Chapter 122: Midnight Aloft — Thunder and Lightning

It would be easy to begin and end our thinking about “Midnight Aloft” by dismissing it entirely as racist, not to mention short and fully unimportant to the story. Tashtego, the Pequod’s Native American harpooneer finds himself repairing some lashing at the top of a mast in the middle of a lightning storm. Needless to say, climbing the ship’s lightning rod in a storm must be the least-applied-for job on the boat, and though we don’t know who assigned Tashtego this particular duty, we can assume the orders came from the same mates who thought Ahab totally crazy for grabbing these lightning rods a couple of chapters previous.

Though I recognize the choice may be incidental, I couldn’t help but to ask myself: if only a matter of race, why did the mates send Tashtego up the mast and not Queequeg or Daggoo? Do we as readers see in this choice a stereotype of the Native American as elemental? Perhaps, but we should also remember Stubb’s words one chapter prior: “What’s the mighty difference between holding a mast’s lightning-rod in a storm, and standing close by a mast that hasn’t got any lightning rod at all in a storm?” Maybe our race-attuned modern minds should recognize “Midnight Aloft” as a racially problematic presentation of Native Americans, but also look deeper into what might be Ishmael’s intention in including such a strange chapter — offering a vivid illustration of how Ahab’s supposedly great act of defiance is regularly performed as an unpleasant but routine and endured assignment in the life of a sailor.

Chapter 122: Midnight Aloft — Thunder and Lightning

Um, um, um.
Um, um, um.
Every snowflake in the winter,
Every lightning bolt in spring,
Every gift the Earth is given,
Is given unto me. (Given unto me!)

Um, um, um.
Um, um, um.
At the bottom of the order,
Every dangerous task in need
Is given unto me. (Given unto me!)

The sky, undone,
Daggers flashing off and on.

And I sway,
Dearly clung
To the lightning rod.

Um, um, um.
Um, um, um.
When the white man touched the metal,
That would bring the lightning nigh,
Well, you thought the man defiant
And crazy, by and by. (Crazy, by and by!)

But you sent me to the rigging,
Climbing to the sky! (Climbing to the sky!)

Um, um, um.
Um, um, um.

(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 30, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea June 19, 2010

Published in: on July 18, 2010 at 12:38 pm  Comments (2)  
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