Monday, June 2, 2008

The Question


So says Ishmael in the epilogue to the novel, "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale."

Why did Ishmael alone survive? Because he was the only one to resist Ahab's passion? "Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!" [XXXVI]

No, that would be Starbuck, who resisted at times in his mind and in his private words to Ahab, but who never actively interfered with the quest. Emphatically not Ishmael:
"I, ISHMAEL, was one of that crew: my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul." [XLI]

All were captive to the quest. On the penultimate day, "The frenzies of the chase had by this time worked them bubbling up...They were one man, not thirty...all the individualities of the crew...were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to." [CXXXIV]

We don't hear Ishmael's voice in this assessment--he is part of the oneness. So why Ishmael? Because he was the hero in shining armor with the rugged good looks of a Richard Basehart? Because he was uniquely able to store in his head all the minutia of whaling that was to be laid out in the novel? No and no. He was saved because it just happened that way. Really.

Ishmael explains in the epilogue. Fedallah, harpooneer on Ahab's boat, on the second day of the chase became entangled in the whale rope fast to Moby Dick. The Parsee was pulled under to his death, fulfilling part of Ahab's doom. Ishmael took the oar on Ahab's boat on the third day (Easter Sunday). At Ahab's first dart, the whale capsized the boat, spilling three oarsmen into the ocean. Two pulled themselves back in, but the third, Ishmael, was left behind to swim with the sharks.

He wasn't eaten and he happened to land in the only safe location as the Pequod sank into the deep, breached by the whale. Any closer to the ship and he would be sucked into the ship's death maelstrom. Any farther away and the ebbing maelstrom could not draw him in to where the lifebuoy popped into his lap. And this lifebuoy floated, as its predecessor on the Pequod did not. All this in the middle of the search pattern of the Rachel; on a mission to rescue her own lost to the whale, she finds Ishmael instead.

The Pequod sank with all hands, Ahab was hanged by a loop of the whale rope after a desperate, last toss of the harpoon, but what of Ishmael's boat mates? "...concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight...Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

So the novel ends. Life is short, read the ending first, especially with a book as long as Moby-Dick. It's all there, all you need to know.

But perhaps not all you wish to know, nor all there is to know. For you, a little commentary.

Camus considers Moby-Dick an absurdist novel (you can look it up). This view is hardly universal; almost no one in these days of freedom fries embraces this idea. Perhaps Camus is mistaken--after all, how would he know?

Still, the ending has an absurdist character. We see utterly indifferent nature in the unsounded ocean as the waves close over the Pequod. Ishmael survives through the vagaries of chance. If Moby-Dick is absurdist, it is absurdist to the end, without raising false hope that life could be better, if only...

Consider the Taoist story retold by Alan Watts, about "...a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, 'May be.'

"The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, 'May be.'

"And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said 'May be.'

"The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer's son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, 'May be.' " (Tao story)

Now consider Ishmael's several turnings on the way:

Selected for Ahab's whaleboat,
Thrown out of Ahab's whaleboat,
Drawn in to the deadly maelstrom,
Maelstrom died out before swallowing Ishmael,
Left entirely alone to swim on the wide ocean,
Thrown a lifebuoy by the sunken Pequod,
Floated for a day and a night with no hope of rescue,
Picked up by the Rachel at the last.

I think that Ishmael would have said, "May be" and not "Why me?" at each of these turnings. That is why he keeps his reason in a world without reason.

The Antipodes
Willard Thorp of Princeton University writes the introduction to my 1947 edition of Moby-Dick. His reason for Ishmael being saved? "He is stronger in resisting Ahab's sway than the mates...Ishmael alone survives the final catastrophe, and for two reasons. Of course someone must survive to tell us the story. But Ishmael deserves to live because he has not been a party with his entire consent to the blasphemous pursuit of the White Whale."

More deserving than Starbuck? who entreats Ahab the night before the whale is first raised, "...let us fly these deadly waters! let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck's--wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine, sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, longing, paternal old age! Away! let us away!--this instant let me alter the course!" Ahab turns from Starbuck for a moment, to muse on Fate and the long sleep that awaits us all; before he can turn back, "...blanched to a corpse's hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away."

Thorp is harsh with Starbuck to acknowledge no resistence in him. Why should Ishmael survive Ahab, why should anyone die with Ahab? It is natural to grasp for a reason, unless one recognizes the absurdity and the lack of reason. Thorp or Camus? We should not judge from the ending alone. We'll revisit Camus's proposition in future posts.

I hope this has whet your appetite to read or re-read Moby-Dick. You can discover an ocean totally different from Melville's, though still mostly indifferent, in "Solaris," by Stanislaw Lem.

The Infundibulum, 5 CABAN
My first post was on 5 KAN(1). It is now 5 CABAN. Looking back, I was born on 5 IMIX. What's with all these fives?

What is the likelihood that a five turns up here, given all the available integers in the universe? Vanishingly small. What about three identical fives, all at once? Vanishingly smaller. But a priori, it seems the likelihood is 50% (either it happens or it doesn't). Then a posteriori, the likelihood is 100% (because it does happen!). ipso facto. Does this demonstrate a deep disconnect between human thought and nature? Consult the Rev. T. Bayes (Look it up.) et alia for deeper insight into this conundrum.

'til next time, happy trails.

1. Dates are given in the Tolkien(2) religious calendar of the Maya.
2. Note the anglicized spelling for Tzolkin.

- L.T.

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