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The Weird Weather Phenomena and Piercing Prose of ‘Moby-Dick’

Going down a bit of a rabbit hole a few weeks ago — inspired in no small part by boredom and a two-week-long lack of wind — I was searching for my favorite passage in Moby-Dick or The Whale. After some Googling, I found the paragraph, as well as a question to pose to you, dear reader.

Here’s the passage:

“The not-yet-subsided sea rolled in long slow billows of mighty bulk and, striding in the Pequod’s gurgling track, pushed her on like giants’ palms outspread. The strong, unstaggering breeze abounded so, that sky and air seemed vast outbellying sails, the whole world boomed before the wind. Muffled in the full morning light, the invisible sun was known only by the spread intensity of his place, where his bayonet rays moved on in stacks. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings and queens, reigned over everything. The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat,”

So reads the first paragraph of Chapter 124, The Needle, in Melville’s masterpiece.

The 2015 movie In the Heart of the Sea — a dramitization of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 non-fiction book of the same name — tells the story of the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex, an event that is said to have inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

And here’s the larger context of The Needle: After a night of thunder and lightning, Captain Ahab appeared on deck, and “hurried toward the helm, caught one glimpse of the compasses; his uplifted arm slowly fell; for a moment he almost seemed to stagger . . . and lo! the two compasses pointed east, and the Pequod was as infallibly going west. But ere the first wild alarm could get out abroad among the crew, the old man with a rigid laugh exclaimed, ‘I have it! It has happened before . . . last night’s thunder turned our compasses — that’s all. Thou hast before now heard of such a thing, I take it.'”

Hast thou ever heard of or experienced such a thing, Latitude Nation? Has your compass ever gone 180 degrees in the wrong direction, or been generally flummoxed in the wake of an electrical storm? Please comment below, or email us here. And, as long as we’re asking questions: When did you read/have you read Moby-Dick? Was it required reading in high school or college? Did you “get it,” or did you wonder, “What the hell is this book?”

How does one categorize Moby-Dick? Sea story? Biblical balladry? A thorough dive into the history of whaling and cetology (the branch of zoology dealing with whales, dolphins, and porpoises)? Melville’s opus is all of these things and more. “In writing a high tragedy about a whaling voyage, Melville is emulating and paying tribute to Shakespeare and the larger literary tradition, but he’s also revising and Americanising it at the same time,” wrote The Independent in 2016, calling Moby-Dick a “playful, experimental novel.”

Though it’s been over a decade since I read The Whale from cover to cover, The Needle stands out as unusually upbeat. Which is to say that the monomaniacal Ahab is happy — even stoked. Melville wrote, “Long maintaining an enchanted silence, Ahab stood apart; and every time the teetering ship loweringly pitched down her bowsprit, he turned to eye the bright sun’s rays produced ahead; and when she profoundly settled by the stern, he turned behind, and saw the sun’s rearward place, and how the same yellow rays were blending with his undeviating wake. ‘Ha, ha, my ship! thou mightest well be taken now for the sea-chariot of the sun. Ho, ho! all ye nations before my prow, I bring the sun to ye! Yoke on the further billows; hallo! a tandem, I drive the sea!'”

Clockwise from top left: Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in the John Houston-directed Moby Dick from 1956; An unknown actor plays Ahab in the opera Moby-Dick; Sir Patrick Stewart, famous for playing another captain, takes a stab at Ahab in a 1998 miniseries.
© 2020 Clockwise from top left: betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com; opertnut.net; stilliunfold.com

In my recollection, there’s no other time in Moby-Dick when Ahab is so decidedly feeling it. For a moment, he has forgotten his all-consuming vengeance against the white whale that so grievously maimed him, and instead is enjoying a glorious morning of sailing.

It seems that Melville was feeling it, too, when he wrote Moby-Dick, and showing off his considerable, once-in-a-generation talent. About Melville, The Independent said, “When you read this great, bamboozling novel, it is helpful to remember that it is the work of late-blooming autodidact, suddenly desperate to get in on the literary action.”

Not that Melville was fully appreciated when Moby-Dick was published in October 1851.

“So much trash,” according to one review. “Wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic;” “The style is maniacal — mad as a March hare,” read a 2019 New Yorker article titled Herman Melville at Home, which summarized some of the initial reviews of what is now considered one of the greatest American novels. “Faulty as the book may be, it bears the marks of ‘unquestionable genius’ was about the best that was generally said,” the New Yorker continued. “Captain Ahab is a striking conception, yet if we had as much of Hamlet or Macbeth as Mr. Melville gives us of Ahab, we should be tired even of their sublime company.”

