Events

You are currently browsing the archive for the Events category.

Chapter-126-lifejacket-1-wood-harrison

The Pequod, “steering now south-eastward by Ahab’s levelled steel, and her progress solely determined by Ahab’s level log and line” is now seemingly all alone in “unfrequented waters” as she heads toward the Equator, and the mild seas strike the jittery crew as “the strange calm things preluding some riotous and desperate scene.” When strange sounds are heard across the water, the crew is all too ready to believe the old Manxman’s declaration that they are “the voices of newly drowned men in the sea.” For a change, it is Ahab — rather than, say, Stubb — who offers a rational explanation based on long experience.

But then calamity strikes: at sun-rise one of the sailors goes “from his hammock to his mast-head at the fore; and whether it was that he was not yet half waked from his sleep (for sailors sometimes go aloft in a transition state), whether it was thus with the man, there is now no telling; but, be that as it may, he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard — a cry and a rushing — and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.” The life-buoy is tossed overboard, but “no hand rose to seize it.” Moreover, like the log before it, the cask has been spoiled by the sun and sinks.

Ishmael’s narrative voice intones: “And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whale’s own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep.” (I love that sentence.)

Signs and portents. But is the crewman’s death the fulfillment of signs and portents — predicted by the strange sounds heard earlier — or is the event itself a sign of worse things to come?

In any case, a new life-buoy is needed, but no suitable “cask of sufficient lightness” can be found. And then “by certain strange signs and inuendoes Queequeg hinted a hint concerning his coffin.” And so a coffin is transformed by the carpenter into a life-buoy.

Life from death? Is that a sign and a portent? We’ll see.

“The Life-Buoy” is read by Paul Minot of Bath Spa University. The accompanying image, Lifejacket,  is by John Wood & Paul Harrison.

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

 

Tags:

Chapter-125-theo-jansen-rev

After Ahab destroys his quadrant, he declares that “‘the level ship’s compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me, and show me my place on the sea. Aye,’ lighting from the boat to the deck, ‘thus I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee!’”

“Level dead-reckoning, by log and by line” was an old method of determining a ship’s speed at sea. The term “log” is a misnomer, which Ishmael suggests by referring to the apparatus as “the wooden reel and angular log” attached hung.” The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in the UK has a model of a log and line:

logandline-rmg-uk

Here’s how the museum describes its use:

The log-reel, line, log-ship and sand-glass were used for determining a ship’s speed. To do this, the log-ship was dropped overboard and the line was allowed to pay out from the log-reel for a set time from the sand-glass (28 seconds). As the line paid out the number of knots in the line that passed through the hand was counted, thus giving a measure of the ship’s speed. Both the reel and log-ship are made of wood. The reel is constructed so that it is free to spin when held by the handles. The log-ship is in the shape of a section of a circle and is weighted on its curved edge. It is attached to the line with a pin and socket. When the line was to be pulled in, a sharp tug would pull out the pin, allowing the log-ship to lie flat in the water so that it could be pulled in more easily. The sand-glass has a brass case with ‘28 SEC’ stamped into each end. The log and line was first described by William Bourne in 1574 and was used for measuring ship’s speed into the 20th century, although mechanical speed logs were introduced from the 19th century.

The following pictures of the log and line come from Duane Cline’s The Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony: 1620 website:

logln

lineinuse

Log and line dead reckoning was often used in conjunction with a quadrant to chart the ship’s position in between quadrant sightings. You could just use the log and line with a compass instead, the compass giving you your direction and dead reckoning giving you your speed. But that method was comparatively inaccurate and couldn’t correct for such conditions as the strength of the following sea, sideways currents, stretching of the line, or inaccuracies in reading the sandglass. In
“The Musket,” Starbuck thinks about Ahab’s decision-making, asking himself, “Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant? and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?” Ahab’s destruction of the quadrant is one of the acts that suggests to Starbuck that Ahab is unfit for command and leading the Pequod to its doom.

In “The Needle,” another of Ahab’s tools is compromised: the compass. And here the next tool proves compromised as well. Ahab refuses to believe the old Manxman’s declaration that “long heat and wet have spoiled” the line, but the Manxman is right: the line snaps and the log is lost. Ahab simply orders another one to be made, blaming the loss of the log on the “mad sea.”

