Mondays with Moby: Chapter Three

Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft.

We’re now taken on a tour of the Spouter-Inn, boasting dark, “besmoked” paintings of whales attempting to impale themselves, along with all manner of saws and harpoons and other menacing weaponry. Oh, and a bar set within the jawbone of a whale. And inside this ghastly maw, an old man dispenses his various “deliriums and death.”

Ishmael asks for a room, but is told he can only have one if he agrees to share his bunk with a harpooneer. Ishmael isn’t thrilled by this prospect, but agrees because the only other alternative is to spend the night outdoors, in the wind and the dark and the bitter, bitter cold and snow. In other words, winter in New England.

So he settles back to wait for the return of his bedmate, described to him as a “dark-complexioned chap” who eats nothing but steaks and “likes ‘em rare.”

A tramping of sea boots was heard in the entry; the door was flung open, and in rolled a wild set of mariners enough. Enveloped in their shaggy watch coats, and with their heads muffled in woolen comforters, all bedarned and ragged, and their beards stiff with icicles, they seemed an eruption of bears from Labrador.

This marks the arrival of a crew lately returned from a three-year voyage. There is one in the crew that Ishmael makes note of, a Bulkington who we’re told will play a larger role in the narrative later on.

He stood full six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a cofferdam… His face was deeply brown and burnt, making his white teeth dazzling by the contrast; while in the deep shadows of his eyes floated some reminiscences that did not seem to give him much joy.

But Bulkington only stays on the scene for a minute, and we return to Ishmael’s concerns of having to share a bed with a stranger.

No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact, you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother. I don’t know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping. And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply.

Ishmael also laments the assumed state of this harpooneer’s linen, which wouldn’t be the “tidiest, certainly not the finest.”

My takeaway from this is that “harpooneers” are at the bottom of a whaling ship’s proverbial totem pole? And that they’re not very clean? I mean, that’s what I got from this. Eep.

The moment finally comes when Ishmael can’t take anymore. The thought of sharing a bed with a strange “harpooneer” in untidy linen is too much to bear, and so he proposes the idea of sleeping on a bench in the main room. A few paragraphs follow of attempting to make the bench plan work (Spoilers: It doesn’t.) and the “harpooneer” still hasn’t returned, and the landlord confesses that He of the Dirty Linen must still be out trying to sell his head, which Ishmael takes for a yarn (or a “farrago”, which is an awesome word I must use more often) and after a long speech from Ishmael, the landlord clarifies that the “harpooneer” just arrived from the South Seas and is trying to sell embalmed human heads.

As one does.

“… and he’s sold all on ‘em but one, and that one he’s trying to sell tonight, cause tomorrow’s Sunday, and it would not do to be sellin’ human heads about the streets when folks is goin’ to churches.”

Things Not To Do On a Sunday Morning #47: Sell Human Heads

Finally, Ishmael gives in and goes to bed on his own (Why he didn’t do this in the first place, I’m not sure). The bed turns out to be huge, and after a quick rummage through the “harpooneer’s” things (Seriously, Ishmael?) he jumps into bed and is nearly asleep when he hears footsteps.

Lord save me, think I, that must be the harpooneer, the infernal head-peddler.

“Infernal Head-Peddler” being the third track from the latest CD by The Tepid Tears of Orphans.

The newcomer is tattooed, with a “purplish-yellow” complexion, and without any hair on his head “but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead.”

This is all, once again, too much for poor Ishmael. (Perhaps the book will receive an anniversary re-release when it will be titled “Moby-Dick, or Things That Are Too Much For Ishmael.”) And then the “harpooneer” strips out of his shirt and proceeds to go through a little ceremony with a carved idol. But through all of this, Ishmael is too stunned to speak up and announce his presence in the room, until…

The next moment, the light was extinguished, and this wild cannibal, tomahawk between his teeth, sprang into bed with me. I sang out, I could not help it now; and giving a sudden grunt of astonishment he began feeling me.

Is this part in any of the movie or television adaptations? Is it? Please, tell me that it is.

“Who-ee debel you?”- he at last said -”you no speak-ee, dam-me, I kill-e.” And so saying, the lighted tomahawk began flourishing around in the dark.”

