Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

Throughout Moby-Dick we see a constant occurrence of light and dark, white and black, not the least of which contrasts “The Whiteness of the Whale” (to quote a later chapter title) to the darkness of the Pequod’s mood, purpose, and (interestingly) racial makeup.* Early in the book we see the contrast between Ishmael and Queequeg, and even a contrast within Queequeg himself, which I will without a doubt cover in posts to come. Early in “The Carpet-Bag,” Ishmael arrives in New Bedford, narrowly missing his connecting voyage on to Nantucket. He decides that although New Bedford “has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling,” he’s determined to sail on a Nantucket ship, for “where else but from Nantucket did those aboriginal whalemen, the Red-Men, first sally out in canoes to give chase to the Leviathan?” Ishmael, in other words, is a man of origins — he wants to start from the beginning, to start over. Perhaps the New Bedford Ishmael subsequently describes is beyond salvage.

My sum impression of whiteness throughout Moby-Dick is of terrible blankness — an imperial void, a wealth, a carefree approach to life, a lightness (in terms of weight), an insipid joy, a runaway refinement of humanity. Blackness, on the other hand is a sort of total substance — aforementioned multiracial working class, poverty or hardship, ponderousness, a great weight of duty or necessity, a validating woe of existence, an animal primacy of labor or community or economy. I love “The Carpet-Bag” because it presents all these ideas in terms of “inside” and “outside” — a ready-made pop song if I ever saw one. Ishmael needs to find a place to stay while he waits for the next boat to Nantucket. The first inn is “too expensive and jolly,” and from the second inn “there came such fervent rays, that it seemed to have melted the packed snow and ice from before the house.” As Ishmael walks toward the water in search of cheaper lodgings, he notices “blocks of blackness, not houses, on either hand,” as he penetrates into the working quarters of the town. He stumbles into a black church where “the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness.”  And then he finds The Spouter-Inn, whose owner, a man named Peter Coffin, happens to be a native Nantucketer. Ishmael describes the Inn as “quiet,” “palsied,” and “dilapidated,” noting that it stands on a corner receiving a full battering from the winds. Quite a sad little inn.

As if the chapter so far is not awesome enough, Ishmael turns his musings sharply to a metaphor of men as shelters, himself quoting “an old writer — of whose works I possess the only copy extant” (I love this part!):

. . . it maketh a marvellous [sic] difference, whether thou lookest out at it [the cold wind] from a glass window where all the frost is on the outside, or whether thou observest it from that sashless window, where the frost is on both sides, and of which the wight of death is the only glazier.

Ishmael clarifies that the windows are his eyes and the body his house, and a poorly insulated house at that. He laments that bodies cannot keep out the cold without amenities — shelter, fire, clothing. He talks about “Lazarus” (poor) freezing on the doorstep of “Dives” (rich) like an “iceberg . . . moored to one of the Moluccas.” Yet there a twist. As Ishmael wishes “the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals,” he describes Dives as “a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs.”

So as the rich attempt to warm themselves from the outside in, the poor are left to warm themselves from the inside out. Though we are never asked or allowed to think of the latter as a preferable situation — Lazarus would rather be in Hell itself than cold on the street — Dives is left alone to drink “the tepid tears of orphans.” Man can not be sustained by external luxuries, but only by the strength of the soul within. It sort of reminds me of Hegel’s master/slave relationship — the poor workers at least have some control over their situation, being dependent on no one but themselves — but that doesn’t quite sum it up; in fact, it almost seems naive in this context. After all, Lazarus is freezing regardless of his strength of spirit. However, we are definitely left with a coldness in the blankness of whiteness (echoed in the snow itself) — a failed attempt to compensate isolation (void) with material things. I think we are also left with a warmth of pride in labor over leisure. There is another kind of “inside” for the outsiders — a warmth of community and spirit in mutual plight — and so Ishmael comes in from the cold, finding his place among the indefatigable outcasts.

*A family friend recently gave me a copy of Herman Melville: Between Charlemagne and the Antemosaic Cosmic Man, by Loren Goldner, which in my earliest scans yielded for me the idea of the Pequod’s crew as the ideal of a multiracial working class. I’m looking forward to reading on.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

The universe is made
And it’s too late to make an improvement.
I shiver on the street,
I see all happiness from the outside.

Maybe I’ve been longing to come
From out of the darkness,
From out of the cold.
I’ve never had the money you got
To be on the inside,
To find me a home.

A pity we were made
With fragile bodies to be sheltered.
A pity that a man
Has to find a way to be sheltered.

Maybe I’ve been longing to come
From out of the darkness,
From out of the cold.
I’ve never had the money you got
To be on the inside,
To find me a home.

[instrumental]

Maybe I’ve been longing to come
From out of the darkness,
From out of the cold.
I’ve never had the money you got
To be on the inside,
To find me a home.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 2, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea September 16, 2008

Published in: on November 16, 2008 at 10:57 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. And I thought I was the sniebsle one. Thanks for setting me straight.


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