Moby-Dick: A Dissection

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Third Web Paper
On Serendip

Moby-Dick: A Dissection

Em Madsen

I conjure him in the storm-clouds above the bell-tower-- he is there, in that roiling expanse, the underbellies of the clouds like a huge celestial pod traveling with him. He is a shock of white against the mumbling sky-- the kind of sky that appears as an illustration in the Bible when the clouds part and there, just there, above the waiting shepherds, above Mary's bowed head, above the mountaintops, lo, the angel of the lord descends or even (beetle-browed and mighty) god himself is revealed. It is a sky of portent, its brooding skeins of unnatural, dusky blue. It is a sky worthy of the white whale.

I imagine Moby-Dick with his own accompaniment. Not a "Jaws" theme song, and not even the gentle eerie cries and clicks I've heard coming from the loudspeakers in a museum display on humpbacks. (Side note: Picture an auditorium filled with 700 school children, completely silent. The cellist, David Darling, holds his instrument before him and tells us the story of how he played for the whales. He was on a boat: the open ocean, a storm coming in-- he anchored his end-pin in the wood of the boat's deck and drew his bow across the strings. The whales sang back. I am perhaps five or six, and it is like he is telling us he has spoken to god.) No, Moby-Dick's song is the absence of song-- a complete and powerful silence that envelops and travels with him. It is the silence of snow, and twice as cold.

Sometimes I think of Ahab's leg. For a while it pleased me to imagine the long fibula and the tibia gleaming in Moby-Dick's stomach. I pictured the metatarsals like a string of pearls scattering; frozen milk; Ahab's tears. The bones, washed clean by corrosive juices, were carried through the ocean, always forward, held within the belly of the whale. I transferred Ahab's fury to the bones and saw them needling Moby-Dick's gut with a desire for vengeance, kicking at the mucus-lined pouch that had become their prison. Then I realized that even the bones themselves would not remain, fragmenting and eroding until they melted away like communion wafers.

Moby-Dick was no cartoon whale, moving his massive head from side to side like an enraged bull before he charged the Pequod. There was no ulterior motive to his jaw's movements as it severed Ahab's leg. The whale did not even recognize Ahab as his stiff-jawed face flashed before him, sucked downward by the Pequod's debris and destruction. The hatred Ahab centered on the white whale might as well have been centered on the moon, which does not choose to give and take the tides, or "hide" behind its scrim of clouds. I want to absolve Moby-Dick, for he stove the boat not out of malice but rather fear, exhaustion, and pain. He took Ahab's leg in a struggle to escape, not to deprive Ahab of life or limb.

To absolve Moby-Dick must I also absolve nature? Is nature the indifferent force that moves behind the bleached white mask which Ahab seeks to destroy? "Man vs. nature." Billy Collins says that this phrase must be part of the "marginalia" in every college students' books. But what kind of nature? Maybe it is human nature to personify those things that are without motive, and it is whale nature to simply be a whale. Nature continues whether humans accept that or not. The seasons shift and the stars in the sky rotate. And deep within the whale's belly, the bones continue to bleach.

To absolve nature is to accept smallness. Melville's Moby-Dick, two inches thick, will molder away in basements and attics, crumbling at the touch of mouse and beetle. We could wake up one morning and we could not. Whether our berth is on a whaling ship, or on the third floor of Brecon, whales must eat and we grow older. And we all, whales included, will die someday. Moby-Dick, are you an acknowledgment of death? Are you on the other side of the mirror I look into every morning, lurking in the silver depths? I think of the shirt in Jane Wagner's play, and Lily Tomlin standing on the stage describing with a catch to her voice its simple slogan: "Whales Save Us." Moby-Dick, humans have motives. We hurt each other on purpose. We kill each other and we lie to each other. Moby-Dick, you cannot lie. Teach me to tell the truth by simply living.

I imagine you beating in my chest instead of my heart, a quiet and strange white organ. This comforts me. I dream of curling up inside your ribs and listening to your heart. I want to hear the inexorable footstep of life in its lub-dub, and I want this to be my lullaby. Today, cheek cradled in the rough nap of my sweater, I have the urge to rub my face against your barnacled side to feel the scrape and know it is real. Keelhauled by time. Moby-Dick: agent of nature and truth, wrapped in your silence, you are zen (breathe in, breathe out, and all the while unaware of anything besides whaleness). Moby-Dick, this is all so strange-- you are just one whale. Yet I conjure you, I call you up from the gray waves of my mind. Moby-Dick. I'm listening. Save me.


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