My youngest son is reading Moby-Dick for the first time, and it eases his way through the Shakespearean thicket to know the book is a grandiose comedy – a tall tale complete with fart and penis jokes. Ishmael gets all the best lines. American patter, especially in the darkest of times, is grimly comic. Read rightly, even “Call me Ishmael” is a presumptuous joke. Who begins an epic not with an invocation of the Muse but with his own first name? An American, of course, another uppity democrat (small “d”). Noting that humor characterizes the American temperament, Constance Rourke praises its “lawless element, full of surprises.” I also reminded David he is reading an adventure story, and that for decades the book, bowdlerized or straight, was marketed as a volume for children, a boys’ book like Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. Everyone knows Macbeth, like Othello, is a thriller.
Marius Kociejowski adds a footnote to “Coast” in Doctor Honoris Causa (Anvil Press Poetry, 1993): “Does he not say he will not strike his spars to any gale? Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant? and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?”
The lines are lifted from "The Musket," Chapter CXXIII of Moby-Dick. It’s a great scene, executed with all the qualities we expect of first-rate storytelling: action, suspense, our protagonist’s impassioned soliloquy. The Pequod has weathered a storm (“the ship is but a tossed shuttlecock to the blast”). The first mate, Starbuck, goes below deck to brief Captain Ahab. Here’s a splendid sentence: “The isolated subterraneousness of the cabin made a certain humming silence to reign there, though it was hooped round by all the roar of the elements.” Lear is everywhere in Moby-Dick. Before knocking on Ahab’s state-room door, Starbuck contemplates the rack of muskets in the cabin, including the one Ahab once pointed at him:
“Loaded? I must see. Aye, aye; and powder in the pan; – that’s not good. Best spill it? – wait. I’ll cure myself of this. I’ll hold the musket boldly while I think. – I come to report a fair wind to him. But how fair? Fair for death and doom, – THAT’S fair for Moby Dick. It’s a fair wind that’s only fair for that accursed fish. – The very tube he pointed at me!”
That’s where the passage quoted by Marius comes in: “dead reckoning.” Should Starbuck kill Ahab and put an end to his mad quest? Is there another way to forgo the inevitable? “Not reasoning; not remonstrance; not entreaty wilt thou hearken to; all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is all thou breathest.” Starbuck acknowledges that “I stand alone here upon an open sea, with two oceans and a whole continent between me and law.” He returns the musket, unfired, to the rack. We are just twelve chapters from the novel’s conclusion. The end is near. In the sixth section of “Coast,” Marius writes:
“As with fish entering the broken hulls
Or the blind eel tunneling through the weed,
So shall we make darkness our corridor.
We will by dead reckoning tempt fortune.”