As Bryan pointed out in last Monday’s post, Teju Cole’s novel Open City is about wandering: Cole’s Nigerian-American narrator, Julius, is a flâneur, both an observer and a participant in the life of the city, primarily New York, but also — for a set of chapters that rounds out the first half of the novel — Brussels.



The book, however, is much about conversation as it is about strolling the streets of the city, because Julius is constantly engaging in conversations with those that he meets. Conversation is the primary way in which Julius participates in the life of the city, and the conversations that he has are generally more than simple chat-chit. Instead, they are the kind of conversation that our colleague Kwame Anthony Appiah describes as a crucial component of any true cosmopolitanism.

Appiah thinks about conversation in a double way: first, “in its older meaning, of living together, association”; second, in its modern sense of talking with one another (see his Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers). We must learn to talk with another in order to learn how to live with one another. So these must be serious conversations in which we listen carefully to what other people have to say with the willingness to change our minds about something very important to us if we found that our partner in conversation has a better idea or way of thinking than we do. We are, after all, fallible beings, so we need constantly to be on the lookout for ways either to correct errors in our modes of thinking of behavior or simply to improve them.

That embrace of cosmopolitan conversation strikes me as one of the primary characteristics of Cole’s novel. Julius frequently reproduces conversations that turn out to provide the opportunity for both him and us to hear other people’s points of view and stories at length. Sometimes (as in the case of the conversation with the bootblack that Bryan discussed) Julius doesn’t even comment on what he’s heard, letting us judge things for ourselves. Usually, however, the conversation will prove to have some kind of resonance later on.

Cosmopolitanism is about being willing to cross boundaries and to embrace difference — not to close or eradicate the gaps between peoples but to bridge them. I like the Brussels section of the novel precisely because Cole suddenly crosses the conceptual boundaries that he seemed to have set up for the novel, which up until this point has been about exploring New York and exploring the self — more precisely, exploring New York as a way of exploring the self. Occurring about a third of the way into the novel, the Brussels interlude gives Julius a change to pursue his flâneurie in a different city, which is thereby set up as a foil for New York. (Or, perhaps, the interlude serves the same dramatic function that plays-within-the-play serve in Shakespeare.)

Julius decides to spend all his vacation time on a trip to Brussels in part because he has a vague hope of finding his oma, his maternal grandmother, a German woman who has moved to Brussels, whom Julius has met only once, when he was a boy in Nigeria. He doesn’t find her. What he does find are two interlocutors. The first is an “elderly lady” on the plane over who has suffered a recent loss and turns out to be a retired gastrointestinal surgeon; Julius arranges to meet her again in Brussels shortly before he returns to the U.S.

The second is Farouq, an immigrant from Morocco who works at the internet cafe that Julius visits and turns out to be an aspiring professional translator. Farouq had once sought to become a professor of comparative literature in the belief that that writing and studying literature might serve as a counterweight to the kind of oppression embodied, in his view, by the king of Morocco. His dream is dashed when his master’s thesis on Gaston Batchelard’s Poetics of Space is summarily dismissed by the examining committee at his university in Brussels for plagiarism, a charge that Farouq vehemently denies: “The only possibilities are that they refused to believe my command of English and theory or, and I think this is even more likely, that they were punishing me for world events in which I had played no role.” As a result, Farouq has become disenchanted with the possibilities offered by Europe and Western Enlightenment: readers of this site or viewers of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing will find his comments on the relative merits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King interesting (let’s just say that his views resonate with those that Lee expresses in the book that was published to accompany the film.

Martin and Malcolm: still from Do the Right Thing

Martin and Malcolm: still from Do the Right Thing

Farouq says that become a translator is his “practical project,” but “the deeper one” is what he calls “the difference thing”: figuring out how to get Westerners to accept difference with out orientalizing non-Westerners. From Edward Said’s writing he has learned that “difference as orientalist entertaintment is allowed,but difference with its own intrinsic value, no.” The position that Farouq ultimately stakes is what Appiah what describe as “multiculturalism” — respect for difference coupled with an aversion to change. Farouq conceives of cultural change only as the requirement that non-Westerners must change to accommodate the West: “There’s always the expectation that the victimized Other is the one that covers the distance, that has noble ideas; I disagree with that expectation,” Farouq tells Julius.

