Saturday, July 30, 2011

Scrubbing the Decks

After three days and nights of butchering a sperm whale, Ishmael and the rest of the exhausted crew have the daunting task of organizing and scrubbing the limited and crowded space of the ship's deck, slathered in unctuous, unidentifiable butchered parts of whale, blood, oil, and tools.  The job done, the men go below deck to clean themselves, put on fresh clothes and emerge renewed. Instead of sleeping, they celebrate their freedom from the toil by singing, dancing and drinking as if they were at a wedding instead of a whaling ship. All the while each of them knows that if the call, "There she blows!" is heard, they'll be right back where they started, slopping the decks and themselves for the sake of the invaluable whale oil.
I can sympathize. My husband and I are remodelling a 1940 Cape Cod with most of the work and all of the cleaning being our responsibility.  Instead of doing one room at a time, plumbing and electrical repairs have forced us to do the entire house all at once.  We have ripped up floors, torn down walls, and sanded the remaining plaster and trim, leaving every crevice covered with a fine powdery dust that seems to elude all cleaning devices!  The process of organizing and cleaning after a days work takes the most effort on my part because I know that only a few hours after wiping down everything in the house, vacuuming with the shop vac, scrubbing the planks of our wood floors on my hands and knees with a bucket of soapy water and rags, my reward is to take a shower, collapse in bed, and get up early to do it all over again.  I know I sound like Sisyphus, each day pushing his boulder up the slope, only to have it roll all the way down again, but  like the men in Moby Dick, after working as hard as I can, I need to know that in the evenings there is an end to the task and toil, even if it is temporary.
While I am working, I imagine that I am on the Pequod, scrubbing the decks and storing each tool in its proper place.  I wish I could be there in the evening when the work is done, out in the open ocean, singing and drinking ale with Ishmael, Queequeg and Tashtego, under the stars. I wish, even more, that the crew could join me in the morning to help me prime the trim.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Battering-Ram Blues

These past two weeks I have been plowing through Moby Dick with an interest heightened by the uncanny parallel experiences in my life. Melville begins "The Battering-Ram" with, "Ere quitting, for the nonce, the Sperm Whale's head, I would have you, as a sensible physiologist, simply-particularly remark its front aspect, in all its compacted collectedness.  I would have you investigate it now with a sole view of forming to yourself some unexaggerated intelligent estimate of whatever battering-ram power may be lodged there."  The Sperm Whales massive head has side-set eyes and ears, a boom-like lower jaw and a formless flat front.  The head being nearly one third of the whale's length without a single bone until you get twenty feet from the forehead.  "Wherefore, you must now have perceived that the front of the Sperm Whale's head is a dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever."  
TERRIFYING!  I could picture Moby's dead, blind wall coming straight toward the slow bulk of the whaling vessel and almost feel the forceful, jarring impact.  I could see the stunned sailors, in that still moment of realization that comes after a shocking event.  It must be something like being hit by a large pick-up truck while driving a small foreign car distractedly through a red light early one sunny Saturday morning.  At least, that's what I thought a few days after reading this chapter. Cruising through the calm streets of my small country town, I was wishing I'd finished my morning cup of coffee before leaving the house. In a fraction of a second, I became horrifyingly aware of the blind, unfeeling flat front of a battering-(Dodge) Ram pick-up, crashing through the driver side door and front end of the car, sending it spinning through the intersection, and yes my friends, the halter round my neck was painfully present.  There it was, just like Melville said it would be, with the realization that mortality is ever present, hidden by a thin veil of sophomoric security, and I didn't feel devil-may-care at all. 
Harvey, my loyal Golden Retriever, and I crawled out of the passenger door of what used to be my little Honda, now completely totalled.  Thankfull that no one was injured, we made our way to the sidewalk and stood in shocked silence, our six legs shaking.  In minutes, my handsome husband was at my side, giving me a hug, saying, "everything will be all right", and taking Harvey and me home.  Eventually, we picked out a sensible used Chevy Malibu, ironically the same dark, bluish-gray of a Right Whale.  I've named the car, Moby, to remind me to pay better attention while driving and to be on the look out for battering-rams on the road. 
Moby Dick, is right around the corner from the lonely Pequod, but Ahab won't have the luxury of contacting his insurance agent to replace his totalled ship or to cover the cost of any damage the men or the whale may suffer after the devastating impact.  Poor Ishmael, Queequeg, and Tashteego.  I wish I could tell them everything will be all right and whisk them home.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ropes and Halters- Not A Horse Story

This hot July afternoon, after an aborted nap attempt, I decided to spend my time in bed with Moby.  Melville's chapter on the whale-line described the different types of ropes on whaling ships and then detailed the use of the whale-line itself.  (Great.)
While reading Melville's standard preface to a non-fiction chapter (my favorite), "With reference to the whaling scene shortly to be descibed (yah right), as well as for the better understanding of all similar scenes elsewhere presented, I have here to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line.", I thought that this just might be what my afternoon insomnia required. But before I knew it, he got me!  Leave it to Melville's beautiful use of word choice and phrase to make whale-lines profound and even interesting.  Instead of imagining hanging myself, like Archie Bunker, with the invisible whale-line, I was completely caught up in the image of the rope and its massive canvas cloaked American tub-line as a serpent inside a giant wedding cake being delivered to the whales.  And the rope posed a huge threat to the sailors!  It was coiled around the ship and could, at any moment, rip off one of the unsuspecting sailors arms, legs or pull their entire body under water!  After describing the danger sailors face when surrounded, quite literally, by the rope, Melville explains the only the rookie sailors are uneasy with the threat of being dismembered or killed.  The seasoned sailors take on the adventure and its danger with a stoicism only Puritan New Englanders could muster.  As Melville sees it, (Or is it Ishmael during these nonfiction chapters?) "All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life."  Cheerful.
With that in mind, I decided that if Herman is right and I am surrounded, right here in my bed, by silent, subtle perils of life, I might as well get up, have fun and go for a motorcycle ride with my handsome husband through the mountains.  Having adopted Melville's Devil-may-care attitude,  I wasn't once bothered by the halter round my neck, not even while sitting under a shady mountain tree, drinking an icy Coke and eating French fries and soft ice cream.  I wonder if Melville was afraid of heart disease.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Abandon Ship!

After years of superficially reading Moby Dick, floating on Melville's genius use of language, following characters without ever caring about the genesis of their names, skimming over the informational chapters, I decided to reread one of my favorite novels in depth by carefully reading every line and checking all unknown biblical and literary references. And I hate it. Big Hate!
Who was this guy? Melville has experienced and researched every aspect of whaling, whalers, whale anatomy, whale habitat, whale diet, songs about whales, whales in art history, biblical whales, fish that were once mistaken for whales, names for whales, names for whales that are no longer used, uses for whale blubber, whale oil, and all of the tools and clothing a whaler could possibly ever need! His biblical references are epic, and since I am not a religious person or particularly versed in the Bible, I've had to look up almost every damned one.
This particular read almost has me licked, I won't admit defeat.  I’ll keep going even though I run the risk of being completely annihilated, like Ahab, by this leviathan.