Inscrutable Things

                          … all twisketee be-twisk, like him – him –     Moby Dick
Harpoons, lances and iron darts lie all twisted and wrenched in the flesh of the white whale, creating a strange sort of fluid vulnerography. On a prior voyage, Queequeg took note of the whale’s twisted corkscrew body; Queequeg, upon whose own body a prophet had inscribed a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume.

Queequeq may well understand that Moby Dick’s flesh also carries a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, a theory that tasks and heaps Ahab, a theory that he believes is nothing but a mask for the most inscrutable malice; The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. 

Unable to wreak sufficient hatred by himself, Ahab winds the crew up into an electrified killing machine geared to obliterate this bloody glyph, yet in the end the wounded whale sucks him into its unfathomable depths, voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.

Melville does not spell it out quite so explicitly, but John Huston and Ray Bradbury jiggle the line, and present us with the powerful image of the mad captain bound to the whale by his own violent scrawl, his arm still beckoning to the crew, while the nib of his ivory leg points to the obscure depths. The darts and lines meant to constrain and subdue the whale in a tangle of barbed lashings will now stitch whatever remains of Ahab into the cipher’s lethal inscrutability.

This image of Ahab, his lightning self finally extinguished by the whale’s deep water sounding, his broken body hanging and waving amidst the barbs, summons another haunting image to mind, from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque describes an attack by the German soldiers, crossing through the death zone of barbed wire and machine guns: I see one of them, his face upturned, fall into a a wire cradle. His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.

Two more inscrutable things, hanging in a toxic fog of gas and smoke, lone survivors clinging to the wire like Ishmael clinging to Queequeq’s coffin, to tell the tale.


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