'Moby Dick' and the mermaids

I often go back to the sea Moby-Dick. In Melville’s novel, the black tragedy of the melancholy ship, you always find emotion and a rare consolation (if only that of not belonging to the ship’s crew). small), and in each reading I find new things. I don’t know what has led me these days to embark again, backpack and harpoon on my shoulder: a vague nostalgia, a week stuck by covid (fortunately not at the inn the jet of New Bedford with a tattooed cannibal on the other side of the bed), having seen with my own eyes in a Ferrol shipyard the sad devastated hull of the black pearl, the shipwrecked sailboat off Chipiona; or the image on television of the whale jumping off the coast of Garraf… Also having gotten hold of a wonderful book pop up, what we used to call die-cut or drop-down, on Moby-Dick, with “paper engineering” by Gérard Lo Monaco and linocut illustrations by Joelle Jolivet (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2019), bought for a penny—worth it—in Laie. I have spent long hours leaning out of the small theater, immersed in its three-dimensional magic and remembering my sleepless nights on Nantucket leaning on the window in the room at the little hotel Jared Coffin House (it is normal to have insomnia in a place that has the word coffin in the name, though Ishmael’s life was saved by Queequeg’s).

The fact is that I have taken my old battered copy of the novel (the 1976 edition of Planeta with translation and notes by José María Valverde) and, against the backdrop of the images on the foldout (the whale with its tail raised like a bell tower marble), I have immersed myself in it, comforting myself with its epic prose and with all those passages that are part of our collection: the scene in which harpooners and sailors sing “goodbye forever, Spanish lady” on the forecastle (yes, the song that Spielberg put into Quint’s mouth in Shark), the moment when Pip, a poor boy from Alabama, asks the great white God to save him “from all men who have no guts to feel fear”, that of the sacrilegious baptism of harpoons with pagan blood, that of the pale fire of San Telmo, and that of Ahab’s tear falling into the sea; the chapter of the whiteness of the whale, the three days of its hunt or the two times that Starbuck says that “ah my captain, my captain” (chapters 132 and 135), so similar to the verse “oh captain, my captain ” that Walt Whitman would make immortal 14 years later in his famous poem dedicated to the death of Lincoln. Was Whitman inspired by Melville? Melville was certainly inspired by Shakespeare: Fedallah’s misleading prophecies are pure MacbethStarbuck’s Hamletian doubts, and Ahab’s one hundred percent Elizabethan monologues, as emphasized by the great Charles Olson (Call me Ishmael Sister, 2020).

Image from the shooting of 'Moby Dick', by John Huston.
Image from the shooting of ‘Moby Dick’, by John Huston.

He did not remember that Ahab (who by the way is an “old man” who is only 58 years old in the novel) had his artificial leg made of sperm whale broken in his second attack on Moby-Dick and the carpenter on board makes another one, this one made of wood, from the keel of the captain’s wrecked boat. Nor is it that Ahab himself takes his hat off a seabird.

But the most surprising thing about this new reading has been discovering that in Moby-Dick there is a mention of mermaids. She had never noticed it. It is true that an artificial relationship was established between the novel and the legendary creatures by choosing the logo of the Starbucks chain (named after the first officer of Ahab’s crew) a mermaid, but that was a fluke. The direct mention of aquatic women in the book is in chapter 126. It tells us how, sailing in the pre-dawn darkness near some rocky islets in the Pacific, east of the Solomons, the crew of the small they are startled to hear a “plaguermente wild and unearthly” cry. Some, “the Christian or civilized part of the crew, said they were sirens, and shuddered,” while the pagan harpooneers remained undeterred. The man from the Isle of Man, the oldest of the sailors (and such an enigmatic character), declares that the shocking noises are “the voices of sailors freshly drowned at sea.” For his part, the narrator tells us that those rocky islands that the ship had passed were a refuge for a large number of seals, “and some young seals that would have lost their mothers, or some mothers that would have lost their pups, must have approached to the ship, accompanying him, with shouts and moans of his people, who seem human”.

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A page from the fold-out book 'Moby Dick', by Lo Monaco and Jolivet.
A page from the fold-out book ‘Moby Dick’, by Lo Monaco and Jolivet.

Shortly after, a sailor from the small climbs the pole to look for the whale falls into the water and disappears. And the crew speculates that death was the reason for last night’s insane howling. But the next day they meet the Rachel who informs them that they are looking for the crew of one of the whaling boats that disappeared after trying to hunt down Moby-Dick, including Captain Gardiner’s 12-year-old son. And the old sailor from the Isle of Man states that what they heard from the small it was the spirits of the drowned.

Anyway, there is that little Melvillian contribution, to which must be added the possibility that Melville himself had an experience with a mermaid. It is not at all unlikely that the writer saw the famous Fiji mermaid, the famous fake made with a monkey and a fish that PT Barnum exhibited in his museum of freak in New York in 1841. Another connection, this one very funny, is the 2009 stage show about Moby-Dick of the British company Spymonkey, in which a mermaid appears singing and dancing in a rather salacious way before the harpooners of the Pequod.

A still from the adaptation of 'Moby Dick' by John Huston.  .
A still from the adaptation of ‘Moby Dick’ by John Huston. .TV 5 (TV 5)

To end on another humorous note, review a chapter of The baleine dans tous ses etats, a personal literary and traveling essay on cetaceans, by François Gardé (Gallimard, 2015). In that funny chapter woodyallenescoa supposed editor argues in a letter to Melville (“cher M. Melville”) his refusal to publish Moby-Dick. From the outset, it makes the title ugly (“we know what it means dick”), and proposes another as To the recherche of the baleine perdue; then he reproaches him for the excess of quotations, for the fact that the author does not seem to know where he is going or what the true subject of the novel is; that the book is too long, that most of the time “nothing happens”, that the small he does not make any stops (“with the amount of picturesque places that there are in the Pacific”), that the dialogues are implausible (seafarers, “gens de sac et de corde”, who speak, criticize him, like philosophers or theater characters) , that women do not come out… The fictitious editor recommends Melville: “A book about whaling can certainly be interesting, but choose an angle, and only one, and stick to it”. And he ends: “Don’t lose heart, meditate on my criticisms, don’t get caught up in I don’t know what metaphysical hubbub, take Ahab out of the sterile world of theories and archetypes.” He could have suggested, for that matter, that more mermaids come out…

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