Thursday, 31 March 2016

The whale's skin

Being so ignorant, I have a hard time trying to write about Moby Dick. There are so many good essays, articles and blog posts out there, I don't have anything intelligent to say. So I've been poking around, making notes, raising questions, making silly remarks... 
Look at chapter 68, "The Blanket". After writing about the definition and classification of whales, the whiteness of whales, the Gam (the social meeting of 2 whaling ships), the whales' attacks, the books about whales, the pictures of whales, the inaccurate representation of whales, the food of whales (squids), the whaling line, the whaling scene, the dart in the capture of whales, the crotch that keeps the harpoon for attacking whales, the way whale meat should be cooked, the whale as a dish, and so on and so forth, Ishmael now writes about the whale's skin. 
"In life, the visible surface of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents. Almost invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable. This allusion to the Indian rocks reminds me of another thing. Besides all the other phenomena which the exterior of the Sperm Whale presents, he not seldom displays the back, and more especially his flanks, effaced in great part of the regular linear appearance, by reason of numerous rude scratches, altogether of an irregular, random aspect..."  
(my emphasis) 
This reminds me of chapter 3- the 1st thing Ishmael describes about Queequeg is his skin: 
"It was of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it's just as I thought, he's a terrible bedfellow; he's been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. [...] He now took off his hat—a new beaver hat—when I came nigh singing out with fresh surprise. There was no hair on his head—none to speak of at least—nothing but a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead. His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull. 
Meanwhile, he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his chest and arms. As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares; he seemed to have been in a Thirty Years' War, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt. Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms..." 
(my emphasis) 
The passage describing the whale's skin ends with this remark: 
"It also seems to me that such scratches in the whale are probably made by hostile contact with other whales; for I have most remarked them in the large, full-grown bulls of the species." 
Now look at this line from the passage about Ishmael's 1st impression of Queequeg: 
"I remembered a story of a white man—a whaleman too—who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure." 
Also from chapter 68: 
"A word or two more concerning this matter of the skin or blubber of the whale. It has already been said, that it is stript from him in long pieces, called blanket-pieces. Like most sea-terms, this one is very happy and significant. For the whale is indeed wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity. It is by reason of this cosy blanketing of his body, that the whale is enabled to keep himself comfortable in all weathers, in all seas, times, and tides. What would become of a Greenland whale, say, in those shuddering, icy seas of the North, if unsupplied with his cosy surtout? True, other fish are found exceedingly brisk in those Hyperborean waters; but these, be it observed, are your cold-blooded, lungless fish, whose very bellies are refrigerators; creatures, that warm themselves under the lee of an iceberg, as a traveller in winter would bask before an inn fire; whereas, like man, the whale has lungs and warm blood. Freeze his blood, and he dies. How wonderful is it then—except after explanation—that this great monster, to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber. But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo negro in summer." 
(my emphasis) 
This makes me think of a passage in chapter 11, again about Ishmael and Queequeg: 
"... Yes, we became very wakeful; so much so that our recumbent position began to grow wearisome, and by little and little we found ourselves sitting up; the clothes well tucked around us, leaning against the head-board with our four knees drawn up close together, and our two noses bending over them, as if our kneepans were warming-pans. We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal." 
(my emphasis) 
Look at that again: 
"For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal."

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Ishmael condemns me

Look at this passage from chapter 65:
"... It is not, perhaps, entirely because the whale is so excessively unctuous that landsmen seem to regard the eating of him with abhorrence; that appears to result, in some way, from the consideration before mentioned: i.e. that a man should eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light. But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on his trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does. Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal's jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras."
You're looking at 1 of those people guilty of eating, and enjoying, pâté de foie gras.

PS: I've spotted a place in Oslo that serves whale meat. Never been there. 

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Sea monsters

Moby Dick, chapter 45: 
"In the sixth Christian century lived Procopius, a Christian magistrate of Constantinople, in the days when Justinian was Emperor and Belisarius general. As many know, he wrote the history of his own times, a work every way of uncommon value. By the best authorities, he has always been considered a most trustworthy and unexaggerating historian, except in some one or two particulars, not at all affecting the matter presently to be mentioned.
Now, in this history of his, Procopius mentions that, during the term of his prefecture at Constantinople, a great sea-monster was captured in the neighboring Propontis, or Sea of Marmora, after having destroyed vessels at intervals in those waters for a period of more than fifty years. A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid. Nor is there any reason it should be. Of what precise species this sea-monster was, is not mentioned. But as he destroyed ships, as well as for other reasons, he must have been a whale; and I am strongly inclined to think a sperm whale. And I will tell you why. For a long time I fancied that the sperm whale had been always unknown in the Mediterranean and the deep waters connecting with it. Even now I am certain that those seas are not, and perhaps never can be, in the present constitution of things, a place for his habitual gregarious resort. But further investigations have recently proved to me, that in modern times there have been isolated instances of the presence of the sperm whale in the Mediterranean. I am told, on good authority, that on the Barbary coast, a Commodore Davis of the British navy found the skeleton of a sperm whale. Now, as a vessel of war readily passes through the Dardanelles, hence a sperm whale could, by the same route, pass out of the Mediterranean into the Propontis.
In the Propontis, as far as I can learn, none of that peculiar substance called brit is to be found, the aliment of the right whale. But I have every reason to believe that the food of the sperm whale—squid or cuttle-fish—lurks at the bottom of that sea, because large creatures, but by no means the largest of that sort, have been found at its surface. If, then, you properly put these statements together, and reason upon them a bit, you will clearly perceive that, according to all human reasoning, Procopius's sea-monster, that for half a century stove the ships of a Roman Emperor, must in all probability have been a sperm whale." 
Chapter 59: 
"There seems some ground to imagine that the great Kraken of Bishop Pontoppodan may ultimately resolve itself into Squid. The manner in which the Bishop describes it, as alternately rising and sinking, with some other particulars he narrates, in all this the two correspond. But much abatement is necessary with respect to the incredible bulk he assigns it." 
Does the act of specifying these sea monsters make the mythological/ unknown creatures more ordinary, less mysterious and therefore less scary (because "[i]gnorance is the parent of fear"- chapter 3)? Or does it do the opposite- the frightening creature one'd like to dismiss as legendary and nonexistent is discomfortingly real? 
Throughout the novel, Ishmael constantly refers to the whale as leviathan. Are we meant to think that the act adds something extraordinary, magical and wondrous to the whale, which is already terrifying because of its monstrous size and strength, and our limited knowledge of the species? Or does it make the leviathan not only more "concrete" and specific but also more ordinary? Or does Ishmael/ Melville simply like to give the whale some religious/ symbolic meaning? 

Moby Dick, chapter 54 "The Town-Ho's Story"

On the surface, the Town-Ho story has little to do with the book. However, chapter 54 has several functions: 
- Like the previous chapter "The Gam", it lets us know more about whaling, specifically about life on whaling ships and conflicts between crew members. 
- It tells 1 of the stories about Moby Dick. 
- The story establishes the meaning of Moby Dick, to Ishmael and to us, depending on how you look at Steelkilt and Radney. 
Let's see what happens: Steelkilt jokes about Radney in front of others=> Radney orders Steelkilt to sweep the floor, which isn't his job and which looks like a way of humiliating him=> proud, Steelkilt refuses to comply=> Radney raises a hammer=> Steelkilt threatens=> Radney swings the hammer at his face=> Steelkilt knocks down Radney=> [brawl, quarrel with captain, the lock-up, the hanging, etc.]=> when the captain, after hearing Steelkilt's threat (inaudible to everyone else), draws back, Radney steps forward and flogs Steelkilt=> Steelkilt prepares to kill Radney to revenge=> before he does it himself, Radney's killed by Moby Dick. 
If we're on Steelkilt's side, because he simply refuses to do something that isn't his job, especially when he's already exhausted from working on the pumps, and hits Radney in self-defence (Radney's the one that has a hammer), and later suffers the injustice of being flogged, he has the right to be angry at the petty-minded, unreasonable and malicious Radney, and Moby Dick now looks like an avenger. 
If we're not on Steelkilt's side, because his insults start the conflict and he's too proud to react in a milder or more compromising way to Radney's order, and later intends to push the matter farther by turning to murder, Moby Dick is the opposite of that- what do you call it? something that sides with the wrongdoer, making injustice a greater injustice, evil a greater evil. 
If we're not on anyone side and see it as a meaningless cycle of violence and revenge, Moby Dick is the force of nature that intervenes and resolves the matter. 
Or we can forget all of that- Moby Dick knows nothing and stands for nothing, it's but "a dumb brute", and devouring a seaman is what it does, as a whale. It's just a coincidence that Moby Dick appears at that moment, and it's Radney that is thrown overboard and gets killed. The incident means nothing, it's just the way the story is told that creates the illusion of meaning. 

