Reading ‘Moby-Dick’ in a time of quarantine: Week 9

Read along with Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” Photo: Houston Chronicle

Some of you may have heard: We’re doing a book group for “Moby-Dick.” Our shelter-in-place era felt like as good a time as any to wrangle with Herman Melville’s epic. I reached out to poet and University of Houston creative writing professor Nick Flynn to accompany me. You can read about his relationship with the book here in the introductory story.

Here is what we’ve covered so far:

* Week 1: Etymology and Extracts plus “Chapter 1: Loomings” through “Chapter 8: The Pulpit.”

* Week 2: Chapter 9: The Sermon” through “Chapter 16: The Ship.”

* Week 3: “Chapter 17: The Ramadan” through “Chapter 27: Knights and Squires.”

* Week 4: “Chapter 28: Ahab” through “Chapter 35: The Mast Head.”

* Week 5: “Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck, (Enter Ahab: Then, all.)” through “Chapter 44: The Chart.”

* Week 6: “Chapter 45: The Affidavit” through “Chapter 53: The Gam.”

* Week 7: “Chapter 54: The Town Ho’s Story” through “Chapter 60: The Line.”

* Week 8: “Chapter 61: Stubb kills a whale” through “Chapter 71: The Pequod meets the Jeroboam: Her story.”

This week we cover “Chapter 72: The Monkey-Rope” through “Chapter 81: The Pequod meets the Virgin.”

“The whale, like all things that are mighty, wears a false brow to the common world.”

Sometimes being tied by a monkey-rope to a cannibal who is standing knee-deep in the ocean atop a whale carcass tethered to a ship sets one to pondering about free will. At least that’s where our narrator Ishmael’s mind goes as he’s connected to his pal Queequeg, who goes about some of the grisly business of preparing a slain whale for spermaceti extraction.

“And yet still further pondering — while I jerked him now and then from between the whale and the ship, which would threaten to jam him — still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes’ only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die.”

I don’t need to linger long with this chapter, as it is addressed in the video. But it does feel apropos for our times. Like it or not, we’re connected as if by monkey-rope, and our actions and inaction do not exist in a vacuum.

Melville quickly contrasts this thoughtful take on community connection with Stubb and Flask speaking ill of Fedallah, about whom we’ve heard little in quite a while. He’s the leader of Ahab’s little shadow crew. On one hand, surely any crew that has ever sailed carried some members who would offer blistering assessments of a fellow sailor behind his back. But I’m reminded that for all the differences presented in our crew — the contrasting personae of Starbuck and Stubb, for instance — Fedallah is an outsider on the ship both in his ethnicity and his standing as an official crew member.

With that, I’ll shift back to the action on the Pequod which is the slaying of a right whale, which if we’re using a shorthand are the whales that appear to be sneering. We’re told these whales offer none of the financial rewards that sperm whales do, but one is slain just the same because of a superstition involving whale heads dangling off the port and starboard sides of the ship.

Ishmael then spends quite some time inside the head of the whale — not literally, though another character will do just that. He meditates on the shapes of the heads of sperm whales and right whales. His chapter on the sperm whale head touches on the many uses found for its parts, with teeth and jawbones extracted. “Chapter 75: The Right Whale Head” really should be accompanied by a low mopey whale sound, as Ishmael does an accounting of the head’s physical features but finds little of value there other than information. “This right whale I take to have been a stoic; the sperm whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his later years.”

Reader Monica informs that she has procured and started reading Spinoza’s “Ethics.” I may lean on her for commentary and feedback going forward.

I’ll need some of you better read in philosophy to assist me here. Though I like the idea of whales congregating at the local krill & coffee joint to discuss their existence, one of them all to eager to share his newfound affinity for Cartesian metaphysics.

Obviously Melville meant this line to be amusing. That said, he’s dropped references to Plato on us before. The one I best remember was “Chapter 35: The Mast-Head,” in which our narrator revealed himself as the kind of guy whose head sometimes drifts into the philosophical clouds.

“Chapter 76: The Battering Ram” could also have been titled “Chapter 76: More Foreshadowing.” We are informed that the sperm whale’s formidable dome can make splinters of a ship.

