Monday 10 February 2020

Moby-Dick - Chapters 91 - 100


Since my last post I've read a biography called Herman Melville - Mariner and Mystic by Raymond Melbourne Weaver. 

It was a fairly lacklustre, uninspiring bio in the end. It was a straight down the line linear look at Melville's life, as one might expect from a book first published in 1921. There was a lot of back story about his parents and grandparents and LOTS of discussion and quotes from his most well-known books. In fact, most of the information about Melville's life seemed to come from his South Sea books and his letters. A few letters that he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne were included as well.

Curiously almost nothing was said about his children, not even the suicide of his son, which obviously had a huge impact on the ageing Melville. There were also gaps about his father's financial and mental health problems, his strict Calvanistic upbringing, Melville existential and religious angst as he matured and the fact that he did actually keep on writing right up to his death, especially poetry. 

Perhaps a 1921 biographer didn't have the research techniques to hand that more modern ones do. Either way, it seems that Weaver did not dig very deep to write this particular bio. He was also very happy to insert his own opinions into the book. He judged the value of each Melville's books and completely dismissed anything that Melville wrote in his later life. This is what happened to Melville at the time - Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852) were not well received at all. However, modern researchers have now ascertained that the negative reviews were written and published by religious organisations unhappy with Melville's stance on Christian missionaries. They ridiculed his writing and claimed he was going mad. No-one questioned or challenged them, and no doubt, Melville felt that his concerns about Christianity in action, were confirmed by this smear campaign.

Weaver was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University from 1916-1948. His book is credited with the Melville revival that began at this time, for which we (lovers of Moby-Dick) will always be grateful.

Apparently this was the first ever in-depth look at Melville's life, coming as it did after the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1919. Weaver had been asked to write a magazine piece to celebrate this milestone, which then developed into this book two years later.

Wikipedia sums up the book by saying,
Weaver presents Melville as a disappointed and disillusioned genius who rebelled against social convention and paid the price: "His whole history is the record of an attempt to escape from an inexorable and intolerable world of reality." Weaver praises Melville for establishing the South Seas as a suitable topic for literature and for his depictions of a sailor's sea-life, but saved his highest praise for Moby-Dick, Melville's "undoubted masterpiece." But Weaver saw the cold reception from critics as leading to the "Long Quietus," that is, Melville's withdrawal from engagement with literature. He characterized Melville's work after 1851 as inferior, sometimes even unacceptable.

It was an interesting read, but frustrating thanks to the obvious gaps and overt judgements. If anyone could recommend a more modern bio for me to try next, I would appreciate it.

But now, onto our chapters.

Ch 91: The Pequod Meets the Rose-bud
  • "In vain it was to rake for Ambergriese in the paunch of this Leviathan, insufferable fetor denying that inquiry." Sir T. Browne, V. E.
  • I was wondering when we'd get to the ambergris. Having read Perfume a number of years, where I learnt something about the importance of ambergris to the perfume industry, I knew it had to turn up eventually, like all bad smells do!
  • Naughty Stubb! Even though the Rose-bud has two fast-fish, seeing the potential for ambergris in one of them, Stubb scams convinces the unknowing French crew that the whales are poisonous and to let them go.
  • Stubb gathers six handfuls 'worth a gold guinea an ounce'.

Ch 92: Ambergris
  • More thoughts about the nature of ambergris and what it might mean for mankind.
    • that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing?
  • St Paul in Corinthians: we are sown in dishonor, but raised in glory.
  • Ishmael defends the honour of whalemen and the cleanliness of whales.

Ch 93: The Castaway
  • Back to the action.
  • Young Pip the 'unduly slender, clumsy, or timorous wight' has an accident.
  • Not a comfortable chapter for a modern reader to read. Pip is an African-American and Melville uses the terminology of his times to describe Pip, who never really gets a chance to rise above the stereotype.
  • Before the accident, Pip is brilliant. He 'loved life, and all life's peaceable securities.' But after being lost at sea for a period of time, he is rescued 
    • but from that hour...went about the deck an idiot....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....Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent....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.
  • Ishmael also gives us a hint of what's to come 'in the sequel of this narrative, it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself.'

Ch 94: A Squeeze of the Hand
  • Probably the most famous chapter in Moby-Dick!
  • Squeezing lumps out of the spermaceti - 'it was our business to squeeze these lumps black into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty!'
    • I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
    • It's easy to see how modern readers can find this section to be homoerotic. But I doubt very much that that is how Melville, or other readers of that time, viewed it. Melville, via Ishmael is simply revelling in the joyous part of whaling. For Ishmael, those parts are the ones where he can go into a bit of a meditative state - whether it's up in the crows nest on a balmy sunny day or engaged in a repetitive task with his co-workers, that also happens to smell rather nice.
  • Ishmael finishes with the various cuts of whale.
    • White-horse - a wad of muscle - oily oblongs of flesh that go to the mincer.
    • Plum-pudding - part of the whale flesh
    • Slobgollion - an ineffable oozy, stringy affair, most frequently found in the tubs of sperm, after a prolonged squeezing, and subsequent decanting.
    • Gurry - a dark, glutinous substance which is scraped off the back of whales.
    • Nippers - a short firm strip of tendinous stuff cut from the tapering part of a Leviathan's tail.
  • Ishmael also warns us about the dangers to toes when working in the blubber-room - very sharp spades!

