Leben mit Herman Melville

Pequod’s End (There is a captain Ahab in all of us)

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Heute vor 170 Jahren, am 6. Januar 1840, ist die Pequod untergegangen. Dan Matlaga von der Google Group der Ishmailites tut den Job der P.E.Q.U.O.D. und seziert in einem Vorgriff auf Kapitel 132: Die Symphonie die sich aufdrängenden großen Themen.

The Symphony beschreibt noch die Ereignisse des 1. Januar 1840. Nach den pausenlosen Ankündigungen des Untergangs über die letzten 131 Kapitel ist dieser Anfang derjenige vom Ende. Konsequent dazu handeln die folgenden letzten Kapitel an Epiphanias nicht von einem Erscheinen, sondern einem Verschwinden.

170 years from today, on January 6th, 1840, the Pequod sank. Dan Matlaga from Google Group Ishmailites does a P.E.Q.U.O.D. job describing Chapter 132: The Symphony in several entries. In context, without the doublets, all by Dan Matlaga:

The Symphony, part 1

Hello All…

It is morning January 1, 2010.

Most appropriate for this date and this time is an analysis of Chapter 132 The Symphony. One hundred seventy years ago on this morning of this new decade of 1840 Melville has Ahab at the bulwarks gazing into the sea and sky.

I have remnants of my High School paperback copy of Moby-Dick. Underlined in red:

“On such a day – very much such a sweetness as this – I struck my first whale – a boy harpooneer of eighteen! Forty – forty – forty years ago! – ago!”

I underlined that sentence in The Symphony in red, along with this thought also in red: “M gives away the store here… date???”

I realized how important the date of The Symphony is. It could provide a more cohesive understanding of certain information provided in the novel. Certainly anyone who has progressed to chapter 132 is capable of mathematical addition. The question as it would appear in a blue book exam: “Question: If in chapter 132 Captain Ahab states he was 18 years old forty years ago, how old is Captain Ahab now?” The answer: 18 + 40 = 58, Captain Ahab is 58 years old while gazing into sea and sky in chapter 132.

This bit of information is interesting but limited. A similar situation occurs, it seemed to this high school student, in Chapter 28 Ahab. With reference to the scar on Ahab’s face down his neck to disappear beneath his clothing: “Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say.”
An old Gay-Head Indian believed that Ahab was branded when he was forty years old in an elemental strife at sea. A grey Manxman believed Ahab had this scar as a birthmark, and the scar extended head to foot.

Both comments concerning the origin of Ahab’s scar are correct. But what concerns here is this repeat of Melville’s use of the number forty. Without the date the voyage takes place, it is difficult to understand how this scar information can be of much use. If your mind wraps around the fossilized interpretation of Moby-Dick, the petrified interpretation – mummified, desiccated view, that Mr. Melville was not interested in detail, certainly these passages will open up much to wild speculation. If the date of the voyage can be determined, the speculation can be narrowed.

But hey… what did I know; I was a High School student.


The Symphony, part 2

Suzanna, Ave Maria, October 17, 2008So the subsequent submissions don’t read as magic, I think it appropriate to briefly describe how we can determine the year of the last voyage of the Pequod.

In 1999 John F. Birk published a book titled: “Tracing the Round: The Astrological Framework of Moby-Dick.” In his book John divides the novel into six blocks. Chapters 1 – 25 falls under the astrological signs of Aries and Taurus, chapters 26 – 69 Gemini and Cancer constitute Birk’s second block while Chapter 70 The Sphynx is block three. Birk’s block four includes chapters 71 – 92 and tokens the astrological signs of Virgo and Libra, chapters 93 – 126 fall under the astrological signs of Scorpio and Sagittarius. The final number six block which includes chapters 127 – 135 rounds out the astrological zodiac with the three astrological signs of Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. As the Pequod sails from one ocean to the next in search of the whale, it is according to Birk, sailing from one astrological section of the zodiac to the next.

While John was writing his book he and I had more than a few lunches on campus. During one of these lunches, John mentioned that no one really understands the gams, and of all the gams the least understood is Chapter 54 The Town Ho’s Story. I told John not to worry. I’ll figure it out.

With a start time of 6 p.m. that evening and an all nighter until about 2p.m. aided by a dozen or so magnificent Churchill cigars, I was able to determine the astronomical references of the gams. Chapter 52 The Pequod meets the Albatross references the constellation Argo. The constellation noted on star maps of 1840’and 50’s no longer exist on modern star maps. Chapter 54 The Town Ho’s Story is related to Halley’s comet. Chapter 71 The Pequod meets the Jeroboam is without question a reference to a comet designated in the history books as Comet 1840 1. Chapter 81 The Pequod meets the Virgin is Melville’s inclusion of the planet Jupiter while the planet Venus can be affiliated with Chapter 91 The Pequod meets the Rose Bud. The planet Saturn is the basis for Chapter 100 The Pequod meets the Samuel Enderby of London. Melville had in mind the planet Mercury for Chapter 115 The Pequod meets the Bachelor, and Mars for Chapter 128 The Pequod meets the Rachel. One of the more interesting gams is Chapter 131 The Pequod meets the Delight. This gam was written with the planet Uranus in mind, and as previously submitted occurred on Christmas of 1839.

