ahab, his pipe, the pm

For reasons inscrutable, Moby-Dick is making substantial waves at the moment – it is 161 years since publication, but this seems a rather spurious date to celebrate – the Watershed has recently hosted an event for ‘The Moby-Dick Big Read’, a project of various talker-types, actors, authors, critics and politicians, each of them reading a chapter from this textual leviathan. And bandwagon-kid that he is, that we force him to be, David Cameron has donned his specs and waded in to give us a reading of ‘The Pipe’, one of the shortest chapters in the novel. A chapter in which almost nothing happens – not exactly unusual, the book is one giant happening composed of over a hundred instances of nothing happening – in ‘The Pipe’, Ahab sits on an ivory stool on the deck and gives up smoking. It is just four short paragraphs – and we recall Mapple, ‘one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of scriptures’ – but it will have been selected to within an inch of its life, this chapter – Cameron was never going to read something violent, something sinister, something ominous or something tragic from the novel – this, and we know because Big Read’s editor has told us so, was carefully crafted for Cameron. But what does ‘The Pipe’ tell us, and how does that reflect on Cameron? Beyond the apparently wholesome message, ‘I’ll smoke no more’, ‘thy charm be gone!’, what shimmers from these seas and reflects on Cameron – nothing, obviously – but, more subtly, something, certainly. And remember what Auden told us, the ship is a symbol of society.

Ahab has only recently appeared aboard the Pequod. The tyrannical – biblically magnificent – captain of the ship has been in his cabin for the journey thus far, the ship only going abroad upon the ocean eight chapters previous, and Ahab making his first towering appearance just two chapters ago. Prior to ‘The Pipe’, Ahab has stood fiercely on the quarter-deck (‘with a crucifixion in his face’), he has been watched like a still-life by Ishmael, and heard Stubb’s merman dream, and may or may not have subsequently kicked Stubb back down the scuttle. But we cannot judge Cameron by the actions of a man he has not yet represented; no, Cameron represents the serene aspect of Ahab, alone on the quarter-deck and smoking. Who, then, is this Ahab?

Outright, this is a chapter for Ahab alone – Ishmael, the omniscient narrator, is absent – and we are forced to hear Cameron as Ahab – the only speech is Ahab’s. And his soliloquy is a lament, ‘this smoking no longer soothes’, as the wind blows it back in his face, and he realises he is in for a troublesome time, ‘hard must it go with me if thy charm be gone!’. Yet he is a hard-working man, ‘Here have I been unconsciously toiling, not pleasuring … and with such nervous whiffs’ – but this bodes poorly, for he is smoking ‘as if, like the dying whale, my final jets were the strongest and fullest of trouble.’ Thus we have a man – ignoring for the moment his murderous, self-destructive, monomaniacal quest, because in this chapter, we do not see that side of Ahab – we have a man who has lost the ability to derive pleasure from a pleasurable activity – he cannot be soothed – to such an extent that it reminds him of death, or the final vigorous moments before death. And he knows that the calm – which he seems also unconsciously to have avoided by staring directly ‘to windward’, standing to face the blast – the calm is for people other than he, for what appears to be the serenely retired or elderly, the ‘mild white vapors among mild white hairs’, not for those with the ‘torn iron-grey locks like mine. I’ll smoke no more –’. Pleasureless, there is nothing to Ahab but his calling; a fierce – torn and iron-grey – toiling sailor. Is this Ahab Cameron? He is, of course, a nervous man, and his fires are going out. ‘The fire hissed in the waves … With slouched hat, Ahab lurchingly paced the planks.’ Despite his resolve, this man is not at ease. He makes decisions, but they are impulsive, ‘How now … Oh, my pipe!’ he seems to say in surprise – he will make an impulsive decision later, too, when he destroys the quadrant and the ship’s navigational equipment, hurling him finally towards the wake of Moby Dick and to death – an ill-wind in the universe opposes Ahab here.

Yet, for now, Ahab is in control of his ship. Ahab, in fact, never loses control of his ship – he is all too aware of where he is steering it. And so, there is this responsible Ahab, too – the man who will sit upon the quarter-deck at night and watch his ship across the ocean. But he is superior to the sailors, he sits above them king-like, and he will not talk with them – they are there to do his work, to follows his orders, as Ahab calls over one ‘sailor of the watch’ to go below and collect his chair for him. And he sits on ‘his ivory stool’ – he is a man trading in murderous luxuries – and like ‘the sea-loving Danish kings’ – Vikings, pirates to the sea-shy ancient Brit – sat on thrones made of ‘the tusks of the narwhale’, Ahab seems ‘royalty’: ‘For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.’ On his – diminutive – ivory tower, Ahab reclines, and he is all sorts of aristocracy – a ruler, is Ahab, a khan, a king, a lord. But these are not Ahab’s words, this is Ishmael, and this is how – for the moment – Ishmael wants us to see Ahab – obeyed and imperial, high-born and blue-blooded. Yet, again, these are not really Ishmael’s words – when we hear the book, Ishmael and Ahab speak in the same voice – and that voice, for now, is Cameron. Ahab is therefore praising kingly Ahab – and we have to decide how we feel about kings, and whether or not this man has ideas above his station, and whether or not we want this man who leads and represents us to present himself so much superior, so much above us – and whether or not, this disappointed pleasure-seeker should fetch up his own throne from the cabin.

There is a lot that ‘The Pipe’ does not show us of Ahab – in isolation, we do not know of his diabolical and fanatical hatred or the death-wish he holds for himself and his crew – we do not know his history, his back apparently turned on the shorelife with his wife and children – of his quest to destroy the white whale that maimed him – but this is Ahab, and even without any of this information to hand, there is nothing well-balanced about him. At a whim, he destroys his pipe – and this is not the renunciation of a bad habit – this is the rejection – even, abjection – of pleasure – if the pipe alone made Ahab serene, then its loss is the loss of serenity – and this seems the fancy of a madman – Ahab does not lose his serenity, he throws it with anger into the ocean. He is discomposed – ‘With slouched hat’ – and unsteadied – ‘lurchingly’ he walks the deck. This, then, is the image of the man of this chapter.

j.

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