Friday, February 11, 2011

`All Interweavingly Working Together'

Chapter 47 of Moby-Dick, “The Mat Maker,” opens with a scene of unlikely domesticity on the deck of the Pequod. Ishmael and Queequeg are weaving a “sword-mat” for use as “additional lashing to our boat.” Ishmael says he is “the attendant or page of Queequeg,” and they appear like a long-married couple who anticipate each other’s thoughts and complete each other’s sentences. Queequeg moves his wooden “sword” (an oak paddle) and Ishmael’s hand serves as the shuttle as he muses: “…it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates.” He goes on:

“…this easy, indifferent sword must be chance—aye, chance, free will, and necessity—no wise incompatible—all interweavingly working together.”

What is literal and what metaphorical in this remarkable chapter? Melville specializes in this blurring of realms, linguistic and metaphysical. He starts with a mundane object or act and turns it into an occasion of philosophical meditation, usually laced with humor. Ishmael, the Pequod’s sole survivor, writes with knowledge of his fate, Moby Dick’s, Ahab’s, the crew’s. Melville paces and arranges his book beautifully. In defiance of conventional critical wisdom, Yvor Winters writes in “Herman Melville and the Problems of Moral Navigation” (In Defense of Reason, 1947) that Moby-Dick is:

“…beyond a cavil one of the most carefully and successfully constructed of all major works of literature; to find it careless, redundant, or in any sense romantic, as even its professed admirers are prone to do, is merely to misread the book and to be ignorant of the history leading up to it.”

In the next chapter, “The First Lowering,” the first whale of the voyage is sighted and the reader and the crew meet Fedallah (“Ahab’s shadow”), the harpooner on Ahab’s boat. This careful and complicated fabric of fate and plot “all interweavingly working together,” woven from Melville’s mania for metaphor, reminds me of an early Janet Lewis poem, “Days”:

“Swift and subtle
The flying shuttle
Crosses the web
And fills the loom,
Leaving for range
Of choice or change
No room, no room.”

In Pierre: or, The Ambiguities , the almost unreadable novel Melville published the year after Moby-Dick, he writes that if our actions are “foreordained…we are Russian serfs to Fate.”

1 comment:

Fran Manushkin said...

I'm enjoying the bedroom scene in the inn when Ishmael wakes up with Queeqeg's arm thrown over him in a matrimonial way. When I read "Moby Dick" for the first time, I didn't appreciate the humor or the tenderness.

By the way, Maurice Sendak named his children's book, "Pierre" after "Pierre and the Ambiguities." He's a big Melville fan.