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Monday, 4 August 2008

Moby Dick Monday: Chapter 2

Alas, I am in a state of shocking internetlessness, so I'm citing no sources here. Also, god knows when and how I'll manage to get this online. Maybe I'll wander the streets looking for an open wifi network.

The Carpet-Bag

Ishmael wants to go to Nantucket, but missed his boat and so needs to hang around in New Bedford for a couple of days and thus needs a hotel. So he looks for the cheapest one he can find. On the way, he blunders into a storefront black church which he somehow thought was an inn. Also, it's very icy and cold.

And then, confusingly, he goes on at great lengths about Lazarus.

The amusing bits in this chapter are mostly where he rejects hotels for being too cheery. Happy voices? Bright lights? Clinking glasses? Can't afford it! He's seeking out ramshackle and depressing. This is not a guy to go touristing with, although I admire his strategy. Incidentally, this is why I tend to camp when I travel. The nicest campground is cheaper than the worst hotel and generally has better showers. But poor Ishmael is stuck in an icy winter with holes in his boots, so he needs a cheap room. He heads towards the docks: to the area folks in the East Bay would call the flatlands.

"Such dreary streets! blocks of blackness . . . on either hand . . .." Unlit streets in the dark and cold and ice. Perfect! He comes to an open door and to some racism. On his way in, he trips over an "ashbox." Is this like an ashtray? It holds ashes, whatever it is. "Ha! thought I, ha, as the flying particles almost choked me, are these ashes from that destroyed city Gomorrah?" The book is as thick with Biblical allusions as Ishmael's air was with ashes.

Gomorrah was an Old Testament city destroyed by fire and brimstone. Lot lived there and was a good guy. Some angels described as travelers came to see him. The townsfolk were a xenophobic bunch and demanded that Lot bring out the strangers so they could know them. Lot offered his two virgin daughters instead, hoping his neighbors would be content to rape his kids. The mob refused this and got ugly. God and/or the angels intervened (no internet means no Bible, sorry) and God decided to rain down fire and brimstone on the city and destroy it after evacuating Lot.

Ishmael continues inside and . . .

It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a negro church; and the preacher's text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there.

I'm afraid the allusion of the first sentence escapes me, except that Tophet means hell (which is ruled by black people??). The rest of it is not in alignment with modern progressive sensibilities. The preacher is an Angel of Doom, first of all. This ties in again with the Gomorrah allusion, and hardly inspires confidence in the preacher. Divine but deadly. Presumably, the "blackness of darkness" in the text refers to the pits of hell. However, the hues chosen to represent it also unfortunately reference the skin color of the worshippers. Hell, doom and Gomorrah are thus all tied to race. Being black = bad, indeed, the worst. Can you get get lower than hell? To be black is to be damned.

Ok, so backing up to Gomorrah, you may have noted that the sequence of events in the story makes no sense whatsoever, aside from establishing Lot as one of the worst parents of all time. I've heard two interpretations of the meaning of that story. The most reasonable one is about hospitality. Travel was dangerous in the ancient world and there were no such things as inns. So if somebody strange came to town, rather than treating them as a thief and marauder (which they might actually be) you were supposed to give them a place to sleep without overly interrogating them. God was pissed off because the citizens of Gomorrah wanted to know something about these guys before letting them. Take note: God is against border patrols interrogating travelers.

The other, less reasonable, but, alas more common interpretation of that story is that when the townspeople want to "know" the Angels, it's in the biblical sense. Then men of the town want to gang rape the Angels, but Lot, dad of the year, offers his daughters instead and God saves him for it. Take note: God is an illogical fucker in this version. The illogical, fucker God has long been the most popular, so this version of things was the most common for quite a while. Note that Gomorrah is rarely mentioned alone, but usually also with its neighboring town of Sodom. And from this story we get the word "sodomy."

So when Ishmael stumbles over the ashbox, his "ha ha" exclamation could be about sexual assault or it could be about danger to travelers. Given that he is a traveller, this seems more likely than "ha ha I might get raped." However, alas, sexual otherness and racial otherness have long been popularly tied together in America. In movies, a jazz theme in the soundtrack = easy woman, for example. This expands in concentric circles of sexual impropriety as all alien others stand in for each other. Insufficient whiteness, insufficient masculinity, insufficient heterosexuality are all equivalent, so black = womanly = promiscuous = queer = gay.

