Here are his reflections some time after quitting the ship, during a black night an open boat, when almost despairing of reaching any hospitable shore. "The dark ocean and swelling waters were nothing; the fears of being swallowed up by some dreadful tempest, or dashed upon hidden rocks, with all the other ordinary subjects of fearful contemplation, seemed scarcely entitled to a moment's thought; the dismal looking wreck, and the horrid aspect and revenge of the whale, wholly engrossed my reflections, until day again made its appearance."
In another place- p.45,- he speaks of "the mysterious and mortal attack of the animal."
The ship Union, also of Nantucket, was in the year 1807 totally lost
off the Azores by a similar onset, but the authentic particulars of this
catastrophe I have never chanced to encounter, though from the whale
hunters I have now and then heard casual allusions to it.
Some eighteen or twenty years ago Commodore J-- then commanding an
American sloop-of-war of the first class, happened to be dining with a
party of whaling captains, on board a Nantucket ship in the harbor of
Oahu, Sandwich Islands. Conversation turning upon whales, the Commodore
was pleased to be sceptical touching the amazing strength ascribed to
them by the professional gentlemen present. He peremptorily denied for
example, that any whale could so smite his stout sloop-of-war as to
cause her to leak so much as a thimbleful. Very good; but there is more
coming. Some weeks later, the Commodore set sail in this impregnable
craft for Valparaiso. But he was stopped on the way by a portly sperm
whale, that begged a few moments' confidential business with him. That
business consisted in fetching the Commodore's craft such a thwack, that
with all his pumps going he made straight for the nearest port to heave
down and repair. I am not superstitious, but I consider the Commodore's
interview with that whale as providential. Was not Saul of Tarsus
converted from unbelief by a similar fright? I tell you, the sperm whale
will stand no nonsense.
I will now refer you to Langsdorff's
Voyages for a little circumstance in point, peculiarly interesting to
the writer hereof. Langsdorff, you must know by the way, was attached to
the Russian Admiral Krusenstern's famous Discovery Expedition in the
beginning of the present century. Captain Langsdorff thus begins his
"By the thirteenth of May our ship was ready
to sail, and the next day we were out in the open sea, on our way to
Ochotsh. The weather was very clear and fine, but so intolerably cold
that we were obliged to keep on our fur clothing. For some days we had
very little wind; it was not till the nineteenth that a brisk gale from
the northwest sprang up. An uncommonly large whale, the body of which
was larger than the ship itself, lay almost at the surface of the water,
but was not perceived by any one on board till the moment when the
ship, which was in full sail, was almost upon him, so that it was
impossible to prevent its striking against him. We were thus placed in
the most imminent danger, as this gigantic creature, setting up its
back, raised the ship three feet at least out of the water. The masts
reeled, and the sails fell altogether, while we who were below all
sprang instantly upon the deck, concluding that we had struck upon some
rock; instead of this we saw the monster sailing off with the utmost
gravity and solemnity. Captain D'Wolf applied immediately to the pumps
to examine whether or not the vessel had received any damage from the
shock, but we found that very happily it had escaped entirely
Now, the Captain D'Wolf here alluded to as commanding
the ship in question, is a New Englander, who, after a long life of
unusual adventures as a sea-captain, this day resides in the village of
Dorchester near Boston. I have the honor of being a nephew of his. I
have particularly questioned him concerning this passage in Langsdorff.
He substantiates every word. The ship, however, was by no means a large
one: a Russian craft built on the Siberian coast, and purchased by my
uncle after bartering away the vessel in which he sailed from home.
that up and down manly book of old-fashioned adventure, so full, too,
of honest wonders- the voyage of Lionel Wafer, one of ancient Dampier's
old chums- I found a little matter set down so like that just quoted
from Langsdorff, that I cannot forbear inserting it here for a
corroborative example, if such be needed.
Lionel, it seems, was on
his way to "John Ferdinando," as he calls the modern Juan Fernandes.
"In our way thither," he says, "about four o'clock in the morning, when
we were about one hundred and fifty leagues from the Main of America,
our ship felt a terrible shock, which put our men in such consternation
that they could hardly tell where they were or what to think; but every
one began to prepare for death. And, indeed, the shock was so sudden and
violent, that we took it for granted the ship had struck against a
rock; but when the amazement was a little over, we cast the lead, and
sounded, but found no ground. * * * The suddenness of the shock made the
guns leap in their carriages, and several of the men were shaken out of
their hammocks. Captain Davis, who lay with his head on a gun, was
thrown out of his cabin!" Lionel then goes on to impute the shock to an
earthquake, and seems to substantiate the imputation by stating that a
great earthquake, somewhere about that time, did actually do great
mischief along the Spanish land. But I should not much wonder if, in the
darkness of that early hour of the morning, the shock was after all
caused by an unseen whale vertically bumping the hull from beneath.
might proceed with several more examples, one way or another known to
me, of the great power and malice at times of the sperm whale. In more
than one instance, he has been known, not only to chase the assailing
boats back to their ships, but to pursue the ship itself, and long
withstand all the lances hurled at him from its decks. The English ship
Pusie Hall can tell a story on that head; and, as for his strength, let
me say, that there have been examples where the lines attached to a
running sperm whale have, in a calm, been transferred to the ship, and
secured there! the whale towing her great hull through the water, as a
horse walks off with a cart. Again, it is very often observed that, if
the sperm whale, once struck, is allowed time to rally, he then acts,
not so often with blind rage, as with wilful, deliberate designs of
destruction to his pursuers; nor is it without conveying some eloquent
indication of his character, that upon being attacked he will frequently
open his mouth, and retain it in that dread expansion for several
consecutive minutes. But I must be content with only one more and a
concluding illustration; a remarkable and most significant one, by which
you will not fail to see, that not only is the most marvellous event in
this book corroborated by plain facts of the present day, but that
these marvels (like all marvels) are mere repetitions of the ages; so
that for the millionth time we say amen with Solomon- Verily there is
nothing new under the sun.
