboard. At the time the float entered the water, an hour glass was turned so that the sand began dropping into the empty lower portion of the hour glass. Knowing the length of the rope which trailed behind the ship during the time it took for the hour-glass’s sand to empty into the bottom portion of the timer enabled the navigator to measure both the speed and distance traveled.

It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s the only game in town. Except that the problem with backup systems can often be that they aren’t properly maintained and then when you most need them, the rope is so mildewed and rotted that it breaks. Captain A orders another one made.

Enter Pip, who appears to have finally gone off the deep end. Or perhaps this is the first time we are hit over the head with it, but Pip is leaving little to the imagination. He believes that the log is  Pip, a coward who jumped out of the whaling boat, and is now trying to get on board. Pip believes that he, Pip, is the bell boy, whatever that is. The Manx sailor (which, by the way, means someone from the Isle of Mann) tells Pip to shut up. Captain A takes pity on Pip, and showers disdain on the Manx sailor, perhaps because the Manx sailor is the one who warned Captain A that the rope would not hold and Captain A didn’t believe him? Who knows, at any rate, on a ship where Pip could easily be voted one of the saner people on board, Captain A finds his lunacy touching. I’m not making this up:

Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings.

And then it all gets a little creepy and I’m sure it’s all completely platonic, but I can’t see that any of this does much to rehabilitate Captain A’s reputation as bat-shit insane and now a pedophile to boot. But I’ll let the Manx sailor sum it up better than I ever could: “There go two daft ones now… One daft with strength, the other daft with weakness.”

Chapter 126 – The Life Buoy: But, hey, at least the navigation is all set, right? Any system that was good enough to help Columbus find India is good enough to get Captain A to where he wants to go. And so it is that the Pequod eventually arrives at the equator. So much for the good times. The first night every one in the ship hears strange wailing noses and stories fly about mermaids and ghosts until Captain A, ever the voice of reason and sanity, explains that it was seal mothers crying for their lost pups and seal orphans crying for their mothers, which strikes me as a situation that is simply crying out for a smartphone app.

The next morning a sailor goes up to his turn on watch and falls overboard. Lucky bastard. The crew heaves out a life-buoy (a sealed wooden tub that floats) but it sinks as well. Call the carpenter. But, as we’ve discussed, other than the boat itself, wood is scarce on a boat. Unless you have a spare coffin lying around, which the Pequod does, thanks to Queequeg’s change of heart about dying. The carpenter is a little irked that he went through all of that work to make a coffin and now has to turn around and make it into something else, but that’s the way of it. And so now we have a life buoy that’s a coffin and that, I think, can pass without further comment from me.

Chapter 127 – The Deck: But not from Captain A, who happens on the deck and can’t help but be struck by the irony. He’s also struck by the way the carpenter has dabbled in life (new leg for Captain A) and death (Queequeg’s coffin) and life again (a life buoy). And the carpenter is all “Oh my! Look at the time! Gotta get to work! No time to talk” And Captain A goes and spins this metaphor out further than it really has any business going. I mean, I get it, it’s deep and all, but at the point that Captain A decides that a coffin is a sort of “immortality preserver”  really no one is going to listen to him but Pip. So he heads down to “talk this over; I do suck most wondrous philosophies from thee! Some unknown conduits from the unknown worlds must empty into thee!” And that seems to me for the best for us, but I do feel for Pip. Talk about a punishment not fitting a crime.

Chapter 128 – The Pequod meets the Rachel: Remember a few short chapters ago when I  deemed the blacksmith’s story the saddest thing in the book? I spoke too soon. GRAVITY ALERT. Lots of the things that they tell you about how kids change you is bullshit. If you’d like a sample of the bullshit, check out this music video: Pregnant Women are Smug by Garfunkel & Oates (the title says it all). But there is one thing I have found to be true: I can’t bear movies/books/poems/apps/tweets/instagrams/graffiti that involve children dying horribly and I certainly didn’t expect any children in peril in a book like this.

