Eternity and the Whale: Declaring the End from the Beginning — Part 1

Some of the research that I did when studying Moby Dick, many disparate thoughts and loose ends, I post here because they may prove useful to some other end. This will be far from exhaustive, and limiting myself to one chapter at a time, in no particular order, to take pick here and there. I will be tinkering on the surface, here. I won’t be sounding any great depths. But the paradigms raised may stimulate greater works than these. Also it should come as no surprise if I make reference to many of the countless biblical themes and allusions here. I am reading from the 2003 Penguin Classics edition.

Chapter 7. The Chapel

The plaque at the chapel from which Ishmael reads is perhaps a thinly-veiled allusion to some of those Melville admired.

“SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF ROBERT LONG, WILLIS ELLERY, NATHAN COLEMAN, WALTER CANNY, SETH MACY, AND SAMUEL GLEIG, Forming one of the boats’ crews OF THE SHIP ELIZA Who were towed out of sight by a Whale, On the Off-shore Ground in the PACIFIC, December 31st, 1839. THIS MARBLE Is here placed by their surviving SHIPMATES.” [1]

Consider the parallels with [Wikipedia]:

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882): poet and educator, the first American to translate Dante.
  • William Ellery Channing (1780–1842): foremost Unitarian preacher in the United States in the early nineteenth century.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864): American dark romantic novelist and short story writer, focusing on history, morality, and religion.
  • Walter Whitman (1819–1892): American poet, essayist, and journalist, as a humanist, he was instrumental in the transition between transcendentalism and realism.

Walter Whitman and Herman Melville (1819–1891) were almost exact contemporaries. There are other allusions in that passage, no doubt, but I haven’t had time to search them all out. But I think what they do is help paint a picture of Melville who, no doubt, has come under some criticism as well as been the subject of much celebration.

Taking many of his cues from the Bible, Melville declares the end from the beginning in a tongue-in-cheek play on “stave”, for instance: “to break in the planking of a boat or vessel in order to sink it.” [2]

But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope. It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine. But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems—aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling—a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot. [3]

Not only is there a final play on “save my soul”, but Melville here very early foreshadows the Pequod’s demise. The Pequod, one might argue—and in a seminal essay, Leo Bersani does—stands for the great experiment that is America. [4] Bersani is right, though, in suggesting Moby Dick is such a broad sweeping narrative. I notice that it qualifies for every single individual category on this blog. The only post to have done so.


Footnotes

  1. Herman Melville, Tom Quirk and Andrew Delbanco, Moby-Dick Or, the Whale (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 40.
  2. The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, ed. Dear and Kemp, Oxford University Press (2006).
  3. Melville, 42.
  4. Leo Bersani, “Incomparable America,” in The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), 136-154.

 

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