This week I’d like to point you to The Final Pursuit, the closing ceremony of the Moby-Dick Big Read. It’s taking place in Plymouth, UK on Tuesday, 29th January. I’m gutted I won’t be able to make it – it looks like it’s going to be a great night! Find out more about the event here.
I’d also like to point you towards a recent BBC radio interview with Big Read co-creator Philip Hoare. At the time of writing it’s still available to stream online (skip to 12 mins 50 secs). When asked his thoughts on the book, he had this to say:
The sheer folly of human hubris that we invest an animal with a sense of evil when animals act according to instinct. It’s only man that acts according to evil. That’s the key point.
I was also thrilled by an article that has been doing the rounds on Twitter. Scientists have discovered living bowhead whales who they suspect are up to 200 years old. That is: they were around before Melville wrote Moby-Dick. Incredible.
One more piece of Moby-Dick trivia from Twitter: check out this random German boardgame from 1962, complete with a box depicting a creature that looks nothing like a sperm whale!
The image above is Three Made Places, 2005 by Antony Gormley and Peter Clegg. Gormley is best known as the creator of the Angel in the North. Six life-sized sculptures also mark out the Leith Walk in Edinburgh. Read more about his collaboration with architect Peter Clegg here. In the context of Moby-Dick, I like how Three Made Places involves man shaping meaning out of a blank whiteness.
The Story This Week
Stubb and Flask chat as they lash the anchors at midnight in bad weather (121). Tashtego lashes a sail and wishes the thunder would stop (122). The weather takes a turn for the better and Starbuck goes below deck to inform Ahab. The captain is asleep and Starbuck thinks long and hard about the loaded musket hanging outside the door (123). The next morning, the Pequod crew discover that the storm has affected the needle of the compass. Ahab fixes it (124), then decides to measure the ships progress with the log and line. He also befriends Pip (125). A sailor falls overboard and is lost. The life-buoy sinks when it is thrown to him, so they make a new one out of Queequeg’s coffin (126). Ahab speaks to the carpenter about it (127).
Chapter 121: Midnight – The Forecastle Bulwarks, Read by Robert Fearns. Artist: Marcus Coates
UK artist Robert Fearns gives a slow-paced reading of Chapter 121. After Ahab commands Starbuck to lash everything on the ship, we see Stubb and Flask lashing the anchors and speculating about their captain and lightning rods. Their talk is as irreverent as always:
“Why don’t ye be sensible, Flask? it’s easy to be sensible; why don’t ye, then? any man with half an eye can be sensible.”
“I dont know that, Stubb. You sometimes find it rather hard.”
“Yes, when a fellow’s soaked through, it’s hard to be sensible, that’s a fact.”
Chapter 122: Midnight Aloft - Thunder and Lightning, Read by Max Goonetillake. Artist: Colter Jacobsen
A young boy’s voice for a great reading of the shortest chapter in the book, complete with thunder sound effects. I supect Max is related to Sam Goonetillake, Big Read co-creator Philip Hoare’s brother-in-law. Tashtego is grumpy about having to lash sails in the middle of the storm. He’d much rather have some rum.
This chapter seemed to me quite cinematic, a brief flash to activity elsewhere on the ship.
Chapter 123: The Musket, Read by Nick Ryan. Artist: Philip Hoare
Composer Nick Ryan reads this amazing, tense chapter. Also: today’s image is by project co-creator Philip Hoare!
Starbuck goes below to inform Ahab that the weather has taken a turn for the better, and the scene takes on a psychological thriller hue, when he realises that the harmful old man is asleep and the musket hanging outside his cabin door is fully loaded. An anguished monologue follows, as Starbuck wrestles with the idea of ending the problem of Ahab.
A basic, eternal dilemma: kill one to save many? I felt there was a commentary about Christianity here too, especially where the narration mentions that the crew ‘tamely suffers’ their evil captain. I wanted Starbuck to do it.
Chapter 124: The Needle, Read by Stephanie Boxall. Artist: Tessa Farmer
Not sure who this reader is, but it’s a nice reading of a dramatic scene involving Ahab. The bad electrical weather has turned the ship’s compass to the opposite reading. The sun lies astern and it is early morning – and although the sun must be in the east, the ship is sailing the opposite way. Weirdly, only Ahab notices.
