Thursday, February 11, 2016

Moby Dick Ch. 55: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales

The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.

In this chapter, Melville describes and criticizes various artistic representations of whales, stretching from ancient Indian temples to 19th century works of natural history.  None of these representations are truly accurate, the author concludes.  Here are some of the examples he gives of "monstrous pictures of whales"...

1.) The Matse Avatar, from India.  A depiction of an incarnation of the god Vishnu.


2.) The painting "Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the Sea Monster or Whale" by Guido Reni (1635).


3.) The painting "Perseus Descending" by William Hogarth (1697-1764).


4.) Drawings of whales by Scottish physician/naturalist Sir Robert Sibbald (1641-1722)


5.) Jonah and the whale illustrations from old Bibles.


6.) Illustrations from the travel writings of 17th century writer John Harris.


7.) Illustrations from A Voyage Round Cape Horn into the South Seas for the Purpose of Extending the Spermacetti Whale Fisheries by Captain James Colnett.


8.) Illustrations from Oliver Goldsmith's An History of the Earth and Animated Nature.


9.) Illustrations from A Natural History of Whales by Bernard Germain de Lacepede.


10.) Illustrations from Frederic Cuvier's Dictionary of Natural Science.



Melville concludes that the reason why no one had created a satisfactory picture of a whale was because (in his day) portraits of whales were made from dead (beached) whales, as opposed to living creatures.  "The great leviathan," he writes, "is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last."  The best way to see a whale, he concludes, is to go whaling.





The Mahabharata: Bhima and Hidimba

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Mahabharata: a Book Report, in which I'm slowly reading through the Hindu epic poem The Mahabharata, and writing a book report on what I read. 

The Pandavas were living in exile from the Kingdom of Hastinapura.  One night, while they lay sleeping, a Rakasa (demon) named Hidimba told his sister (also named Hidimba) to kill the princes and feast on their flesh.  However, before doing so, she saw Bhima and fell in love with him, and spared their lives.  Angered by this, the brother Hidimba tried to kill Bhima, but the prince was too strong, and he killed his attacker.

Then Bhima married the sister Hidimba, and she had a son named Ghatotkaca, who (though he was bald) proved to be a mighty warrior and ally of the Pandavas.  Indeed, Ghatotkaca would prove to be a powerful ally to the Pandavas in the coming Kurukshetra War. Eventaully, Bhima and Hidimba parted ways, but Ghatotkaca promised that he would always be there to help the Pandavas when they needed his help.

Left to right: Hidimba, Bhima, and Ghatotkaca.


Moby Dick Ch. 54: The Town Ho's Story

The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.

While rounding the Cape of Good Hope, a busy thoroughfare for ships, the Pequod encountered a ship called the Town-Ho, and the two ships had a "gam"--an informal meeting at sea.  During this gam, one of the Town-Ho's crew related a story, secretly, to Tashtego the harpooneer, who mumbled it in his sleep, after which the story circulated among the Pequod's crew.  The version Ishmael tells is one he told years later to several Spanish dons in Lima, Peru.  In short, this is a somewhat unreliable story, as its being told third-hand several years after the fact.  Nevertheless, it's a whale of a tale.  Here it is...

Years ago, on the Nantucket-based ship The Town-Ho, a conflict arose between the ship's mate (an ugly man named Radney) and a crew member named Steelkilt, a valiant and handsome man from Buffalo, New York.  Steelkilt was a hardy canaller, meaning he sailed the Erie Canal, and the Great Lakes of America.  He was known as a "Lake Man."  Despite his higher ranking, Radney was jealous of Steelkilt, and Steelkilt often made fun of Radney.  Basically, the two men despised one another.

One day, the Town-Ho sprung a minor leak.  Steelkilt and his fellow crew members worked shifts to pump out the water, and they were supervised by Radney.  After Steelkilt had insulted Radney one too many times, the enraged mate ordered the Lake Man to do the demeaning and menial task of sweeping and shoveling the deck.  The proud Lake Man refused on principle.  Enraged, Radney wielded a hammer and commanded Steelkilt to comply.  Steelkilt said he would murder Radney if the hammer even touched his face.  Foolishly, Radney touched the hammer to his face.  The next moment, Steelkilt broke the mate's jaw.

A brawl ensued between supporters of Steelkilt and supporters of Radney.  The Town-Ho had a mutiny on its hands.  Steelkilt and his fellow Lake Men were tied up, flogged, and imprisoned for a time in the lower deck.  Eventually they were released.  It was in the midst of this conflict that, one day, a sailor of the Town-Ho spotted the white whale, Moby Dick himself!  In pursuit, Radney was eaten by the monster, thus giving Steelkilt the justice he sought.  When the Town-Ho reached land, Steelkilt and his fellow Lake Men deserted, and the captain picked up a new group of sailors, who were from Tahiti.

