Chapter 126: The Life-Buoy

But the bodings of the crew were destined to receive a most plausible confirmation in the fate of one of their number that morning.

The whole he can endure; at the parts he balks.

The moment the Pequod enters the fishing grounds wherein Ahab expects to find Moby Dick, all events turn toward death. First, strange ghostly cries of seals haunt the men as if “the voices of newly drowned men in the sea.” Then, a man in the mast-head falls to his death, the life-buoy thrown to him hopefully by the crew sinking after him like a second corpse. Finally, as if our attentions could not be directed more bluntly to death, Ahab orders the carpenter to turn Queequeg’s unused coffin into a new life-buoy.

However, these events don’t affect the crew as they might otherwise, “for they regarded it, not as a foreshadowing of evil in the future, but as a fulfillment of an evil already presaged.” We too, as readers, are getting used to this feeling, because it presents itself as much in the beginning of the tale as in the middle or end. Everyone, in fact can accept these events as necessarily tragic components of a greater narrative, except Starbuck and the carpenter.

Starbuck, in all his ceremony, cannot stomach the symbolism of turning a coffin into a life-buoy. The carpenter mocks him for his silliness, painfully unpacking the uncomfortable symbolism for the mate in detailed questions about how he should perform the task. The carpenter cannot stomach the insult of Ahab asking a craftsman to “cobble” one creation into another. As a craftsman, the carpenter instead prefers “something that regularly begins at the beginning, and is at the middle when midway, and comes to an end at the conclusion; not a cobbler’s job, that’s at an end in the middle, and at the beginning at the end.”

With these words one can’t help but think of Moby-Dick — with its end at the beginning and its beginning at the end and such — and of the writer as craftsman. The carpenter’s remarks seem silly to our modern taste both for material reuse and for fractured narrative, but were perhaps the dominant perspective of the nineteenth century. I wonder if in these somewhat pompous statements lays a preemptive criticism of the criticism Melville expected of his book from the mainstream, or perhaps a self-deprecating acknowledgment of the intricate density of his creation, not to mention its morbid aspects. Either way, the degree to which this self-consciousness is unnecessary for present day readers provides yet another reminder that Moby-Dick was so aggressively ahead of its time.

Chapter 126: The Life-Buoy

Now off we sail to the cursed hunting grounds
Accompanied by the most unearthly sounds,
Baby seals, lost and found,
And their mothers searching ’round.

The first event in the dark preceding dawn,
A sudden death to the first advancing pawn.
Sunken men tell no tale,
And the life-buoy did fail.

And oh!, hide your look;
The day-to-day often took your breath
But no shudder shook
From abstractions of this book.

He tells the mate to replace the buoy lost
And though the mate knows that death is never crossed
And survived, never-mind,
Make that coffin float in kind.

And oh!, hide your look;
The day-to-day often took your breath
But no shudder shook
From abstractions of this book.

The carpenter is a forward-facing man;
He sees the task as a step-by-step demand.
Starbuck balks, the details bore,
And he ponders God once more.

And oh!, hide your look;
The day-to-day often took your breath
But no shudder shook
From abstractions of this book.

(c) and (p) 2010 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 5, 2010
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea March 19, 2011

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