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  • Writer's pictureDenise Tolan

The Daily Dick: Day 36: Musings From a Sixth Reading of the Great Book

Chapter 35: Day 36: The Mast-Head

There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner—for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable.” 




My philosopher king Ishmael is back. Before he tells us exactly what it’s like standing hundreds of feet above the sea in the mast head, he gives us a history of mast head sitting. It is at once fascinating and amusing and, quite frankly, hard to take seriously. But it’s Ishmael, giving reverence and importance to everything.

What I love about this chapter is the beauty of it all. How Melville takes the lines about the masthead and makes me feel like I am there, ‘indolently’ rolling along with the ‘drowsy trade winds’ blowing around me. I can imagine being “lost in the infinite series of the sea.” The language though. The way Melville lulls the reader into the scene with ‘o’s’ in his sentences – words like rolls and blow, and languor – almost feel like a soft breeze. Reading Moby-Dick is like taking a master class in writing.

Ish also tells us he was not a good sitter of the mast head. It was too easy to be lulled into complacency, he says. Too easy to drowse along with the peaceful sea. Maybe there’s a warning there not for us not to fall too easily into a sense of peacefulness when below us is the infinite sea. Beautiful chapter, Melville.

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