But there you go. The Pequod finally runs across a ship that is barreling along with all sails set. Captain Broken Record asks The Question and the captain (Gardiner) of the Rachel responds that they saw him yesterday. Captain A is ready to fire himself out a cannon to get over to the Rachel, but Captain G is even quicker. He boards the Pequod and we find that he is a Nantucketer and that he and Captain A know each other. Captain G is frantic. He has lost one of his boats. It was last seen hunting Moby Dick. White water indicated that the crew on the boat had harpooned Moby Dick, but then had been dragged quickly away. The lost boat contains the captain’s son.

Captain G begs Captain A to help the search. He offers to pay Captain A.He appeals to him as a father, which I’d forgotten. Its bears repeating: Captain A has reproduced. He has a son. The thing I did not expect is for Captain A to give the request any consideration whatever. It was a master stroke for Melville to have these two men know each other, and to have him know that Captain A is a father because it helps to set Captain A up as less crazy and more driven. Captain A will not help, that is certain, but it is equally plain that it does pain him to say so:

Ahab still stood like an anvil, receiving every shock, but without the least quivering of his own….”Avast,” cried Ahab—”touch not a rope-yarn”; then in a voice that prolongingly moulded every word—”Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good-bye, good-bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go.

And so they leave Captain G and sail off to their appointment with MD, watching from the deck as the Rachel sails back and forth, looking for the missing boat.

END GRAVITY ALERT

1040 down; 100 to go

The Daily Dick – Chapters 115 – 120 The Coffeemaker Gets Replaced

Voyage of the Pequod Map

Chapter 115 – The Pequod Meets the Bachelor: If you have a death wish of any sort and aren’t able to satisfy it by cycling in an urban area, read this chapter for tips on how to be such a jerk that your demise will be all but certain. The Pequod runs across a ship called The Bachelor (as marked in the map at the top), which is sailing along having a big party, including a few native girls who have “eloped” with the crew. The Bachelor has had such a run of luck that every square inch of the ship has been converted into a sperm oil container up to and including the coffee pot.

Speaking of coffee pots, I finally replaced mine. As much as I love the look of it, sitting there on my countertop, looking all shiny and red and electronic and bursting with coffee potential, with all of that awesome negative space where the broken urn used to nestle, I need something that might be less aesthetically pleasing, but that will brew actual coffee. Look, I am reading Moby Dick here. And while I am not asking for a medal or a ticker tape parade down Broadway, I can’t be asked to do this without caffeine. So thanks for nothing, Kitchen Aid, you’ve extracted your last $100 from me. And hello, Mr. Coffee.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you were thinking that I made up that part about the coffee pot, just to have a reason to tee off on Kitchen Aid again. Look, I have my faults, but I’m no Jayson Blair. I don’t fabricate my attenuated segues. To wit:

In the forecastle, the sailors had actually caulked and pitched their chests, and filled them; it was humorously added, that the cook had clapped a head on his largest boiler, and filled it; that the steward had plugged his spare coffee-pot and filled it; that the harpooneers had headed the sockets of their irons and filled them; that indeed everything was filled with sperm, except the captain’s pantaloons pockets, and those he reserved to thrust his hands into, in self-complacent testimony of his entire satisfaction.

Anyway, the Bachelor is headed home. The Bachelor is doing this heading home thing in an obnoxious and ostentatious way. It has caught more than its fair share of whales while all of the ships in the vicinity haven’t really caught any whales at all. In fact, the Bachelor has caught so many whales that it has bartered with other non whale-catching ships for their empty barrels. Drunk people are on the deck doing the macarena with local women. They are dismantling the try works and throwing it overboard. It’s a whaling end zone dance and that sort of thing just tends to rub people the wrong way, especially people sailing into the jaws of death.

But the Pequod takes the high road. Captain Broken Record asks his standard question and the captain of the Bachelor says that he has heard of the white whale, but doesn’t believe in it. Which might be why they are going home with a lot of sperm oil and the Pequod, after refusing many entreaties to come party, sails on to its doom. And Ishmael makes it clear that, at this moment, every single person on the Pequod seems to know doom is all that is in store for them. For what it’s worth, I read this chapter to my three-year old (minus one month) son and he loved it. Really. Photographic proof here.

