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.