The Town-Ho's Story first appeared as a short story in Harper's.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Mahabharata: The Burning of the House of Lac

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Mahabharata: a Book Report, in which I'm slowly reading through the Hindu epic poem The Mahabharata, and writing a book report on what I read. 

After the death of Pandu, his brother Dhrtarastra (the blind king) took the throne of Hastinapura.  His son, the wicked and conniving Duryodhana, heard rumors that Pandu’s son Yudhisthira was favored to become the next king.  Fearing a loss of power, Duryodhana hatched an evil plan to get rid of Yudhisthira and the Pandavas.  He persuaded his father to send the Pandavas away to a city called Varanavata.

Meanwhile, Duryodhana had one of his father’s ministers build a house out of Lac (an extremely flammable material) for the Pandavas to live in.  The plan was to burn them alive.  Thankfully, the Pandavas learned of Duryodhana’s evil scheme and built a secret shelter of escape should their house burn down.

One evening, the house was set ablaze, and the Pandavas escaped.  Ironically, the minister who’d built the house of lac perished in the flames.  Word reached Hastinapura that the Pandavas had died in the fire.  Meanwhile, the five princes and their mother Kunti went into exile.


Moby Dick Ch. 53: The Gam

The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.

This chapter describes an activity that happens when two whale-ships meet on the open ocean.  They have a “gam” which Melville defines in this way:

GAM. Noun—A social meeting of two (or more) whale-ships, generally on a cruising ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boat’s crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other.

This cordial meeting is unique to whale-ships.  Other types of sea craft (including pirate ships, men-of-war, merchant vessels, and slave ships) tend to have more standoffish and hostile relationships with their fellow sea-farers.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Moby Dick Ch. 50: Ahab’s Boat and Crew - Fedallah

The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.

In this chapter, Ishmael points out how unusual it was for Ahab, the captain of the ship, to have his own small boat, harpooneer, and crew.  In most cases, the captain’s life was seen as too valuable to risk in such direct contact with whales.  This was even more true in Ahab’s case because he was handicapped, having a false leg.  This is why Ahab secretly conscripted Fedallah and the other mysterious crewmen, because the owners of the ship would never have approved it.  It was simply too risky for a captain to be commanding a harpoon boat.  What if he were killed?

Ishmael describes Fedallah, Ahab’s harpooneer, in this way: “One cannot sustain an indifferent air concerning Fedallah.  He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams, that that but dimly.”


The Mahabharata: A Tournament

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Mahabharata: a Book Report, in which I'm slowly reading through the Hindu epic poem The Mahabharata, and writing a book report on what I read.  

Both the Kauravas and the Pandavas were taught martial arts by a master named Drona.  The best of the warrior-princes was Arjuna.  After the princes finished their training, Drona arranged a tournament to demonstrate his pupils' skills.  The first match was between Duryodhana (eldest of the Kauravas) and Bhima (strongest of the Pandavas).  However, before they could fight, the crowd became so divided and unruly that Drona called off the match, fearing a riot.

To satisfy the unruly audience, Arjuna gave a demonstration of his amazing skills, particularly as an archer.  As the prince was wowing the crowd with his impressive bowmanship, he was interrupted by the sound of an arm beating against a chest.  Who should appear, but Karna, half-brother of Arjuna, son of the Sun god and Kunti!  Karna was a large and impressive warrior, and he challenged Arjuna to a fight, saying, "Son of Kunti, whatever you have done, I shall outdo it before the eyes of all these men!"  Sensing an opportunity, the wicked Duryodhana forged an alliance with Karna.  Then the two great heroes prepared to duke it out.

As they prepared to fight, there was a corresponding conflict in the heavens.  Indra, the god who'd partially incarnated himself in Arjuna, created lighting, thunder, and rainbows.  The sun god, who'd partially incarnated himself in Karna, burned away the clouds of Indra.  And so, in this earthy conflict between Arjuna and Karna, there was a corresponding conflict in the sky between Indra and the sun god.

Meanwhile, Kunti, the mother of both warriors, fainted and was revived by Vidura the wise.  This was a lose-lose situation for her.  Kunti "gazed at her two sons in their armor, and she grieved." 

At this point, a guy named Krpa announced that, before fighting the prince Arjuna, Karna must prove that he is royalty.  Because he was unable to do so, Duryodhana intervened and proclaimed Karna king of a region called Anga.  In gratitude, Karna pledged his loyalty to Duryodhana forever.  Bad choice, Karna.  Then Karna's earthly father showed up, basically demonstrating that Karna was not, in fact royalty.  Bhima thought this was hilarious, and proceeded to insult Karna.  Duryodhana argued that the true source of kingship was not in birth--a fairly radical idea.

Basically, the tournament never really happened.  Everyone got into an argument about the qualities of kingship, and then the sun went down and everyone went home.  Meanwhile, the kingdom of Hastinapura was increasingly divided between the supporters of the Pandavas and the supporters of the Kauravas.  A conflict was brewing.