The chapters of Moby-Dick come mostly in two flavors — those concerning Ishmael, Queequeg, Ahab, et. al.; and those that describe the whaling world in great detail. Lovers of Moby-Dick hear it often from casual readers — love for the Ahab action, hate for the whaling discourse — but beyond being important, the latter chapters are actually the thrust of the novel. By Chapter 45, Ishmael has steeped his audience in a potentially confusing discourse on whaling minutiae long enough to begin explaining his methods. “The Affidavit” is not the only chapter of its kind in Moby-Dick, but differs significantly from later apologetic chapters, such as “The Crotch,” in two ways.
First, by citing in great volume tales similar to that of the Pequod, Ishmael seeks to negate the wonder of the narrative Moby-Dick is most well-known for. Explicitly, Ishmael tells these tales to educate his audience beyond disbelief, and to prevent that his readers “might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.” Beyond this purpose, however, Ishmael’s attempt to turn the story of Ahab and Moby Dick into banal fact effectively shifts that story from the center of his narrative into an elaborate frame for the true focus of his story — the whaling life fleshed out in full.
The second major difference between “The Affidavit” and other chapters of its kind is the I-swear-on-my-mother’s-grave tone Ishmael takes in his accounts of the incredible. Ishmael swears himself up and down this chapter, to the point where I, for one, stop believing him. At one point, for instance, Ishmael seeks to substantiate an account of a whale attack that he read in a book by claiming himself the nephew of the captain of the ship in question, and tells us that this uncle gave first-hand affirmation of the account.
To me, this roundabout, ad hoc fact-checking from Ishmael in “The Affidavit” somewhat transforms the novel itself into one giant chapter fleshing out perhaps the most essential aspect of the whaling life — storytelling. In the telling of a tale that would be utterly fantastical were it not so banal, that would seem pure fancy were it not the sworn truth of its teller, we find ourselves fully transported to a distant forecastle, in a distant ocean, in a distant time.
Chapter 45: The Affidavit
I’ll testify to the reverend’s holy words:
All truth told here. It’s your choice to believe it,
I’ve seen it thrice — embattled monsters torn
From dealing fateful blows, brought back after years gone by.
No simple brute — a thoughtful, malicious eye
Turns back assault, and stove in many leaders.
You will never be
Broken, lest irreverent
To powerful things
When you face them.
Haughty disbelievers knocked from donkeys
On the road to Damascus. It’s your choice to believe it.
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea October 1, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea October 4, 2009