But the conclusion of the chapter suggests that it’s the madness of the captain that we should be worried about. Here Ishmael gives us a moment that recalls Shakespeare’s King Lear during the storm, as Ahab regards the mad cabin-boy Pip with the same compassion that Lear offers to his fool. Pip identifies with the log: both went overboard and both are lost at sea, for, as far as Pip is concerned, “Pip” never returned after being cast away. Pip’s condition becomes yet another grievance that Ahab charges to the powers that be:

“Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart- strings. Come, let’s down.”

“What’s this? here’s velvet shark-skin, intently gazing at Ahab’s hand, and feeling it. Ah, now, had poor Pip but felt so kind a thing as this, perhaps he had ne’er been lost! This seems to me, Sir, as a man-rope; something that weak souls may hold by. Oh, Sir, let old Perth now come and rivet these two hands together; the black one with the white, for I will not let this go.”

“Oh, boy, nor will I thee, unless I should thereby drag thee to worse horrors than are here. come, then, to my cabin. Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude. Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor’s!”

The previous chapter ends with Ahab’s “fiery eyes” and “fatal pride.” This chapter begins with the Pequod called a “fated,” its fate seemingly determined by the madman who is its captain. But the chapter ends with a glimpse of Ahab’s humanity and the sense that Ahab, for all his flaws, is the champion of humankind against the powers that afflict it.

“The Log and Line” is read by Sheila Snelgrove, director of the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth. The accompanying image is a photograph by Uros Kirn of one of Theo Jansen‘s Strandbeests.

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

Tags:

Chapter-124-TessaFarmer

Unbeknownst to Ahab and his crew, the electrical storm through which the Pequod has just passed has reversed the polarity of the ship’s compass so that the Pequod is now sailing West — homeward — instead of East — toward Moby Dick. It’s as if nature itself is urging the ship to avoid encountering the white whale. Looking at the sun, Ahab realizes what has happened and remains undaunted. He fashions his own compass out of the tip of a lance and a needle, and it points in the right direction. The crew can’t believe it: “‘Look ye, for yourselves, if Ahab be not the lord of the level loadstone! The sun is East, and that compass swears it!” The doubting Thomases look and find that Ahab speaks truly.

The chapter continues the association of Ahab with fire. At the outset, as the Pequod sails on a sea made golden by the sun’s light, Ahab likens the Pequod to the “sea-chariot of the sun” (which would make him Apollo). At the chapter’s end, Ishmael writes, “In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.” Fatal pride is the mark of a tragic hero. Is that what Ahab will turn out to be? Or is “hero” not quite the right word?

“The Needle” is read by Stephanie Boxall. The accompanying image, clay model, glass eye, plant roots, insect wings, hedgehog spine (2012) is by Tessa Farmer.

 

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

Tags:

Chapter-123-philp-hoareThis chapter poses a familiar ethical dilemma: is it morally acceptable to kill one man in order to save many?

The typhoon abates, new sails are reefed, and Starbuck goes down to Ahab’s cabin to inform the captain that they are back on course. On his way, he sees Ahab’s muskets and picks up the very one which Ahab threatened him some chapters back. And then he conceives what Ishmael describes as “an evil thought; but so blent with its neutral or good accompaniments that for the instant he hardly knew it for itself.”

Starbuck is absolutely certain that Ahab is leading the men to their deaths, that Ahab is destined to become “he wilful murderer of thirty men and more.” Starbuck can prevent that crime but only by becoming himself a criminal, committing mutiny or even murder. “A touch,” he thinks, and he “may survive to hug his wife and child again.”

Starbuck points the musket at Ahab’s door, and Ishmael writes that the mate “seemed wrestling with an angel.”

It’s not much of a spoiler to let you know that Starbuck doesn’t pull the trigger. But the question remains: was that the right thing to do?

“The Musket” is read by Nick Ryan. The accompanying image, Cape Apocalypse, Provincetown (2012) is by “Big Read” co-curator Philip Hoare.

