Chapter 37: Sunset

There are a couple of references to iron in “Sunset,” and the more I turn this very strange chapter over in my head, the more I come back to this idea of iron. Iron definitely conjures thoughts of industry, especially perhaps because of my writings here so far. But I also think of iron as a base, common metal; a strong and useful metal; a metal without airs or flourish.

The first reference to iron in “Sunset” is with the Iron Crown of Lombardy, a crown said to be made from one of the nails of the crucifixion. Christ again calls to mind base, common, strong, useful, and humble attitudes about living. Ahab refers to the crown as his own, and makes special note of its weight and burden. Now, Ahab is clearly as far from humble as one could manage, and for all Ishmael talks in “The Specksynder” about Ahab being a leader of the people (at least in appearance), Ahab clearly does not see himself as being of the people either. He talks of his men as “many ant-hills of powder . . . and I their match.” He scoffs at their weakness of will: “I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve.” In his mind, Ahab is a heroic and solitary figure, a savior of the lambs, or rather sheep. Ahab sees himself as the spark to ignite their inherent and apparently latent or hidden purpose. He is revealer, catalyst, and guide. Is this iron crown, then, simply the plaid flannel shirt on a politician? I don’t think so — those plaids don’t sit as heavy on the shoulders of George W. as the crown sits atop Ahab.

Ishmael also mentions in “The Specksynder” that:

For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume that practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some external arts and enchantments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base.

It’s an interesting thought in and of itself, but I find it especially alluring in light of the second iron reference in “Sunset.” Ahab is in the midst of shaking his fists to the gods as schoolyard bullies. He plows through an interesting relationship between creator and created: “Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there.” The creator cannot deny the created without negating itself. It becomes a position of weakness or dependency — a being defined entirely by a power dynamic. And then the iron: “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails . . . Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!” Is the iron in Ahab’s crown, or the Iron Crown of Lombardy itself, not the iron of humble mettle, but the iron of an unbending will? Is that the “paltry and base” enchantment that defines supremacy? Are perhaps all crowns as such? Ahab himself laments: “Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly!” Ahab would almost rather be human than captain.

I am also interested in the stretch of chapters beginning one chapter prior to “Sunset” and ending with “Midnight, Forecastle.” Ishmael as narrator has been slowly vanishing since the Pequod left Nantucket, and suddenly he’s not even around to tell us who did what. In other words, we as readers start receiving actions and settings as stage directions. I’ve mentioned earlier that Moby-Dick is an early modernist text, and this is partly what I meant. It’s as if Ishmael does not want to take the iron crown of the narrator, to be the Ahab of his tale, and so he steps aside. Miraculously, or no miracle at all, the story does just fine without him and, in long stretches, without even a story at all. I think this is a really interesting release for Ishmael at the very moment of Ahab’s seizure. If Ahab’s not our model leader, Ishmael perhaps is, not being there at all.

Chapter 37: Sunset

Bask gently
In the melody,
Oh, sailors
Of the sea!

The Almighty
God above
Knows just
What you’ll be.

Good sailors,
Come with me.
We’ll bring Him
To His knees.

God brings us down
Leaving with one final stroke
Upon the everyday crown
Of the man he made, certain
To be everything.

Take pleasure
In the melody,
Oh heavens
Of the deep!

You struck me,
But I come again,
Now bearing
My teeth.

You bring us down
And then you hide in the smoke
Above the factory ground.
You lose yourself if you ever lose me!
If you ever lose me!

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 8, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea September 14, 2008

Published in: on November 23, 2008 at 12:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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