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Another one of my favorite chapters today — “A Bosom Friend” — and it’s read by the marvelous British actor Stephen Fry. (Don’t be jealous: I’ve got tickets to see Fry play Malvolio in London later this fall. Okay — be jealous.)

Queequeg, who was at the Whaleman’s Chapel, has beaten Ishmael home, and Ishmael finds him in their room contemplating his “little negro idol,” Yojo, and then thumbing through a bound book, marveling at all the pages it contains. Ishmael meanwhile contemplates Queequeg, and (with a nod to the nineteenth-century “science” of phrenology) decides that his roommate is “George Washington cannibalistically developed.” Soon, Ishmael finds himself experiencing ” strange feelings”: “I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it.”

Before long, Queequeg is declaring that the two of them are “married, meaning in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be.” Ishmael receives Queequeg’s “embalmed head” as a wedding present, and the two have a smoke together before Queequeg takes out his idol. Ishmael sees what’s coming and wonders what he should do:

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth — pagans and all included — can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? — to do the will of God — that is worship. And what is the will of God? — to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me — that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. But we did not go to sleep without some little chat.

Ishmael’s comic reasoning here is not unlike his earlier rationalization, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” in the “Spouter-Inn” chapter. Here he decides that following the Golden Rule means “turn[ing] idolator.” The fault in Ishmael’s reasoning, of course, is that the golden rule is actually the second most important law according to Jesus. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus is asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” His response:

[37] Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. [38] This is the first and great commandment. [39] And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. [40] On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Ishmael conveniently forgets the first law in calling attention to the second. Melville is having fun at the expense of Presbyterians to be sure, but this passage is also a great statement about cosmopolitan toleration. Should we take it seriously given its comic setting?

We leave Queequeg and Ishmael in bed, chatting like an old married couple: “Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg — a cosy, loving pair.” Yes, the chapter is full of homosocial overtones. There are more to come.

The provocative illustration for today’s reading (shown above) is David Noonan’s Untitled (2007; collaged linen; 150 × 106.5c). Visit the site to see a high-resolution version.

[Cross-posted with patell.org]

What a treat today! Veteran British stage actor Simon Callow reading “The Sermon,” in which Ishmael listens to Father Mapple’s retelling of the story of Jonah. Mapple reminds the congregation that the Book of Jonah is brief, “containing only four chapters — four yarns,” making it “one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures.” Mapple’s version is a long elaboration of these three verses:

[1] Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, [2] Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. [3] But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

Mapple’s retelloing of the yarn of Jonah and the whale is full of contemporary details intended to make the story more vivid to a mid-nineteenth-century audience. The Biblical verses span eighty-three words; Mapple’s is longer than 2,200 words. But his account of the book is curiously incomplete. Mapple continues the story through Jonah’s deliverance from the whale and then cuts it off, telling us that Jonah’s is story about sin and repentance:

For sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look towards His holy temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.

Actually, that’s not quite what we find in the King James version of the story, which Melville knew. Jonah is actually a big complainer, and there’s a second half of the story after he’s delivered from the whale’s belly. In chapter 3, Jonah does indeed go to preach doom and destruction to Nineveh, and then complains bitterly in the fourth and final chapter because God decides to spare city. Jonah seems to feel that he’s been made to look ridiculous, but the lesson that God wants him to learn is less about repentance than forgiveness.

Mapple leaves out that part of the story and instead enacts Jonah’s narcissism himself. He claims that the story of Jonah teaches one thing to “all sinners” but another to him, Mapple, who seems himself as an “anointed pilot-prophet” like Jonah. The end of the chapter always reminds me of the anguished minister Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s great novel The Scarlet Letter, who preaches a sermon that arises from his sense of his own literal sinfulness rather than the metaphorical or rhetorical sinfulness that his parishoners believe him to be evoking. Mapple’s sermon turns out to be about his own personal struggles, much as the voyage of Ahab’s ship will turn out to be about his own personal anguish. I love Mapple’s final words, though I’m still not sure I fully understand them:

“And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath — O Father! — chiefly known to me by Thy rod — mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing; I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?”

The illustration for today’s reading  (shown above) is an engimatic, perhaps ironic commentary on the text. It’s by Susan Hiller and called Witness 2000: International testimonies or experiences of transmissions from other worlds. Visit the site to see a high-resolution version.