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Moby Dick

Note-taking again. 
Ishmael sums up the meaning of Moby Dick to Ahab in this passage: 
"All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." 
To Ahab, Moby Dick is a symbol. 
In the book, it's also a symbol. Of what? God? Nature? Fate? Evil? Something forever mysterious, elusive and unknowable? etc. But before seeing Moby Dick as a symbol, I want to see it clearly, as a whale. This is what we know: 
- a sperm whale 
- "a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead", "a high, pyramidical white hump" and a crooked, sickle-shaped jaw 
- "3 holes punctured in his starboard fluke"
- "The rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same shrouded hue, that, in the end, he had gained his distinctive appellation of the White Whale; a name, indeed, literally justified by his vivid aspect, when seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings." 
- "unwonted magnitude" 
- "his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat, and white as a pile of our Nantucket wool after the great annual sheep-shearina" 
- "he fan-tails like a split jib in a squall" 
- said to be ubiquitous and immortal 
- "that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults" invests the whale with natural terror 


"All the seven deadly sins are self-destroying, morbid appetites, but in their early stages at least, lust and gluttony, avarice and sloth know some gratification, while anger and pride have power, even though that power eventually destroys itself. Envy is impotent, numbed with fear, never ceasing in its appetite, and it knows no gratification, but endless self-torment. It has the ugliness of a trapped rat, which gnaws its own foot in an effort to escape."
(Angus Wilson

Moby Dick, chapter 42 "The Whiteness of the Whale"

I can't write about this chapter, because I have too many questions. 
What do you make of the whiteness of the whale? 
Do you think the white whale is more terrifying? (Personally I think so- have you seen any photos?)
What do you think about Ishmael's ideas about the awfulness of the colour white? 
Why does Ishmael write about the terror caused by the colour white, 2 chapters after the conversation "... look yonder, boys, there's another in the sky—lurid-like, ye see, all else pitch black." "What of that? Who's afraid of black's afraid of me! I'm quarried out of it!" "[...] Aye, harpooneer, thy race is the undeniable dark side of mankind—devilish dark at that. No offence."?
What is the meaning, and significance, of this chapter? How does it fit into the whole thing? Is it meant to be juxtaposed with "Cetology"- scientific facts aren't enough for understanding the whale, and can't account for the fright it evokes in Ishmael and other men? Or? 

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

"[L]ost in the infinite series of the sea"

Oh see how Melville uses the English language! "When it comes to language, all writers want to be billionaires. All long to possess so many words that using them is a fat charity. [...] What writer does not dream of touching every word in the lexicon once? In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville nearly touched every word once, or so it seems." I relish, I savour every page. Then sometimes I find a passage so good, so wonderful that I have to keep it somewhere. Oh the aesthetic bliss! 
This is from chapter 35: 
"... In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant the mast-head; nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. 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.
Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I—being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude—how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships' standing orders, "Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time."
And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with the Phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head. Beware of such an one, I say; your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates:—"Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain."
Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient "interest" in the voyage; half-hinting that they are so hopelessly lost to all honourable ambition, as that in their secret souls they would rather not see whales than otherwise. But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use, then, to strain the visual nerve? They have left their opera-glasses at home.
"Why, thou monkey," said a harpooneer to one of these lads, "we've been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen's teeth whenever thou art up here." Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Crammer's (Thomas Cranmer) sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over..."

Moby Dick, chapter 32 "Cetology"

1/ The Sperm Whale
2/ The Right Whale 
3/ The Fin Back Whale 
4/ The Hump-backed Whale 
5/ The Razor Back Whale 
6/ The Sulphur Bottom Whale 
1/ The Grampus 
2/ The Black Fish 
3/ The Narwhale 
4/ The Killer
5/ The Thrasher 
1/ The Huzza Porpoise 
2/ The Algerine Porpoise 
3/ The Mealy-mouthed Porpoise


