Sunday 18 January 2015

Whale Hunting for Beginners

I had an image in my head of what Moby Dick would be like. It was nothing like that. I am at a loss to know quite how to review such a strange book. Perhaps it might have helped to read the wiki page first. It is 500 pages of Whaling Encyclopaedia and then 50 pages of denouement. I kept wondering when the story was going to take over and Captain Ahab was going to come out of his cabin.  I was left mostly with a desire to go to sea, for real, in a ship with sails, and to see a whale.

So Ishmael, our hero, is feeling a bit out-of-sorts and so decides to go to sea for a few years, and takes himself off to Nantucket to join a whaling ship:

"Look at it - a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canadian thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that bits of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravagances only show that Nantucket is no Illinois." (p.76)

To be honest we don't learn much else about him; he recounts the events but never gives his own opinions on the venture upon which they are engaged. Over the course of a couple of hundred pages we get to know the crew and the workings of the ship and the nature of seafaring and the principles of the business of whale hunting, but we see hardly a glimpse of Ahab. But then when he does emerge it is to rally the crew to his crazy cause; he gives a speech that must be the inspiration for the one that occurs in all good disaster films, where the leading man inspires the remnants of the human race to engage the enemy in spite of overwhelming odds against them. And at sea what else is there for them to do but cheer him on, he is their captain, despite any misgivings, obeyed to the bitter end:

"Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job's whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals - morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge."  (p.188)

Because of the amount of detailed information about the voyage and its purpose, both folklore and serious study about whales and whaling, you find yourself drawn into their remote and isolated little world. Although their former lives, and wives and children at home, are mentioned in passing it's as if the rest of the world ceases to exist. All there is is the water that surrounds and engulfs them. They meet other whaling ships, each time Ahab seeking information on the white whale, but you come to wonder if maybe he is a figment of the imagination. Time passes, but how much time, and how far they travel is very vague. 

Some things about life on board ship, major and minor that struck me in reading. Of course, the postal system:
"Ahab stolidly turned aside; then said to Mayhew, 'Captain, I have just bethought me of my letter-bag; there is a letter for one of thy officers, if I mistake not. Starbuck, look over the bag.'
Every whale-ship takes out a goodly number of letters for various ships, whose delivery to the persons to whom they may be addressed, depends upon the mere chance of encountering them in the four oceans. Thus, most letters never reach their mark; and many are only received after attaining the age of two or three years or more.
Soon Starbuck returned with a letter in his hand. It was sorely tumbled, damp, and covered with a dull, spotted, green mould, in consequence of being kept in a dark locker of the cabin. Of such a letter, Death himself might well have been the post-boy." (p.308)

The slightly gut-wrenching process of rendering whale blubber:
"Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works had to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood was used, except as a means of quick ignition to the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contained considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in ti for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgement; it is an argument for the pit." (p.402-3)

But it is passages like this that left me a little mystified, there are words, and I know what most of them mean, but this description leaves me with little idea of what is going on; I am left wondering what were the bits that were supposedly 'too tedious to detail'? :
"Before lowering the boat for the chase, the upper end of the line is taken aft from the tub, and passing round the loggerhead there, is again carried forward the entire length of the boat, resting crosswise upon the loom or handle of every man's oar, so that it jogs against his wrist in rowing; and also passing between the men, as they alternately sit at the opposite gunwales, to the leaded chocks or grooves in the extreme pointed prow of the boat, where a wooden pin or skewer the size of a common quill, prevents it from slipping out. From the chocks it hangs in a slight festoon over the bows, and is then passed inside the boat again; and some ten or twenty fathoms (called box-line) being coiled upon the box in the bows, it continues its way to the gunwale still a little further aft, and is then attached to the short-warp - the rope which is immediately connected with the harpoon; and previous to that connexion, the short-warp goes through sundry mystifications too tedious to detail." (p.275)

In the run up to the final encounter Moby Dick the atmosphere becomes wild and tempestuous, with Ahab's madness reaching fever pitch. It reminded me of the storm scene from King Lear, and he even has his 'poor Tom' in the shape of the traumatised Pip, who has become something of a mascot for him in his madness. A typhoon strikes the boat and Starbuck tries to reason with Ahab:
" 'We must send down the main-top-sail yard, Sir. The band is working loose, and the lee lift is stranded. Shall I strike it, Sir?' 
'Strike nothing; lash it. If I had sky-sail poles, I'd sway them up now.'
'Sir? - in God's name! - Sir?'
'The anchors are working, sir. Shall I get them inboard?'
'Strike nothing, and stir nothing, but lash everything. The wind rises, but it has not got up to my table-lands yet. Quick, and see to it - By masts and keels! he takes me for the hunch-backed skipper of some coasting smack. Send down my main-top-sail yard! Ho, gullets! Loftiest trucks were made for wildest winds, and this brain-truck of mine now sails amid the cloud-scud. Shall I strike that? Oh, none but cowards send down their brain-trucks in tempest time. What a hooroosh aloft there! I would e'en take it for sublime, did I not know that the colic is a noisy malady. Oh, take medicine, take medicine!' " (p.478-9)

And in the lull before the final storm, we find him bowed down with the weight of his challenge, I even felt some pity for him:
"Slowly crossing the deck from the scuttle, Ahab leaned over the side, and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cantankerous thing in his soul. That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the step-mother world, so long cruel - forbidding - now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that wee drop." (p.506)

It's kind of a good thing that the book is so long because it does take a little while to get used to the verbose language and the dated feel of everything about their lives and understanding of the world. I have not read much except modern literature for quite a while so it felt a little jarring. Having said that once I allowed myself to get immersed it was a fascinating book. I expected it to be about Ahab, and it wasn't. I thought it might be about Ishmael and it wasn't. I got quite attached to Queequeg, but it wasn't so much about him either. It is a novel about whales and the men who hunt them. As Ishmael points out it is a much maligned profession but you are left to wonder how would the world have been a different place without them.

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