Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

If you’re a nerd like me, you spent more than one night in high school discussing literature in the following ways: Should we care what the author meant when she said x, y, or z? Is there a correct answer to a novel, or is each individual experience with that novel in itself a correct answer?

At many points in Moby-Dick we see an object (or event) as text experienced by many different “readers” in very different ways. The object in itself becomes meaningless while the process of interpretation becomes laden with meaning. As the subject struggles to unlock the meaning of an obscured otherness, he creates the only meaning that truly exists — his experience. In “The Spouter-Inn,” Ishmael happens upon a large mural in his New Bedford Inn. Obscured by dirt, grime, and shadow, Ishmael grapples to “arrive at an understanding of its purpose.” The painting appears to him as “chaos bewitched.”

Ishmael is almost mesmerized by “that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain.” After much negotiation of vantage, lighting, and context the three vertical shapes appear to Ishmael as the broken masts of a hurricane-tossed whaling vessel, and that “portentous something” becomes a whale, launching itself from the sea and “impaling himself on the three mast-heads.”

Melville repeatedly throws us as readers into maddening situations that beg to be assigned a meaning while simultaneously reminding us they are meaningless. The awesome thing is, the situations are not paradoxical but coexistent. To Melville, I think, these situations are meaningless without a subject. Like people, they beg to be beheld because only that process makes them meaningful.

Most of the rest of the chapter involves Ishmael’s long wait for Queequeg, his as yet unmet bedfellow. Queequeg’s obscured form takes on much the same role as the obscured painting. Ishmael, again through many negotiations of vantage and context, changes his experience of Queequeg many times before having even met him. Finding significance in insignificant facts — Queequeg’s keeping of late hours, Queequeg as a “‘dark complexioned’ harpooneer,” Queequeg as a seller of shrunken heads — Ishmael constructs a meaning wholly independent of any act or intent on Queequeg’s part, which is fair to say since Queequeg does not yet know Ishmael exists, let alone that Ishmael is scrutinizing him.

All this talk of other, subject, and object brought me back to high school and college in a big way, and so this song came out a little Smiths-ish, I think. Let it take you back, and tip a glass tonight to the subject beholding you from across the table.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

There’s a painting in the tavern, obscured,
As a token for the rest of the world.
In the soot and in the grime,
In the ravages of passing time
Stand we still, constructing a purpose.

Of the masses, of the shadows and shades,
In the chaos, in the purposes made —
In the center a parody,
Though in full sublimity,
All transfixed by a failure of meaning.

And so is man
A shrouded reason
Lost in the
Majestic reaches
Of his share of total unknowing.

There’s a stranger in the tavern with me,
Stands as other, contrasted naturally.
In a moment I understand
At the center this fellow man
Shares my darkness, and we can sleep easy.

And so is man
A shrouded reason
Lost in the
Majestic reaches
Of his share of total unknowing.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 3, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea October 2, 2008

Published in: on December 14, 2008 at 1:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. Interesting analysis. I did my thesis in 1998 on Moby Dick,

    “Beauty and Beast: Moby Dick as Negative Response to Emerson’s Transcendentalism.”

    The most overt thematic device of Melville’s is use of the whale metaphor. The quest for the whale is Ishmael’s quest for divine understanding. Ahab’s is a quest to strike through the mask and harpoon God. The whale IS God . . . mysterious, unfathomable. Whaling is itself the philosophical endeavor to understand God, a preoccupation of the New England Transcendentalists and one that haunted Melville in particular. This symbolism is driven home again and again and again throughout the entire novel. Understanding this, and understanding Melville’s penchant of describing artwork in order to convey thematically linked metaphor (as in Benito Cereno and other works) the painting in the Spouter Inn makes a clear statement: The whale performs a miraculous feat by revealing itself fully in its attempt to hurdle the un-masted ship. God’s miracle of revealing himself through Christ. And in doing so, He sacrifices himself upon the cross. For the three masts void of rigging directly conjures the image of Calvary. The painting represents dogmatic Christianity and on the “opposite” wall are the “heathenish” weapons of whaling and images of death, such a sickles mowing. To oppose the church and seek God through philosophical contemplation is to break from dogmatic Christianity and risk perdition. It’s a dangerous, spiritually deadly affair. Incidentally, Ishamel, unlike Ahab, resigns himself to understanding God through his relations with his fellow man, his shipmates. His only transcendental experience of divine rapture occurs in the Chapter “A Squeeze of the Hand,” when the narrator’s hands are plunged deep into the barrel of spermaceti and he finds his fingers entagling with those of his crew-mates. Melville grounds the divine in human, social relations and scoffs at the Emersonian idea of “knowing” God through piercing the viel of wonderous nature in pilosophical contemplation. Nature for Melville is as red in tooth and claw as it is wonderful, and God’s hand in it remains unfathomable.

    Thank you.


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