Instead of skipping and complaining about Chapter 32 "Cetology", which many readers do, I decided to read it carefully. Here are some thoughts: 
- Ishmael's fascinated by whales. The book begins with Etymology (the different words for "whale") and Extracts (quotes about whales). Out of the 31 chapters before "Cetology", only 6 chapters (4, 10, 11, 21, 23 and 29) don't have any words like "whale", "whales", "whaling" or something beginning with "whale" ("whalebone", "whalemen"...) in them. 
- His classification is incomplete.  As he says himself "I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty." And later: "It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word." Not that I knew it myself, of course
- He doesn't introduce Latin scientific names. 
- His classification is largely based on size, and not very accurate. It's problematic from the start, as Ishmael sees whales as fish (referring to Jonah as authority).
- Ishmael sees them in terms of value- whether they're often hunted, whether they're needed for bones, baleen or oil, whether they have much oil and how much. Which is to say, his point of view is that of a whale hunter. 
- At the same time, he also sees whales as leviathans, so his view is not only practical but also religious/ mystical. 
- As he tries to classify whales, he talks about the difficulty (and the ridiculousness?) of such classification. 
"Some pretend to see a difference between the Greenland whale of the English and the right whale of the Americans. But they precisely agree in all their grand features; nor has there yet been presented a single determinate fact upon which to ground a radical distinction. It is by endless subdivisions based upon the most inconclusive differences, that some departments of natural history become so repellingly intricate." 
"In connection with this appellative of "Whalebone whales," it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.
But it may possibly be conceived that, in the internal parts of the whale, in his anatomy—there, at least, we shall be able to hit the right classification. Nay; what thing, for example, is there in the Greenland whale's anatomy more striking than his baleen? Yet we have seen that by his baleen it is impossible correctly to classify the Greenland whale. And if you descend into the bowels of the various leviathans, why there you will not find distinctions a fiftieth part as available to the systematizer as those external ones already enumerated. What then remains? nothing but to take hold of the whales bodily, in their entire liberal volume, and boldly sort them that way." 
- Ishmael also touches upon the problem of naming. 
(about the Sperm whale) "It is chiefly with his name that I now have to do. Philologically considered, it is absurd." 
(about the Right whale) "Among the fishermen, he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale; the Greenland Whale; the Black Whale; the Great Whale; the True Whale; the Right Whale. There is a deal of obscurity concerning the identity of the species thus multitudinously baptised. What then is the whale, which I include in the second species of my Folios? It is the Great Mysticetus of the English naturalists; the Greenland Whale of the English whalemen; the Baleine Ordinaire of the French whalemen; the Growlands Walfish of the Swede." 
(about the Humpback) "At any rate, the popular name for him does not sufficiently distinguish him, since the sperm whale also has a hump though a smaller one." 
(about the Black fish) "I give the popular fishermen's names for all these fish, for generally they are the best. Where any name happens to be vague or inexpressive, I shall say so, and suggest another. I do so now, touching the Black Fish, so-called, because blackness is the rule among almost all whales. So, call him the Hyena Whale, if you please." 
(about the Narwhale, "that is, Nostril whale") "Another instance of a curiously named whale, so named I suppose from his peculiar horn being originally mistaken for a peaked nose." 
(about the Killer) "Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included." 
- And, as he writes about whales, Ishmael also writes about the limitation of his own knowledge. 
(about the Razor back) "Let him go. I know little more of him, nor does anybody else." 
(about the Sulphur-bottom) "He is seldom seen; at least I have never seen him except in the remoter southern seas, and then always at too great a distance to study his countenance. He is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line. Prodigies are told of him. Adieu, Sulphur Bottom! I can say nothing more that is true of ye, nor can the oldest Nantucketer." 
(about the Narwhale) "What precise purpose this ivory horn or lance answers, it would be hard to say. It does not seem to be used like the blade of the sword-fish and bill-fish; though some sailors tell me that the Narwhale employs it for a rake in turning over the bottom of the sea for food. Charley Coffin said it was used for an ice-piercer; for the Narwhale, rising to the surface of the Polar Sea, and finding it sheeted with ice, thrusts his horn up, and so breaks through. But you cannot prove either of these surmises to be correct. My own opinion is, that however this one-sided horn may really be used by the Narwhale—however that may be—it would certainly be very convenient to him for a folder in reading pamphlets." 
(about the Killer) "Of this whale little is precisely known to the Nantucketer, and nothing at all to the professed naturalist. [...] I never heard what sort of oil he has."
(about the Thrasher) "Still less is known of the Thrasher than of the Killer." 
At the end of the chapter, he says "This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught." Why does he still write about whales, then? Because he was unsatisfied with existing books about whales. And "But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity." Ishmael tries to grasp the ungraspable- he can never know/ understand the whale, but wants to come closer and closer. 
Chapter 32 is important and necessary and shouldn't be skipped, because it's not about whales as much as it's about Ishmael. Whilst the digressions in War and Peace are Tolstoy's, the digressions in Moby Dick are Ishmael's rather than than Melville's. In addition to showing that Ishmael has a mystical side and has a fascination with, and yearning to fully understand, whales that other whale hunters don't quite share (Ahab wants a revenge, Flask follows whales for the fun of it, etc.), the chapter also lets us see what he thinks about the different kinds of whales, about science and knowledge and our ignorance, about the act of classifying and naming the sub-groups of the species. Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that perhaps the chapter may also be about race, that it's Melville's or Ishmael's attack on the classifying, dividing, categorising of Homo sapiens? Probably not, we know the narrator to be liberal, cosmopolitan and anti-racist. 
To skip chapter 32 is a mistake. 

The 1st crew members of the Pequod

Only note-taking for now. 
- Ahab: 
+ Captain. 
+ "He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness." 
+ "His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze". 
+ Has "a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish" that "resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded". 
+ Lost his leg; has an ivory leg "fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale's jaw". 
+ "Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship's ever-pitching prow. There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance." 
- Starbuck:
+ Chief mate. 
+ Native of Nantucket. 
+ Quaker by descent. 
+ Thin. 
+ "His pure tight skin was an excellent fit; and closely wrapped up in it, and embalmed with inner health and strength, like a revivified Egyptian, this Starbuck seemed prepared to endure for long ages to come, and to endure always, as now; for be it Polar snow or torrid sun, like a patent chronometer, his interior vitality was warranted to do well in all climates." 
+ In his eyes are "lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life". 
+ Believes that "an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward". 
+ Courage is not a sentiment, but "a thing simply useful to him", and shouldn't be foolishly wasted. 
- Stubb: 
+ 2nd mate. 
+ Native of Cape-Cod. 
+ "A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air". 
+ Good-humoured, easy, careless, unfearing. 
+ "You would almost as soon have expected him to turn out of his bunk without his nose as without his pipe. [...] For, when Stubb dressed, instead of first putting his legs into his trowsers, he put his pipe into his mouth."
- Flask: 
+ 3rd mate. 
+ Native of Tisbury, in Martha's vineyard. 
+ "A short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honour with him, to destroy them whenever encountered." Whales are to him nothing but "a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat". 
- Queequeg: 
+ Starbuck's squire. 
+ Ishmael's best friend. 
+ Tattooed; his face is "of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares". 
+ Cannibal. 
+ No hair on his head but "a small scalp-knot twisted up on his forehead". 
+ His back has the same dark squares, and his legs are marked as if "a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms". 
+ There seem "tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils" "in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold". 
+ Native of Kokovoko, "an island far away to the West and South"; son of a king. 
+ Not fully civilised ("His education was not yet completed. He was an undergraduate."). 
+ Worships Yojo and once a year has a Ramadan when he sits still and does nothing for the whole day. 
+ Smokes from a tomahawk, shaves with his harpoon, eats raw meat, loves chowder, reaches over the table and grapples beefsteaks towards himself with his harpoon.
+ Strong; can carry a wheelbarrow, with his heavy chest in it, on his shoulders. 
- Tashtego: 
+ Stubb's squire. 
+ Unmixed Indian from Gay Head. 
+ Has "long, lean, sable hair", high cheek bones, black rounding eyes and "lithe snaky limbs". 
- Daggoo: 
+ Flask's squire. 
+ A "gigantic, coal-black negro-savage, with a lion-like tread". 
+ Has 2 golden hoops suspended from his ears. 
+ Tall, erect as a giraffe- "a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress". 
+ Retains "all of his barbaric virtues". 
1 line attracts my attention: "... in all these cases the native American liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles". 
Note that I haven't written anything about Ishmael. That can wait. 

Sunday, 20 March 2016


I've been thinking a lot about friendships lately*. Lots of questions: How many friends do I have? How many people do I trust? How many people do I think I can rely on? Are the people I call friends really my friends? Do I have close friends? Are friends friends if I don't think of them in moments of sadness? Can I consider as close friends the friends I haven't met, or do I confide in them only because I haven't met them and probably won't ever meet them? And so on and so forth.
I suppose the fact that I have to ask these questions shows that I don't have many friends. I have contacts and connections, sure, many acquaintances, and people to whom I can be friendly. Friends? When we use the word in the general, simple sense- friends as closer than mere colleagues or classmates or acquaintances (e.g. out of over a dozen of co-workers, I consider 2 as friends), my circle of friends isn't pathetically small, including internet friends and friends who have left or have been left behind. The trouble comes when I start to narrow down by asking myself: Do we hang out? How often? Do we do things together? What do we talk about? Do we talk about our interests and intellectual subjects, rather than just work stuff and trifles and such things? Do we talk about anything personal? Do I feel comfortable being myself with them? Do I feel like I have a bond with them? Will I miss them if I don't see them any more? etc. I try placing people in the different circles ("special friends", "friends", "friendly"...) and get mixed up and confused, whilst wondering where I am in their different circles, and end up wondering what's wrong with me. Of course, my life underwent a radical change- I moved from 1 country to another when I was already 15, and have never returned ever since. A few friends fell out with me over politics. A few other friends stayed behind, but soon afterwards left too- to the US, the UK, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia... Then, a few years after moving from 1 country to another, I moved to another city- Oslo. Some of my friends and classmates also went away, to the US, the UK... Then I went to university, at which point making friends was already more difficult than in high school or earlier. Some friends returned to their countries. Some friends moved to other places. And when people are in different countries, even different continents, especially when they have their own lives to care about, the friendship is no longer the same; most of the time the talking just stops altogether, without words of farewell. 
People come and go, move in and out, change from 1 circle to another. Some co-workers become friends. Some friends become acquaintances. Most recently, a guy moved from "date" to "friend" to "special friend" and now to "acquaintance", or worse, "somebody I used to know". 
Looking back and thinking of my friendships, all of a sudden I realise how fleeting and uncertain everything is. And I feel quite sad. 

