Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Oh! Thou clear spirit of clear fire - the alchemical allegory of Moby-Dick; or, Melville has driven me mad

I have a Modern Library edition of Moby-Dick, an old one, with no scholarly apparatus, and no notes that aren’t Melville’s.  No flipping to the back this time through the book.  I just read it.  Great book; great book.  Cows shod in cod, the ship “garnished like one continuous jaw” with the teeth of the sperm whale, the massacre of the sharks, wonderful, wonderful.  Somewhere heading towards the end, though, something started to, I don’t know, shift.  Right about here, from Chapter 96, “The Try-Works”:

As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then 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.

First, man, that’s good.  How is that not good?  It’s laid on pretty thick, I guess, this transformation of a whale ship into Hell, devils and all.  The harpooners are boiling a whale, that’s all that’s actually happening, but Ishmael, at the helm, has a visionary experience that is revelatory, “[a] stark, bewildered feeling, as of death” – this Hell has been on the ship all along, in its captain, Ahab.  The vision nearly causes Ishmael to capsize the ship, which made sense to me as the pattern came clear.  “Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!” says Ishmael, the novel’s water spirit.  The captain, Ahab, is of course the representative of fire.

I seem to be reducing Moby-Dick to some sort of allegory based on the four elements, which is crazy.  Whatever you do, do not search through the very first chapter for water references, starting with the second sentence.  I want to stay with Ahab, the sun worshipper.  I wonder when the idea is introduced.  I sure wasn’t looking for it, even though Melville could hardly be clearer, since King Ahab worshipped a sun god.  Please refer to I Kings 18.  Everyone reading with notes got this right away.  And the secret passengers, Ahab’s handpicked boat crew, are Parsees, Zoroastrians, fire worshippers.

Ahab’s Mithraism* is only gradually revealed (I think – gotta reread this book).  After “The Try-Works,” though, nothing is hidden.  Ahab destroys his quadrant so he can steer by the sun, begins to directly address the sun, and forges himself a magic harpoon.  The culmination is Chapter 119, “The Candles,” the lightning storm, when the whole ship is crackling with electricity.**  Ahab grasps a lightning rod and “put his foot upon the Parsee” and shrieks:

“Oh! Thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance.”

And on like that for a couple of pages, culminating in the lightning \ storm god either blessing or cursing the harpoon that will later be used to kill Moby Dick.  As the harpoon barb “burned there like a serpent’s tongue, Starbuck grasped Ahab by the arm – ‘God, God is against thee, old man; forbear!’”  Starbuck might be right, but he might be wrong.

Tomorrow, the case for Ahab.  Yesterday, I said the novel was about knowledge.  Yes.  It’s all connected.  Ha ha ha ha!  All connected!  I need to lie down for a minute.

*I know this word because of William Gaddis.  The sun worship subplot of The Recognitions (1955) is, I now see, plucked from Moby-Dick.

** If the good influence of Hawthorne can be seen in any single chapter, it’s right here.  “The Candles” parallels, although is even crazier than, “The Minister’s Vigil” in The Scarlet Letter.


  1. Whatever you do, do not search through the very first chapter for water references, starting with the second sentence.

    Haha. Someday I should have a whole edition of Moby-Dick just set aside to have each water reference flagged. You couldn't possibly flag anything else in the same copy!

    I say gradually too, though, again, gotta re-read this book. In "The Quarter-Deck," ch. 36, when Ahab nails up the doubloon, he "holds up a broad bright coin to the sun" before giving a speech full of other good stuff--"my heat has melted thee to anger-glow"; "warm words"; "incense thee".

  2. That's amazing, just amazing. It's all right there at the beginning - but it's not so thick, so it's harder to see. And who, at this point, will be looking for the sun\fire imagery? I wasn't, anyway.

  3. Yeah, agreed. I only thought of it at all because of how much importance gets placed on the doubloon--which is from Quito, even, and has all sorts of sun imagery on it.

  4. I thought about spending a day with the doubloon. I'm sure that chapter, about analyzing something to death, has been analyzed to death.

    Actually, is that one of those "here's how to read my book" sections? Or how not to read it? Or both?

  5. Yeah, it has definitely been analyzed to death. I can't deal with that kind of thing; it makes me feel contrarian. Screw the doubloon!

    I guess your other question would be up for debate. Or, since Moby-Dick contains the set of all possible meanings, then "both." Ha.

  6. Screw the doubloon!

    A fine sentiment. As you have seen, my motto this week has been something like "If you can't bend it, break it."

  7. Quarry Hill in Rochester, Vermont, one of the oldest communities in the US and the oldest and biggest in Vermont, has long had a dedicated and passionate relationship with Moby-Dick and Melville. My parents chased that whale around the world and back again, in the form of all that the conforming people of this earth wanted them to forbear. Sex, lust (Irving, my father:"In Lust We Trust"), nakedness, psychic fine-tuning-- everything... "STRIKE (or stroke) Through the MASK!"

    Never here will the Pequod be forgotten. For I am left alone to tell thee.
    -- Ladybelle Fiske
    Quarry Hill, Rochester, VT (visitors welcome)

  8. PS We've been around sinc3 1946. See our blog: