Last time we visited the Wretched Sea, I went on a lengthy side-notion about the idea of Moby Dick as a kind of drone-art novel. I then put the book down and didn’t pick it up for several months: a trip to Thailand, Mardi Gras, and other things interfered, and so when I resumed, it was like picking up in the middle of a chord change. I went from “The Squid”, where my notes say “The story resumes!” and then picked up the book to “The Line” which is (again, from my notes) “A chapter about rope”.
And it is. And like a lot of these odd chapters, it ends on a philosophical note:
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 the 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.
We then go back to the story, sort of, with “Stub Kills a Whale”— and he does. Then to two more specific chapters, “The Dart” and “The Crotch”, about harpoons, and how hard it is to kill whales in general, and the place on the whale-boat where the harpoons rest, which refers back to “The Line” in a number of places. It’s all very map and territory, ebb and flow. Mellville’s skill shines through in these moments, when the individual moments refer to each other and add up in strange ways, coiling with the philosophical and metaphorical in a mix that’s sometimes imitated, but rarely equalled.