*: There might be some prejudice against listicles because of sites like BuzzFeed, but this is an excellent and thoughtful article about friendships:

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Moby Dick Big Read
You can hear Moby Dick read in its entirety by Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Nathaniel Philbrick, Fiona Shaw, John Waters, Tony Kushner and many others, even British PM David Cameron. 

Bonus: I haven't found anything in Moby Dick to write about, but here is something about whales:

Thursday, 10 March 2016

On being ill

No, this is not a post about Virginia Woolf's essay. 
This is about me- I've been sick since Saturday. Fever (I've never been hotter, at least over the past year). Runny and stuffy nose, which, as though that's not bad enough, became extremely painful after several blows. Trouble breathing, as a result. Sneezing. Bad, very bad cough (I've had a cough since, I don't know, December, which when bad was compared to the sounds of a chicken and which was about to disappear before I fell sick again on Saturday). Sore throat, as a result. A few times I was dizzy and thought I was about to faint (which reminds me, I've never fainted in my life, not even once); and a few times felt nauseated, but, having hardly eaten anything, had nothing to vomit up. My condition was a lot worsened yesterday, for whatever reasons- my whole body was in pain, as though every bone, every muscle, every fibre of my being was in pain. Not only so, I had a headache, and my feverish face became so red that I could hardly recognise myself in the mirror (I can, of course, I just don't like the idea that I really look like that). 
All right, no worries, I'm a bit better now. Except that there's blood in my mucus, everything else seems to improve, in a few days I can be up and running again. 
Only when I get sick do I remember how good it is to be well. 
So much self-centredness in this post. Let's see. These days, I stayed home listening to love songs of the 80s, watching again Play It Again, Sam (starring that whiny, cynical Woody Allen, yes), following the elections in the US (and losing sleep over 1 question: why does Donald Trump keep winning?), playing Word Ladder and reading Moby-Dick. Let's talk about these. 

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Wonderland and Looking-Glass land

Note: people who haven't read the books, or read them a long time ago and forgot a lot, should skip this post.

Let's compare the 2 worlds that Alice visits in her dreams.
The weirdness and illogicality of Wonderland:
- It exists so far down the rabbit-hole that the fall doesn't seem to ever come to an end, and the tunnel is full of cupboards and bookshelves.
- Eating and drinking certain things can make Alice change size.
- Animals and birds can talk.
- Alice's memory is mixed up.
- There are creatures such as Dodo, Mock Turtle, Gryphon.
- The Caucus-race is a race in a circle in which the runners begin when they like and leave off when they like, so nobody can win and everyone gets a prize.
- There's a Cheshire cat that talks, grins from ear and ear and can appear or disappear.
- The Duchess's baby turns into a pig.
- The Mad Hatter offers to Alice the wine he doesn't have.
- A watch shows what day it is, but doesn't tell time.
- Time is a person.
- The Mad Hatter asks a riddle that has no answer.
- The Dormouse tells a story of 3 sisters that live at the bottom of a treacle-well.
- Some creatures are playing cards, and their queen is the Queen of Hearts.
- 3 playing cards paint white flowers red.
- They play a game of croquet in which the balls are live hedgehogs and the mallets are flamingos.
- The Mock Turtle studies Reeling and Writhing; Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision; Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in Coils. 10 hours on the 1st day, 9 on the 2nd, and so on- lessons lessen day by day.
- The Lobster quadrille is a dance in which the creatures dance with lobsters and then throw them as far as possible out to sea.
- The Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse say 3 different dates, the jurors write down all 3, then add them up and reduce them to shillings and pence.
- The King wants a verdict before getting evidence, and argues that if the letter isn't written in the Knave's hand, it must mean the Knave imitates someone else's, and if the letter isn't signed, it makes the matter worse as it means the Knave must mean some mischief, otherwise he would just sign his own name.
- Sentence 1st, verdict afterwards.