Over the course of several conversations, Farouq talks with Julius about Edward Said, Walter Benjamin, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohamed Choukri, Benedict Anderson, Francis Fukuyama, and a number of other writers, as well as about European racism, the politics of Palestine, and global terrorism. Farouq’s recounting of his experiences leads Julius to reconsider the presence of racism in Belgium, and he finds himself becoming a little more cautious than he had been, given his own outward appearance.

The conversations with Farouq, however, are framed by Julius’s encounters with Dr. Maillotte, the retired gastrointestinal surgeon, and when they meet for lunch, she quickly dismisses Farouq’s point of view, calling him one of “these young men who go around as if the world is an offense to them.” She calls them “complainers,” and her account reminded me of the political theorist Wendy’s account of Wounded Attachments,” in which identity is formed by a sense of woundedness (see her 1995 book States of Injury).

Julius is bothered by the rapidity with which Dr. Maillotte diagnoses Farouq, but he doesn’t fully disagree, having himself earlier diagnosed Farouq as “thwarted.” Sympathetic as he is to Farouq’s point of view, Julius comes to realize that Farouq has more to learn if he is to realize his “deeper project.”

Julius’s remedy? Once back in the States, he sends Farouq a book.

It’s Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

Teju Cole reads from Open City and discusses urban experience at Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2012.

More book club discussion from Cyrus on Friday.

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coleFrom its first sentence I had a hunch that Teju Cole’s Open City (2011) would have been a perfect fit for the Writing New York syllabus Cyrus and I tinkered with for almost a decade, and when we eventually take up the course again — Inshalla — I take very seriously the possibility of using this novel to close the semester. Our final text has varied over time: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Chang Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and, most often, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The final emphasis on sunshine and shadow, utopia or dystopia, varies depending on how we end, but Kushner’s plays, more than any thing else we teach, have seemed to wrap up some big narratives that run through our course: the relationship between performance/theater and urban life; the legacies of immigration; the real-world force of imaginative acts (especially ways of imagining the city itself); the meanings and uses of history; and issues of identity (consent v. descent), assimilation, and cosmopolitanism. Something about Open City, from the start, promised to take up most of these issues but also others: the impact of 9/11; New York as global city; and — another favorite trope in New York and other urban writing — the appeals of flânerie.

“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place to set out into the city,” the book begins. James Wood suggests Sebald as Cole’s model here, an influence Cole himself isn’t shy about, although he’s also given nods to Calvino. But the first thing I thought about as I tried to ease myself into a relationship with Cole’s narrator, Julius, was Rousseau’s posthumous Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), which like Open City serves as a meditation on psychology and memory as much as it dwells on political theory or current events. Rousseau described his book, a sort of coda to his Confessions, as “a faithful record of my solitary walks and of the reveries which fill them when I leave my head entirely free and let my ideas follow their bent without resistance or constraint.” Rousseau was more obsessed with his public reputation than Julius appears to be, perhaps, but the digressive character of both books, which seek to recreate thought processes and external stimuli, come off feeling like the books’ production processes actually form a significant portion of their contents. If Open City feels digressive it’s because it’s about digression, as a habit of mind, an educational program, a psychological defense.

Julius never reveals too much about the means by which he acquires knowledge about the city, or art, or music, with the exceptions of a quick nod to Internet radio, his current book list, and some descriptions of his formal education, including his friendship with a former teacher. But it feels like Julius’s habits must be somewhat in harmony with Cole’s own writing process. (That said, I don’t really feel the need to assume too much about Julius is autobiographical. I like Cole’s comments, on the misguided conflation of Julius/Cole, from this interview, in which he acknowledges a passion for Mahler he shares with his character: “I could not write about Mahler in that way if I did not have an interest in Mahler. Julius probably knows more about Mahler than I do (laughs). But he knows a lot less about jazz and hip hop than I do. So he’s not me.”)