Ahab eventually repairs the compass by replacing the needle with the steel head of a lance, then hammering it to elicit the metal’s magnetism. Melville wrote, “Ahab, who had been intently watching for this result, stepped frankly back from the binnacle, and pointing his stretched arm towards it, exclaimed, ‘Look ye, for yourselves, if Ahab be not lord of the level loadstone! The sun is east, and that compass swears it!'” But the captain’s flash of reverie has already vanished.

“In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.”

8 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Eric Elliott 1 week ago

    I read a full version of it many years ago, and was struck by how funny it is. It is full of jokes and bizarre imagery. English Professors would have us believe that it is a weighty novel, full of themes and metaphors and Important Symbols.

    But from the very beginning, when the innkeeper uses a wood plane to smooth down a bench to “make it more comfortable” for Ishmael, to Ahab sitting cross-legged and doing his latitude calculations on a little slate set into his wooden leg, or having holes drilled into the quarterdeck to stick the peg into, the book is full of humorous stuff!

    For cryin’ out loud, it’s got two whole chapters on Why White is a Scary Color! Just because the English Professors take that goofiness seriously, doesn’t mean we have to!

  2. Avatar
    Nat Antler 1 week ago

    Reading Melville’s prose isn’t easy… but try reading it out loud and get into to rhythm of it and delight in its poetry and humor!

  3. Avatar
    Bill O'Connor 1 week ago

    Agreed…reading it is not easy since the prose is terribly over-written…what we now these days call
    filled with purple prose which is not pleasant to our modern ear…Shakespeare is also hard to read but he was and still is a literary phenomenon …well educated for his time and an absolute genius. Melville was not and his style reflects that but there are flashes of genius and he broke open popular literature in early America and gave permission for others to experiment

  4. Avatar
    John C Dukat 1 week ago

    however baby man may brag of his science and skill,
    and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment;
    yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom,
    the sea will insult and murder him Moby Dick Chapter 58

  5. Avatar
    Mark Wheeles 1 week ago

    The sea as molten gold leaping with light and heat could be a simile for the PEQUOD being pushed by the sea and driven by Ahab into a different, hellish dimension. The 180 degree turning of the compass is a metaphor for the drastic change in the ship’s fate and that of Ahab. I don’t recall it being required but I read it as a young teen. I didn’t see the deeper meanings. To me it was simply a great adventure story.

  6. Avatar
    Sam Fish 1 week ago

    Geomagnetic Storm? –

    Several space weather phenomena tend to be associated with or are caused by a geomagnetic storm. These include solar energetic particle (SEP) events, geomagnetically induced currents (GIC), ionospheric disturbances that cause radio and radar scintillation, disruption of navigation by magnetic compass and auroral displays at much lower latitudes than normal.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geomagnetic_storm

    I read Moby Dick through my ears (on audio) a few years ago while working at the Berkeley Marina. It was a splendidly fitting audible backdrop to my daily tasks. It was not required reading in school. But upon reading this passage, I want to pick it up again to digest more of its enrapturing beauty.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I would like to get the bottom of the compass shift..

  7. Tim Henry
    Tim Henry 1 week ago

    (Here’s a comment submitted by Kerry Brown:)

    I’m responding to a request by you in this wonderful article on Melville, one of my favorite authors!

    Yes, I have had my compass completely reverse and point 180 degrees difference. This occurred near Angel Island while sailing aboard my ketch around 1983. I contacted the USCG and was told it was due to a submerged submarine passing beneath us, distorting the weak geomagnetic field. This was temporary, a minute at most, but disconcerting.

    “As a materials scientist, I’ve also hammered soft iron nail to magnetize it, placing it on a leaf in the water.

    Best,
    Kerry Brown
    Cetacea
    SouthBeach Marina, SF

  8. Avatar
    Cannon George 3 days ago

    I have not experienced this phenomenon, but a couple of others.

    Decades ago, when I bought my first Professional “Brunton” compass I was given choice of “Northern” or “Southern” hemisphere intended operation. Living in the US I selected “Northern.” Not long after, I traveled to Australia and sure enough, not long after passing equator the needle dipped and the instrument became quite unusable until I crossed back over the equator.

    My sister literally has a “magnetic” personality. She cannot wear ordinary wind-up watches (they will stop) and when teaching her elementary school students how to use a compass she has to place it on the ground and stand waaay back. We found that while sitting in the center cockpit of the sailing vessel “Andalucía” (Peterson 37’) – the compass would spin and stop errantly, the only way to obtain accurate headings was for her to go stand on the bowsprit.

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