Monday, October 19, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The world upside down

Well, it's happened. I've been dreading this. In Moby Dick this past week, I had to read the harrowing chapters in which a whale is graphically killed. I was much less of a softie, apparently, the last time I read this; I don't remember being particularly bothered by the cruelty on display. I guess I had my own problems back then, and / or I was just too taken with all the collapsing metaphors and writing (on) the body jazz that I just thought, "hmmm, interesting." This time I told myself I would skim the whole business and then look for something beyond it to write about. What made me most afraid, I think, was my memory (which must have really been of the workings of my own detached mind) that Melville was terribly clinical about the event. That he saw whales as inscrutable monsters, metaphors for the impenetrable cruelty of the universe--so he was only worried about what happened to the men on the hunt, so vulnerable, out in their little boats, to these forces.

Not so. If anything, "Stubb kills a whale" displays the cruelty of the hunt for all to see. The whale's torment goes on for pages, and ends thus:

And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view! surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frightened air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!

"He's dead, Mr. Stubb," said Daggoo.

"Yes; both pipes smoked out!" and withdrawing his own from his mouth, Stubb scattered the dead ashes over the water; and, for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made.

"His heart had burst!" is right out of a sentimental novel. And even the enthusiastic hunter, Stubb, is struck into (brief) contemplation of what he's done. When we first see this whale, his spout is compared to "a portly burgher smoking his pipe of a warm afternoon." "But," Melville adds, "that pipe, poor whale, was thy last." It is telling that by the end of the hunt, Stubb sees the same connection himself.

Before this chapter, much is made of cannibalism as a metaphor for the human--and animal--condition. In the chapter "Brit," Melville says:

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

We then get a discourse on the tangled harpoon line, leading to the conclusion that "All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks..." In retrospect, having read the murder scene, this all seems like rationalization. Are men really no different from the whales they murder? Is the sea really just as cruel, and the whales cruel (at least in the case of Moby Dick)--so that there is no individual motive or responsibility when humans kill whales? I realize I am reading with my PETA glasses on here. But still, the way Melville plays up this whale's humanity, and the fact that even experienced whale-men never quite get used to this act, seem to mean something. This scene is a horror.

It's also clear that Melville thinks it's a horror because of what happens next in the narrative. Immediately after the whale dies, Melville takes two brief chapters to describe some technical aspects of the hunt: "The Dart" and "The Crotch." He introduces "The Dart" with dry pedantry: "A word concerning an incident in the last chapter"; "The Crotch" begins similarly: "The crotch alluded to on a previous page deserves independent mention." It is as if he, like Stubb, like the readers, all need to step back and contemplate what we've made (because we've made this corpse too, if only in our imaginations). It's too much to keep going forward right now.

But then things get really weird. Stubb, as per his ritual, wants to feast on a stake cut from the carcass. As he's munching away, sharks come to take their share of the dead whale lashed to the ship's side.

Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship's decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other's live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasselled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and though, were you to turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be pretty much the same thing, that is to say, a shocking sharkish business enough for all parties; and though sharks also are the invariable outriders of all slave ships crossing the Atlantic, systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere, or a dead slave to be decently buried; and though one or two other like instances might be set down, touching the set terms, places, and occasions, when sharks do most socially congregate, and most hilariously feast; yet is there no conceivable time or occasion when you will find them in such countless numbers, and in gayer or more jovial spirits, than around a dead sperm whale, moored by night to a whaleship at sea. If you have never seen that sight, then suspend your decision about the propriety of devil-worship, and the expediency of conciliating the devil.

Sharks as devils following sea battles become dogs at the dinner table; at almost the same time we're talking about slave ships--and why sharks follow them; then back to hilarious feasting, jovial spirits; then the devil once again. "If you were to turn the whole affair upside down..." Melville says, and that's exactly what he's doing here. Turning the world over, and over again, till we're all thoroughly disoriented. This is not the sort of mystical mirroring of mind and nature one finds, say, in Thoreau. All this inversion takes place on the same plane, the plane of the real world. This world is upside down, because of this killing. Things get stranger still, as Stubb calls out the old black cook, Fleece, and demands that he preach to the sharks--not to stop them from eating, but to get them to do it quietly. This Fleece does, not happily. Why preach to sharks? Who knows? It seems to be a whim of a discombobulated Stubb, or some kind of oddball punishment. Stubb complains to Fleece that the steak was too tender and suggests he won't make it to heaven for denying it. Fleece, goofy old black sage that he is, sums up the upside-downness:

"Wish, by gor! whale eat him, 'stead of him eat whale. I'm bressed if he ain't more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself," muttered the old man, limping away; with which sage ejaculation he went to his hammock.

In The Secret Agent, Conrad created horror with mundane sounds. Here, we get horror through the flipping and rolling of the world. Everything's simply crazy; so is everyone, including the narrator, who suddenly starts studying gizmos on the boat as a way of gathering himself. These seem like good ways to portray a truly awful event, its prelude and its aftermath.

No comments: