Now that we’ve formally begun hunting whales and been introduced to Ahab’s secret whaling crew, it’s time to get a move on, physically and narratively.
For once, the passage of time and tide will not be marked merely by a descent into endless pontification on the nature of whales and whaling or whatever philosophical nonsense Ishmael has decided to linger on for far too many pages. No, we get a proper bit of narrative to connect things together here.
SUMMARY: The Pequod travels south through Atlantic ocean, through several whaler cruising grounds off the Azores and The Plate (off the coast from Rio de la Plata, natch). When they are just south of St. Helena, in the middle of the night, Fedallah spots a spout directly ahead of the ship. He calls out for it, and the whole crew gets up on the deck to watch for it. Whalers don’t normally hunt at night, or even keep watch, but they are all so excited that Ahab orders full sail in the direction of the spout. But, it never shows up again.
This process is repeated several nights later. The spout is never seen twice in the same night, and eventually the crew learns to ignore it. Whalers, being especially superstitious even among sailors, attribute the spoit to Moby Dick.
The Pequod begins to round the Cape of Good Hope, to pass from the Atlantic ocean to the Indian. They are beset by horrible storms the whole time, the deck lashed with snow and sleet constantly. Ahab remains for hours at his customary spot on the quarter-deck, staring into the weather, immovable. One night, Starbuck spots him in his cabin, reviewing his charts, the caked on snow and ice slowly melting from him. He shudders, and goes off to bed.
In the last chapter, I mentioned that Fedallah had actual supernatural powers, and that made me realize that this book is a bit more fantastical than it is often given credit for. It’s just in a slightly subtle way, most of the time. This chapter is a good example: the whale spout that is spotted night after night, alone, always ahead of the Pequod, is certainly not a natural phenomenon.
In fact, we’ve already gotten a whiff of this with Elijah, way back on Nantucket. He seemed to know more than he was letting on not only about Ahab himself, but also about the fate of anyone who would join his doomed voyage.
Frankly, I’m not sure what to do with this supernatural element of the story, since one of the things I like about it is how it extolls whales as a sort of natural monster. It’s all tied up in this myth-making around Ahab anyway, I guess I can just chalk it up to more Old Ishmael embellishment.
One of my major readings of this book is that it is about Old Ishmael, the author of the fictional artifact that is the story we’re reading, trying to process this horrible tragedy he was a part of. As part of that, he builds up Ahab into both a completely mad heretic driven on this wild quest of vengeance, and also sort of legendary figure surrounded by prophecy and inevitability, assisted by these forces greater than anything anyone could control or understand.
Basically, Old Ishmael is trying to wash his own hands of any responsibility for the destruction of the Pequod. He’s got horrible survivor’s guilt, as he is the only survivor in the end, and his defense mechanism is to show how impossible it would be for anyone, least of all him, to stop what happened. Thus, we get Ahab’s magical zoroastrian familiar and a mountain of prophecies and heresies guiding events beyond mortal comprehension.
Why, Old Ishmael himself has conjured up these visions of his old captain trying to destroy the forces beyond the veil as a part of his mad quest for vengeance! The breaks from the usual format, the stage play chapters, are just a literary device used by Ishmael, not by Melville, to represent a true reality… which he has no way of knowing.
Anyway, this chapter is pretty fun. It’s nice to finally get located, geographically. They’re cruising down through the Atlantic ocean, crossing back and forth between Africa and South America as they make their way to the Cape. The destination is the primary sperm whale hunting grounds in the Pacific ocean, but they are still gonna be on the lookout for whales if they can spot ’em. So, they paint a strange route, passing through so-called cruising grounds. These are areas where whales are known to be, so whalers will just cruise around in the hopes of spotting them.
The mast-heads are typically not manned at night, as even the most foolhardy of whalers won’t actually try to go hunting without proper light. But Fedallah is up there nonetheless, as he apparently often is, just because he likes to be mysterious. And hey, what d’ya know, he spots a whale! Or at least a spout. Is this spirit-spout that bedevils the crew his own doing? That seems to be the obvious implication.
