MY FAVORITE CHAPTER IN MOBY-DICK
Of all the great chapters in Moby-Dick, my favorite one probably is the chapter where The Pequod's going after the white whale and they haven't seen it yet but they've caught a few other whales and met a few other ships who've told them they're definitely getting warmer but that they might as well turn around and forget the whole thing because that particular whale they're asking after's been acting pretty tsunamic in terms of the type of havoc he's been wreaking in the Japanese Cruising Ground vicinity over the past few months. But Captain Ahab's, of course, got zero intention of rethinking his original plans which call for nothing less than that whale's whole annihilation into the depths of the sea, so as The Pequod sails closer and closer to Moby-Dick, and as the stories people tell about him turn more cryptic and cold, that revengeful heart in Ahab just beats hotter and more reckless. I mean, we all know how Ahabs can get. And one afternoon, right after a particularly ominous gammey with another ship called The Rachel or The Natural Revelation or The Phineas T. Turnback (when two ships cross paths like haphazard electrons in the middle of the ocean, Herman Melville tells us it's called a "gammey"), Ahab knows his men have reached a crucial stage of the journey. Somehow the fates have magically shrunk the ocean and the crew's months-long pursuit of some chance phantom just might actually yield results. The Pequod's sitting poised at the threshold of the white-faced facts and, like any good, death obsessed captain would, Ahab uses the moment to put on his Lear voice and lecture the crew on duty and doom. Somehow he squeezes fear and blackness and every other haywire machination of the ghostly world into a pep talk the length of the Gettysburg Address. He closes it in typical Ahab fashion.
"To strike into the maw of death and face full-faced nature's joyless end," he tells them, in a line I must have underlined about twenty times in my copy.
Then Ahab goes down to his cabin, wedges his whale-bone leg into a floor hole, lights his pipe, and stews over his maps.
My favorite chapter comes right after that. It opens with the whole crew milling around on deck after Ahab's speech, all of them trying to make sense of what's just taken place.
"Something floats in Ahab's eye which was not there before," one sailor says.
"Now the cap'n scuttles with the stride of a starved spider," says another one.
But none of the talking does any good. Another dark night's coming on soon and now even the toughest sailor on board can't help but feel uneasy. Some of the men swear they can feel the clouds dropping, closing in around them, actually constricting, tinted with a new meanness in the sun's changing light. The army of gulls pecking at the severed whale head rotting over the port seems more meticulous now, as if the birds' scavenging were the offshoot of some natural, black logic. Beside the main mast the cook stands doubled over, dry heaving into a copper pot. At this point the entire deck of The Pequod is nothing but bad omens and misgivings and loneliness.
And it's Stubb who finally breaks in and suggests that one good way to get everybody's mind off all the heavy death and destruction talk and let off some steam would be with the performance of a little revue. You know, like a little Pequod-wide talent show. Just a little something to get the crew laughing and telling stories again. Some way to recapture that blushed feeling of being young and let loose to sea on a whaler, untied to all the worries that haunt men on land. After all, Stubb's reasoning goes, who ever heard of a bunch of sailors signing up for a whaling voyage just so they could venture out into the middle of the ocean and sit around being phlegmatically depressed all the time?
All the men agree that they've never heard of that. They also have to admit a talent show doesn't sound like a half-bad idea. So for the rest of the afternoon they split up to gather their thoughts or hold slipshod rehearsals and they reconvene just as the sun's dipping down into the sapphire horizon and the fires are beginning to burn on the quarterdeck. Little black Pip assumes the role of emcee. And I personally think Melville gets a little longwinded with the show's first part which, at least to me, could have been put through another honest edit without sacrificing all that much. Starbuck, for instance, gets up to sing a ballad by an old Tennessee poet, and even though his voice is hardly sure of itself—the chapter says it sounds like "an oboe drawn and quartered at the left hand of Jehovah"—Melville lets him sing all seventeen verses. Then a sailor named Jack Chase, who's apparently Melville's idealization of beatific manhood according to this one professor, Dr. Duncan D. Nutt, gets up on stage and tells this long story, I mean the thing must be something like nine pages, and I'll be the first to admit I've skimmed it before. I'm pretty sure it has something to do with two gamblers double-crossing each other at a motel on the Nebraska prairie during a snowstorm, but that story could just as easily come from another part of the book.
But once you're through all that, then Pip introduces Queequeg and Daggoo, and that's when the chapter really finds its legs because the two of them take the stage and they're draped in these filthy, flowing packing tarps. They've slapped thick gobs of makeup all over their faces, whale's blood lipstick and octopus ink eye shadow, and somehow they've managed to jerry rig their harpoons at the waist so it looks like both of them are sporting these puritanically stiff hardons. And then, as if the sight of them parading around on stage like that wouldn't be enough to hold the crew's attention, the two of them try to start up this little observational comedy routine they've cooked up based on their years of harpooning experience.