 

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

Tags:

colter-jacobstenspouterinnsketchr-eexport

The shortest chapter in the book.

A two-sentence stage direction, followed by seven sentences. And three of those sentences are “Um, um, um” — barely sentences at all.

Tashtego, following Ahab’s orders, is “passing new lashings” around “the main-top-sail yard.” And wishing he had a glass of rum instead of thunder all around him. If we’re thinking about the pattern of chapters that followed “The Quarter-Deck,” we see that the three that follow “The Candles” are much shorter, as if the ship and the novel were running out of time. So perhaps it’s Ishmael’s little joke: instead of the long “Midnight, Forecastle” chapter that brought the harpooneers and sailors to center stage with final emphasis on the harpooneer Daggoo, we now get the very brief “”Midnight Aloft.—Thunder and Lightning” chapter, in which only the harpooneer Tashtego appears.

But, as it turns out, there’s a reason that Ishmael wants us to picture Tashtego at the very top of the mainmast. You’ll find out soon enough.

“Midnight Aloft.—Thunder and Lightning” is read by Max Goonetillake.  The accompanying image, The Spouter Inn, is Colter Jacobsen and is used courtesy of James Brett.

 

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

Tags:

Chapter-121-marcus-coates

In a version of the pattern that follows ”The Quarter-Deck,” Ishmael focuses our attention on Ahab and Starbuck in the previous chapter and shifts here to Stubb and Flask. Mostly Stubb, though, as it turns out.

The two of them seem to have been discussing Ahab’s refusal to lower the lightning rod. Flask seems to have thought that Ahab was taking a massive risk, standing by the mast without the safety of the rods being lowered. But Stubb points out that “not one ship in a hundred carries rods,” so Ahab was no less safe than the crews of all those other ships.”

It’s a bit of comic relief that reiterates Stubb’s jolly fatalism. In fact, it turns out to be the last bit of comic relief in the novel. The end is nigh.

“Midnight.—The Forecastle Bulwarks” is read by artist Robert Fearns, who teaches at Bath Spa University. The accompanying image, The Brick Agrochola circellaris (Hufnagel, 1766) (2010; Silver Gelatin Print; 31 x 25 cm) is by Marcus Coates and is used courtesy of the artist and Workplace Gallery, UK.

 

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

Tags:

Chapter-120-sarah-chapman

After the high drama of “The Candles,” we are given a mercifully brief chapter, “The Deck Towards the End of the First Night Watch,” as if the novel itself were exhausted by what has just occurred. Reinforcing the idea that “The Candles” parallels “The Quarter-Deck,” this chapter and the two that follow it are graced with stage directions, putting us once again temporarily in dramatic rather than novelistic mode.

There’s a gale blowing. Starbuck wants to strike the main-top-sail yard. Ahab wishes he had sky-sails to send up. He orders all the sails to be lashed to help keep them in place.

At this point, I doubt that any reader is surprised by these contrasting approaches.

“The Deck Towards the End of the First Night Watch” is read by Novar Cane.  The accompanying image is Horizon Line by Sarah Chapman, who is Director of Peninsula Arts in the Faculty of Arts at Plymouth University.

.

 

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

Tags:

Chapter-119-colin-crumplin-rev-cropped

“The Candles” is a momentous chapter in the novel, a restaging of the ritual conducted in “The Quarter-Deck,” designed to get the crew to reaffirm the oath it has sworn to hunt down and destroy Moby Dick. Ahab takes advantage of an incident of St. Elmo’s Fire (referred to in the chapter by the term “corpusants,” short for corpus sancti) to make himself seem invested with almost supernatural powers.

As the chapter begins, the calm of the Japanese seas is broken by a typhoon, and Ahab’s whaleboat is destroyed. An omen?

Plus, as Starbuck points out to Stubb, “the gale comes from the eastward, the very course Ahab is to run for Moby Dick … the very course he swung to this day.” Yet another omen?