Chapter 116 – The Dying Whale: Getting rid of the Bachelor seems to have been good for business. The Pequod almost immediately bags four whales. Even Captain A deigns to kill a whale that is not the Designated Whale. Then he watches it die, which is kind of sad, because we’re told that all whales die in the same way: turning their heads toward the sun as they breath their last. If one were a religious person, one might think they were importuning a deity, but one might also wonder why these prayers seem to have a 100% failure rate.

Chapter 117 – The Whale Watch: The downside of bagging a whale is that you have to get it back to the boat before nightfall, which everyone manages to do but Captain A and his crew. So they have to stay there all night listening to the sharks having a whale fiesta. Wouldn’t that be awesome: hanging out all night in a boat with Captain A in shark-infested waters wondering if you were ever going to get enough dead whales to get to your place on the profit-sharing list? No? How about if we throw in Fedallah? Because he’s also there in all of his oppressive, oriental, mysteriousness staring fixedly into the water while everyone else sleeps.

Captain A wakes up from a nightmare and tells Fedallah that he has had “that dream” about a hearse. With an air of mild exasperation about having to run through this again, Fedallah  explains to Captain A (who he calls “old man”) that he can relax  because neither a hearse nor a coffin is in his future. There’s always a “but” in prophecy, though. Because, if there are two hearses “the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one … grown in America” then Captain A is in trouble. This clears it right up, wouldn’t you say? But wait, there’s more: If he sees these two hearses, then Fedallah will already have died and will be acting as Captain A’s “pilot”. Captain A replies that he has twice pledged both to kill Moby Dick and to live to tell the tale. To which Fedallah replies that, in any event, only hemp can kill Captain A. I had thought that maybe this meant that Captain A would get stoned and have an accident, but we’re talking rope, which means Captain A thinks he is going to hang. And takes this to mean that he is immortal on land and sea.

Wow. This reminds me what I don’t like about prophecy. It’s really confusing. Sometimes it’s all clear in hindsight, like that play with the Greek guy who slept with his own mother after killing his father and wound up clawing his eyes out, which I saw onstage in London starring Ralph Fiennes and it all came together in the end, although with a little too much scenery chewing for my taste. But I don’t know if that’s going to be our case.

Chapter 118 – The Quadrant: Captain A has begun to get a little antsy about the equator (the “Line”). You might recall that this is where he has planned the big Moby Dick Intercept so it’s a key plot point. We are now in the vicinity and all eyes are on Captain A to order the Turn. Unfortunately, no matter how many times Captain A tries, or where he takes his sightings, or how he compares them to his other maps of where Moby Dick might be, the Venn diagram of the Pequod and Moby Dick refuses to overlap. And so, in a classic, zen-level Kill the Messenger outburst, Captain A has a huge tantie because the quadrant can only tell them where they are, but not where Moby Dick is or might be. He flings the quadrant on the deck and does the Quadrant Dance on it. After Captain A stops panting, he informs the crew that they can fall back on dead reckoning navigation.

Perhaps Captain A forgot to read the label, but I doubt the quadrant was marketed as a Find Moby Dick Divining Rod. I believe it was probably characterized by its manufacturer as a Figure Out Where You Are on the High Seas instrument. That seems kind of handy to me, and I’ll note for the record that Stubb and SBUX seem a little sad about having traded their shiny quadrant for a pile of scrap, but no use crying over spilled milk when there’s a typhoon on the horizon.

Chapter 119 – The Candles: A typhoon, for instance, is one of those times when I think it would be nice to be able to think to oneself: At least when this storm is over, we’ll be able to figure out where we are. If we survive. Because as typhoons go, this one seems kind of on the nasty side. The Pequod’s sails are torn, large objects are banging around, the boats are being damaged, there is a lot of thunder and lightning, and then there is Stubb, singing a merry tune. SBUX tells him to glass-half-empty it and shut up, but Stubb sees no reason not to meet his end with a cheerful demeanor. Meanwhile, SBUX realizes that the lightning rods haven’t been put down over the sides (they’re normally stowed) and orders it done just as Captain A appears and countermands the order, announcing he’d prefer to have a fair fight with the elements.