Now, the weirdness and illogicality of the Looking-Glass land:
- It exists on the other side of the mirror.
- Alice at the beginning is large and invisible, and can move the chess pieces about.
- Chess pieces, animals, birds and flowers can talk.
- The text is written in a way that can only be read when held up to a mirror.
- There are words such as "brillig", "slithy", "toves", "gyre", "gimble", "wabe", "mimsy", "borogoves", etc. (in the poem "Jabberwocky").
- In the house, Alice floats in the air all the way out.
- The space changes, Alice tries different ways to go the hill or to the Red Queen but always goes back to the house, and only succeeds when walking in the opposite direction.
- The country is a large chessboard, the story is based on a game of chess, and the characters, including Alice, are chess pieces and pawns.
- Alice runs with the Red Queen, faster and faster, until she's out of breath, only to find herself at the same spot.
- She's given a cookie when thirsty.
- Tickets are about the same size as people.
- A man's dressed entirely in white paper.
- There are creatures such as Rocking-horse-fly, Snap-dragon-fly, Bread-and-butter-fly, Humpty Dumpty (egg-shaped), Unicorn.
- In a part of the woods, the creatures forget their own names.
- When the road diverges, there are 2 sign posts pointing in the same direction.
- Tweedledum and Tweedledee have a fake fight.
- The White Queen says: jam every other day- so the rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today.
- The punishment comes before the crime.
- The White Queen screams 1st and gets her finger pricked later.
- Sudden change of space: all of a sudden Alice finds herself in a shop, with a Sheep instead of the White Queen, and then suddenly finds herself in a boat, and again finds herself in the shop.
- Things flow about in the shop- whenever Alice stares at a shelf, it becomes empty and the others around it become full.
- The Sheep works with 14 pairs of needles at once.
- Fivepence for 1 egg, twopence for 2.
- The egg turns into Humpty Dumpty.
- Words mean whatever Humpty Dumpty chooses them to mean.
- Humpty Dumpty complains that he can't recognise people by the face, who all look the same.
- Alice has to hand the cake around 1st, and cut it afterwards.
- When 1 knight hits the other, he knocks him off his horse, and if he misses, he tumbles off himself.
- The White Knight carries a box upside-down, so the rain can't get in.
- The horse has anklets round his feet to guard against sharks' bites.
- A crown suddenly appears on Alice's head.
- The 2 queens invite each other to Alice's party.
- Alice and a mutton are introduced to each other.
- The queens shrink to the size of dolls.

The Looking-Glass land appears stranger, messier, more complex and confusing, with all the sudden, unexpected changes. But is it really chaotic? When we list the characteristics of the 2 worlds, which I know is dull and ruins (some of) the fun, that gives us a little distance and helps us see them more clearly. And it turns out that the Looking-Glass land is really not so chaotic after all. 
Let's look at this passage in Symbolic Logic, written by Lewis Carroll, as Charles Lutwidge Dogdson: 
"The writers, and editors, of the Logical text-books which run in the ordinary grooves——to whom I shall hereafter refer by the (I hope inoffensive) title “The Logicians”——take, on this subject, what seems to me to be a more humble position than is at all necessary. They speak of the Copula of a Proposition “with bated breath”, almost as if it were a living, conscious Entity, capable of declaring for itself what it chose to mean, and that we, poor human creatures, had nothing to do but to ascertain what was its sovereign will and pleasure, and submit to it.
In opposition to this view, I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorised in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of his book, “Let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’, and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’,” I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it.
And so, with regard to the question whether a Proposition is or is not to be understood as asserting the existence of its Subject, I maintain that every writer may adopt his own rule, provided of course that it is consistent with itself and with the accepted facts of Logic." 
That passage is often quoted to discuss Humpty Dumpty's talk about the meaning of words, but I'd like to talk about something else: whereas things in Wonderland seem to be random and apparently the only rule Alice discovers is that eating and drinking may make her change in size, the Looking-Glass land has rules and logic, just different (wrong rules and bad logic we say), so once Alice learns what the rules are, she can count on them to operate consistently as the rules in the real world, and then she can function. It doesn't matter what the rules are and how ridiculous they sound, the point is that there are rules, and they are consistent. It's when everything is random that it's unpredictable and difficult.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

How to approach Lewis Carroll's Alice books- For dummies, and Let's play Lewis Carroll's Word Ladder game