We can ask the question: was there ever a time when Mercury was in either Capricorn, Aquarius, or Pisces while Venus was in the constellation of Virgo or Libra, Mars in Capricorn, Aquarius or Pisces, Jupiter in Virgo or Libra, Saturn in the astronomical constellation of Scorpius or Sagittarius, and Uranus in either Capricorn Aquarius or Pisces? The answer is yes; all conditions are met from December 17th 1839 through January 5th, 1840. With consideration of the illumination of the moon described in Chapter 22 Merry Christmas, we can be certain this window occurs at the closing of the voyage and not the start of the voyage.

It is worth noting the necessary change of treating Birk’s astrological signs to astronomical constellations. If we continue to use Birk’s six blocks as astrological signs we do not arrive at a date. The planet Venus becomes particularly quarrelsome. This is one of two smoking guns Melville provides to inform the reader astrological considerations are not the important guide John Birk believes.

Chapter 22 Merry Christmas informs the reader the day the Pequod set sails. We can now state with confidence the date is December 25, 1838. If the reader navigates through the 135 chapters guided with the additional thought whale encounters occur during the period of two nights and three days of new moon, the reader arrives with the Pequod’s demise January 4th, 1840.


The Symphony, part 3

Suzanna, Ariadne, November 2, 2008The astute reader referenced in part two will conclude Chapter 132 The Symphony occurs the morning of January 1, 1840, which parallels the date of this posting of not just a new year but also a new decade. In 1840 Ahab informs the reader he is 58 years old. If we subtract 58 from 1840 we arrive at the year 1782. Captain Ahab was born in the year 1782. According to a document in the archives of the Berkshire Historical Society, Allan Melvill, Herman’s father’s birth date is presented as April 7, 1782. John Birk can take some comfort here since he lists Aries as Ahab’s astrological sign (March 21 – April 20).

We learn in The Symphony Ahab becomes a boy harpooneer at age 18. If we add 18 to 1782 we arrive at the year 1800. This is the year Allan made his first ocean voyage to Europe where he would eventually set up an export business to the United States. Another document, titled: “Recapitulations of Voyages and Travels from 1800 to 1822 both inclusive,” this document written by Allan lists 1800 as his first voyage and the year 1822 as his last. Allan then was forty years old when he made his last voyage. Recall the statement in Chapter 28 Ahab by the Gay – Head Indian with respect to Ahab’s scar: “…not till he was full forty years old did Ahab become that way branded, and then it came upon him, not in the fury of any mortal fray, but in an elemental strife at sea.” We can narrow Ahab’s strife at sea to November 9, 1822 to a major meteor shower. Melville’s treatment of meteor showers in Moby-Dick will remain for another posting.

Some may conclude Mr. Melville had issues with his father and therefore patterned Ahab after those issues. Along similar lines, Moby Dick was a whale, there is a constellation of Cetus a sea monster, Moby Dick must be represented by Cetus. The Pequod was a sailing ship. There was the constellation of Argo, a sailing ship, the Pequod must have been represented in the sky as Argo. Mr. Melville was a world class author and a much greater artist than these simple conclusions warrant.


The Symphony, part 4

Suzanna, Arachne, November 2, 2008There is information in Chapter 132 The Symphony that can help determine when Moby Dick took Ahab’s leg.

The Pequod leaves Nantucket Christmas Day 1838. We know from reading The Symphony, the Ahabs had a child equipped with outside plumbing. That son had to have been born before the Ship left harbor. Mr. and Mrs. Ahab must have gotten together nine months earlier, which would place Ahab in Nantucket April 1838.

We can make some general, rounded number calculations. The distance from the tip of South America to Nantucket is 8,100 miles. Chapter 41 Moby Dick informs us Ahab went mad while traversing the Patagonian Cape at mid winter, months and weeks after his leg was bitten off by the whale. Recall from 5th grade geography class the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere so mid winter at the Patagonian Cape translates as June 21 at the tip of South America. The distance, again in round numbers between the southern tip of South America to Nantucket is 8, 100 miles. From other considerations described later, a ship of the Pequod’s design was capable of 80 statute miles in a 24-hour day. It would take the Pequod roughly 100 days to achieve the distance from the southern tip of South America to Nantucket. This would place Ahab back home late August or early September 1837. This is certainly enough time for the Ahab’s to conceive a child April 1838.