The elements are happy to oblige and next thing you know, there are “corpusants” dancing around the ends of the masts and spars and through the ship’s rigging. Corpusants are just a nice way of saying St. Elmo’s Fire, no not that seriously average movie starring all those Brat Pack kids, but:

a weather phenomenon in which luminous plasma is created by a coronal discharge from a sharp or pointed object in a strong electric field in the atmosphere (such as those generated by thunderstorms or created by a volcanic eruption).

Here’s the modern day perspective, from inside an aircraft cockpit (ack, just think if your airline captain introduced himself as Captain Ahab).

st-elmos-fire-aircraft

Here’s a slightly less dramatic looking portrait of it on a ship. You can see why the crew on board the Pequod think they look like candles:

220px-Elmo's_fire-2

This particular luminous plasma created by a coronal discharge has differing effects on the crew. Stubb decides they’re a good omen, which causes them to flare up, kind of like those jets of fire around the head of the Wizard of Oz (you want the part at about 1:09 of this clip, which has the entire video overlaid with the soundtrack of Dark Side of the Moon for reasons that aren’t clear to me).

Captain A just decides to do some of that voodoo that only he do. He grabs the chain links at the end of the lightning rods and puts one foot on Fedallah before looking up to the masts and launching into a speech that goes on for pages and is nearly impenetrable in style and content. The long and short of it appears to be that he is now a fire worshipper. Which, it seems to me, means that he is no longer a Quaker, since those seem mutually exclusive. In which case, I’d appreciate it if he’d drop this style of speaking, which I am producing in one small fraction of the actual volume of this chapter it consumes in order to give you a sense of how impossible this guy is to follow:

Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed.

The luminous plasma created by a coronal discharge has no problem understanding that it has a new adherent. The flames burn so high that Captain A has to close his eyes and protect them with his hands. He continues speechifying until SBUX points out that flame is now also coming out of the tip of his macked-out, blood-tempered Moby Dick harpoon. SBUX is now sufficiently freaked out to try to get Captain A to call off the voyage, pointing out that the crew is also panicking. Captain A grabs the harpoon and waves it around among the men, reminding them that they swore an oath to hunt Moby Dick. Then he blows the flame out like a big Satanic birthday candle. If he’s thinking that made the crew feel any better, well, this:

As in the hurricane that sweeps the plain, men fly the neighborhood of some lone, gigantic elm, whose very height and strength but render it so much the more unsafe, because so much the more a mark for thunderbolts; so at those last words of Ahab’s many of the mariners did run from him in a terror of dismay.

Chapter 120 – The Deck Towards the End of the First Night Watch: SBUX notifies Captain A that the main top-sail is working loose and asks permission to stop and strike it. Captain A tells SBUX to pound sand, but first to tie everything down. The Pequod sails on.

998 down; 142 to go

The Daily Dick – Chapters 111 – 114 Some Crow for Breakfast

Pacific Ocean

Chapter 111 – The Pacific Ocean: We arrive at the Pacific Ocean (which, you can appreciate from this map of the Pequod’s voyage that I’ve thoughtfully posted, means we’ve traveled far).

Ishmael: Isn’t it grand; isn’t it peaceful; isn’t it mysterious and holy and sacred and unplumbed and blue and kind of bobbing but in nice way that isn’t too wavy or portentous and kind of makes you feel all is right with the worl…. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Captain A: Are we there yet? Do you see the whale? Where is my whale? Is that my whale? How about that over there? Is that it? Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Chapter 112 – The Blacksmith: OK, now I feel terrible. I intimated in the last post that Captain A spent considerably more time chatting up the blacksmith than the carpenter for reasons might not look entirely out of place in the halls of Congress. But the blacksmith (whose name is Perth) turns out to have a tragic story, so tenderly related, that I can’t help but feel a little ashamed of myself. He’s not a big, strapping, sweaty, he-man with a hammer and an anvil. He is a ruined old man with a broken back and a dignified, crushed demeanor. Interrogated relentlessly by the crew about the source of his limp, Perth tells a heartbreaking tale:

He was an old man, who, at the age of nearly sixty, had postponedly encountered that thing in sorrow’s technicals called ruin. He had been an artisan of famed excellence, and with plenty to do; owned a house and garden; embraced a youthful, daughter-like, loving wife, and three blithe, ruddy children; every Sunday went to a cheerful-looking church, planted in a grove. But one night, under cover of darkness, and further concealed in a most cunning disguisement, a desperate burglar slid into his happy home, and robbed them all of everything. And darker yet to tell, the blacksmith himself did ignorantly conduct this burglar into his family’s heart. It was the Bottle Conjuror! Upon the opening of that fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home.