Going around the internet, I'm baffled by many readers' response to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. How can they read those books that way? I mean, do they need guidelines? 
Let me help. 
- Treat them as fairy tales. 
- Don't expect a plot; don't cling to assumptions about what (Victorian) novels should do or shouldn't do. 
- Don't look for an explicit moral message; don't expect Alice to learn something (Who are you? The Duchess? "And the moral of that is..."). 
- Focus on language; enjoy the logic games, word play, puns... and the characters; just have fun. 
- Don't expect the books to be exactly like the adaptations and resent them for not being so. 
- Separate Lewis Carroll from Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, i.e. get rid of all the theories about his sexuality.
What do I see when reading the Alice books? I see a logical, mathematical mind combined with a rich imagination and love of the grotesque. Being a logician that is also interested in language, Lewis Carroll notices, and jokes about, the illogicality of the English language. And he's an inventor- he makes up words and creates worlds and invents games. What a pity it is to read books as brilliant and delightful and complex as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and see them as nothing but products of a diseased mind! Sigh. 

Come to think of it, these are of course "rules" for approaching novels in general, not just Lewis Carroll's Alice books. 


For fun: 
Do you know that Lewis Carroll invented the Word Ladder game
- CAT 
(My solution, btw, is different from his: 
- APE 
The Wikipedia page quotes Nabokov as saying "some of my records are: hate—love in three, lass—male in four, and live—dead in five (with "lend" in the middle)". 
From HATE to LOVE. The solution I got: 
Too long. Shorter: 
Finally I came up with something shorter: 
Not bad, hmm? 
How do you go from LIVE to DEAD? 
The solution I got was: 
Too long, I think. A bit googling gave me another solution: 
The number of steps is the same. Could you find a shorter solution? 

Friday, 4 March 2016

February recap, and some thoughts on blogging

Last month I wrote 5 posts, or 3, to be exact, because 1 of them was a list and another contained nothing but a song. For comparison, I wrote 14 posts in February 2015, 20 in March, 24 in April, 34 in May, 46 in June... 
Excuses: busy, lazy, gloomy, etc. 
But why do I need any excuses? We should create something like the lit blogger's Bill of Rights: the right to write, and write about anything, the right to defend any book, the right to criticise any book, the right to change opinion about a book or author, the right to disagree with general opinion, the right to choose any format, the right to write in any language, the right to write in any style, the right not to be professional/ academic, the right to visit other litblogs, the right to discuss and argue with other bloggers, the right to be a book snob or a book slut, the right not to write, and so on and so forth. 
That leads to another question that bothers me sometimes: Why do we blog? And: why do I blog? I started blogging for the 1st time in 2006, and in nearly 10 years (how time flies!) I've changed several times, had several blogs- blogspot, yahoo 360, wordpress. This blog you're looking at was created in 2012 and is likely to remain alive for some time, and I won't abandon blogging any time soon, but I have doubt sometimes. What do I earn from it? What if it's nothing but a waste of time? 
What I love most about blogging is the absolute freedom. You can write anything. You don't have to stick to any rules on style or format (the late D. G. Myers once wrote about 2 kinds of bloggers, for example). You have no editor, no censor, no ministry of public enlightenment and propaganda controlling you. You don't owe anybody anything. The relationship between you and your readers isn't the same as that between an author writing for publication and his/her readers (unless you put up some ads- now that makes it similar). 
The other thing I love about blogging has to do with other bloggers. The good blogs. The comments, conversations and discussions. The sense of community. The different perspectives. 
Of course I can see how a professional critic may be sceptical. The blogosphere is vast, and messy, and because it's so free, so democratic, everybody can voice their own opinion and very often some people just say what they think about a book without adequately understanding it and without bothering to back up their assessment with arguments and examples. But there are brilliant, valuable blogs out there, and for them I'm grateful. 
(Speaking of which, Rohan Maitzen wrote a blog post about this topic recently). 
Anyway, last month, after reading The Cossacks, I made the mistake of reading right after Hadji Murad, which should have waited, especially when I was busy with many things, and not in the right mood. Tolstoy's 1 of those writers with a strong, imposing personality and an obsession with 1 central idea, and reading 1 Tolstoy book right after another is like watching in a row several films by directors like Wong Kar Wai, Woody Allen, Ozu or Ingmar Bergman. I also made the mistake of reading, at the same time, Tolstoy and the Novel by John Bayley, who didn't seem to like Tolstoy that much. 
The good side is that afterwards I made the wise decision to turn to the wonderful Lewis Carroll. Having just finished reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I am now reading Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Pure fun. The very thing I need before embarking on a Moby-Dick read-along. 
(I know, I violate the rule and write about my reading experience instead of the books). 
Anybody cares to join in the read-along? I've got Anne, Caroline, and maybe Tim.