Off Course

In the second half of Moby-Dick, the Classics Slacker is sensing (ever so slightly), and hoping (ever so dimly), that the novel may be creeping toward the climactic meeting of man versus fish. Alas Melville pulls his hapless reader along, as if by vicious undertow, through various subterranean subplots and incidental anecdotes. Here are just a few:

• A giant squid shows up alongside the Pequod. The sailors think it might be Moby Dick. It isn’t. Although it is “a vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color,” it disqualifies itself as a whale owing to its “innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas.” Moby Dick is a lot of things, but he ain’t a squid.

• “When you see him ’quid, then you quick see him ’parm whale.” The s-impaired speaker of this observation is Queequeg. A sparm, er sperm, whale is indeed soon spotted, totally minding its own business. He has “a broad, glossy back, of an Ethiopian hue [not remotely white], glistening in the sun’s rays like a mirror, lazily undulating in the trough of the sea, and ever and anon tranquilly spouting his vapory jet.” Aww, how pretty! Then Stubb flings “dart after dart” and various other sharp objects into the poor guy. “His tormented body rolled not in brine, but horribly wallowed in his blood.” A prolonged death scene continues for pages until finally “gush after gush of clotted red gore shot into the frighted air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea.” Nasty.

• Before the whale is boiled down for oil, Stubb requests that the ship’s cook prepare him a steak dinner, as is the right of the one who first spots and summarily smotes a whale. Dinner is followed by a breakfast of whale balls. Yes, whale balls. No joke.

• Stubb does not dine alone. “Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness.” You can see them “wallowing in the sullen, black waters, and turning over on their backs as they scooped out huge globular pieces of the whale of the bigness of a human head.” So incredibly gross. Not to mention the three successive prepositional phrases in that last sentence.

• The whale’s body is cut to pieces, boiled, and what’s left of him is let out to sea in a chapter called “The Funeral.” But first, a brief eulogy: “Haul in the chains! Let the carcase go astern!” And then, “the peeled white body of the beheaded whale flashes like a marble sepulcher and floats away ever so slowly.” Really slowly. “For hours and hours from the almost stationary ship that hideous sight is seen.” More hideous still is the leftover head, which is still attached to the Pequod.

Ahab chats with the head of Stubb’s dead whale. Needless to say, it’s a one-way conversation.

• Tashtego falls into a barrelful of whale sperm. He’s going to die happy until Ishmael’s lover (“my brave Queequeg”) rescues him.

More about sperm, lots and lots of sperm upon sperm, in the next post: “Sperm! Sperm! Sperm!”

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