Another leg of that voyage involves the distance from the place where Ahab’s leg was taken by the whale to the Patagonian Cape. Remember the passage past the southern tip of South America occurred June 21st. The first paragraph of Chapter 130 The Hat informs the reader the Pequod was “… hard by the very latitude and longitude where his tormenting wound had been inflicted…” The Pequod crossed the equator heading southward in the previous chapter. The distance from this area, in round numbers was the equator at 150 degrees west longitude to the Patagonian Cape. That distance is 5,900 miles. The Pequod could achieve this distance in 74 days. It places the amputation of Ahab’s leg no earlier in the year of April 1837.

The time from the point of amputation to Nantucket is based on a speed a ship such as the Pequod can attain while cruising from one hunting ground to the next. With the wounded captain aboard, the ship was no doubt rigged with sails to achieve the greatest speed. This would have the effect of shortening the time of the Pacific and Atlantic legs of the remainder of the voyage but allow for a mid winter passage through the Patagonian Cape.

It is interesting to note that May 4, 1837 a partial eclipse of the sun occurred in the north Atlantic. Melville associates whale encounters with new moon, and solar eclipses with Ahab’s leg. A solar eclipse is after all, a special case of new moon. May 1837 was the start of deep recession very much like what we are going through today. It was the month Maria Gansevoort Melville, Herman’s mother, lost her fortune and inheritance in the great recession of 1837. She had to live modestly and on handouts from that month on.

It might be worth noting of an incident before the Pequod’s sail of Ahab being found one night “… lying prone upon the ground, and insensible; by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty, his ivory limb having so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin; nor was it without extreme difficulty that the agonizing wound was entirely cured.” The incident is reported in Chapter 106 Ahab’s Leg. Interesting to note this chapter occurs during a solar eclipse of September 08 1839 though the eclipse was not visible from the Pequod’s location in the South China Sea. September 18 1838 however, marks an annular eclipse of the sun visible at sunset from Nantucket. As we can relate Ahab’s leg to solar eclipses; September 18 1838 is the date of the incident addressed in the body Chapter 106.
I contend it less likely Ahab would have mounted a voyage to satisfy revenge on the whale if that sunset accident did not occur. After all while on dry land he was home, fathered a child and surrounded with “…comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that is kind to our mortalities.” All dissolves with the solar eclipse visible from Nantucket and the accident that nearly unmanned him. Those forces that animate the whale are not confined to the watery world. Ahab, now a storm tossed ship must forgo land for the sea.

November of 1838 Mr. Melville earned certificates in surveying and engineering. He needed these for employment on the Erie Canal. The employment never materialized, but June 4th 1839 he was aboard ship to his first sea voyage to Europe.


The Symphony, part 5

Suzanna, Alcyone, November 2, 2008I believe the chapter The Symphony was properly titled. When Mr. Melville was writing Moby-Dick, The rather narrow definition of this musical form was not as structured as it is today. It was still in its formative years and thanks to the classical musical giants it gained it’s modern form about the time of Shostakovitch. I believe it was Claude Levi-Strauss who wrote what many of us have felt through the ages: music was closer to the mythic experience than either the written or visual expression. If we take the concept of the symphony in it’s simplest idea, a full orchestral composition that is the some of its parts, we can understand from this five part exercise how Melville provided the reader with clues in The Symphony to determine Ahab was an amalgam of his father and mother. Ahab was the sum of many parts. Herman Melville fits in this amalgam but that is for another submission.

Some time ago there were discussions on a paragraph found in Chapter 41 Moby Dick. From memory, the discussion centered on Melville’s reference to the Hotel de Cluny. I believe the thrust of that paragraph is history. The underground abandoned nature of the hotel suggests a hidden past. The paragraph opens with: “This is much; yet Ahab’s larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted.” The underground hotel is a reference to this darker, deeper part of Ahab. We have yet to read Chapter 54 The Town Ho’s Story. A chapter that reveals in a kind of nautical way how Steelkilt, the personification of the Ahab we have come to know and love in the main body of Moby-Dick, took over control of the ship from the captain who is Ahab before he received his scar, and Radney, the Ahab after the scar but before the loss of his leg. The surfacing of these personas becomes more evident if we change the name of the “Town-Ho” to a ship named “Ahab.”

One of my favorite chapters is 60 The Line. After a discussion on the terrors associated with the line, the last paragraph contains a point sadly missed in our busy lives above ground. It says in part: “All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in a whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker and not a harpoon, by your side.”

There is a captain Ahab in all of us.


Movie clip: Orson Welles reading an excerpt from Moby-Dick Chapter 132: The Symphony, adapted text, in: Oja Kodar et al.: Orson Welles: The One-Man Band by Medias Res Filmproduktion München/Berlin in association with Bayerischer Rundfunk, 1995.

Images: Suzanna Wurzeltod: Ave Maria, Ariadne, Arachne, and Alcyone; being the Lady Scratch.

Written by Wolf

6. January 2010 at 12:33 am

Posted in Steuermann Wolf

One Response

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  1. nice i liked what i read


    15. December 2010 at 2:20 pm

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