There are so many classics that have reputations as profound Great Works that, when you finally read them, turn out to be just hilarious. Voltaire’s Candide, Hesiod’s Works and Days, Herodotus, Lysistrata… okay, so mostly I’ve read the Ancient Greeks. But then I read Moby-Dick!
I was so struck by some of the passages that I had to read them out loud to my friends. Their response? “That’s so gay.” Because… it is: “Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Ishmael, the narrator, meets Queequeg the tattooed cannibal at the Spouter Inn, and they proceed to have a romance of sorts. Initial misunderstandings give way to cuddling in bed and Queequeg pronouncing them married. “Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg — a cosy, loving pair.”
Once on the Pequod, however, their relationship is hardly mentioned. But there’s another quote that also shows Ishmael’s sensual feelings for men:
“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally.”
It is surprising to read such unabashedly intimate relationships between men, but this is probably not homosexuality in the way we think of it today. I suspect in the mid-19th century homosexuality was more about specific acts then about a mode of being, allowing men to express affection for one another without the threat of being perceived as gay. This was certainly true of women, who were very romantic in their expressions of friendship. The fact that men tended to associate exclusively with other men, especially when they’re trapped on a whaling vessel for years at a time, meant that men were their only source of close friendships. Yet, even if all these homoromantic relationships were between exclusively straight men, the sexual frustration they likely experienced on such voyages could very well lend to them some erotic and sensual undertones. And it certainly is fun to imagine Ishmael and Queequeg as a couple!
The story is not all about touchy-feely stuff, however. There is a whole lot of bad-assery going on, of the sort normally found in comic books. The Pequod is decked out in the bones of slain whales, Captain Ahab forges a harpoon with lightning, Fedallah is a smuggled-aboard Persian fire-worshipper who doesn’t sleep or cast a shadow, Queequeg shaves with his harpoon and weaves with his sword, and the White Whale goes around with old harpoons and even the bodies of old harpooners attached to his back. Half the crew is made up of “savages,” but Melville depicts them as competent and talented — they aren’t half as excitable or superstitious as the captain and his mates. I’d say this is a little of the Noble Savage trope at work, but it’s put in there to critique ideas of civilization and Christianity.
There are other reasons I think Moby-Dicks should be read humorously. Ahab keeps making awkward attempts to joke with his crew, and everyone stares at him blankly. There are those ridiculous whale-info passages wherein Melville declares whales to be fish. And there’s crazy Father Mapple who gives his sermon from a pulpit shaped like a ship’s prow: “The architect… finished the pulpit without a stairs, substituting a perpendicular side ladder, like those used in mounting a ship from a boat at sea… Father Mapple rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered the scattered people to condense. ‘Starboard gangway, there! side away to larboard — larboard gangway to startboard! Midships! Midships!’” Monomaniacal Ahab is not the only character in the book who is completely nuts!
The depictions of hunting and slaughtering whales are disturbing, perhaps especially because Ishmael often seems sympathetic to their plight. Yet the world ran on whale oil (and other whale parts) before we ever dug up petroleum: it fueled and greased the early factories of the industrial revolution. Melville talks about whales more often than it talks about the Pequod crew, and towards the end Starbuck, the first mate, points out that Moby-Dick is not actually obsessed with Ahab. The infamous White Whale doesn’t have personal vendetta against just one man. Perhaps Moby-Dick is so angry because all humans are killing all whales, everywhere, all the time. And he’s out to kick butt and take names! Where all the other whales run away in fear, Moby-Dick fights back.
What’s that on the horizon?
It’s a duck!
It’s a ship!