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October 18, 2014

What We’re Reading: “Drink, ye harpooneers!”

Among the world’s literature of set-piece oratory in fiction, poem or drama, the American could do far worse than to assert his own pride of place, on the basis of Captain Ahab’s oathbearing flourishes when, having revealed to his crew the true purpose of their voyage, he swears them to “this indissoluble league” of vengeance against the White Whale.

“Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis.” So saying, with extended arm he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed center; while so doing, suddenly and nervously twitched them; meanwhile glancing intently from Starbuck to Stubb; from Stubb to Flask. It seemed as though by some nameless interior volition, he would fain have shocked into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life. The three mates quailed before his strong, sustained, and mystic aspect. Stubb and Flask looked sideways from him; the honest eye of Starbuck fell downright.

“In vain!” cried Ahab; “but, maybe, ‘tis well. For did ye three but once take the full forced shock, then mine own electric thing, that had perhaps expired from out me. Perchance, too, it would have dropped ye dead. Perchance ye need it not. Down lances! And now, ye mates, I do appoint ye three cup-bearers to my three pagan kinsmen there — yon three most honorable gentlemen and noblemen, my valiant harpooneers. Disdain the task? What, when the great Pope washes the feet of beggars using his tiara for ewer? Oh my sweet cardinals! your own condescension, that shall bend ye to it. I do not order ye; ye will it. Cut your seizings and draw the poles ye harpooneers!”

Silently obeying the order, the three harpooners now stood with the detached iron part of their harpoons some three feet long held barbs up before him.

“Stab me not with that keen steel! Cant them; cant them over! know ye not the goblet end? Turn up the socket! So, so; now, ye cup-bearers, advance. The irons! take them; hold them while I fill!” Forthwith slowly going from one officer to the other he brimmed the harpoon sockets with the fiery waters from the pewter.

“Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices*! Bestow them, ye who are now made parties to this indissoluble league. Ha! Starbuck! but the deed is done! Yon ratifying sun now waits to sit upon it. Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat's bow — Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!”

Moby Dick is a famously undisciplined work, full of all manner of literary diversions and larks that appear to detract from the pacing of the story itself. A chapter in the latter half of the book announces this outright: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” Some of this may be ascribed to an intense desire to convey, as best as human writing can, the true experience of whaling, which project could not possibly be attempted without supplying some real feeling of monotony, repetition, even boredom. We cannot suppose men who, in the infancy of industrial development, departed from little Nantucket for the hunting grounds of the hugest game, compassing every sea on earth, on multiple expeditions a single one of which consumed a twentieth of their earthly lives — we cannot suppose such men would tell tales noteworthy for their brevity, or for their alacrity in getting to the conclusion. Thus Melville’s great novel has turned off many a reader with its detailed discursions into everything from the natural history of the whales to the technical methods, circa the mid-19th century, of skinning and processing a slain leviathan.

Another source of the discursiveness lies in what might be called Melville’s efflorescence of imitation. For instance, the following few chapters after this very speech by Ahab openly emulate Shakespearean forms, with stage direction, formal soliloquys and all. Starbuck’s sad lament provides a taste:

Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries; — aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below! Oh! I plainly see my miserable office, — to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with touch of pity! For in his eyes I read some lurid woe would shrivel me up, had I it.

[ . . .]

Oh, God! to sail with such a heathen crew that have small touch of human mothers in them! Whelped somewhere by the sharkish sea. The white whale is their demigorgon. Hark! the infernal orgies! that revelry is forward! mark the unfaltering silence aft! Methinks it pictures life. Foremost through the sparkling sea shoots on the gay, embattled, bantering bow, but only to drag dark Ahab after it, where he broods within his sternward cabin, builded over the dead water of the wake, and further on, hunted by its wolfish gurglings.

But before the playful theater emulations and all the discursions that follow, there is Ahab’s unforgettable speech and the fire that undergirds. This is the center of the book. Here there few no digressions; all is concentrated, galvanizing disclosure; dialogue and mostly sparse description, owing more to density of meaning than ornateness of elaboration.

It is, as I say, perhaps America’s highest achievement in the category Oratory in Fiction. Readers may now commence to offer their own nominees, or belittle mine.

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* Some texts render it as “Command the murderous chalices!” and I cannot say which version I prefer, though I should like to know which version is the true one from Melville’s hand.