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Moby-Dick Recap: Chapters 32-36
Death to Moby Dick! Or death to that damn Cetology chapter?
Let’s be real, this past week’s readings were difficult. We started with one of the most famous (and divisive) chapters in the novel, Chapter 32 (“Cetology”). Some people hate how this chapter brings the action to a grinding halt, while other readers consider it a favorite.
Personally, I think “Cetology” is pretty funny. If you consider that it leads with Ishmael’s rather dubious claim that a whale is not a mammal but “a spouting fish with a horizontal tail,” it makes me wonder how many other inaccuracies are sprinkled throughout this chapter. As some of you mentioned, what the heck is a hyena whale? Or a huzza porpoise? And I’m sorry, but ‘mealy-mouthed porpoise’ sounds like some bullshit.
It’s not just “Cetology” that’s a difficult chapter. While it’s a lot shorter, I found Chapter 33 (“The Specksnyder”) to be just as hard a read. The references are unknown to me, the language more old-fashioned, and more than once, I caught my eyes glazing over and realizing I hadn’t absorbed anything. Sentences needed to be read multiple times to even parse half their meaning. For example, this 59-word sentence is really tough:
This it is, that for ever keeps God’s true princes of the Empire from the world’s hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass.
What? I think it’s saying something about power, and how those in power exercise it, but I’m still not really sure.
Chapters 34 and 35 were a little easier. We get the breakfast politics and routines of both the officers and harpooners in Chapter 34’s “The Cabin-Table” and then in 35’s “The Mast-Head,” we learn more than you’ll probably ever need to know about the crow’s nest and the whaling practice of standing on the masthead. I really feel for Flask in “The Cabin-Table.” His sad butterless meals are proof that a promotion to middle management is always a trap!
My favorite part of “The Mast-Head” was when Ishmael admits he really half-assed his job. While he was supposed to be watching for whales from his high perch, he spent most of that time instead daydreaming and philosophizing about “the problem of the universe revolving in me.” Relatable, man.
Here’s another long sentence, even longer (104 words) than the one I cited previously, but much easier for me to understand. I think it’s a stunningly beautiful line, and I’m moved by how well it articulates the experience of spending a large period of time in your head, chasing elusive thoughts.
Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.
After four dense, descriptive, and informational chapters, we are rewarded with the meaty and exceptionally narrative-driven Chapter 36. I’ve never seen any film adaptations of Moby-Dick, but I’d bet Ahab’s gold coin that this chapter is included in every movie version. The scene is so perfectly cinematic already, you barely need to do anything to adapt it. Ahab, who has been laying low, gathers the crew together to finally announce the ship’s true mission—killing the white whale that took his leg. The scene’s excitement is heightened further when it’s revealed that this particular whale already has a mythic reputation among the harpooners. Tashtego even says, “Captain Ahab, that white whale must be the same that some call Moby Dick” and then an unseen narrator shouts, “Hey! That’s the name of the book!”
You don’t need a degree in English literature to know that Moby Dick is symbolic of something greater than a whale, but what surprised me is how Starbuck straight up mentions that from the start. He’s all, “Ahab, you know that this whale is just a wild animal like any other, right? Why be so enraged at something that doesn’t even have the intelligence to have a personal vendetta against you?” And Ahab’s like, “Yeah, I know, dude. But even if Moby Dick’s just a pasteboard mask for what I’m actually angry at (God? The Devil? Fate?) I have to pierce that mask and kill him anyway.” Then he orders drinks for the whole crew, who start cheering and screaming, “Death to Moby Dick!” Cut to Starbuck’s horrified face. Fade to black.
One of my favorite things about Moby-Dick so far is how much of an open frame it is (“I am the architect, not the builder.”) Certain lines feel as timeless as ever, or eerily prescient, applicable to a contemporary concern. There’s so many different readings or different aspects you could choose to focus on in each chapter. Soon, it really does resemble, as Sue said last week, a puzzle. Is Chapter 32’s “Cetology” really some overwritten chapter about the classification of whales? Or is it about our tendency to categorize humans? Or, is it about constructing a novel? That’s how I read it, with its divisions into books and chapters (not to mention the way it acknowledges a debt to writers who have come before), but as an avid reader and writer of fiction, that’s also where my interests lie. Someone else might interpret “Cetology” entirely differently.
As much as I wish Melville was alive, so I could violently shake him and demand he answer my questions about his true intentions, I also imagine that his response would be “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” The book’s slipperiness, and its many possible interpretations, are actually the one thing I could definitively say he did intend. Remember that before Chapter 32’s famous exclamation for “Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” he writes, “For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
Like the unfinished “Cetology” chapter that Ishmael hopes will completed by future whale scholars, Melville intends to leave his novel unfinished. Even once it’s published, it will still be a draft. The work continues with its readers, who will make it into whatever they want it to be, and with future artists, who will take inspiration from Moby-Dick and continue the conversation.