Saturday, April 14, 2018

April 14: Moby Dick, Obsession, Tom Petty and Vampires

(Enter Ahab: Then, all)

It was not a great while after the affair of the pipe, that one morning shortly after breakfast, Ahab, as was his wont, ascended the cabin-gangway to the deck. There most sea-captains usually walk at that hour, as country gentlemen, after the same meal, take a few turns in the garden.

Soon his steady, ivory stride was heard, as to and fro he paced his old rounds, upon planks so familiar to his tread, that they were all over dented, like geological stones, with the peculiar mark of his walk. Did you fixedly gaze, too, upon that ribbed and dented brow; there also, you would see still stranger foot-prints- the foot-prints of his one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought.

But on the occasion in question, those dents looked deeper, even as his nervous step that morning left a deeper mark. And, so full of his thought was Ahab, that at every uniform turn that he made, now at the main-mast and now at the binnacle, you could almost see that thought turn in him as he turned, and pace in him as he paced; so completely possessing him, indeed, that it all but seemed the inward mould of every outer movement.

"D'ye mark him, Flask?" whispered Stubb; "the chick that's in him pecks the shell. 'Twill soon be out."

The hours wore on;- Ahab now shut up within his cabin; anon, pacing the deck, with the same intense bigotry of purpose in his aspect.

It drew near the close of day. Suddenly he came to a halt by the bulwarks, and inserting his bone leg into the auger-hole there, and with one hand grasping a shroud, he ordered Starbuck to send everybody aft.

"Sir!" said the mate, astonished at an order seldom or never given on ship-board except in some extraordinary case.

"Send everybody aft," repeated Ahab. "Mast-heads, there! come down!"

When the entire ship's company were assembled, and with curious and not wholly unapprehensive faces, were eyeing him, for he looked not unlike the weather horizon when a storm is coming up, Ahab, after rapidly glancing over the bulwarks, and then darting his eyes among the crew, started from his standpoint; and as though not a soul were nigh him resumed his heavy turns upon the deck. With bent head and half-slouched hat he continued to pace, unmindful of the wondering whispering among the men; till Stubb cautiously whispered to Flask, that Ahab must have summoned them there for the purpose of witnessing a pedestrian feat. But this did not last long. Vehemently pausing, he cried:-

"What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?"

"Sing out for him!" was the impulsive rejoinder from a score of clubbed voices.

"Good!" cried Ahab, with a wild approval in his tones; observing the hearty animation into which his unexpected question had so magnetically thrown them.

"And what do ye next, men?"

"Lower away, and after him!"

"And what tune is it ye pull to, men?"

"A dead whale or a stove boat!"

More and more strangely and fiercely glad and approving, grew the countenance of the old man at every shout; while the mariners began to gaze curiously at each other, as if marvelling how it was that they themselves became so excited at such seemingly purposeless questions.

But, they were all eagerness again, as Ahab, now half-revolving in his pivot-hole, with one hand reaching high up a shroud, and tightly, almost convulsively grasping it, addressed them thus:-

"All ye mast-headers have before now heard me give orders about a white whale. Look ye! d'ye see this Spanish ounce of gold?"- holding up a broad bright coin to the sun- "it is a sixteen dollar piece, men. D'ye see it? Mr. Starbuck, hand me yon top-maul."

While the mate was getting the hammer, Ahab, without speaking, was slowly rubbing the gold piece against the skirts of his jacket, as if to heighten its lustre, and without using any words was meanwhile lowly humming to himself, producing a sound so strangely muffled and inarticulate that it seemed the mechanical humming of the wheels of his vitality in him.

Receiving the top-maul from Starbuck, he advanced towards the main-mast with the hammer uplifted in one hand, exhibiting the gold with the other, and with a high raised voice exclaiming: "Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke- look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!"

"Huzza! huzza!" cried the seamen, as with swinging tarpaulins they hailed the act of nailing the gold to the mast.
"It's a white whale, I say," resumed Ahab, as he threw down the topmaul: "a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out."

All this while Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg had looked on with even more intense interest and surprise than the rest, and at the mention of the wrinkled brow and crooked jaw they had started as if each was separately touched by some specific recollection.

"Captain Ahab," said Tashtego, "that white whale must be the same that some call Moby Dick."
"Moby Dick?" shouted Ahab. "Do ye know the white whale then, Tash?"

