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‘With a Certain Bigotry of Purpose’
Under a Troubled Master-Eye #10: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 36
The 36 chapter of Melville’s masterpiece, is to this reader, the most important single scene in the story and much of it is quoted below.
CHAPTER 36. The Quarter-Deck.
(_Enter Ahab: Then, all._)
In one of his stronger introductory passages—as, thus far, each chapter of this work seems an introduction to some new aspect of whaling life—renders a tormented sketch of the managerial class of early industrial civilization, keeping certain aspects of demeaner with the decadent inheritor class of the ancient nobility, but lacking peace-of-mind born of a sure station in life and regressing feral-wise into something crassly shadowing the chieftains of prehistory.
“It was not a great while after the affair of the pipe, that one morning shortly after breakfast, Ahab, as was his wont, ascended the cabin-gangway to the deck. There most sea-captains usually walk at that hour, as country gentlemen, after the same meal, take a few turns in the garden.
“Soon his steady, ivory stride was heard, as to and fro he paced his old rounds, upon planks so familiar to his tread, that they were all over dented, like geological stones, with the peculiar mark of his walk. Did you fixedly gaze, too, upon that ribbed and dented brow; there also, you would see still stranger foot-prints—the foot-prints of his one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought.
“But on the occasion in question, those dents looked deeper, even as his nervous step that morning left a deeper mark. And, so full of his
thought was Ahab, that at every uniform turn that he made, now at the main-mast and now at the binnacle, you could almost see that thought turn in him as he turned, and pace in him as he paced; so completely possessing him, indeed, that it all but seemed the inward mould of
every outer movement.”
Then, as the lowly sailor attempts to fathom his enigmatic master, Ahab breaks with current sailing tradition, over the objections of his second-in-command and summons the entire crew to him:
“What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?”
“Sing out for him!” was the impulsive rejoinder from a score of clubbed
“Good!” cried Ahab, with a wild approval in his tones; observing the hearty animation into which his unexpected question had so magnetically thrown them.
“And what do ye next, men?”
“Lower away, and after him!”
“And what tune is it ye pull to, men?”
“A dead whale or a stove boat!”
Ahab then connects directly with the crew in a tribal manner, counter to the hierarchal class emasculation at the center of modernity:
“All ye mast-headers have before now heard me give orders about a white whale. Look ye! d’ye see this Spanish ounce of gold?”—holding up a broad bright coin to the sun—“it is a sixteen dollar piece, men. D’ye see it? Mr. Starbuck, hand me yon top-maul.”
“While the mate was getting the hammer, Ahab, without speaking, was slowly rubbing the gold piece against the skirts of his jacket, as if to heighten its lustre, and without using any words was meanwhile lowly humming to himself, producing a sound so strangely muffled and inarticulate that it seemed the mechanical humming of the wheels of his vitality in him.
“Receiving the top-maul from Starbuck, he advanced towards the main-mast with the hammer uplifted in one hand, exhibiting the gold with the other, and with a high raised voice exclaiming: “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke—look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!”
“Huzza! huzza!” cried the seamen, as with swinging tarpaulins they
hailed the act of nailing the gold to the mast.
“It’s a white whale, I say,” resumed Ahab, as he threw down the
topmaul: “a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for
white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.”
All this while Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg had looked on with even more intense interest and surprise than the rest, and at the mention of the wrinkled brow and crooked jaw they had started as if each was separately touched by some specific recollection.
The three savage warriors of three economically extinct races are aboard for this story largely as ancestral avatars for the captain, crew and reader:
“Captain Ahab,” said Tashtego, “that white whale must be the same that some call Moby Dick.”
“Moby Dick?” shouted Ahab. “Do ye know the white whale then, Tash?”
“Does he fan-tail a little curious, sir, before he goes down?” said the Gay-Header deliberately.
“And has he a curious spout, too,” said Daggoo, “very bushy, even for a parmacetty, and mighty quick, Captain Ahab?”
“And he have one, two, three—oh! good many iron in him hide, too,
Captain,” cried Queequeg disjointedly, “all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him—him—” faltering hard for a word, and screwing his hand round and round as though uncorking a bottle—“like him—him—”
“Corkscrew!” cried Ahab, “aye, Queequeg, the harpoons lie all twisted and wrenched in him; aye, Daggoo, his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat, and white as a pile of our Nantucket wool after the great annual sheep-shearing; aye, Tashtego, and he fan-tails like a split jib in a squall. Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen—Moby Dick—Moby Dick!”
In one of the most triumphant moments in fiction, Ahab breaks with the conventions of Civilization in its service and against his officers [middle managers being the social keel that prevents the lead man to effect his resurrection as a true human while at the helm of a civilized enterprise], the agents of the anti-heroic system which rules them from far beneath the heights of actionism, pulling a pall across the bier of Ahab’s ambition. A debate ensues between Ahab and his First Officer Starbuck, who is used as a strawman by Ahab, who declares him a slave of the “global” counting houses “girded” in money and declares himself and the crew, particularly the harpooners, as one with the truthful deed which must be done.
“…The long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale, the spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss. Starbuck paled, and turned, and shivered. Once more, and finally, the replenished pewter went the rounds among the frantic crew; when, waving his free hand to them, they all dispersed; and Ahab retired within his cabin.”
Against all economic reason Ahab, maimed and perhaps insane, manages to reach back across the slavish ages to touch the true hearts of his men, bringing them back to their scuttled patrimony even in the service of that which had erased their very identity.
The Pale Usher
Impressions of Moby Dick: Herman Melville and Modern Man?s Transcendental Journey
Kindle Edition:
Son of a Lesser God
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