[Cross-posted with patell.org]

In today’s chapter, Ishmael watches “the famous Father Mapple” ascend the pulpit. This particular pulpit is shaped like the prow of a ship and, instead of stairs, it features “a perpendicular side ladder, like those used in mounting a ship from a boat at sea.” What does it mean that, after Mapple climbs up, he “deliberately drag[s] up the ladder step by step, till the whole was deposited within, leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec”? (Melville had seen Quebec’s fortress on his honeymoon in 1847.) How should this gesture affect the way in which we listen to the sermon that Mapple gives in the next chapter?

In the final paragraph of the chapter, Ishmael offers us an allegorical reading of Mapple’s pulpit:

What could be more full of meaning? — for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.

But is he being serious? Does he really believe that “the pulpit is this earth’s foremost part,” or is he being ironic? And, if he is serious, is suggesting that the world should be led by the pulpit or is he merely diagnosing the state of things?

As we read, we’ll be tempted to understand many things allegorically. The novel seems to invite it. I’d suggest caution.

Today’s chapter is read by Nick Atkinson and illustrated both with a picture of the pulpit in the Seaman’s Bethel and a still (shown above) from John Huston’s film version of the novel, which featured Orson Welles as Father Mapple. (In the later film adaptation of the novel starring Patrick Stewart, Mapple would be played by Gregory Peck, who played Ahab in Huston’s version.) Visit the site to see the illustrations.

[Cross-posted with patell.org]

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Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — one of our Writing New York TAs, Meg Hammond, wrote an excellent analysis of this chapter in which she proposed that it could be used as an interpretive prism for the novel as a whole. To find out more about her argument and read some other sundry thoughts about the chapter, take a look at this post over at patell.org.

The chapter is marvelously rendered by Keith Collins, complete with appropriate sound effects. The visual accompaniment today is a silkscreen print by Oliver Clegg entitled THE QUESTION IS NOT WHAT U LOOK AT BUT WHAT YOU SEE
 (2008; 90 x 120cm
silkscreen print on cartridge paper). It was photographed by Nicole Heiniger and is provided to the “Big Read” 
courtesy of the artist. Visit the site to see it in high resolution.

In today’s reading, Ishmael takes to “The Street,” wandering around New Bedford and marveling at the variety of people that he sees. The chapter paves the way for Ishmael’s later assertion in “The Advocate” that “the cosmopolite philosopher cannot, for his life, point out one single peaceful influence, which within the last sixty years has operated more potentially upon the whole broad world, taken in one aggregate, than the high and mighty business of whaling.” In the streets of New Bedford, he finds an unparalleled collection of people from around the world that easily outstrips London or New York:

In thoroughfares nigh the docks, any considerable seaport will frequently offer to view the queerest looking nondescripts from foreign parts. Even in Broadway and Chestnut streets, Mediterranean mariners will sometimes jostle the affrighted ladies. Regent street is not unknown to Lascars and Malays; and at Bombay, in the Apollo Green, live Yankees have often scared the natives. But New Bedford beats all Water street and Wapping. In these last-mentioned haunts you see only sailors; but in New Bedford, actual cannibals stand chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh. It makes a stranger stare.

The chapter is read by veteran New Yorker copy editor and blogger Mary Norris. The wonderful representation of Queequeg (2010) is by Timothy Woodman (45 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in. , oil paint on aluminum) and is courtesy of the Albert Merola Gallery, Provincetown, MA, USA. Visit the site to see it in higher resolution.

[Cross-posted with patell.org]

Today’s chapter is “Breakfast,” in which Ishmael watches Queequeg eschew “coffee and hot rolls” in favor of rare beefsteaks, “grappling the beefsteaks towards him” across the table with his harpoon.

But, first, Ishmael tells us that he “cherishe[s] no malice towards,” Peter Coffin, even though his “grinning landlord … had been skylarking with me not a little in the matter of my bedfellow.” Ishmael here uses the rhetorical figure litotes, a form of understatement that uses the negation of a negative to create emphasis, in the phrase “skylarking with me not a little” — meaning “skylarking a lot.” The use of understatement is typical of the humor of this chapter, in which Queequeg’s outlandish behavior is rendered as if it were banal, and of the book as a whole. And the idea of affirming through negation is typical as well of Ishmael’s epistemological method in the book, often sidling up to a truth with great verbosity rather than meeting it head on. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism in a world of cannibals and predatory white whales. The chapter lightly sounds a theme that will become important as the novel progress: adopting a comic view of the world as a counterweight to Ahab’s brooding fatalism.

Today’s image is Nourish (1984) by Boyd Webb. Visit the site to see a higher resolution version. The chapter is read by Musa Okwonga, a writer, poet, broadcaster, and musician, who blogs for the Independent.