… every soul was confounded; for the phenomenon just then observed by Ahab had unaccountably escaped every one else; but its very blinding palpableness must have been the cause.
Instead of sailing east toward the White Whale, the Pequod was in fact fleeing homewards. Ahab, however, can fix the compass, impressing the men (this is narrated in a rather critical way):
One after another they peered in, for nothing but their own eyes could persuade such ignorance as theirs, and one after another they slunk away.
In another moment that seems to chime with thoughts on Christianity from the last chapter, we then see Ahab lit up with fatal pride.
Chapter 125: The Log and Line, Read by Sheila Snelgrove. Artist: Theo Jansen
Sheila Snelgrove is Director of the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth, and reads this chapter for us. Despite the fact it is rotted from disuse, Ahab decides to use the ‘log and line’ to measure the Pequod’s progress. See patell.org for lots of information and imagery on this nautical tool.
The most interesting thing for me in this chapter is that Ahab takes poor little Pip under his wing, lamenting the cruelty of the gods and wishing the boy had had a better life. A different aspect to Ahab, one that I had forgotten when urging Starbuck to kill him in Chapter 123. I wonder what Ahab sees himself as. But, although his compassion for Pip is moving, it is almost grotesque on the background of the larger risks he is taking with his entire crew.
Chapter 126: The Life-Buoy, Read by Paul Minot. Artist: John Wood & Paul Harrison
I’m not sure who this reader is. As always, if you know please do get in touch! It’s an excellent, well-paced reading.
After the crew is troubled by strange, human-sounding cries – Ahab explains that the men have heard the seals on the nearby rocks – a sailor falls overboard and is lost to the sea. It turns out the ship’s life-buoy is as rotten and useless as its ‘log and line’ in the last chapter. The men determine that a new one should be made, but the only suitable item on board is Queequeg’s coffin (the one he had made back in Chapter 110). The symbolism is obvious and troubles the men. It also makes the carpenter, charged with refitting the coffin for its new purpose, really grumpy. He’s sure that the job is beneath him, ’a cobbling sort of business’. His entire reaction is really humourous (and also irritates the troubled Starbuck, who ‘goes off in a huff’.
I enjoyed Ishmael’s account of how sailors feel about seals:
… most mariners cherish a very superstitious feeling about seals, arising not only from their peculiar tones when in distress, but also from the human look of their round heads and semi-intelligent faces, seen peeringly uprising from the water alongside. In the sea, under certain circumstances, seals have more than once been mistaken for men.
In Scotland (in common with Faroese, Irish and Icelandic traditions), there is folklore about seals. They are known as selkies and are thought to shed their skins to assume human form on land. The stories told about them are dark and dreamlike: of lovers who disappear back into the sea, or who are trapped on land by men who steal their skins.
Chapter 127: The Deck, Read by Tom Thoroughgood & Cyrus Larcombe-Moore. Artist: Antony Gormley & Peter Clegg
We learn that Ahab is troubled by the idea of a life-buoy being made of a coffin, and also by the fact the same man who made his new leg will be the one carrying out this strange work. Ahab muses oddly about a dead body sounding of nothing in a coffin, and the chapter ends with a soliloquy from him. He muses on the carpenter, and how the man’s hammer ticks like the clock of time. before turning to Pip to seek wisdom. He declares: ‘I do suck most wondrous philosophies from thee!’
Back in Chapter 117, Ahab sought prophecy from his man Fedallah. This behaviour of Ahab, the leader and tyrant seeking wisdom from a select few he brings close to him, reminds me of historical figures who kept confidants, and of contemporary successful figures who swear by self-help gurus or keep astrologers on their staff. Ways, it seems to me, of finding assurance when you’re isolated at the top. It is troubling that Ahab has chosen a man whom none of the crew trust, and a boy made mad by the sea.
Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. I’ll post my thoughts on chapters 128 to 134 here on Sunday, 27th January 2013. I’ll then post my experience of the final two readings on Tuesday, 29th January 2013.
The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC webpage here.