Sunday, June 27, 2010

Notes on Moby-Dick



 Man and Fate

...it  seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates.  There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own.  This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. (p 213)


When one reads the first line of Moby-Dick, "Call me Ishmael.", he does not realize that the story about to unfold, a narrative that will include lessons in whaling and the mysteries of the deep, is already set in stone so to speak.  Nor does he realize that he is about to embark upon a journey with the narrator, Ishmael, that will, more than five hundred pages later, tell him that "This whole act's immutably decreed." (p 548)  The 'Loom of Time' described in the epigraph above is indeed fixed and Ishmael's, and our own, weaving has independence only in our dreams.  The unchanging nature of fate, its existence and our subjection by it is part of the story.  Not even as men are are described as philosophers with their Faustian striving (p 51) do they manage to avoid that which fate holds for their lives.  The vicissitudes of life are ever present in this sea story and vivid as they are they do not detract from the omnipresent nature of fate.  Melville is poetic in his characterization of this aspect of our lives in the following passage from Chapter 60:

Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play -- this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair.  But why say more?  All men live enveloped in whale-lines.  All are born with halters around their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift , sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.  And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side." (pp 280-1)


In Melville's tale the warp and woof of life is always present in one form or another, whether discerned by the men who go whaling or stay home.  We readers can only wonder at the progress of the tale and the lives therein; and try to make use of the lessons for our own life.  For we are one with Ahab, at least it seems to be so, as if life is a game like this passage from the end of Chapter 118:

"Well, well; I heard Ahab mutter, 'Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.'  And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!" (p 490)


Moby-Dick or the Whale by Herman Melville. W. W. Norton, New York. 1976 (1851)

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