[Cross-posted with patell.org]

An American joins the crew! Today’s chapter, “The Counterpane,” is read by Caleb Crain, who wrote the chapter entitled “The Early Literature of New York’s Moneyed Class” for Bryan’s and my Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York City. Caleb is a contributor to the New Yorker and is the author of a wonderful monograph on the portrayal of friendship in nineteenth-century US literature, American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation. It’s appropriate, therefore, that he read the chapter in which the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg begins to take root.

“The Counterpane” opens with Ishmael waking to find “Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.” The chapter continues to explore the idea of cosmopolitan toleration with which the previous chapter concludes. Somewhat hurriedly, perhaps, Ishmael rationalized his situation (sharing a bed with a cannibal harpooner):

“You gettee in,” [Queequeg] added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself — the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

The chapter suggests, however, that Ishmael may have more qualms than he’s letting on. In addition to some vaguely Orientalist, slightly patronizing language about “these savages,” Ishmael tells a strange Gothic-tinged anecdote about sleeping in a strange bed when he was a boy:

For several hours I lay there broad awake, feeling a great deal worse than I have ever done since, even from the greatest subsequent misfortunes. At last I must have fallen into a troubled nightmare of a doze; and slowly waking from it — half steeped in dreams — I opened my eyes, and the before sun-lit room was now wrapped in outer darkness. Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside. For what seemed ages piled on ages, I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears, not daring to drag away my hand; yet ever thinking that if I could but stir it one single inch, the horrid spell would be broken. I knew not how this consciousness at last glided away from me; but waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it.

Signs of an unsettled subconscious, perhaps?

The chapter concludes with an account of Queequeg’s toilet and concludes as we watch as the harpooner “proudly marched out of the room, wrapped up in his great pilot monkey jacket, and sporting his harpoon like a marshal’s baton.”

The illustration for today is appropriately layered, given the subject of the chapter. It’s a photo by Zen Sekizawa of a bed by Pae White courtesy of courtesy of the gallery neugerriemschneider in Berlin. The title of the object is California King (2006; 83 inches tall x 78 inches wide x 88 inches deep; material: Baltic birch plywood). Visit the site for a higher resolution image.

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Today’s chapter is one of our favorites: “The Spouter-inn.” To find out why I like it, take a look at my post over at patell.org. The chapter is read by author, screenwriter, and playwright Nigel Williams. It clocks in at a little under 35 minutes and gathers steam as Williams read through the chapter’s slapstick conclusion. Enjoy!

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Today’s reading is “The Carpet-Bag,” the wonderful chapter in which Ishmael “quit[s] the good city of old Manhatto” in which the first chapter was set and “duly arrive[s]” in the whaling town of New Bedford. Disappointed that he can’t go directly to Nantucket, his intended destination, Ishmael “pace[s] the streets” with “halting steps,” looking for a place to stay. The names aren’t promising: “The Crossed Harpoons,” “Sword-Fish Inn,” “The Trap,” and “The Spouter Inn.” Which will he choose and why? Listen to the reading by Capt. Robert N. Hone, who is Lecturer in Nautical Studies, School of Marine Science and Engineering at Plymouth University in the UK.

I’ve also taken the liberty of reproducing a small version of today’s artwork, Cape-Horner in a great Hurricane by Clara Drummond (oil on board, January 2012). Visit the site to see the vivid piece in higher resolution. (Click on the image when you get there.)

[Cross-posted with patell.org; thanks to the commenter who pointed us to Capt. Hone’s biographical information.]

Readers of PWHNY know that Bryan and I have a thing for Melville’s Moby-Dick. And apparently we’re not alone.

Today is the first day of the “Moby-Dick Big Read,” sponsored by Plymouth University in the UK in conjunction with the Plymouth International Book Festival. According to the website, the project “grew out of the Peninsula Arts Whale Festival (2011) and was conceived and curated by Philip Hoare (winner of the 2009 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction for Leviathan or, the Whale) and the acclaimed artist, Angela Cockayne, whose exhibition, Dominon, also held at Peninsula Arts in 2011, provided vital inspiration.”

Starting today, the site will feature a chapter of Melville’s novel recorded by some well-known as well as not-so-well-known readers. I’m not sure what it means that a bunch of Brits are reading what the site calls “the Great Amertican Novel,” but it sure was fun to hear “Loomings” read Tilda Swinton, with her oh-so-plummmy English accent. Enjoy it below. We’ll embed each day’s chapter here on PWHNY, and you can also subscribe to the series as a podcast on iTunes.

Visit the site itself to see the piece of artwork chosen to accompany the day’s chapter.

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