There’s a bit of a rumpus, the landlord arrives, but Queequeg – because we discover that our tattooed “harpooneer” is named Queequeg – is actually a pretty nice guy.

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.

Truth.

I turned in, and never slept better in my life.

Next up? Chapter Four: The Counterpane

Things I Had To Look Up:

Cofferdam: According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is “a watertight enclosure from which water is pumped to expose the bottom of a body of water and permit construction (as of a pier).” Or, you know, a big thing.

Skrimshander: According to Wordnik.com… “Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure.” And it really seems to find a bit of exclusivity in Moby-Dick, since almost all of the examples of its usage come from this book.

Hyperborean: “It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.” A phrase used as one of the possible scenes in the painting that hides beneath all of the smoke and soot inside the Spouter-Inn. According to Merriam-Webster, Hyperborean is either 1) a member of a people held by the ancient Greeks to live beyond the north wind in a region of perpetual sunshine, or 2) an inhabitant of a cool northern climate.

Monkey Jackets: These are referred to a lot in this book, and even though I’d heard the term, I couldn’t place the look. So I ran over to Wikipedia for help. “A Monkey Jacket is a waist length jacket tapering at the back to a point. Historically, monkey jackets were typically worn by sailors.”

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Mondays with Moby: Chapter Two

I stuffed a shirt or two into my old carpetbag, tucked it under my arm, and started for Cape Horn and the Pacific.

First off, I confess that I have always wanted to own a carpetbag. That is all.

Ishmael has now set off on his journey, and sets a course for New Bedford (In Massachusettes. They have a whaling museum!) in order to sail from there toward Nantucket (which also has a whaling museum, for anyone planning a whale-centric vacation anytime soon). He misses the boat, and so must spend two nights in New Bedford before he can obtain a spot on a Nantuckian ship.

For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about anything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.

(In fact, a little research will tell you all about the whaling rivalry between the two places, and how New Bedford began to quickly outstrip Nantucket in whale oil production in the mid to latter half of the nineteenth century. In my mind, they attempted to settle all grievances by sending emissaries to a nautical-themed rumble.)

Unfortunately for Ishmael, he’s a bit short on funds, and being “a very dark and dismal night, bitingly cold and cheerless” he knows he better find some lodgings quick or Melville’s tale won’t make it to Chapter Three.

He begins his search through New Bedford, passing several inns which are immediately skipped over for looking too “jolly”. In Melvillian terms, that means “expensive”.

I now by instinct followed the streets that took me waterward, for there, doubtless, were the cheapest, if not the cheeriest inns.

After stumbling on past dreary houses devoid of light and life, he finally happens upon a place more suited to his pecuniary needs.

As the light looked so dim, and the place, for the time, looked quiet enough, and the dilapidated little wooden house itself looked as if it might have been carted here from the remains of some burnt district, and as the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it, I thought that here was the very spot for cheap lodgings, and the best of pea coffee.

That place sounds like an absolute delight.

(Note: Before you freak out about “pea coffee”, they mean coffee made from green peas, and not… that other kind of “pee”.)

And now that Ishmael has found a place to stay, he embarks on a page-long philosophical bit about “that tempestuous wind Euroclydon” which then brings in Lazarus and Dives (from the Biblical parable of the rich man (“dives” being a word for “rich man” in the Vulgate, and not an actual name) and Lazarus (but not THAT Lazarus, the one who was all raised from the dead and such)), and though the prose is achingly lovely, and there are great lines such as “give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals” and “he too lives like Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs” and “drinks the tepid tears of orphans” (Tepid Tears of Orphans TOTALLY being the new name for my imaginary band), I have to admit that I got a bit lost.

So:

Euroclydon.

Dictionary.com defines it as “a stormy wind from the north or northeast that occurs in the Levant, which caused the ship in which St Paul was travelling to be wrecked (Acts 27:14)” or as any “great wind” and Wikipedia (I know, take everything they say with grain of salt) states that it is “a cyclonic tempestuous northeast wind which blows in the Mediterranean, mostly in autumn and winter”.

*ahem*

It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul’s tossed craft.

See? Makes total sense now.

And now, after all of that, Ishmael is finally about to step inside his new lodgings at The Spouter-Inn.

Let us scrape the ice from our frosted feet, and see what sort of place this “Spouter” may be.

