Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The Castaway

So after several more gruesome whale slaughters, gruesome diggings around in dead whale's bodies, gruesome (although bizarrely, darkly funny) accidents in which a harpooneer falls into the head of a whale carcass that he's emptying out, and lots of whale anatomy lessons, I have arrived at what is probably my favorite passage in the whole book. People, Moby Dick is not a walk in the park! It challenges the head, heart, and stomach all at once! But I forge ahead because literature is ennobling, and because just as I'm about to give up, another stunning passage comes along.

"The Castaway" is another small story about a literally small character, which focuses the novel's cruelty and beauty to an unforgettable point. I am talking about the story of Pip, the African American child who's found himself on board the Pequod and has lately been pressed into service on the whale boats. Lowering for whales being, as we've seen, an alarming experience, Pip develops a tendency to jump out of the boat at the wrong moment. Stubb tells him that the next time he does that, they will leave him behind.

But we are all in the hands of the Gods; and Pip jumped again. It was under very similar circumstances to the first performance; but this time he did not breast out the line; and hence, when the whale started to run, Pip was left behind on the sea, like a hurried traveller's trunk. Alas! Stubb was but too true to his word. It was a beautiful, bounteous, blue day! the spangled sea calm and cool, and flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater's skin hammered out to the extremest. Bobbing up and down in that sea, Pip's ebon head showed like a head of cloves. No boat-knife was lifted when he fell so rapidly astern. Stubb's inexorable back was turned upon him; and the whale was winged. In three minutes, a whole mile of shoreless ocean was between Pip and Stubb. Out from the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest.

Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it? Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea-- mark how closely they hug their ship and only coast along her sides.

I will leave it to others to work through the multiple layers of Melville's lyrical racism--though that racism is part of this chapter's poignance. Pip, here, is Everyman and Other at the same time; I suspect a white child in the sea would not have generated the same creative dissonance for Melville. But just picture this: "the intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity"! Who indeed can tell it? Then comes this:

But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb's boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip's ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

Like the slaughtered whales, Pip is both ruined and deified. I can't decide whether to mourn or celebrate Pip's apparent insanity; in Melville's increasingly carnivalesque world, we're often doing both at once. Maybe his ascension by descension is supposed to be recompense for Stubb's (and Melville's?) cruelty to him--though Melville tells us that Stubb never meant to leave him out in the water for so long. In any case, this vision of Pip's sea change is visually and aurally beautiful. The road to hell may be paved with adverbs, as Stephen King has said, but has there ever been a better-chosen adverb than "jeeringly" here? Also, there's an amazing rhythm and alliteration to the whole passage. Just for instance: "He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it..."

So (as we land with a thud back in our practical world, in which we must extract a useful lesson from our reading), what can other writers learn from this passage? Well, the matter of "compensation" can be an interesting one to explore--a character who experiences terror or alienation or loss receives (courtesy of the author) some kind of surprising compensatory gift. (This gift may be better for the narrative than for the character himself.) Also, the excellent adverb is a ticket to heaven. Also, Pip saw God, or at least part of him, when his soul traveled to the depths.* So, writers, where do you think God resides (at the bottom of the ocean)? What's around him (coral insects)? What is God doing (weaving)? You don't have to worry about what God actually looks like if you build a convincing and amazing world around him.

*Again, Melville gets great mileage out of letting the soul leave the body and roam about--as Ahab's does at night on the deck of the Pequod.

No comments: