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‘Magnitude and Malignity’
Under a Troubled Master-Eye 15: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 41-A
© 2019 James LaFond
As if the stage of this great story were set with boards designed to creak specifically under Ishmael’s quavering feet, the viewpoint character now enters in the most humane manner—not heroically, but descending into a grim social contract beyond him in many ways.
CHAPTER 41. Moby Dick.
“I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.”
The myth of the White whale, echoing the myth of many a sacred animal of iconic purity [stag, wolf, dog and buffalo come to mind]is laced with whaling facts and ribbed with supernatural dread. The lonely huntsman who is the whaler, also a toiling cog in an industrial machine, is portrayed as a uniquely afflicted soul, taken from an agricultural world and sent back in time on a great beast hunt in service to the incubating monster that is industrial society. Melville does have Ishmael relate the fact that distinct whales, wounded with traceable irons in the north Pacific, may be found in the North Atlantic soon thereafter, indicating that the whales swam under the polar ice.
There is also the suspicion that Moby Dick was a thing unleashed through a dimension door upon that uniquely savage segment of mankind:
“Forced into familiarity, then, with such prodigies as these; and
knowing that after repeated, intrepid assaults, the White Whale had escaped alive; it cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time); that though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he would still swim away unharmed; or if indeed he should ever be made to spout thick blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; for again in unensanguined billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would once more be seen.
“But even stripped of these supernatural surmisings, there was enough in the earthly make and incontestable character of the monster to strike the imagination with unwonted power…”
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