The entire act botches from the very beginning. All of the jokes are lousy and neither one of them has any concept of timing. At one point, Daggoo's nerves completely knot up and he loses track of which setups and punch lines go together. So when Queequeg asks him, "What-ee one get-e when one cross-ee small lobster-e with giant...," Daggoo cuts in early and blurts out something like, "Me no think-ee that porridge, Father MacNamee!"
Nothing they say makes any sense. But the sailors in the audience are eating it up. They can't get enough of it. And soon it's hard to hear any of the jokes because the entire deck is howling so loudly with laughter. Queequeg and Daggoo try to muscle through it at first, going on with their act like it's business as usual. But the more they try to salvage things, the more it makes their failure just look strained and obvious. The wolf whistling and the heckles and all the sexually deviant promises coming from the audience just get louder. Daggoo starts rubbing at his eyes, trying to concentrate so he can remember his lines, and he's smearing wild blotches of makeup all over his face. Then the knot holding Queequeg's harpoon in place starts to come loose, so with each new joke that Daggoo runs aground, Queequeg's harpoon gets a little bit limper, which only makes the sailors scream and laugh even more.
The final result is this raucous derailment of a vaudeville routine at sea. And even though some critics have said you can read into Queequeg and Daggoo's clumsy back and forth in that chapter and find some sort of exemplary Melvillian rant against Western monotheism, the only image I see when I read it is of some cut-rate local production of Lysistrata where none of the high school kids in the cast have bothered to learn their lines. And when the carpenter bends over with his pants down, slapping at his ass with a wood file, and screams out, "Hey Queequeg! Me got a sweet cherry remedy here-e that'll fix you up real nice, Pretty Islander!" the harpooners finally understand that the whole act's come unhinged and they had better get to improvising something quick.
So as the sun throws its last scraps of light into the sky, Queequeg and Daggoo turn their backs on the sailors and whisper something to each other. Then they turn around again and exchange a glance and Queequeg lets out these three staccato yelps. And that's when both of them whip open their packing tarps and brandish their iron pieces right out toward the crowd. The whole crew erupts with excited applause. They surge forward and then hold each other back, whistling and pointing, as Daggoo helps Queequeg get his knot retied.
"Get 'im extra rigid, Daggoo," one of the sailors yells out, "Me likes me tropical manhandlings best when they're extra hard and square!"
And in the speckling light of the try works fire, Queequeg and Daggoo turn in and bow toward each other. When they come up again, they take a few steps back and jut their hips forward and kiss the pointed tips of their harpoons together. It's like they're giving a toast at a wedding or a class reunion. And when they turn, naked and black, and look out over the crowd, their grinning mouths have made their faces luminous, and for just a second, all the heckling stops.
Then Queequeg and Daggoo take a running leap off the stage and race full speed out across the deck. The wave of sailors splits down the middle as they move to avoid the thrusting metal tips, and the rowdy chase is on. Men laugh and yell "Whoa!" and dance out of the way. They let Queequeg get as close as he can to stabbing them square in the ass before they jump head first down a port hole or scurry up a mast just out of his reach. Men are sneaking up on Daggoo and yanking on his pony tail, then ducking under his harpoon when he twirls around.
And soon little Pip's off the stage and in on the chase too, running just ahead of Queequeg now, a metal pail under his arm, ducking back and forth beneath that swinging harpoon tip like a spooked fawn, and all while cackling and chucking fistfuls of boiled down ambergris over the crewmen. He covers them with giant white globules of the stuff. It lands in their hair and stiffens into snarls. Starbuck takes one splat of it square in the eye. In the firelight the whole quarterdeck takes on an eerie phosphorescence and the men's bodies start to glow.
The whole ship is rocking now with the weight of the shifting mob, and as the chase heats up even more, from the harpooners' throats begins to come this chant, quiet at first, but then getting louder with each new charge they mount. They're chanting, "Puli tshira wakata! Puli tshira wakata!" which, if you read Charles Feidelson's annotation, is most likely a bastardized version of some language Melville heard while traveling through The Marquesas, and it roughly means, "This ship's not dead wood! No, this ship is a great thrumming cunt!"
And soon all of the men on board, chased and chaser, the plump ones clutching their knees and gasping for air, those recently sobered, the ones secretly missing their mothers, the religious dunderheads, the tattooed, and the artisans, all of them are yelling the chant at the tops of their lungs even though none of them knows what it means.
"Puli tshira wakata! Puli tshira wakata!" they scream as the embers explode above them, "Puli tshira wakata! Puli tshira wakata!"
And it's right at that point that Melville brings the great sepulchral figure of Ahab back up from his cabin. He's heard the ruckus from his burrow below deck and he's furious. His dreams that night of sweet revenge against the whale have been shattered by something sounding like giant drunk rats in the woodwork and now he wants some answers.
He looks at his silly employees running around, all of their faces caked with a filthy white crust. The chanting is deafening. The whole deck reeks with a venereal stink. Ahab feels a warm splash hit the inside his collar and when he looks up, he sees one of his sailors straddling the mainyard, laughing as a thick stream of his piss charts a course down the sail.
