In shared lament for the upcoming semester a colleague left me a cake pop with this message attached – it is Stubb from ch. 39 of Moby Dick, one of Melville’s theatrically-conceived chapters:
(Stubb solus, and mending a brace.)
Ha! ha! ha! ha! hem! clear my throat!—I’ve been thinking over it ever since, and that ha, ha’s the final consequence. Why so? Because a laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer; and come what will, one comfort’s always left—that unfailing comfort is, it’s all predestinated. I heard not all his talk with Starbuck; but to my poor eye Starbuck then looked something as I the other evening felt. Be sure the old Mogul has fixed him, too. I twigged it, knew it; had had the gift, might readily have prophesied it—for when I clapped my eye upon his skull I saw it. Well, Stubb, wise Stubb—that’s my title—well, Stubb, what of it, Stubb? Here’s a carcase. I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing. Such a waggish leering as lurks in all your horribles! I feel funny. Fa, la! lirra, skirra! What’s my juicy little pear at home doing now? Crying its eyes out?—Giving a party to the last arrived harpooneers, I dare say, gay as a frigate’s pennant, and so am I—fa, la! lirra, skirra! Oh—
We’ll drink to-night with hearts as light,
To love, as gay and fleeting
As bubbles that swim, on the beaker’s brim,
And break on the lips while meeting.
A brave stave that—who calls? Mr. Starbuck? Aye, aye, sir—(Aside) he’s my superior, he has his too, if I’m not mistaken.—Aye, aye, sir, just through with this job—coming.
Stubb is always an easy target for critics for his express refusal to engage anything with seriousness. I don’t think the character should be believed on that point – he takes an oblique, jocular angle to engagement and multiple times must warn himself away from hard thinking – but even if he is, it doesn’t discount the rich intuitive sense Melville allows him. See the sequence of chs 29-31:
CHAPTER 29. Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.
Some days elapsed, and ice and icebergs all astern, the Pequod now went rolling through the bright Quito spring, which, at sea, almost perpetually reigns on the threshold of the eternal August of the Tropic. The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbet, heaped up—flaked up, with rose-water snow. The starred and stately nights seemed haughty dames in jewelled velvets, nursing at home in lonely pride, the memory of their absent conquering Earls, the golden helmeted suns! For sleeping man, ’twas hard to choose between such winsome days and such seducing nights. But all the witcheries of that unwaning weather did not merely lend new spells and potencies to the outward world. Inward they turned upon the soul, especially when the still mild hours of eve came on; then, memory shot her crystals as the clear ice most forms of noiseless twilights. And all these subtle agencies, more and more they wrought on Ahab’s texture.
Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death. Among sea-commanders, the old greybeards will oftenest leave their berths to visit the night-cloaked deck. It was so with Ahab; only that now, of late, he seemed so much to live in the open air, that truly speaking, his visits were more to the cabin, than from the cabin to the planks. “It feels like going down into one’s tomb,”—he would mutter to himself—“for an old captain like me to be descending this narrow scuttle, to go to my grave-dug berth.”
So, almost every twenty-four hours, when the watches of the night were set, and the band on deck sentinelled the slumbers of the band below; and when if a rope was to be hauled upon the forecastle, the sailors flung it not rudely down, as by day, but with some cautiousness dropt it to its place for fear of disturbing their slumbering shipmates; when this sort of steady quietude would begin to prevail, habitually, the silent steersman would watch the cabin-scuttle; and ere long the old man would emerge, gripping at the iron banister, to help his crippled way. Some considering touch of humanity was in him; for at times like these, he usually abstained from patrolling the quarter-deck; because to his wearied mates, seeking repose within six inches of his ivory heel, such would have been the reverberating crack and din of that bony step, that their dreams would have been on the crunching teeth of sharks. But once, the mood was on him too deep for common regardings; and as with heavy, lumber-like pace he was measuring the ship from taffrail to mainmast, Stubb, the old second mate, came up from below, with a certain unassured, deprecating humorousness, hinted that if Captain Ahab was pleased to walk the planks, then, no one could say nay; but there might be some way of muffling the noise; hinting something indistinctly and hesitatingly about a globe of tow, and the insertion into it, of the ivory heel. Ah! Stubb, thou didst not know Ahab then.