If the novel’s episodic structure is a significant component of its content, this suggests a lot about the book’s take on issues of temporality and history. Julius’s thoughts — his stimulation to new knowledge about the place he inhabits, his recall of episodes from the past — depend as much on his “aimless wandering” as anything else. But perhaps we should speculate about a gap between Julius’s habits and Cole’s. Julius simply recalls things: he encounters runners from the New York Marathon while walking near the Park and remembers an anecdote about “Phidippides’ collapse,” the instant death of the first marathoner. He comments in detail on the classical music playing at a Tower Records fire sale. Are these details Cole just had in his arsenal? Or, more likely, is his own research underwriting Julius’s apparently brilliant marshaling of dozens of historical details? It’s not hard to imagine early versions of some of these sketches being drafted on the fly, out and about, in a writer’s notebook, then fleshed out with aid of research later. You walk, you think, you notice things. You probably take notes on street names, peculiar buildings, historical details recorded on plaques here and there, odd architectural details that suggest the past lives of some buildings, the CD being played in a store you wander into, the details of Alexander Hamilton’s epitaph, and then you do a bunch of Googling when you get home to deepen your understanding of where you’ve been and what those places had been and seen before you got there. Reminds me a little of our friend David Freeland‘s approach in Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville.

It’s this obsession with New York’s history and the curiosity — and expertise — of the flâneur that appeals most to me about Julius. How could it not, when a walk near Trinity Church almost inevitably winds up with the magnetic pull to the waterfront and thoughts on Melville? We’re to assume that Julius, or Cole, or both, perhaps, has become a New Yorker by way of this relentless curiosity about the city’s past, about the island’s prior occupants, and through a whole lot of reading. And yet Julius’s curiosity also leads him to take in the stories of other current inhabitants, including the histories that brought them here, which often have to do with warfare or conflict on other parts of the globe. Julius has a thing for New York history, but the boundaries of that history for him are extraordinarily capacious.

One of my favorite passages in the book — the one that really sold me on the whole thing — comes fairly early. It offers an extreme take on the kind of stuff I’m talking about here, historical obsessions and personal identity and whatnot. But it also suggests something beyond Google-gained insights about surroundings. It’s one of the weirdest and, to me at least, most beautiful episodes in the novel. The fifth chapter begins with a moving narrative of a Liberian prisoner, held indefinitely in a Queens prison for attempting to enter the country with a false passport. (“The lawyer they assigned to me said I might have had a chance before 9/11.” And later: “I don’t want to go back anywhere, he said. I want to stay in this country, I want to be in America and work.”) This episode, which has received a fair amount of attention from critics, is followed by one less examined but equally moving: Julius’s encounter with a “a Haitian man in the underground catacombs of Penn Station” who offers to shine Julius’s shoes. In spite of his antipathy to the traditional shoe-shiner’s set-up — the “elevated chairs in the shops and hav[ing] someone kneel before me” — Julius goes ahead and makes himself a customer anyway on the old man’s insistence.

What happens next is rather extraordinary, even in a book that consists almost entirely of reverie. As the man begins to tell Julius his story, betraying the trace of a Caribbean French accent, we gradually get the sense that he didn’t flee Haiti in the twentieth century at all, but in the 1790s. He is, according to his own account, a refugee from the Haitian Revolution, a survivor of New York’s nineteenth-century yellow fever epidemics, a resident of the racially mixed neighborhoods around the Five Points, a freeman who purchased his sister’s freedom before purchasing his own, the proprietor of a school for free blacks. All of this passes us by almost imperceptibly as Julius narrates. I had to go back and read the man’s story twice, since nothing in the novel to that point — and nothing, really, in what comes after, either — brushes this close to magical realism. Julius hardly seems to notice anything odd with the man’s story. He lets the man finish the shine, heads outside, tightens his scarf against the cold, and notices various signs of the war in Iraq. If he worried he’d been time-traveling, he doesn’t betray it. Instead, he continues to imagine he’s stumbled into the New York of the Civil War Draft Riots. He narrates rather matter-of-factly:

That afternoon, during which I flitted in and out of myself, when time became elastic and voices cut out of the past into the present, the heart of the city was gripped by what seemed to be a commotion from an earlier time. I feared being caught up in what, it seemed to me, were draft riots. The people I saw were all men, hurrying along under leafless trees, sidestepping the fallen police barrier near me, and others, farther away. There was some kind of scuffle two hundred yards down the street, again strangely noiseless, and a huddled knot of men opened up to reveal two brawlers being separated and pulled away from their fight. What I saw next gave me a fright: in the farther distance, beyond the listless crowd, the body of a lynched man dangled from a tree. The figure was slender, dressed from head to toe in black, reflecting no light.

Unlike his encounter with the bootblack, this situation resolves itself, rationally, “into a less ominous thing: dark canvas sheeting on a construction scaffold, twirling in the wind.” But the temporal rip that allowed Julius to hear the voice of a past citizen, to listen to a story — akin to the Liberian prisoner’s — that’s too easily forgotten, provides us with a sense of how history works for Cole. His city is a palimpsest, as commentators on the novel have repeatedly pointed out. But it’s up to us — our obligation, even — to do the hard work of reading through those layers.

Anyone else have favorite/key moments so far?



Looking for one last, fantastic read before summer ends? This year I’ve been pitching Teju Cole’s 2011 award-winning novel Open City to anyone who’ll listen. It’s brief but still feels bursting with detailed observation, beautifully written, and as important a novel I’ve read about global politics and local identity in a long, long time. Set in New York in the middle of the last decade, the book ambles through city streets — and a quick trip to Brussels — with its narrator, Julius, a Nigerian-born medical student studying at Columbia. The novel’s sensibilities are cosmopolitan — in Appiah’s sense of the term — and so Julius’s flânerie tends to take him to the places where cultures collide, combine, and create something new. But the book is also deeply interested in the idea of history: how the spaces around us were produced, how they produce us, and how we interact, often unknowingly, with their past inhabitants.

In short, it’s a book Cyrus and I would be likely to use in the final weeks of our Writing New York course. The class is still on hiatus while we teach in Abu Dhabi, but we’re committed to blogging again this fall, so hold us to it. Starting next week, we’ll be running several posts on the book. If you’ve read it — or if you grab it in time for a plane or the beach this week — we’d love to hear your thoughts.

New Yorker review here; great 3AM Magazine interview here; and a PBS Art Beat conversation here. (We nabbed their graphic, above.) Also highly recommended: Teju Cole on Twitter. Here’s a blurb he filmed for Leonard Lopate’s club last year:


Today is the 365th anniversary of the famous “goats and hogs ordinance” passed in New Netherland under the governorship of Peter Stuyvesant. Here’s the text of the ordinance:

Whereas the Honble Director General and Council of New Netherland have daily seen and remarked that the Goats and Hogs here around Fort Amsterdam daily commit great damage in Orchards, Gardens and other improvements, whereby it follows not only that the planting of beautiful Orchards and Gardens are prevented, but considerable damage is done to Individuals. Therefore the Honble Director General and Council, willing to provide herein, do, from this time forward, Ordain and Enact that no Goats nor Hogs shall be pastured or kept between the fortification of New Amsterdam (or its vicinity) and the Fresh Water, except within each its own inclosure, and that so well constructed that the Goats do not leap over it, and commit damage on any person; Also, Goats beyond the Fresh Water shall not be pastured without a Herdsman and Keeper, on pain of having the Goats found at large on this side of the Fresh Water, or without a Herdsman or Keeper beyond it, taken up by the Fiscal and declared forfeit beherded by the Honble Director General and Council. Let every one be warned hereby and take heed against loss.

This done in Council at Fort Amsterdam in New Netherland, the 10th March, A° 1648

No more freely roaming goats and hogs in New Amsterdam. Keep ’em enclosed or they’re forfeited to the state!

The same day also saw the passage of an ordinance dealing with “the regulation of Trade and Navigation; the establishment of a weekly Market and an annual Fair, and declaring the East river free to all nations.”

To put things in further perspective, however, we note that the previous January saw the passage of an ordinance “opening the Trade to Brazil and Angola, and authorizing the Importation of Slaves into New Netherland.”

You can read the texts of these and other ordinances from New Netherland at the section of  Wikisource devoted to “Laws and Ordinances of New Netherland, 1638-1674.” [Click here to go to the page for 1648.]

Today is actually the anniversary of another landmark in the regulation of domestic beasts. In 1894, New York became the first state to enact a law requiring that dogs be licensed. The fee was $2 per license. One hundred nineteen years later, the fee has gone up to $8.50. Benefits include the new “NYC Dog eLocator System,” an online service available to anyone who finds a lost dog that is wearing a New York City dog license.

[Portrait of Peter Stuyvesant ca. 1660, attributed to Hendrick Couturier; location: New-York Historical Society]


The Final Pursuit


Last week, I had the privilege of participating in “The Final Pursuit,” a panel discussion at Plymouth University celebrating the “Moby-Dick Big Read” project. My co-panelists were Peninsula Arts director Sarah Chapman; “Big Read” co-curators Philip Hoare and Angela Cockayne; Anthony Caleshu, professor of poetry at Plymouth University; Zeb Soanes, the “voice” of BBC Radio 4; and musician and author David Rothenberg.

For a more detailed account, take a look over at




And so, finally, we reach the end.

When Moby-Dick was published in London by Richard Bentley on October 18, 1851 (using Melville’s original title, The Whale), it seemed to end with the haunting final words of Chapter 135:

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

“The Epilogue,” which explains how Ishmael came to survive the wreck, was missing! The final chapter was followed by the “Etymology” and “Extracts” sections, which Melville had intended to precede the book, as they would in the American edition published on November 14. In the Norton Critical Edition of the novel, Hershel Parker surmises, “Most likely, Bentley had told his compositors to put all the etymology and extracts, all that distracting junk, in the back of the third volume, and in the process of shifting things around the single sheet (half a page of type) had gotten lost.”

Believing that Melville had disobeyed crucial novelistic conventions, the first British reviews, which appeared in the London Spectator and the Athenaeum, savaged the novel, and these two reviews circulated in the United States just as the novel was published there.  The Athenaeum wrote, “The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English, and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.” The Spectator commented, “His catastrophe overrules all rule: not only is Ahab, with his boast’s-crew, destroyed in his last desperate attack upon the white whale, but the Pequod herself sinks with all oh board into the depths of the illimitable ocean. Such is the go-ahead rule.” Because neither review specified precisely what was wrong with the novel’s ending, so that Americans readers were immediately prejudice against it — despite the fact that their edition had the epilogue!

Once you’ve read or heard the epilogue, ask yourself this. It is preceded by an epigraph, a line from the Book of Job: “And only I am escaped to tell thee.” At the opening of Job,we learn that “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil” (1:1). Satan, who has been wandering the earth, appears to God and challenges the idea that Job is “perfect and upright”: here Satan is not the Christian “devil,” but rather a kind of prosecutor — what today we might call a “devil’s advocate” — whose role is to keep humankind honest. Satan suggests that Job loves God only because he fears him: “Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face” (1:10-11). God agrees to let Satan test Job: “Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.”

So Job is visited by a series of catastrophes, which destroy his property and family. He is smitten by sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown.” Still he refuses to curse God. He does, however, wish that he could have an explanation for what is happening him. The Book of Job is a classic example of dramatic irony: we the reader know the explanation but Job does not. And he never will. God appears to him and refuses to tell him, insisting instead on the incommensurability between the divine and the human:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (38:1-7)

The Book of Job is a crucial intertext for Moby-Dick and not simply because God uses the leviathan as an example of his power:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants? Canst thou fill his skin with barbed iron? or his head with fish spears? Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more.
Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?(41:1-10)

At the end of the Book, Job receives material satisfaction — all he is lost is restored to him in greater quantity — but not intellectual satisfaction. The Book of Job reinforces the idea that the the divine remains forever inscrutable to humankind — which is one of the animating ideas behind Moby-Dick.