"What in the name of Genesis and Exodus," Ahab mumbles, reaching for a handkerchief, but before he can even finish the thought eight sailors are on top of him. They pin him to the deck and stuff hot ambergris into his mouth. They poke him in the ribs and spit in his ears. Stubb gets down on all fours and blows a ripened, melodic fart into Ahab's face.
The men lift the captain up and make a quick loop with him around the deck, Ahab all the time thrashing like a tuna or a resisting mental patient. Then they drag him to the main mast and use their belts to strap him down tight before they join hands and make a dancing circle around him.
Out of the darkness, a young Hungarian sailor steps into the circle. His lip's been busted wide open and he's got a box saw in his hand. He kneels down and goes to work on Ahab's peg leg. And the captain stands there trapped, trying his best to curse them all, but the only sound he can muster through a mouthful of whale fat is a syncopated gurgle. The bobbing of the men's heads quickens in time with the stroking of the saw. Faster, faster. More and more vicious. When he finally gets the leg off, the Hungarian hoists it over his head and the circle of men breaks apart and all of them cheer. He rears back and hurls the leg out over the railing and it barely misses the head of a bulimic water gazer standing off in the corner before it flies out for good into the ship's roiling wake.
And then, all of a sudden, in the very same chapter, I'm on the Pequod deck too. That bulimic water gazer is actually me. At first Herman Melville simply mentions me in passing, the kid bent over the rail with his back to the action, scanning for porpoises as they slice through the brit. But soon enough the chanting mob has swallowed me too and I'm right in the middle of things with the other sailors. So I run and shout, "Hey!" and "Go!" and "Fire! The flames!" I take off my shirt and try to skip it like a jump rope. Beside the biggest fire I pull my pants down and toast my slim fuzzy butt. I run to a stewing ambergris vat and plunge my arms in up to the elbow, feeling for the jagged chinks of squid bone swimming down in it. I close my eyes and breathe in deep and let its warm, spicy tang hang at the back of my throat. When I open them again, Flask is standing right next to me.
"Hiya," he says. And he smiles sweet and then lets loose an outrageous belch and starts patting his tummy.
And before he can stop me, I lean over and take that fat face of his in my oily hands and give Flask a deep, long kiss on the mouth. He smells like an onion. His bumpy tongue tastes like a whale flank steak topped with a cheap cigar sauce. I pull back and dry off my hands in his beard. Flask blinks his eyes a few times and crinkles up his nose. He looks down shocked at his hand that's still resting on his belly. He balls his hand into a giant fist and rears back.
But before he can sock me I'm sprinting off toward starboard. I can hear Flask behind me, yelling out, "Someone tackle that sodomite! I swear to the angels I'll slice off his balls and spoon feed 'em to the sharks myself!" But I know nobody is listening to him, that I can always outrun him, that I can outrun anybody on this whole ship, and that soon enough Flask will get distracted and forget the whole thing. So I forget the whole thing too and run some more. I throw back my head and open my eyes wide and suddenly I'm nauseous off seeing hordes of stars I've never seen before because lousy fate decreed I would spend the first twenty-eight years of my life walking through this world as the most mediocre kind of land lubber (all before that glimmering day in the city when I was wandering around heartbroken, rereading a sad letter, and heard finally the surging of the sea inside me.)
Some deck hands bang out a new beat on the overturned harpooners' boats and a row of empty coffins. There's a chubby sailor dangling from the crow's nest, quoting Thoreau. By this time, the whole deck is dark, cyclonic fire and shadow, nothing but boiled down whale innards and Ahab strapped to the mast and the chanting and laughing howl of seamen. And I'm twirling again and again in the middle of it, washed over by the mob, at every turn fixed for an instant by the jeweled flash of Queequeg's sharp teeth from across the deck, and I'm saying to myself, Just hear me out this once, God. I'll grant you permission to damn almost every last ounce of this stunning, demiurgical world if you'll please, please just let this chase go on forever. Let our great vessel say no to all crotchety moors and anchors. Let this little boat sail on ever oceanward, on even into the deepest cavern of night and straight into the flaring white cataract of the morning!
And by chapter's end we're all exhausted and drunk off dancing and stomping and the sticky salt air. And deep inside we know the real work has to begin again in the morning. So we untie Ahab from the mast. We tousle his hair and tug on his beard and trip him up a few times as he hops on his one leg toward the bow where he'll spend the night grumbling and spitting and staring into the darkness that's always been out there ahead of him. As for the rest of us, we lace our arms together and lean deep into each other and head below deck. We collapse full steam down into our hammocks, all of us spooning and content, our thoughts utterly without whales, dreaming our dreams that as Melville puts it so famously in the chapter's last line, "traipse the oneiric, maritime boundary wherein resides truth and all the finest, gray phantoms."
And that's my favorite chapter in Moby-Dick.
Three quick things:
1) Paul Metcalf's Genoa: A Telling of Wonders
2) Tom Waits's "Filipino Box Spring Hog" and "Better Off Without a Wife"
3) Herman Melville: "Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending."