CLASSIC MARITIME FISH STORIES (The ones that got away)
Two of my favorite fish stories are Melville’s MOBY DICK and Hemmingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Call me Ishmael, but there is a romantic essence to the dangers of sea faring. And these two authors knew how to spin a good yarn that included hubris and folly. Hemmingway won the Pulitzer for his work in 1953, while Moby Dick is considered one of the finest pieces of American Literature, sometimes given to the moniker, “The Great American Novel”.
Both Ahab and the old man are, in a sense, monomaniacs. They are both so single minded in the pursuit of their objects that they become oblivious to every thing else. It creates pride, which leads to each of the character’s own downfall. Both of them die before ever obtaining what they truly seek. And neither one ever perceives the inherent folly of his own actions.
The Sea is a great equalizer for American writers, because the United States is situated along three shores, the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts. Alaska has the most shoreline; and Hawaii is surrounded by the Pacific. The vastness of it creates a canvas upon which a writer can paint many portraits of human travail. And it serves to facilitate the metaphor of how small we are in comparison to nature-that it cannot be tamed… and yet, we can become extinct. This is the overwhelming theme in these two stories. I will begin with Melville here, and then review Hemmingway later.
MOBY DICK By Herman Melville.
“Call me Ishmael”, is one of the great opening lines of any novel, and sets the tone for 1st person narration. This is the account by a new hire of the great whaling vessel, The Pequod and the man who was its captain, the elusive Ahab. The story is rife with Biblical reference, particularly about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption.
Ahab walks the deck alone at night to the sound of his peg leg pounding along the gang boards. It is a reminder to those below who have sailed with him many times, about how he came to lose his leg. The Great White Whale, Moby Dick, a giant albino Sperm whale remains the single occupancy of his consciousness. For it was this whale which caused him to wear a peg. And it is this whale that drives him on each voyage of killing and retrieving whales as a business. So much so, that he hammers a gold doubloon to the main mast and offers it to any scalawag who spots the Great White Whale on each voyage.
The vestigial plot is of the train wreck variety, even though Ahab does not appear before chapter 28 of 135 chapters. There is no conflict moving toward a crisis in Moby Dick, because the crisis is long past, the battle for the soul lost in a summary flashback by the delirium that followed the castrating bite that took off Ahab’s leg. The one emotion that is returned to him is vengeance. Ahab is now shaped in an unalterable mould. The die is cast. All that’s left is the denouement with all the characters-save the narrator, Ishmael -dragged inexorably toward destruction.
Melville reads the captain as a demagogue, blinded by his own profane quest. Ahab manipulates his crew, squandering his investor’s money and his crew’s lives to satisfy his immoral agenda-piloting his ship toward a doomed conflict with a murderous, uncontrollable, unstoppable monster.
The whiteness of the whale is “the pallor of the dead” and the “shroud in which we wrap them”. But it is also the most meaningful symbol of spiritual things. Even Que Qui, the tattooed harpooner from the South Pacific who befriends Ishmael, sees in the rolling of some whale bones, the prophecy of their deaths. He becomes immobilized in a spiritual trance knowing the ultimate fate of the ship.
Eventually, the Pequod rendezvous with the Great White Whale and Ahab takes his vengeance upon it, after the whale broadsides the ship leaving it to sink. He leaps upon the creature with a harpoon and gets caught up in the rope, dragged under by the whale, but not before inflicting it with the harpoon. When he appears on the surface again, his body is tangled in the web of rope, with only a free arm loose. It waves with the motion of the monster, as if beckoning the crew to follow their captain in finishing the job he no longer can. But the ship sinks beneath the waves, leaving only Ishmael as a survivor to tell the story.
To keep the whale oil burning in a rich man’s lap required the delicate maneuvering of a crew whose demographic diversity predicted America’s future. Caucasians, Indians, African Americans, various islanders are all, as Melville would write, “ federated along one keel”. A misdirected melting pot, it sails on under a man divided and seared by the conflagration raging inside him. Its as if Melville is beckoning us to believe that we are a nation, a species, full of diversity and also of greed and pride, Hubris, ever poised on self-destruction. It could be read as a cautionary tale whose ending he saw as unavoidable extinction.
-Resident Philosopher Doug Taylor