Monday, November 30, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Calmness

Hast seen the white whale? Yes, at last, we hast. The very thing we've been looking for surfaces in Chapter 133 of Moby Dick. Now Melville really has to deliver the goods, after four hundred fifty pages (depending on your edition) of buildup. We've already seen him come through once, reporting rumor after rumor about Ahab, then revealing him with a fireworks display of stunning metaphors. But the white whale is an even bigger deal. And to show the whale at all brings paradox--because the whale represents the unrepresentable. His appearance is bound to be a disappointment, and a failure of sorts.

So how does the whale appear? Melville could have had him shoot up out of nowhere and dash a hole in the Pequod--that would have been exciting. Instead, the whale's revealed gradually and softly. In fact the first hint of his presence is that most insubstantial of presences, a smell.

That night, in the mid-watch when the old man--as his wont at intervals--stepped forth from the scuttle in which he leaned, and went to his pivot-hole, he suddenly thrust out his face fiercely, snuffing up the sea air as a sagacious ship's dog will, in drawing nigh to some barbarous isle. He declared that a whale must be near. Soon that peculiar odor, sometimes to a great distance given forth by the living sperm whale, was palpable to all the watch; nor was any mariner surprised when, after inspecting the compass, and then the dog-vane, and then ascertaining the precise bearing of the odor as nearly as possible, Ahab rapidly ordered the ship's course to be slightly altered, and the sail to be shortened.

The acute policy dictating these movements was sufficiently vindicated at daybreak, by the sight of a long sleek on the sea directly and lengthwise ahead, smooth as oil, and resembling in the pleated watery wrinkles bordering it, the polished metallic-like marks of some swift tide-rip, at the mouth of a deep, rapid stream.

In contrast to Ahab's first appearance, borne on images of torment, Moby Dick's surrounded by a hush. He does not churn through the water; he seems to smooth and calm its surface--even as the tide-rip roars deep below. Shortly afterwards we get this fairly conventional cry (from Ahab): "There she blows!--there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!" Then a lot of rushing around by the crew as the boats are lowered. Still, Moby Dick, like the waters above him, remains unperturbed.

Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam. He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond. Before it, far out on the soft Turkish-rugged waters, went the glistening white shadow from his broad, milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving valley of his steady wake; and on either hand bright bubbles arose and danced by his side. But these were broken again by the light toes of hundreds of gay fowls softly feathering the sea, alternate with their fitful flight; and like to some flag-staff rising from the painted hull of an argosy, the tall but shattered pole of a recent lance projected from the white whale's back; and at intervals one of the cloud of soft-toed fowls hovering, and to and fro skimming like a canopy over the fish, silently perched and rocked on this pole, the long tail feathers streaming like pennons.

A gentle joyousness--a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.

On each soft side--coincident with the parted swell, that but once leaving him then flowed so wide away--on each bright side, the whale shed off enticings. No wonder there had been some among the hunters who namelessly transported and allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes. Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou mayst have bejuggled and destroyed before.

And thus, through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia's Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded and went out of sight. Hoveringly halting, and dipping on the wing, the white sea-fowls longingly lingered over the agitated pool that he left.

Serenity, as the calm at the eye of the storm, is a common way of depicting ominous power. Still, it works here, especially because of the whale's effects on his surroundings. He casts a spell over the waves and the seabirds, making them not only calm, but joyous. The waves are suspended by "exceeding rapture"; the birds "longingly linger" over the spot from which dives. He's beatific. He's seduced nature, or rather "ravaged" it, as the reference to Europa and the bull suggests. Nature seems unnaturally happy, even drugged, and that's how Moby Dick lives up to his billing. The first jolt he delivers is our realization that he's not merely aggressive and violent. He alters things simply by passing by or through them, and makes them strange. This seems like a good way to depict awesome power: show the ordinary world changing in its wake.

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