The line that Melville quotes at the start of the epilogue formulaic line with which each of the four messengers who relays catastrophic news to Job concludes his speech.

So I ask you, if Ishmael, in writing his novel, plays the role of messenger, who plays the role of Job?

“The Epilogue” is read by by poet Mary Oliver. The accompanying illustration is the digital (!) video Isolation Tank (2010-11; single-channel HD video/sound installation) by Gary Hill (still shown above).Visit the “Big Read” site to watch it.



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]


Chapter-135-stephen-grimes2-e1347322438566And so we reach the climactic confrontation between Ahab and the white whale, Moby Dick.

It’s a beautiful morning, which prompts Ahab to meditate on the way that feeling often overrules thinking:

“What a lovely day again! Were it a new-made world, and made for a summer-house to the angels, and this morning the first of its throwing over to them, a fairer day could not dawn upon the world. Here’s food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that’s tingling enough for mortal man! to think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege.”

Ahab once again touches, with bitterness, on the incommensurability between the divine and the human, and with it, implicitly, the idea of the fall of man. History (in the Judeo-Christian conception) begins with man’s disobedience, which is why the “summer-house” is for the angels and not for man. The world that Ahab surveys is far from new-made: a lot of time has passed and for human beings time has brought pain, suffering, and all-too-often the desire for revenge, as if revenge could somehow provide relief for the human condition. Ahab meditates on the passing of time and then on the wind, another manifestation of the non-human, in what sounds to me like another reference to Lear: “Were I the wind, I’d blow no more on such a wicked, miserable world. I’d crawl somewhere to a cave, and slink there.”

I won’t comment, today, on what happens on the third day of the chase, in deference to anyone who is reading or listening to the novel for the first time, though I will be writing about it in the near future. Suffice it to say, for now, that Fedallah’s prophecies are indeed fulfilled in prose that is vivid and often riveting.

Here is one of my favorite passages not only from the novel but from the annals of literature written in English:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, i give-up the spear!”

“The Chase – Third Day” is read by BBC radio presenter James Naughtie. The accompanying image is by Stephen Grimes.


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]


In “The Tail,” Ishmael refers to the phenomenon of breaching, when the whale bounds out of the water and elevates itself into the air before plunging down again:

As in the ordinary floating posture of the Leviathan the flukes lie considerably below the level of his back, they are then completely out of sight beneath the surface; but when he is about to plunge into the deeps, his entire flukes with at least thirty feet of his body are tossed erect in the air, and so remain vibrating a moment, till they downwards shoot out of view. Excepting the sublime breach — somewhere else to be described — this peaking of the whale’s flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature.

The “somewhere else” to which Ishmael refers is this chapter, “The Chase – Second Day.” The captain of the Samuel Enderby has described Moby Dick breaching, but here the crew of the Pequod sees it first-hand:

The triumphant halloo of thirty buckskin lungs was heard, as — much nearer to the ship than the place of the imaginary jet, less than a mile ahead — Moby Dick bodily burst into view! For not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.

“There she breaches! there she breaches!” was the cry, as in his immeasureable bravadoes the White Whale tossed himself salmon-like to Heaven. So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale.

Sperm whales, apparently, breach by swimming straight up from the depths and jumping out of the water, whereas humpback whales swim just below the surface and then pull themselves upward.

Why do whales breach? Here’s an answer given by Hal Whitehead, Research Scientist at the University of Dalhousie, Canada:

So, why do whales breach? Young whales likely breach as a form of play or to develop their muscles. Adults likely breach in certain circumstances to transmit a message to members of their group. In fact, as breaching requires a significant amount of energy, a whale may breach to demonstrate its physical abilities; a very convincing signal. Less often, it seems that there are other explanations for breaching. It could be a technique to help cetaceans feed by stunning or scaring prey. It could be a good way of getting rid of external parasites. It could also be a method for inhaling water-free air in rough weather. Who knows? What is certain is that this behaviour is spectacular for those observing it from the surface!