Ch 95: The Cassock
  • a very strange, enigmatical object...lying lengthwise in the lee scuppers - a whale penis!
  • the grandissimus is skinned like the pelt of a boa, turned inside out and stretched to dry in the rigging.
  • The top three feet of this pelt is then cut off, two slits for arm-holes are cut into before the mincer slips himself bodily into it.
  • Apparently this cassock, affords the mincer some form of protection as he works.
  • Melville compares the mincing bulwarks to a pulpit - perhaps one of the reasons many Christian groups were unhappy with this book. He also reminded them/us that penis icons were worshipped in ancient Judea.
    • Arrayed in decent black; occupying a conspicuous pulpit; intent on bible leaves; what a candidate for an archbishoprick, what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!
    • The reference to bible leaves, was a whaling term used to encourage the mincer to slice the blubber is thin as possible.
    • Google 'whale penis' if you'd like to see a more accurate depiction than the one below!

Ch 96: The Try-Works
  • The area of the ship designed to distil the whale blubber into oil. 
  • The furnace is compared to Ahab's heart.
    • the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.
  • I read this chapter during one of the worst weeks of the recent bushfire season. The smell of smoke was very real!
    • once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time.
  • Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.

Ch 97: The Lamp
  • Ishmael loves the whaling life & here he reminds us just how wonderful and lucky they are thanks to the amount of oil they have on board to light their lamps.
    • But the whaleman, as he seeks the food of light, so he lives in light.
    • A far more noble trade than a merchantman, who has to dress in the dark and eat in the dark, and stumble in the darkness to his pallet.

Ch 98: Stowing Down and Clearing Up
  • Fairly self-explanatory - once the oil has been casked and stowed, the ship is thoroughly cleaned in preparation for the next whale.
  • Ishmael compares this to life  - as we go through young life's old routine again. No sooner is one job completed, then the next one starts up.

Ch 99: The Doubloon
  • This is the gold doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast when he challenged the crew to join him in his hunt for the white whale.
  • In this chapter the doubloon, and it's engraved images, are symbols seen differently through different eyes.
    • Ahab - sees all things Ahab - the firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab.
    • Starbuck finds a more religious significance in the coin - So in this vale of Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the sun of Righteousness still shines a beacon and a hope.
    • Stubb would prefer to spend the coin than see it nailed to a mast! He uses an almanac to read the signs but decides that you books must know your places. You'll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts. In the end, Stubb's nuts out that the doubloon represents the life of man.
    • Flask sees nothing but a round thing made of gold.
    • The Manxman (the oldest man on the ship) uses the doubloon and the nearby horseshoe to predict when they will sight the white whale.
    • Queequeg takes it for an old button off some king's trowsers.
    • Fedallah makes a sign to the sign and bows himself.
    • Pip recites nothing but "I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look."

Ch 100: Leg and Arm ⦁ The Pequod, of Nantucket, meets the Samuel Enderby, of London.
  • The Captain of the Samuel Enderby is missing an arm, all thanks to Moby-Dick.
  • Ahab and the English Captain Boomer compare notes. 
  • He sees Moby-Dick as a noble great whale...the noblest and biggest I ever saw, is quite philosophical about the loss of his arm, and has no intention of trying to catch Moby-Dick again, 'ain't one limb enough?' Whaling is a dangerous business; no need to place oneself in the way of undue or unnecessary danger.
    • No more White Whales for me; I've lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me. There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm in him, but, hark ye, he's best let alone; don't you think so, Captain?"
  • Ahab agrees but 'What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures. He's all a magnet!'
  • The contrast between the two is evident.

Only 35 chapters to go - we're on the home stretch now!

I'd love to hear about your progress through Moby-Dick and please remember to add any new posts about the book or Melville to the linky in the original post.

Extracts - Chapter 7
Chapters 12 - 16
Chapters 17 - 20
Chapters 21 - 25
Chapters 26 - 30
Chapters 31 - 34
Chapters 35 - 40
Chapters 41 - 44
Chapters 45 - 49
Chapters 50 - 60
Chapters 61 - 70
Chapters 71 - 80
Chapters 81 - 90
Chapters 91 - 100


  1. So sad about the not so great bio.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you here:

    It's easy to see how modern readers can find this section to be homoerotic. But I doubt very much that that is how Melville, or other readers of that time, viewed it. Melville, via Ishmael is simply reveling in the joyous part of whaling.

    This is a mesmerizing book, larger than life. I still think about it often. I'm grateful for you to call this read along. Despite of having felt compelled to read it in two months approx., your call was my motivation to attempt it again, and this time I finished it.

    1. I will never forget my time with Moby-Dick for sure.


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