02 February 2011

Vengeance on a Dumb Brute

In the current wikipedia article on Melville they have that business about the mental constitution of the man. I have seen a lot of odd things about Melville and particularly about his novel, Moby Dick. I am not obsessed with Ahab, but I am interested. Sometimes I can believe I am the only reader who understands what exactly is going on in this novel. (That is not a bad criterion for a an effective piece of art--it leaves much of the audience feeling that they have a special understanding of the artist's point.) There is something about a working voyage on the deep sea in danger and isolation and boredom which can drive men mad.

There is one sentence in particular which I don't think I will ever forget. They are talking about the whale and Queequeg (the cannibal) offers:

"And he have one, two, three-oh! good many iron in him hide, too, Captain," cried Queequeg disjointedly, "all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him-him-" faltering hard for a word, and screwing his hand round and round as though uncorking a bottle-"like him-him-"

Well it is not exactly a sentence as somebody else finishes what Queequeg seems powerless to get to the period at the end of. This character who is not a native English speaker emits one of the greatest phrases of all: all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him-him-.

The first time I read Moby Dick it was for a class. That was not much fun. On later readings with nothing at stake I developed a love for Melville's language. The story is OK, but the color and richness in Melville's language are what make the book great. If you have had a hard time with it before and are interested in trying again, my Joyce trick has worked for me for this book as well.

Another thing which I did not appreciate in my first reading of Moby Dick is that Ahab has a black magic ritual in that quarter deck chapter:

"Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat's bow-Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death! The long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale, the spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss. Starbuck paled, and turned, and shivered."

Ahab pours grog into the hollow connector ends of the harpooners' weapon points and they drink libation and swear a blood oath for Ahab's vengeance upon the dumb brute. Ahab's destruction is nothing more than a representation of evil invocations returning back to their source. The law of karma. The points are of course screwed onto the harpoon shafts, all twiske-tee be-twisk.

Ahab's ravings are not the speech of a self-actualized Maslow man. This is the feature of the language of Moby Dick which can be the hardest on the reader. Melville is creating a character who is mad, and madness is never easy to follow. Melville himself had sailed with whalers, and if you have ever spent time working on the deep ocean you may know exactly what he was writing about.

On Christmas Day the New York Times published a long story about the last hours of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which was destroyed in a blowout and explosion and fire last April in the Gulf of Mexico; eleven of the crewmen on the rig died that day. The thing in the article which disturbed me most was the following sentence:

"In a few hours, the drilling crew’s 21-day hitch would be done."

I have done a handful of 14 day tours offshore, and one 21 day tour. The last day of my one 21 day tour was the longest day of my life, and the last hour of that day was the longest hour. After fourteen days my brain turned to mush. I was on seismic survey ships instead of drilling rigs but the environment is similar: heavy equipment, high pressure hydraulics, diesel engines with thousands of horsepower, flammable fluids and welding equipment. On the back deck of a seismic ship, as on a drill ship, there are a thousand different ways to die.

You are in close quarters with a bunch of other guys (mostly) but the isolation is severe when you are a thousand miles from a 911 emergency operator. If the sun is out and there are no clouds, there is a view which is spooky as Ahab's black magic curse of the whale--there is nothing in any direction but blue, blue sky above, blue water below, any direction you turn there is nothing but a uniform blank blue field in your vision. One time I was staring at it and six white storks came out of the blue and flew right over the ship. It was maybe only ten minutes from when they appeared to when they disappeared in the other direction, but that also was like an interval of forever.

1 comment:

Craig said...

I found this on 11 February.

Then I google up this, which promptly disillusioned me regarding my originality.


Please see paragraphs 8.4, 8.5 in the Google Terms of Service document!

About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.