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‘The Dread Gale of God’s Wrath’
Under a Troubled Master-Eye #9: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 35
© 2019 James LaFond
The Mast-Head.
In the passages below Melville continues his working-class history of humanity by reminding the reader that the whaling ship not only transports the whaler into the ocean but also takes him back into previous ages of civilized and barbaric societies.
“And that the Egyptians were a nation of mast-head standers, is an assertion based upon the general belief among archæologists, that the first pyramids were founded for astronomical purposes: a theory singularly supported by the peculiar stair-like formation of all four sides of those edifices; whereby, with prodigious long upliftings of their legs, those old astronomers were wont to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars; even as the look-outs of a modern ship sing out for a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight…”
“Great Washington, too, stands high aloft on his towering main-mast in Baltimore, and like one of Hercules’ pillars, his column marks that point of human grandeur beyond which few mortals will go…”
“There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner—for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable…”
Ironically this process of mast-heading, or spiritual elevation shared by the crew, not only brings about a trance, upon a ship itself entranced by the ocean and in turn beguiling the sailor on the lofty mast-head, but permits one to forget and leave behind all of the petty materialism of civilization, despite the fact that the whaling ship, down to its three masts [church, state and business] was in fact a miniature replication of industrial society launched for the explicit purposes of serving that soul-eating machine and of enriching it’s aspiring elites.
A discussion of cozy comforts at home and aboard ship ensues, referring to the crow’s nest upon the main mast as a “pulpit” again suggesting that the elevated vision of the questing soul places him at the apex of the hierarchy of awareness above society, but in a position of elevated risk—or heroism.
The author goes onto explain the invention of the crow’s nest, for the purpose of sailing from Iceland to Greenland at the end of the medieval warm period in search of survivors of the Nordic colonies there. The inventor, a certain Sleet developed a covered tent with flaps and provisions for using navigation equipment. But alas, poor Ishmael sails for a cruel, miserly master and must brave the elements far above the dreaming ship.
Melville closes:
“In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.
“There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”
Dream Flower: Five Dark Tales
Back on the Overton Railroad
under a troubled master-eye
‘With a Certain Bigotry of Purpose’
barbarism versus civilization
when you're food
on combat
thriving in bad places
time & cosmos
your trojan whorse
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