“Am I a cannon-ball, Stubb,” said Ahab, “that thou wouldst wad me that fashion? But go thy ways; I had forgot. Below to thy nightly grave; where such as ye sleep between shrouds, to use ye to the filling one at last.—Down, dog, and kennel!”
Starting at the unforseen concluding exclamation of the so suddenly scornful old man, Stubb was speechless a moment; then said excitedly, “I am not used to be spoken to that way, sir; I do but less than half like it, sir.”
“Avast! gritted Ahab between his set teeth, and violently moving away, as if to avoid some passionate temptation.
“No, sir; not yet,” said Stubb, emboldened, “I will not tamely be called a dog, sir.”
“Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!”
As he said this, Ahab advanced upon him with such overbearing terrors in his aspect, that Stubb involuntarily retreated.
“I was never served so before without giving a hard blow for it,” muttered Stubb, as he found himself descending the cabin-scuttle. “It’s very queer. Stop, Stubb; somehow, now, I don’t well know whether to go back and strike him, or—what’s that?—down here on my knees and pray for him? Yes, that was the thought coming up in me; but it would be the first time I ever did pray. It’s queer; very queer; and he’s queer too; aye, take him fore and aft, he’s about the queerest old man Stubb ever sailed with. How he flashed at me!—his eyes like powder-pans! is he mad? Anyway there’s something on his mind, as sure as there must be something on a deck when it cracks. He aint in his bed now, either, more than three hours out of the twenty-four; and he don’t sleep then. Didn’t that Dough-Boy, the steward, tell me that of a morning he always finds the old man’s hammock clothes all rumpled and tumbled, and the sheets down at the foot, and the coverlid almost tied into knots, and the pillow a sort of frightful hot, as though a baked brick had been on it? A hot old man! I guess he’s got what some folks ashore call a conscience; it’s a kind of Tic-Dolly-row they say—worse nor a toothache. Well, well; I don’t know what it is, but the Lord keep me from catching it. He’s full of riddles; I wonder what he goes into the after hold for, every night, as Dough-Boy tells me he suspects; what’s that for, I should like to know? Who’s made appointments with him in the hold? Ain’t that queer, now? But there’s no telling, it’s the old game—Here goes for a snooze. Damn me, it’s worth a fellow’s while to be born into the world, if only to fall right asleep. And now that I think of it, that’s about the first thing babies do, and that’s a sort of queer, too. Damn me, but all things are queer, come to think of ’em. But that’s against my principles. Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth—So here goes again. But how’s that? didn’t he call me a dog? blazes! he called me ten times a donkey, and piled a lot of jackasses on top of that! He might as well have kicked me, and done with it. Maybe he did kick me, and I didn’t observe it, I was so taken all aback with his brow, somehow. It flashed like a bleached bone. What the devil’s the matter with me? I don’t stand right on my legs. Coming afoul of that old man has a sort of turned me wrong side out. By the Lord, I must have been dreaming, though—How? how? how?—but the only way’s to stash it; so here goes to hammock again; and in the morning, I’ll see how this plaguey juggling thinks over by daylight.”
CHAPTER 31. Queen Mab.
Next morning Stubb accosted Flask.