Fedallah is not really a character so much as a narrative trope given form. He exists only to draw to Ahab closer and closer to his doom. So, of course he would create this tantalizing symbol of Ahab’s hated foe to draw him onwards.
But why would Fedallah even need to do this? Or, why would Ishmael need to invent this little anecdote? Well, we get that in the latter part of this chapter, when the Pequod begins rounding the Cape of Good Hope*, at the southern end of Africa.
What is needed is an explanation for Ahab’s superhuman resilience and stoicism. The rest of the crew hang on for dear life to a rope when they even set foot on the deck in these horrific storms. It is too much for anyone to bear. But Ahab just stands with his ivory leg in its auger-hole and his hand grasping a shroud**, looking directly into the wind. Directing the ship safely without fail, immovable.
So, the spirit-spout serves as an explanation for Ahab’s determination. We’ve seen him wavering, ever so slightly, in the chapters around his speech on the quarter-deck. But now that Fedallah is on the scene, he has someone not only in his corner, but using supernatural power to make his ambition a reality.
The obvious implication here is that Ahab is so dedicated to his mad, heretical mission of vengeance on a dumb animal that he has recruited a malevolent sorceror of mysterious Oriental provenance to help him succeed. He has thrown away any consideration of propriety or piety and is just going hand-in-hand with an actual devil to meet his doom, and so on and such like. We even get the old ironic angle where Fedallah is only giving Ahab exactly what he wants, but it ends up getting him killed in the end.
It kinda strikes me as a bit unnecessary, frankly. The internal struggle of Ahab is already interesting enough without it being externally literalized in this way. Part of that may be my, personal, desire for this book to just be a little less racist overall. Like, yes I want more fantastical elements hidden away in the dark corners of otherwise realistic fiction, but not like this. Not with an mysterious “oriental” character whose whole existence is reduced down to a malignant imp.
Let Fedallah be an evil wizard, sure, but give him a character too. Too often, this book discards the interesting people around the periphery in order to keep telling the big, epic, important stories of the men at the center of it. We don’t even know why Fedallah is here. We don’t know how he got roped into helping Ahab, we don’t know why he’s sending him to his doom, we don’t know anything about him at all except that he’s Mysterious and Oriental and Demonic.
Ah, it’s just so disappointing when a book that displayed such sensitivity to the humanity of all people falls back into using tropes like this. But the nice thing about fiction is that canon is fake, and you can say whatever you want about things. Old Ishmael himself says in this book that it is but a draft of a draft, nothing close to a complete accounting of the full truth. There is always more to explore, more to know, more to examine. That’s what makes it such a fascinating subject for analysis!
If ever there was a case for the death of the author, for a work standing on its own, for the reinterpretation of fiction for the ages, it is made with and in Moby Dick. Everything in life is infinitely complicated and interconnected. A few poor lines recorded on paper or in pixels cannot hope to capture the majesty of it.
What I’m saying is, I’m gonna write some fan fiction about Fedallah.
* Or Cape Tormentoto, as it used to be called, so says Old Ishmael. This is literally the only place that that is attested, so whatever you say, buddy!
**Melville always uses these specific words when describing Ahab’s spot on the deck: auger and shroud. Sure, maybe that’s just the best way to describe what he’s doing, with his peg leg braced in a hole in the deck and grabbing a sail. But “auger” also carries a connotation of prophecy, and “shroud” of death. As in, “an augur of the future” and the death-shroud that corpses were wrapped in. It’s a nice touch!
What’s this? A new project at hand? Perhaps! I literally just decided on it as I was writing this blog post, but what the heck. Reading and writing about Moby Dick makes me so excited to create my own fictional works. Why not make a direct connection?
Next up, we’ve got our first gam! How exciting! Yes, it turns out even on the vast ocean, whaling ships do manage to run into each other from time to time.
Until next time, shipmates!
1 thought on “Chapter 51: The Spirit-Spout”
When Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to reach the cape in 1488, he named it Cabo das Tormentas, meaning “Cape of Storms”. This is rendered in the entry on Dias in the Catholic Encyclopedia as Cabo Tormentoso. It’s likely Melville’s Cape Tormentoto records some further variation of this name. It was renamed to the Cape of Good Hope by King John II of Portugal.
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