So when Melville invokes Gemorrah, he's foreshadowing on several levels. It's a Biblical reference, so it foreshadows a church scene in general. It's queer, so it foreshadows blackness. It's about death and destruction, so it ties in with the hellfire sermon in the next paragraph. It's about threats to travelers, so it creates an air of danger for Ishmael. And it's about doom in general, so it fits with the dreary, mood of the chapter. Bad omens are coming on rather quickly.

Adding to these is the hotel he actually finds: The Spouter Inn, owned by Peter Coffin. "Coffin? - Spouter? - Rather ominous" he thinks, in case you missed it. "It is a common name in Nantucket," he reasons, and Peter must have come from there. Thus the doom is tied not only to his present but also to his next destination.

And what of the inn? "As the light looked so dim . . . and the dilapidated little wooden house itself looked as if it might have been carted here from the ruins of some burnt district, and as the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it, I thought that here was the very spot for cheap lodgings . . ." The local tourist office refuses to even list it? Perfect! But, he surmises it's the place for "the best of pea coffee." Is this good or bad? I don't know. The building is "queer" and "leaning over sadly." It's also beaten by wind, which Melville calls "Euroclydon," clearly a reference to something, but I'm without internet. He quotes a third party about this wind, who talks of frost windows and death, in yet another bright omen.

Melville then goes on to equate houses with bodies, "Yes, these eyes are windows and this body of mine is the house." And thus the sorry shape of the Spouter Inn bodes ill for Ishmael, as he ties it to himself and his death. As if this wasn't enough, he goes on to talk about Lazarus, another Biblical story.

Lazarus was Jesus' friend, who died. Jesus was unhappy to hear of this and so revived him several days later. Lazarus came out of his tomb, wrapped up in corpse-dressings. He's an odd character in subsequent literature. Some folks imagine that having already died once, he can't die again and he becomes some sort of curious immortal figure, doomed to wander the earth forever. And some folks go on about his experience of having been dead, as Meliville does here, imagining how cold he must have been.

So after a lot of ice and frozen and cold and dead going on for a few paragraphs, we rather get the point and then some. He's starting to be ridiculous. It harkens back to the very first page of the book, in the first paragraph, "whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses . . . I account it high time to get to sea . . .." For the love if god, get on a boat, man! Stop your pausing in front of coffin stores or coffin inns! And so, with some self awareness, the last paragraph of chapter two begins, "But no more of this blubbering now, we are going a whaling, and there is plenty of that yet to come." I love this sentence.

"Blubber - [noun] the fat of sea mammals, esp. whales" and "Blubber [2] - [verb] (informal) sob noisily" (both from the Oxford American Dictionary). Yay puns. The "plenty yet to come" has play on the word "blubber." A smart, 'stop your whining and get on a boat and get to work.' But also a foreshadowing of doom ahead.


Daniel Wolf said...

You might find Charles Olson's small book on MD, Call Me Ishmael, useful.

(Olson was a Wesleyan Alum, too).

Polly Moller said...

1. A cyclonic tempestuous northeast wind which blows in the Mediterranean. It is the modern Gregalia (Gregale) or Levanter.
2. The name of the wind from the Adriatic Gulf, which wrecked Paul of Tarsus's ship on the coast of Malta (Acts 27:14)
3. Referenced in the second chapter of Moby-Dick.

Scott said...

The Lazarus in this story is more than likely not the friend of Jesus brought back to life, but rather the Lazarus who frigidly suffered outside the home of a merciless Dives.

Beth Lea said...

Yeah, I'm with Scott before me here on which Lazarus he was speaking about and it probably being the one that suffered outside Dives house.

That entire section is really demanding and I had to re-read it a couple of times but was richly rewarded when I got to the part 'all he could drink thereafter was the tepid salty tears of orphans...'

what a book!

Tommy Hass said...

Offering your daughters to your neighbors to marry isn't rape you imbecilic dumbfuck.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

It may shock you to learn that the daughter is the one who needs to consent, not the dad. If she's not into it, it's rape!

'Are these men dangerous and angry? Sounds like they'll make great husbands for my daughters!' - said every great dad ever!

(Seriously, write, 'if she's not into it, it's rape' on a note card and keep it with you. When in doubt, refer to it. If still unsure, try asking her. Anything other than an enthusiastic yes means 'no', no matter what her dad says. Sorry.)