It’s as if nature itself is telling the Pequod to turn around, and Starbuck realizes that the very wind that threatens to destroy them if they press forward can be the wind that saves them if they turn around and head for home:

“Yes, yes, round the Cape of Good Hope is the shortest way to Nantucket,’ soliloquized Starbuck suddenly … ‘The gale that now hammers at us to stave us, we can turn it into a fair wind that will drive us towards home. Yonder, to windward, all is blackness of doom; but to leeward, homeward — I see it lightens up there; but not with the lightning.”

Just then, as if sensing this mutinous thought, Ahab appears on deck — and so does the lightning. Starbucks wants to order that the lightning rods be lowered, but Ahab refuses, as if he senses the opportunity with which he is about to be presented:

All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tri-pointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.

“Blast the boat! let it go!” cried Stubb at this instant, as a swashing sea heaved up under his own little craft, so that its gunwale violently jammed his hand, as he was passing a lashing. ‘Blast it!’ — but slipping backward on the deck, his uplifted eyes caught the flames; and immediately shifting his tone, he cried — “The corpusants have mercy on us all!”

The crew is “enchanted,” mesmerized by the sight of the masts lit up like “three spermaceti candles” (as Stubb puts it). Meanwhile, Fedallah is once again kneeling before Ahab, who now reveals the source of the scar that so transfixed Ishmael in the “Ahab” chapter:

“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whencesoe’er I came; wheresoe’er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”

Ahab’s scar, it turns out to be the result of a religious ritual, though — contrary to the expectations that Ishmael’s initial description created (with its images of crucifixion) — it is a ritual that belongs to the Zoroastrian rather than the Christian tradition.

In an article entitled “Cosmopolitanism and Zoroastrianism in Moby-Dick,” which appears in the volume The Turn Around Religion in America (edited by Michael Kramer and Nan Goodman), I’ve argued that Zoroastrianism is one of the wedges that the novel uses to crack open the Christian tradition and to promote a cosmopolitan perspective that sets it odds with mainstream nineteenth-century U.S. culture and indeed with U.S. culture now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. For this reason, Moby-Dick is what I refer to as an emergent text: it represents set of cultural values that are “new” in comparison to the dominant cultural values of its time and ours. Paradoxically, it is, in part, its invocation of an ancient religious tradition that enables Moby-Dick to position itself in this way.

Many whalemen sailed from the Atlantic to the Pacific in Ahab’s day, but by worshipping as a Persian, Ahab, like a cosmopolite philosopher, crosses not only the physical but also the cultural gulf between west and east. At some point in his voyages, he has met Fedallah, who refers to himself as Ahab’s “pilot” (as we saw in “The Whale Watch“) and with whom Ahab has developed a relationship that remains mysterious to Ishmael, in part because it is not quite clear who holds sway over whom.

Ahab addresses “the clear spirit of fire” in a long monologue, marked as a soliloquy by the italicized stage directions that interrupt it. Starbuck, attuned to Ahab’s blasphemy, notices that Ahab’s specially made harpoon, still attached to his blasted boat, now burns like the masts: “from the keen steel barb there now came a levelled flame of pale, forked fire.”Starbuck takes this as an ill-omen and takes up the idea that he first broached to Stubb:  “As the silent harpoon burned there like a serpent’s tongue, Starbuck grasped Ahab by the arm—’God, God is against thee, old man; forbear! ’tis an ill voyage! ill begun, ill continued; let me square the yards, while we may, old man, and make a fair wind of it homewards, to go on a better voyage than this.’”

Ahab, however, is undaunted: he manages to manipulate the moment, to take control of this “preternatural” natural phenomenon and transform it into a ritual that enables him to remind the crewmen of the oath they have sworn to hunt down Moby Dick:

“All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine; and heart, soul, and body, lungs and life, old Ahab is bound. And that ye may know to what tune this heart beats; look ye here; thus I blow out the last fear!” And with one blast of his breath he extinguished the flame.

The crew is appalled by Ahab’s show of power, and Ishmael ends the chapter with a vivid image: “As in the hurricane that sweeps the plain, men fly the neighborhood of some lone, gigantic elm, whose very height and strength but render it so much the more unsafe, because so much the more a mark for thunderbolts; so at those last words of Ahab’s many of the mariners did run from him in a terror of dismay.”

