Chapter 41: Moby Dick

“I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul.”

Soon after Ahab’s stark raving introduction of Moby Dick to the crew, as well as his demand for the crew’s oath to help him hunt the whale, Ishmael pauses to address some of the bigger questions that may be lingering in the minds of his audience, namely, who is this crazy captain, so what about the whale, and why doesn’t anyone stop Ahab’s reckless quest for vengeance?

The whale becomes an idea: Ishmael says that while rumor abounds in all maritime professions, in the whaling world, rumor runs highest, for “they are by all odds the most directly brought into contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing in the sea.” Because of the inconsistency of communication within the profession, due to the length and solitude of a cruise, rumor runs unchecked. Thus, tales of ferocious encounters with Moby Dick bounce among whalers in such a way to lend the whale an aspect of “ubiquity,” both in space and in time, and “immortality is but ubiquity in time.”

Ahab’s transformation: For Captain Ahab, Moby Dick is not so much legend as scapegoat, and it’s an important difference. By Ishmael’s account, Ahab’s initial encounter with Moby Dick (attacking the whale with a knife, losing a leg) was little more than impulse. But the loss of his leg seemed so cosmically unfair* that he “piled upon the white whale’s hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.”

Amorality v. immorality: Early in the chapter, Ishmael attributes to fear his complicity in the tragedy to come, but by the end of the chapter says simply, “I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place.” Does Ishmael regret not preventing the demise of the Pequod? Does he see no other option? Does he feel it not his place as storyteller to interfere with his narrative? In some ways, this is the conundrum of the modernist writer or the proto-anthropologist — are we immoral in amorally disengaging ourselves from the course of events?

*Stab with a knife, bite off a leg — seems somewhat fair to me.

Chapter 41: Moby Dick

Let’s talk of the depths:
We’re of the cavernous Earth.
We take in the rocky chasms
At the very moment of birth.

Under the heart
(In all a darkness),
An ancient and fragile king
As pillar, quivering.

As a whale under the ocean, no one knows
All to bear from private spaces.

Now spin me a yarn,
No simple matter of fact.
In facing the grandiose
We take a supernatural tact.

So as within,
Deep down below
An ancient and fragile king
As pillar, quivering.

As a whale under the ocean, no one knows
All to bear from private spaces.

In all the world
There is a weight of defeat
Breaching the placid surface
With an ubiquity.

So grand, indeed,
Call it the devil and plead,
Or muster the soul’s harpoon
From madness.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea September 30, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea September 28, 2009

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