Next week? Chapter Three: The Spouter-Inn

 

Mondays with Moby: Chapter One

I’ve heard a good deal of not-too-flattering things about Moby-Dick. Even as a lover of classic works of fiction, it seemed like Herman Melville’s most famous novel (Quick! Name another one of his published works in the next three seconds! No cheating!) was one of the most polarizing I had ever come across.

It’s a masterpiece!

It’s BORING.

It wouldn’t have stood the test of time if it wasn’t any good!

There are entire chapters about how whale lamp oil is made. LAMP OIL!!!!1!!

Now, I’ve always been a fan of Charles Dickens, who is equally polarizing. He was paid by the word (and BOY did he make the most of it). He expounded, to great length, on the workings (or the failed workings) of the courts and poor houses and orphanages of the day. He even deus ex machina-ed characters off his pages by having them spontaneously combust out of existence.

And yet I love his style. I love the wordiness, the way his prose and his descriptions seem to pull me all the way back to that time period.

But still, I was put off reading Moby-Dick because I was afraid it would be interminable. And because once I’d read it, or attempted to, I’d no longer be able to avoid Melvillian discussions by claiming ignorance. I would have to put forward an opinion, and it might not be a good one.

So here I am, committing myself to reading the thing. One chapter at a time, and dissecting it, like someone with way more time on my hands than I actually possess.

First, here’s my copy of the book.

Summer 2014 226

I probably have it stashed in some collection on my Kindle (probably labeled “Books I Tell Myself I’ll Read But Netflix Just Keeps Adding New Stuff”), but I went for a paperback copy from my shelf, picked up in a library book sale two years ago.

(Also, that cover is amazing. And I have a great suspicion that the sailor on the upper-right may be about to break out with some nautical jazz hands.)

And so I begin with Chapter One: Loomings

Call me Ishmael.

One of the most famous first lines in literary history. As a writer, studying first lines is one of the things you often do, looking for which ones grab the reader, which ones stick with you, and why.

This one makes the narrator, Ishmael, approachable, as if he’s allowing you, Dear Reader, a bit of familiarity that he doesn’t share with just anyone.

So, again…

Call me Ishmael.

Ishmael is immediate with telling us about his penchant for slipping into dark, dreary moods and needing to “drive off the spleen”.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Right there. That is a great sentence. I must have read it about ten times before I could continue any further. Honestly, knocking people’s hats off might just become my new favorite thing. And I can simply blame it on my spleen. Brilliant!

Ishmael then takes us on a tour of the city, while telling us about the great and magnetic pull that water has on man.

Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.

But it’s not merely city-folk who fall under this spell. It’s in man’s nature, no matter his home.

Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it.

History and mythology are full of tales of people going off to sea, venturing into the unknown. Off the edge of the map. Here, there be dragons. Mermaids, selkies, sunken treasure, underwater cities, Davy Jones, Anuket, Poseidon, Neptune, the list goes on and on.

There is magic in it.

Indeed.

Ishmael continues (he seems to be quite the loquacious sort, I’ll give him that) about how he prefers to travel when it comes time to air out the ol’ spleen.

I always go to see as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of.

And later:

The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

You know, Ishmael? I think I’m starting to take a liking to you.

Finally, Ishmael reveals that his chosen voyage is going to be a whaling voyage (*cue dramatic sound effects*). Because he is a curious man. Because he is adventurous. Ishmael’s soul is not a timid one, and we’ve been invited along for the journey.

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.

 

Words and Phrases I Had to Look Up:

Circumambulate: (verb) to walk around (something)

I should have figured out that one on my own. Circum… Circle. Ambulate… Amble. Circle… walk. Thanks for nothing, That One Year of Latin I Took in High School.)

Pythagorean maxim: Okay, this one took a bit of research, and when I looked it up, I realized… Oh, there’s a fart joke in Moby-Dick.

Here we go: For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)…

A bit of Googling told me that the Pythagorean maxim mentions a little something about not eating beans, because they make you gassy. (Edit: I found this just a minute ago, which explains things much better than I can.)

So, fart joke, in chapter one of Moby-Dick. Oh, Melville. You old rascal, you.

Next week? Chapter Two: The Carpetbag.