In the sixth Christian century lived
Procopius, a Christian magistrate of Constantinople, in the days when
Justinian was Emperor and Belisarius general. As many know, he wrote the
history of his own times, a work every way of uncommon value. By the
best authorities, he has always been considered a most trustworthy and
unexaggerating historian, except in some one or two particulars, not at
all affecting the matter presently to be mentioned.
Now, in this
history of his, Procopius mentions that, during the term of his
prefecture at Constantinople, a great sea-monster was captured in the
neighboring Propontis, or Sea of Marmora, after having destroyed vessels
at intervals in those waters for a period of more than fifty years. A
fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid. Nor
is there any reason it should be. Of what precise species this
sea-monster was, is not mentioned. But as he destroyed ships, as well as
for other reasons, he must have been a whale; and I am strongly
inclined to think a sperm whale. And I will tell you why. For a long
time I fancied that the sperm whale had been always unknown in the
Mediterranean and the deep waters connecting with it. Even now I am
certain that those seas are not, and perhaps never can be, in the
present constitution of things, a place for his habitual gregarious
resort. But further investigations have recently proved to me, that in
modern times there have been isolated instances of the presence of the
sperm whale in the Mediterranean. I am told, on good authority, that on
the Barbary coast, a Commodore Davis of the British navy found the
skeleton of a sperm whale. Now, as a vessel of war readily passes
through the Dardanelles, hence a sperm whale could, by the same route,
pass out of the Mediterranean into the Propontis.
Propontis, as far as I can learn, none of that peculiar substance called
brit is to be found, the aliment of the right whale. But I have every
reason to believe that the food of the sperm whale- squid or
cuttle-fish-lurks at the bottom of that sea, because large creatures,
but by no means the largest of that sort, have been found at its
surface. If, then, you properly put these statements together, and
reason upon them a bit, you will clearly perceive that, according to all
human reasoning, Procopius's sea-monster, that for half a century stove
the ships of a Roman Emperor, must in all probability have been a sperm
Moby-Dick can be a frustrating book. Its actual narrative--which is skimpy, at best--creeps along. Melville is a master of digression, going on for pages and pages about subjects that sometimes interest me and sometimes bore me beyond comprehension. This particular chapter of affidavits is a mixed bag for me. Part of it enthralls me. Who doesn't like a good sea monster tale? The other part is skimming material. I can only patiently read just so many "firsthand" accounts of angry sperm whales damaging leaky whaling ships with their monstrous flukes. Then, I'm looking to change the channel.
I'm not sure if this need I'm feeling for constant brain stimulation is a result of my exposure to social media/television/film or if it's a symptom of my ADHD, which I've written about before. It may be a little of both. However, I'm not the only person who gets angry with Melville's inability to remain focused on his story. One of my good friends from the university, who claims Moby-Dick is one of his favorite books, says that he gets mind-numbingly bored with it. "That's why I love it," he says. "It's a book that invites us to engage it on so many different levels. I get excited. Frustrated. Bored. Frustrated again. It's like a buffet."
I'm sitting on my couch. Been sitting here since I got home from work. I spent a good portion of today answering phone calls from cardiology patients, which is my Friday gig. My wife knows that when I spend my day on phones, I'm not in a very social mood when I walk through the front door. I usually need a good hour or two of non-verbal communication. I may nod. Grunt. Anything beyond that is difficult. I appreciate the fact that my wife understands this need.
I think most of my weekdays are a lot like the chapters in Moby-Dick. I spend a lot of time doing things that do not feed my soul in any way. Assembling medical charts. Typing up surgical schedules. Answering phone calls. Entering charges on patient accounts. These tasks wear me down. Make me impatient and irritable. Before I can reenter the REAL narrative of my life, I need to take a few steps and breaths back.
I'm a poet and writer. These blog posts are my way of reminding myself of this fact. Often during my work days, I spend hours performing tasks that in no way are related to words or poetry or art. That can be a little difficult for me. A majority of my waking life is one big digression from what I truly find meaningful.
And I think that is probably the main reason that I get so irritated by Herman Melville's book. I get the feeling when I'm reading chapters on cetology and affidavits that I'm wasting even more of my time. I don't need more digression. When I get home from work, I want to go hunting for Moby Dick myself, not read a footnote on Captain D'Wolf's encounter with a pissed off sperm whale.
After typing these words, I'm feeling more centered. Ready to reengage with life. I have a couple days to avoid pointless/mindless work. Days to read and write and draw. Maybe I'll clean my bathroom.
Saint Marty is thankful for weekends.