In the chapter on “monstrous pictures of whales,” Ishmael tells us that “there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like” (scuba diving and video not having been invented yet). As a result, “the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him.” This chapter vividly dramatizes those dangers. Ahab’s whaleboat is wrecked, his artificial leg broken again, and Fedallah disappears. Not good.

Starbuck once again renews the arguments that he first made in “The Quarter-Deck“:

“In Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone — all good angels mobbing thee with warnings: — what more wouldst thou have? — Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh, — Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”

But Ahab has full embraced predestination and fatalism, and his response swats aside Starbuck’s appeals to piety and domesticity and brings together the languages of agency and drama that are woven throughout the book:

“Starbuck, of late I’ve felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw — thou know’st what, in one another’s eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand — a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.”

It’s time for the final act in the drama.

“The Chase – Second Day” is read by English actor Roger Allam, whom my kids known as the villain Royalton in the Wachoski Brothers’ Speed Racer, in my opinion an underrated film. It is accompanied by the marvelous painting Around the World Alone (The Gloucesterman) (2011; oil on linen; 80 x 54 in.; 203.2 x 137.2 cm) by Sean Landers. It was photographed by Jason Mandella. The image is © Sean Landers and is used courtesy the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.



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]



Like a dog following a scent, Ahab detects “that peculiar odor, sometimes to a great distance given forth by the living sperm whale” as the chapter opens. As he is hoisted to his perch atop the main royal-mast head, he spies his prey: “There she blows! — there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!” Ahab claims the doubloon as his own:

“And did none of ye see it before?” cried Ahab, hailing the perched men all around him.

“I saw him almost that same instant, Sir, that Captain Ahab did, and I cried out,” said Tashtego.

“Not the same instant; not the same — no, the doubloon is mine, Fate reserved the doubloon for me. I only; none of ye could have raised the White Whale first. There she blows! there she blows! — there she blows! There again! — there again! he cried, in long-drawn, lingering, methodic tones, attuned to the gradual prolongings of the whale’s visible jets.

And Moby Dick does not disappoint, swimming ahead of the Pequod with a majestic serenity that disguises his destructive potential, “still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw.” And then he sounds: “soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia’s Natural
Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight.”

But not for long, and when he returns, his jaws are no longer hidden:

[Ahab] saw a white living spot no bigger than a white weasel, with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned, and then there were plainly revealed two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom. It was Moby Dick’s open mouth and scrolled jaw; his vast, shadowed bulk still half blending with the blue of the sea. The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble tomb; and giving one side-long sweep with his steering oar, Ahab whirled the craft aside from this tremendous apparition.

Before Ahab can put himself in a position to throw his harpoon, Moby Dick attacks his boat “with that malicious intelligence ascribed to him” and breaks it in two. Stubb sees this event as the manifestation of an adage enshrined in some now-lost parable about an ass and a thistle; Starbuck sees this event as an “omen.” Ahab chides them both in a rant that encapsulates his tragic solipsism:

“Omen? omen? — the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint. — Begone! Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors! Cold, cold — I shiver! — How now? Aloft there! D’ye see him? Sing out for every spout, though he spout ten times a second!”

In the Bible, the afflicted Job also complains about the inscrutability of God: “God thundereth marvellously with his voice; great things doeth he, which we cannot comprehend” (37:5). When God rebukes him for his impertinence, Job repents and resumes the piety for God has praised him at the beginning of the Book.

Ahab cannot believe that any benign divinity would choose to speak in parables or omens. He chooses a course that is different from Job’s, rejecting piety for apostasy.

“The Chase – First Day” is read by English actor Kerry Shale. It is accompanied by The Bias (2009; approx 100 x 205 cm; paper stretched on frames, wood, aluminum tracking) by John Chilver, who is Lecturer in Fine Arts at Goldsmiths, University of London. It was photographed by Peter Hope.



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]


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