“The Candles” is read by Provincetown musician Mary Martin, who plays the ukelele to accompany her reading.  The accompanying image is Wave (1997; acrylic and oil paint on canvas; 178×178) by Colin Crumplin.

 

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

Tags:

 

Chapter-118-volker-eichelmann

 

In this chapter, the Pequod is cruising the Japanese sea with its “unblinkingly vivid Japanese sun” when Ahab gives the order to turn the ship toward the equator, in what he and the sailors hope will be their final approach to an encounter with Moby Dick. Each day Ahab pulls out his quadrant in order “to determine his latitude” precisely.

The quadrant, so-called because its shape is one-quarter of a circle, was first developed by the ancient Egyptian scientist Ptolemy as an alternative to the astrolabe. Medieval Muslim astronomers refined the instrument, creating several different versions, including the horary quadrant, which was used to determine the precise times for prayer through observations of the sun or stars. Arab sailors used the quadrant to enable them to sail out of sight of land. They knew the latitudes of their destination ports and would sail until their ships were at the correct latitude and then turn to sail in a straight line along that latitude until they reached port. They generally used the star Polaris, because they knew its height above the horizon for particular latitudes.

quadrant_1767

As shown in the image to the right (which comes from New Collection of Voyages, Discoveries and Travels: Containing Whatever is Worthy of Notice in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America [ 1767]), the mariner’s quadrant had two sights along one straight edge, with a plumb bob hanging down from the corner. Lines of latitude were marked along the curved edge. Arab sailors would align the quadrant with Polaris and the plumb bob would indicate the latitude at which the ship was sailing. You can imagine that it was a difficult feat to determine latitude accurately on the deck of a ship that is swaying with the waves.

Later sailors would align the quadrant with the sun in order to determine latitude during the day, making blindness an occupational hazard among navigators. It’s for this reason that, as Ishmael notes, Ahab’s “quadrant was furnished with colored glasses, through which to take sight of that solar fire.” As Ahab gazes towar

d the sun, Fedallah, the Parsee, kneels and gazes at Ahab.

As in “The Chart,” Ahab is using the scientific tools available to sailors to try to determine the whereabouts of Moby Dick. But he becomes frustrated by the limited knowledge that the quadrant can provide:

Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more! Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with thy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun! Level by nature to this earth’s horizon are the glances of man’s eyes; not shot from the crown of his head, as if God had meant him to gaze on his firmament. Curse thee, thou quadrant!’ dashing it to the deck, ‘no longer will I guide my earthly way by thee; the level ship’s compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me, and show me my place on the sea. Aye,’ lighting from the boat to the deck, ‘thus I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee!’

Ahab foreswears science and ra

tionalism, which point him toward the heavens but provide no revelations. Science cannot predict the future or reveal fate, and so, in destroying the quadrant, Ahab enters into his final fatalistic phrase, muttering, “Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.”

A strange expression crosses Fedallah’s face: “a sneering triumph that seemed meant for Ahab, and a fatalistic despair that seemed meant for himself.” Thinking back to the predictions of the previous chapter, one wonders: Does this mean that Fedallah has somehow ensnared Ahab but at great cost to himself? Is Fedallah indeed a manifestation of Mephistopheles? Or is he something more?

“The Quadrant” is read by journalist and essayist Horatio Morpurgo. The accompanying image, Untitled (2012;  watercolour, gouache & acrylic on paper, 100 x 70cm) is by Volker Eichelmann and is used courtesy of the artist and Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna. Visit the Big Read” site to see a high resolution version. The illustration of the quadrant  comes from the online Mariner’s Museum, which offers many useful facts about the history of maritime exploration.

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

Tags:

chap-117-screenshot

For some years, never mind how many precisely, I taught Moby-Dick in the context of an NYU MAP course called “Conversations of the West.” That set of courses typically spent the first half of the term on readings from the Biblical and Classical traditions and the second half of the term on texts from one of the following periods: medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Nineteenth Century. Here’s the officail description of “Conversations of the West” courses:

Through exploration of contrasting and complementary works in the humanities from different periods, Conversations of the West provides a historical, literary, and philosophical context for education in the liberal arts. . . .
The classes share a concern with some of the ancient civilizations that have shaped the development of cultures in the West.

