From the opening chapter of Melville’s Moby Dick. I normally read this novel in 1-2 consuming sittings but I’d like to try something different this time and hit no more than a few chapters each day.
No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one’s sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time.
What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.
There’s a fascinating thread running through the novel of ruminations prompted by thumping, slapping, and striking. Jump to Stubb’s dream in ch.31 (Queen Mab) and you find:
“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?”
And further on in Fleece’s speech to the sharks (ch 64 Stubb’s Supper):
“Do you is all sharks, and by natur wery woracious, yet I zay to you, fellow-critters, dat dat woraciousness—’top dat dam slappin’ ob de tail! How you tink to hear, spose you keep up such a dam slappin’ and bitin’ dare?”
“Cook,” cried Stubb, collaring him, “I won’t have that swearing. Talk to ’em gentlemanly.”
Once more the sermon proceeded.
“Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now, look here, bred’ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don’t be tearin’ de blubber out your neighbour’s mout, I say. Is not one shark dood right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o’ you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts sometimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness of de mout is not to swaller wid, but to bit off de blubber for de small fry ob sharks, dat can’t get into de scrouge to help demselves.”
“Well done, old Fleece!” cried Stubb, “that’s Christianity; go on.”
“No use goin’ on; de dam willains will keep a scougin’ and slappin’ each oder, Massa Stubb; dey don’t hear one word; no use a-preachin’ to such dam g’uttons as you call ’em, till dare bellies is full, and dare bellies is bottomless; and when dey do get ’em full, dey wont hear you den; for den dey sink in de sea, go fast to sleep on de coral, and can’t hear not’ing at all, no more, for eber and eber.”
And last of the suggestive samples, from chapter 86 (The Tail):
Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.
But as if this vast local power in the tendinous tail were not enough, the whole bulk of the leviathan is knit over with a warp and woof of muscular fibres and filaments, which passing on either side the loins and running down into the flukes, insensibly blend with them, and largely contribute to their might; so that in the tail the confluent measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point. Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it.
Nor does this—its amazing strength, at all tend to cripple the graceful flexion of its motions; where infantileness of ease undulates through a Titanism of power. On the contrary, those motions derive their most appalling beauty from it. Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic. Take away the tied tendons that all over seem bursting from the marble in the carved Hercules, and its charm would be gone. As devout Eckerman lifted the linen sheet from the naked corpse of Goethe, he was overwhelmed with the massive chest of the man, that seemed as a Roman triumphal arch. When Angelo paints even God the Father in human form, mark what robustness is there. And whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled, hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings.
Such is the subtle elasticity of the organ I treat of, that whether wielded in sport, or in earnest, or in anger, whatever be the mood it be in, its flexions are invariably marked by exceeding grace. Therein no fairy’s arm can transcend it.
It is a little significant, that while one sperm whale only fights another sperm whale with his head and jaw, nevertheless, in his conflicts with man, he chiefly and contemptuously uses his tail. In striking at a boat, he swiftly curves away his flukes from it, and the blow is only inflicted by the recoil. If it be made in the unobstructed air, especially if it descend to its mark, the stroke is then simply irresistible. No ribs of man or boat can withstand it. Your only salvation lies in eluding it; but if it comes sideways through the opposing water, then partly owing to the light buoyancy of the whale-boat, and the elasticity of its materials, a cracked rib or a dashed plank or two, a sort of stitch in the side, is generally the most serious result. These submerged side blows are so often received in the fishery, that they are accounted mere child’s play. Some one strips off a frock, and the hole is stopped.