Fired by the cry which seemed simultaneously taken up by the three look-outs, the men on deck rushed to the rigging to behold the famous whale they had so long been pursuing.
In “The Chase — First Day,” the crew (and we as readers) finally get to see Moby Dick, who before this point has existed to them (and to us) as no more than a symbol — Ahab’s arbitrary (inasmuch as the letter “a” is arbitrary) physical carrier of some attached meaning. One can imagine a good deal of shift in the crew when given the chance to form their own impressions of the whale, to see it for themselves and attach their own meanings to the object now in direct observation. One can also imagine, as with the letter “a,” no shift at all, but rather a cementing of an already learned and agreed upon significance.
Of course, we only get Ishmael’s experience here, which falls into the former category while also illuminating the latter. Ishmael sees Moby Dick as a gentle giant, a god of grace and love, more magnificent than Jove himself “with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns.” Ishmael’s vision of Moby Dick is certainly influenced in part by his vision of white ocean birds circling Moby Dick as he glides through the water. When Moby Dick dives, the birds “longingly lingered over the agitated pool that he left.” Ishmael’s personification of the birds turns the entire image into something of a pastoral, an idyllic and joyous harmony viewed from the outside. Ahab and crew seem alien to a landscape painted thus.
Ahab himself echoes this sentiment in his later frustration with Stubb’s and Starbuck’s reactions to Moby DIck’s destruction of Ahab’s boat: “ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!” Interestingly, all this serves to invest Moby Dick with a grandiosity that surpasses even Ahab’s own investment. People understand people; people understand gods — not only are they fundamental aspects of our beings, they are aspects we tend to keep closest to the human experience. But what of nature itself, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of humanity, but often the most denied? Have we alienated ourselves from nature to the point that harmony stands apart from us as the biggest mystery of all? Perhaps herein lies the everything and the nothing of Moby DIck.
Chapter 133: The Chase — First Day
(There she blows!) In every noble heart, an island,
(There she blows!) Dense with every woe a lesser man could feel,
And his island has breeched in the heart of the sea
With the heavens above and a mystery beneath —
Birds aloft in joyous contemplation.
(There she blows!) A gentle Jupiter, admired,
(There she blows!) A pinion of serenity
Set to work on the heart of a merciless hand
That is raised, nonetheless, in the folly of man,
Peace becomes a just and natural torrent.
And he raised our boat in rows of ivory teeth,
Then he made a safe retreat.
(There she blows!) If gods would speak, it won’t be omen
(There she blows!) That they choose, in all omnipotence, to bear
Any deafening will that a god could command
From the power of all to the weakness of man —
Sails aloft, I speak but from an island;
Sails aloft, I speak in open sea.
(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 9, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea July 3, 2010