I am not often serious about this book, but I do have to issue a GRAVITY ALERT before saying that this is the saddest chapter yet. And whatever comes after is a distant, distant second. The wife listens to Perth working industriously in the basement until the hammers blows are fewer and fewer and then they lose the house and the wife and two of the children die and he is left to wander. One cold night his feet are frostbitten and he loses his toes and becomes a homeless vagrant.

Ishmael and I agree that suicide is often the best solution for someone who has made such an awful mess of things, but not everyone has quite the level of determination and despair required to pull it off. To this select group of has-beens and misfits and hard luck cases, adventure might seem the last, best option to wile away the eons that lie between the inconsolable and the grave:

To the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have left in them some interior compunctions against suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them—”Come hither, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death. Come hither! put up THY gravestone, too, within the churchyard, and come hither, till we marry thee!”

END GRAVITY ALERT

Chapter 113 – The Forge: Meanwhile, back inside Captain A’s head, the mental forge is running at full power. Captain A sidles up for a little chat about the nature of fire and pain and I know I promised to be good, but we are getting into Larry Craig territory again. Captain A bonds with Perth over mental illness by inquiring if Perth is skilled enough to iron out the dents in Captain A’s forehead, which Captain A is forthcoming enough to admit run a little more than skull deep. But it all turns out to be platonic in a manipulative and self-serving sort of way. All Captain A really wants is to commission a harpoon.

You have to admire the planning. Not only has Captain A decided that he wants to go after MD with a bespoke weapon, but he’s had the forethought to bring along special, high-quality scraps that will make it the hardest and most lethal harpoon ever. He’s also been putting some thought into the design: twelve rods twisted into one. So probably a little fancier than what you see here, but this should give you an idea what they look like.

Early whaling harpoons

Have you been struck by how much Captain A looms over this narrative without really putting in many appearances? You’ll be happy to know that he finally puts his back into this chapter, working the bellows, doing some of the hammering, acting animated and engaged. Not animated and engaged in a way that I’d like if I were on this boat, but he’s certainly more grounded in his task than we’ve yet seen. Even Fedallah puts in an appearance to mutter some encouragement, or perhaps Stubb is right that he is Satan incarnate and is drawn to fire.

Once the harpoon has been hammered out and cooled in water, Captain A breaks out his shaving razors to smelt into the barbs (see the top three harpoons in the picture above). We’re not talking Atra here, but something like this:

Antique Straight Razor

Just to be sure he gets the symbolism and barbarity note perfect, Captain A insists that these additions to an already fairly formidable harpoon be cooled with blood instead of water. And where does he go for the blood? His own, perhaps? No, the harpooners are drafted, and seem quite willing, to donate enough blood for a ceremony that struck me, here on dry land, as a little extreme.

“‘Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!’ deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.”

Which, thanks to an online translation engine, I can tell you with 40% certainty means: “I baptize you not in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil.” (What the translation engine actually gave me was: “I not baptizo you upon by name father , but upon by name devil.” I smoothed it out a little. You’re welcome.)

Confident that we now have the most evil harpoon possible, made by the most downtrodden and insane, if admirably diverse, band of misfits ever to ship out on a whaler, we are ready for the Big Showdown, which I am sure is coming any time now.

Chapter 114 – The Glider: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….. Uh, oh, sorry, what’s that? Where was I? Oh right, the Pacific is big and awesome and tranquil and serene and, well, pacific. The Pequod keeps hunting whales, but not really catching any, but the view is nice and SBUX feels all spiritual and Stubb is just mindlessly jolly.

965 down; 175 to go (that’s 15% people!)