The Lee Shore

A technique that Melville uses throughout Moby Dick takes a truism, examines it analytically but logically, and in the process burdens it with qualifications until the exact opposite appears to be undeniably true. The most extended version, and the most centrally important to the novel, is the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Chapter 42). But the technique is used throughout. In fact, it is one of the keys to the metaphysics and aesthetics of the work, it’s w-+

.hat impels Ahab, it embodies the logic of the apocalypse of the Pequod, and turns out to be what Ishmael has been searching for (without knowing it): In the dimension beyond the material world, things are different from what physical reality suggests, perhaps the exact opposite.

Earlier in the novel is a very short (four paragraph) chapter, “a six-inch chapter” as Melville puts it, called “The Lee Shore” (Chapter 23). It takes place just as the Pequod enters the open sea on that frigid Christmas night. Ishmael recognizes a sailor, Bulkington, who he had encountered in the Spouter Inn in New Bedford. Bulkington had just returned from a long whaling voyage; now, to Ishmael’s amazement, he was embarked on another, having forsaken the chance to rest ashore in the hospitality of the port. But without any caesura Ishmael  contemplates what the “port” and “shore” means and also what the the shoreless deep signifies.

The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

And so, in that gale, what is the ocean, the unknown deep?

Know ye now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God–so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing–straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

 So shore is where danger is in a storm. And in fact the “landless” is where the highest truth can be found. (This realization becomes, as Melville says his chapter is: “the stoneless grave of Bulkington.)

I bring this up merely to show a painting by J.M.W. Turner that perfectly illustrates what Ishmael says.

Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas. ca.1840. Tate, London. (BJ 458.)

This is simply evidence of something I’ve been trying to work out: How could Turner and Melville have been so sympathetic when they had no essential direct influence on each other? This problem suggested itself to me while viewing a recent Turner exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. I will attempt something of an answer shortly.

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  1. June 23rd, 2016

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