Chapter 119: The Candles

“The Candles,” is a maddeningly inconclusive mash of omen, symbol, and possible allegory. Even the characters in the chapter seem to cease being people, coming instead to represent types or archetypes. Here we have Starbuck, the God-fearing man. Here we have Stubb, the cowardly jokester, and Ahab, the crazed heretic. Frequently in Moby-Dick, I find myself trying to connect an unconnectable pile of legos and tinker-toys, but “The Candles” provides an exceptional case.

Melville often highlights the idea of a random world to which humans give meaning through the creation of narrative — jamming utterly unconnected truths into a subjective reality. “The Candles,” doesn’t seem to allow that process, though, because the truths Ishmael presents us with seem false, or at least preprocessed by another person’s interpretation of storm as omen, “savage” harpooneer as demon, etc. These are not the facts as Ishmael usually presents them. But then again, although Ishmael officially narrates this chapter, we might not be looking through Ishmael’s eyes in his narration.

Two pages into “The Candles,” Starbuck, angry with Stubb’s seeming indifference to what Starbuck sees as gathering portents of doom, tells Stubb to “look through my eyes if thou hast none of thine own.” With that, the world of the chapter fully flattens into the aforementioned saturation of bizarre omens and symbols. If “The Candles” does indeed give us a glimpse into Starbuck’s mind, in Starbuck we see a man as attached to the epic as Ahab — concerned with the grandiose and abstract over the common and everyday world of real people. I for one am left missing Ishmael — biased, imperfect, somewhat racist, but also empathetic, understanding, and recognizant of the fundamental humanity of all his fellows.

Chapter 119: The Candles

Lay out your vestments
On the altar, and pour libations (Hear us sing, our spirits high!).
Burn us in perdition
As an offering for your salvation (Sha na na na na na na na!).

Standing on the back of
The devil himself.
I’ll shout you off the mountain,
No matter the feat.
You made me from the fire
And I’ll bring it to you!

So you’re the light that sprung from
An utter darkness (you’ll never know what made you be).
Well I’m the darkness sprung from
Your utter lightness (She na na na na na na na!).

You’re everywhere at once.
You’re never with me.
Strength is in the human
We made into a person
An impersonal being.

Here’s to the oath, mighty ruin!
We’ve taken an oath, never truant!
The hour is nigh, come alive!
Come alive!

Lay out your vestments
On the altar, and pour libations (Hear us sing, our spirits high!).

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 23, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea May 23, 2009

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