Surely Ishmael is done with the head, right? Wrong. Ishmael refers to “the great Heidelberg Tun,” a large wine receptacle that was constructed in a castle in Germany a century before “Moby-Dick.” You can read a bit about it here. Its reputation was such that Melville is hardly the only writer to reference it in literature.

Naturally somebody falls into the tun, in a scene both dire and comical. As always seems to happen when a man goes overboard, Queequeg dives in without hesitation for a dramatic rescue. Our cannibal repeatedly provides salvation for drowning seamen. Melville frames Tashtego’s accident as a sort of death and rebirth.

“Chapter 79: The Prairie” is weird and lovely. Ishmael’s still stuck on the whale head, the vague chapter title possibly a reference to the “the full front of his head. This aspect is sublime.”

Reader Monica pointed out a little passage that is now among my favorites in the book: “Though I am but ill qualified for a pioneer, in the application of these two semi-sciences to the whale, I will do my endeavor. I try all things; I achieve what I can.”

What a joyful statement of intent! And also an admission of some degree of deficiency.

We get an actual reference to Shakespeare here, rather than passages that suggest his work. I found the last paragraph fascinating, in that I think Ishmael pivots away from the whale toward humankind and how both are in many ways unknowable.

“Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable.”

I don’t yet know where he’s going with this. But I find it intriguing.

Then more contents-of-the-head stuff with “Chapter 80: The Nut,” meaning the brain.

And in “Chapter 81: The Pequod Meets the Virgin,” our vessel encounters yet another ship. This exchange is less haunting than previous encounters that involved death, plague, mutiny and warnings to turn back. That said, the crew of the Virgin begged for some oil and then turned and tried to jump in front of the Pequod’s boats to hunt a whale.

This chapter proved fascinating to me because it melded humor with gristle effortlessly. The crew’s outrage that the German boat the Virgin would borrow a necessity and then try to beat them to a whale is at least adjacent to comic. But the account of killing the whale is detailed and devastating. Nick reads from it, so I won’t bother block quoting it here. But the scene is violent and tragic and offers a pulpier presentation of this mode of hunting than the previous sperm whale that the Pequod killed. In part the shift in mood from the previous hunts derives from this whale’s advanced age and its inability to put up much of a fight. Its slaughter is further punctuated by a cruel gesture by Flask, who needlessly spikes it one more time turning on some crimson jets. Reader Kathryn points out, “This is a very existential story and tells a lot about Melville’s perspective, which is quite modern.”

The almost mournful tone struck by Ishmael doesn’t appear as though it will last long. He has a little fun at the expense of the Virgin and its Captain, ignorantly chasing after a Fin-Back Whale.

“Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend,” he writes. Indeed.

And any sense of regret will likely be fully dissipated since next week’s reading begins with “Chapter 82: The Honor and Glory of Whaling.”

So we’ll start there and read through “Chapter 90: Heads or Tails.”

A few odds and ends.

Reader Kathryn referenced a New York Times story about whales and what their ancestors left behind when they headed to the seas. I believe this is the story.

And reader Larry shared this coaster set he got while visiting the Moby Dick Brewing Co., which was near the New Bedford Whaling Museum. They’re quite striking, even removed from the context of our reading and discussion. But they also remind me how interesting it is that a novel that was an absolute failure upon its publication can intrigue and enchant 170 years later, prompting books, movies, paintings and breweries.

Coasters from the Moby Dick Brewing Co.

Photo: Larry Blankenship

Coasters from the Moby Dick Brewing Co.

Photo: Larry Blankenship


  • Andrew Dansby

    Andrew Dansby covers music and other entertainment, both local and national, for the Houston Chronicle, 29-95.com and chron.com. He previously assisted the editor for George R.R. Martin, author of “Game of Thrones” and later worked on three “major” motion pictures you’ve never seen. That short spell in the film business nudged him into writing, first as a freelancer and later with Rolling Stone. He came to the Chronicle in 2004 as an entertainment editor and has since moved to writing full time.

    Andrew dislikes monkeys, dolphins and the outdoors. He has no pets.

Read More