Conversations of the West is not a survey, but rather an examination of how texts influence subsequent thinking, create traditions, and reflect societal ideals. Conversations of the West thus aims to provide a richer understanding of how cultures are constructed, modified, and represented.

For years, I’d discussed doing an “American” version of the course, and when I finally did mount one, I pitched it as an adaptation of the Nineteenth-Century version of the course, with a single major text — Moby-Dick — serving as a synecdoche for of nineteenth-century American literature. I imagined my course as a late-model, self-conscious version of the “ConWest” courses, in which the principles of construction of the courses would be interrogated.

Here’s my course description:

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is widely thought to be one of the greatest masterpieces of American, and indeed Western, literature. This genre-defying book mixes comic, tragic, and epic modes as it wrestles with questions about the relationship between free will and fate that have tantalized humankind from antiquity to the present. By studying Melville’s engagement with his classical and biblical inheritances, we seek to understand the sources of the cosmopolitan vision from which his novel springs. If Moby-Dick is “the Great American Novel,” then what does that tell us about the nature of “America”? From what kind of “America” does Moby-Dick arise, and how different is that “America” from the one that the novel seeks to promote?

My approach to the early texts would be unabashedly presentist: the point was to examine what “good” those Classical and Biblical texts were to Melville — and what “good” Melville’s novel is to us today. To open the idea of “Biblical and Classical” traditions up to scrutiny, I added a tradition that was an antecedent to both: Zoroastrianism. And to make a Melvillean bridge between all of those early traditions and Melville’s literary moment, I’d add a couple of plays by Shakespeare: always Hamlet, but occasionally also Lear, Macbeth, or Othello.

“The Whale Watch” is an exemplary chapter, therefore, for my purposes because it demonstrates the relevance of both Zoroastrianism and Shakespeare to a reading of Moby-Dick. Fedallah, Ahab’s harpooneer, is a “Parsee.” Click on the word “Parsee” in the word cloud that accompanies the chapter on the “Big Reads” site and you get these Google results, which include the following definition from Wikipedia: “A Parsi or Parsee (pron.: /?p?rsi?/) is a member of the larger of the two Zoroastrian communities in the Indian subcontinent, a member of the other being an Irani.”

Meanwhlle, this chapter, which describes three prophecies that Fedallah makes concerning Ahab’s fate, should (at least in retrospect) remind us of the prophetic speeches of the witches in Macbeth.

Ahab tells Fedallah, “I have dreamed it again,” referring to a recurring dream about hearses. Fedallah first replies: “Have I not said, old man, that neither hearse nor coffin can be thine?” He then adds, enigmatically: “But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.” Ahab quite naturally believes that “such a sight we shall not soon see,” much as Macbeth believes that the witches’ prophecy in Act IV Scene i of Macbeth that “for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” means that he cannot be killed in battle.

Fedallah then prophesies, “Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot.” Ahab interprets this statement to mean something like before he, Ahab, can die, Fedallah must die first and then still rise to pilot him. Another impossibility.

Finally, Fedallah predicts, “Hemp only can kill thee.” Ahab interprets this to mean that he can only die on the gallows, which will not happen on sea: “‘The gallows, ye mean. — I am immortal then, on land and on sea,’ cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision; — ‘Immortal on land and on sea!’” Of course, Macbeth also believed himself to be immortal on the basis of this statement from the witches: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill /
Shall come against him.”

The entire conversation takes place over the body of the whale that Ahab has killed in the last hunt, which is brought on board after Ahab’s last statement, the juxtaposition itself a seeming prophecy. But of what? That Ahab will kill Moby Dick? But remember that in the last chapter Ahab has compared himself to this very whale in its act of dying.

Prophecy and foreshadowing — tricky things indeed.

“The Whale Watch” is read by Dr. Routledge. The accompanying image, “Text of Chapter 117: The Whale Watch,” is an interactive word cloud (static version shown above) by i-DAT, composed of the text of the chapter and created using tagul.com. Visit the “Big Reads” site to see the interactive version.

 

 

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.

[Cross-posted with patell dot org]

Tags:

« Older entries § Newer entries »