Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 57-63

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapter 57 Illustration
The early chapters of this seven-chapter section of Moby-Dick are largely devoted to explaining more of what goes on in the typical whaling ship of the period.  Chapter 57, for instance, is devoted to the various carvings on whale teeth and rendering of whale images that the sailers devote so much time to during the crew's downtime.  Chapter 58 describes sailing through a yellow sea of brit, the "minute, yellow substance upon which the Right Whale largely feeds," and Chapter 60 details the make-up and proper handling of the line tied to the harpoons that bind a wounded whale to the small boat chasing it.

That chapter ("The Line") is a reminder of how dangerous a job these men were taking on for so little pay.  Probably because I recently watched a film version of Moby-Dick, I find that coiled rope line to be one of the scariest aspects of nineteenth century whaling.  A man unlucky enough to get in the way of that whiplashing rope (only 2/3 of an inch in diameter, according to Melville) could easily lose an arm, a leg, or even be cut in half.

In Chapter 59, Ishmael describes the excitement on board ship when it appears that Moby-Dick has finally been sighted.  Eerily, when the four chase boats get close enough to see what is ahead of them, the creature turns out to be "the great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it."  No, this is not going to end well for our boys.

Chapter 61 ("Stubb Kills a Whale") is the one that rips all associated "glory" from the whaling process and paints it in terms that make it all seem so very real - and so gruesomely bloody.  I doubt that anyone can read the following paragraph without be a bit horrified at the picture of a harpooned whale's final moments:
"And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations.  At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frightened air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea.  He heart had burst!"
As expected, George Cotkin's  Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick offers interesting observations and speculations regarding this section of Melville's masterpiece.  Perhaps, because of the paragraph I quoted just above, what strikes me most, however, is Cotkin's explanation of the evolution of nineteenth century whaling techniques into those of today.  Today's whalers have the tools that allow them to harvest whales rather than hunt them and hope to actually take 5% of the ones they chase.  Simply put, the whale does not stand a chance of escape today once it has been chosen for harvesting.  (The need for whaling is beyond me, but I am willing to listen if someone wants to argue a pro-whaling case.  Just comment, below, and we'll begin the conversation.)

With an exception or two, the Big Read narrators do an exceptional job on this group of chapters.  One female reader, however, sounds as if she is reading from inside a hollow pipe, and another one reads so slowly and methodically that I felt much as Ishmael must have felt just before he fell asleep high up in the crow's nest - leaving Stubbs's whale to be spotted by men on deck the Pequod.  My "soul" almost escaped my body while Marcia Farquhar droned on...and on...and on...

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