"Does he fan-tail a little curious, sir, before he goes down?" said the Gay-Header deliberately.
"And has he a curious spout, too," said Daggoo, "very bushy, even for a parmacetty, and mighty quick, Captain Ahab?"

"And he have one, two, three- oh! good many iron in him hide, too, Captain," cried Queequeg disjointedly, "all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him- him-" faltering hard for a word, and screwing his hand round and round as though uncorking a bottle- "like him- him-"

"Corkscrew!" cried Ahab, "aye, Queequeg, the harpoons lie all twisted and wrenched in him; aye, Daggoo, his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat, and white as a pile of our Nantucket wool after the great annual sheep-shearing; aye, Tashtego, and he fan-tails like a split jib in a squall. Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen- Moby Dick- Moby Dick!"

The first mention in the book of the title character.  White whale.  He of the fan-tail and crooked jaw and wrinkled brow.  Sporting harpoons in his hide from previous battles.  Ahab's nemesis.  The driving force of his life.  Moby Dick.

And thus enters one of the main themes of the novel, as well--obsession.  You could say that the whole book is one long discourse on various obsessions.  Nantucket.  Whaling.  Whales.  Mast-heads.  The color white.  As I said in a post earlier this week, the entire book is one long list of digressions, interrupted by a semi-interesting narrative.  I would say that, if it weren't for the digressions, Moby-Dick wouldn't be on college reading lists and the subject of so many PhD dissertations.

As I also said earlier this week, I have had a love/hate relationship with the book.  Earlier in my life, it frustrated me.  Bored me at times.  At other times, I would pick it up, read sections of it and fall in love with the color white or cetology or chowder.  Love and hate.  I think that's a normal reaction to the novel.  It engages and disengages me on so many levels.  That's one of its greatest strengths.

As an artist/writer, I frequently obsess.  Currently, I am nursing an obsessions for Bigfoot and Christmas, because I'm working on two separate manuscripts dealing with those topics.  And obsessions have the tendency to feed off one another.  For example, I am revising an essay for my Christmas book that features Bigfoot.  In my Bigfoot book, I have a poem titled, "Bigfoot Noel."

I don't think obsession is necessarily a negative thing, unless it takes over your entire life to the exclusion of all else.  That's when obsession crosses over into addiction.  I will not be abandoning my family to go on a three-year-long Bigfoot hunt in the Pacific Northwest.  I could be tempted by a long weekend, however.

Some people might say that I do have a Christmas addiction.  I listen to Christmas music all year long.  Watch It's A Wonderful Life at all times of the year.  Have a Christmas countdown app on my phone.  If I start talking about Christmas with any member of my family, I get one of two reactions:  1) glazed eyes and a quick change of subject, or 2) a laugh and shake of the head (dismissive but not unkind, like a child being sent out to play on a summer day).  It's not a destructive addiction.  Just mildly annoying to those around me sometimes.

Everybody has obsessions.  Favorite authors.  Favorite foods.  Favorite movies.  Favorite singers.  I have a friend whose obsession is Tom Petty.  She recently got a tattoo on her arm of a line from one of his songs.  When he died, she went into mourning and hasn't totally recovered.  I have a sister whose obsession is vampire books and movies.  TwilightAbraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter.  Dracula in all of his incarnations, from Bela Lugosi to Francis Ford Coppola.  Neither of these obsessions is harmful.  (I have to admit, the vampire thing with my sister can get a little old, especially when she's watching episodes of The Vampire Diaries.)

I admire people with obsessions.  Obsession fascinates me.  A person's obsession says something about him or her.  I think my Bigfoot obsession touches upon my fascination with mysteries of the world.  Things that exist on the fringe of reality and possibility.  My Christmas obsession could possibly stem from nostalgia and loss--pain transformed into an ache for joy and miracles.  I try not to dissect my obsessions too much.  If I do that, I'm afraid my obsessions will lose their power over me.

I will be indulging both of these obsessions this afternoon, hopefully shaping that Bigfoot Christmas essay.  I'm looking forward to this.  Obsessions can be good friends.

Today, Saint Marty salutes everybody out there with healthy obsessions.  Embrace them.  Take them skiing.  Write about them.  Paint them.  Sing them.

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