“Such a queer dream, King-Post, I never had. You know the old man’s ivory leg, well I dreamed he kicked me with it; and when I tried to kick back, upon my soul, my little man, I kicked my leg right off! And then, presto! Ahab seemed a pyramid, and I, like a blazing fool, kept kicking at it. But what was still more curious, Flask—you know how curious all dreams are—through all this rage that I was in, I somehow seemed to be thinking to myself, that after all, it was not much of an insult, that kick from Ahab. ‘Why,’ thinks I, ‘what’s the row? It’s not a real leg, only a false leg.’ And there’s a mighty difference between a living thump and a dead thump. That’s what makes a blow from the hand, Flask, fifty times more savage to bear than a blow from a cane. The living member—that makes the living insult, my little man. And thinks I to myself all the while, mind, while I was stubbing my silly toes against that cursed pyramid—so confoundedly contradictory was it all, all the while, I say, I was thinking to myself, ‘what’s his leg now, but a cane—a whalebone cane. Yes,’ thinks I, ‘it was only a playful cudgelling—in fact, only a whaleboning that he gave me—not a base kick. Besides,’ thinks I, ‘look at it once; why, the end of it—the foot part—what a small sort of end it is; whereas, if a broad footed farmer kicked me, there’s a devilish broad insult. But this insult is whittled down to a point only.’ But now comes the greatest joke of the dream, Flask. While I was battering away at the pyramid, a sort of badger-haired old merman, with a hump on his back, takes me by the shoulders, and slews me round. ‘What are you ’bout?’ says he. Slid! man, but I was frightened. Such a phiz! But, somehow, next moment I was over the fright. ‘What am I about?’ says I at last. ‘And what business is that of yours, I should like to know, Mr. Humpback? Do you want a kick?’ By the lord, Flask, I had no sooner said that, than he turned round his stern to me, bent over, and dragging up a lot of seaweed he had for a clout—what do you think, I saw?—why thunder alive, man, his stern was stuck full of marlinspikes, with the points out. Says I, on second thoughts, ‘I guess I won’t kick you, old fellow.’ ‘Wise Stubb,’ said he, ‘wise Stubb;’ and kept muttering it all the time, a sort of eating of his own gums like a chimney hag. Seeing he wasn’t going to stop saying over his ‘wise Stubb, wise Stubb,’ I thought I might as well fall to kicking the pyramid again. But I had only just lifted my foot for it, when he roared out, ‘Stop that kicking!’ ‘Halloa,’ says I, ‘what’s the matter now, old fellow?’ ‘Look ye here,’ says he; ‘let’s argue the insult. Captain Ahab kicked ye, didn’t he?’ ‘Yes, he did,’ says I—‘right here it was.’ ‘Very good,’ says he—‘he used his ivory leg, didn’t he?’ ‘Yes, he did,’ says I. ‘Well then,’ says he, ‘wise Stubb, what have you to complain of? Didn’t he kick with right good will? it wasn’t a common pitch pine leg he kicked with, was it? No, you were kicked by a great man, and with a beautiful ivory leg, Stubb. It’s an honor; I consider it an honor. Listen, wise Stubb. In old England the greatest lords think it great glory to be slapped by a queen, and made garter-knights of; but, be your boast, Stubb, that ye were kicked by old Ahab, and made a wise man of. Remember what I say; be kicked by him; account his kicks honors; and on no account kick back; for you can’t help yourself, wise Stubb. Don’t you see that pyramid?’ With that, he all of a sudden seemed somehow, in some queer fashion, to swim off into the air. I snored; rolled over; and there I was in my hammock! Now, what do you think of that dream, Flask?”
“I don’t know; it seems a sort of foolish to me, tho.’”
“May be; may be. But it’s made a wise man of me, Flask. D’ye see Ahab standing there, sideways looking over the stern? Well, the best thing you can do, Flask, is to let the old man alone; never speak to him, whatever he says. Halloa! What’s that he shouts? Hark!”
“Mast-head, there! Look sharp, all of ye! There are whales hereabouts!
“If ye see a white one, split your lungs for him!
“What do you think of that now, Flask? ain’t there a small drop of something queer about that, eh? A white whale—did ye mark that, man? Look ye—there’s something special in the wind. Stand by for it, Flask. Ahab has that that’s bloody on his mind. But, mum; he comes this way.”