“Stop telling such outlandish tales. Stop turning minnows into whales.” ~ Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
“I know that this queer adventure of the Gay-Header’s will be sure to seem incredible to some landsmen…” ~ Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Introduction—The Gay American Novel
Call me (a) Dick.
But Moby-Dick, the Great American Novel by Herman Melville, is the gayest book I’ve ever read since Harry’s Peter and his “Chamber” of Secrets.*
Having said that, I should add at the outset that Amorphous Intelligence Ltd., LLC, N.A., LLD (and all its affiliates, subsidiaries, entities, and personnel, etc.; hereinafter just “AI”) is not anti-gay.
And having said that, on the flipside, AI is not, in full disclosure, personally gay.**
Let me clarify:
By “gay,” I don’t mean, as today’s youngsters do, lame (though AI is not that, either). Nor do I mean, as my grandparents’ generation did, merry. Nay, I’m sort of the “in-between” generation where that word not too long ago, according to a slightly older-edition Merriam-Webster’s, meant:
2gay (noun) \’gā\: HOMOSEXUAL; especially, a homosexual male…who uses his Moby Dick as a harpoon to thrust into the blowhole of another cetacean bull while shouting ‘Thar she blows!’ as he simultaneously ejaculates his pod of sperm whales
Examples of GAY
- A bar that is frequented by gays
- All the characters in the 1851 novel Moby-Dick are gay
Which pretty much sums up all 800-plus pages and 135 or so chapters of this loooooooooooooooooooonnnnnng…ooooooold…thick…saggy…hairy…book….
Okay, I made up the saggy and hairy bits. But it is, in fact, a book. And it’s a touch more than long, old, and thick (which are also, in fact, factual).
*Note: not by J.K. Rowling.
**If you’re gay and reading this, what is about to transpire is probably old news. For us straight “landsmen”, however, this is new news that, in Melville’s words, “will be sure to seem incredible.” So please forgive us if, from our biased heterosexual perspective, we act a little childish.
Part 1—Of Sharks and Whales and Large Minnow Tales
Truth be told, I was pleasantly surprised when I recently read this book. It’s not all just about a senile, monomaniacal curmudgeon named Ahab who mutters questionable phrases (that in my mind sound like Jimmy Stewart), “…I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold…” while coincidently having a not-so-good grip on pretty much anything—including a large, powerful, throbbing leviathan from below as it slips through his fierce grasp like a…uh…a lubed-up red spitting cobra?
I mean, yeah, it IS that. And I’ll get to that in a moment. But first I want to clarify—for my straight readers—that it’s more than that.
Moby-Dick is the 19th-century literary equivalent to Jaws; or, conversely (and more chronologically accurate), Jaws is the 20th-century cinematic equivalent to Moby-Dick. (Note: by Jaws I mean the 1975 Steven Spielberg thriller about a great white shark man-eater, not the 1976 Deep Jaws about a not-so-great but definitely white mermaid who eats out men. This distinction may sound superfluous, but as will soon be apparent, the confusion could be real.)
Moby-Dick, though, is a hell of a lot longer (by which I mean the story), and may be more titillating terrifying, since, unlike Jaws, it’s actually gay based ever so slightly in reality.
The eponymous aquatic mammal was inspired by the actual occurrences of two real-life sperm whales: one who sunk the ship Essex in 1820 (of which a book was written in 1821); the other an albino called Mocha Dick who attacked ships with great ferocity (so they say) until it was killed in the late 1830s.
Melville himself spent eighteen months on a whaling ship in the early 1840s. And having so much intimate knowledge of his subject, much of the novel’s simple plot gets inundated…almost lost from time to time with the minutiae of whaling practices; entire chapters are written like sections from a nautical encyclopedia.
Nonetheless, as you dig past those dry, archaically scholarly treaties, and with that personal and historical backdrop as well as the real-life horrors actual whalers of that day lived through (I know, poor li’l ol’ whalers), the tone of this novel is dark; it’s gritty; it’s poetic; it has a grim, Clint Eastwoodesque sense of humor lightly sprinkled throughout…
…AND it’s gay.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. That is, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s just…surprising, since the book was published antebellum and I didn’t think homosexual activity existed before the early 2000s when I stumbled one day into Tom Cruise’s closet and saw….)
Part 2—Ambiguously Gay
I should clarify a touch more: By gay, I more precisely mean ambiguously gay; as in…
…Batman & Robin…
…Bert & Ernie…
…Gilligan & Skipper…
…Ginger & Mary Ann…
…1980’s Prince & 1990’s The Artist Formerly Known as Prince…
…Starsky & Hutch…
…Starsky? & Hutch?…
…Laverne & Shirley…
…Ben & Jerry…
…Ben & Jerry’s…
…Leonardo & Michelangelo…
…Tinky Winky & Apparently Anyone Who Grew Up Watching Teletubbies…
…Rock Hudson & James Dean…
…Rabbis & Priests…
…Muslims & Sikhs…
…Robin & Richard…
…Batman & Robin…
…Vince Neil & Steven Tyler…
…Madonna & Britney…
…Mel & Danny…
…Shrek & Donkey…
…Cary Grant & Randolph Scott…
…John & Yoko…
…Siskel & Ebert…
…Chip ‘n’ Dale…
…Ben & Matt…
…Daniel Tosh & Some Creepy Old Dude…
…The Dwarf & The Six Other Dwarfs…
…and—I can’t stress this enough—Batman & Robin…
Or more to the point: Robert Smigel’s infamous SNL lampoon of The Dynamic Duo in “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” Where everyone around these super-tights-wearing “superheroes” is constantly scratching their heads and basically saying, “Ummm…did they just say what I thought they said?…‘cause they seem oblivious….Oh no, now look what they’re doing!….Do they seriously not know how that looks?….”
Reading Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (that’s what sh…he said), I get that same sense from Melville. Like he didn’t think he was writing a gay story—it’s just that many passages, read not in the context of the author’s day but with a modern sensibility, sound gay….
Why? Because I think it’s the last thing that pokes into most people’s minds when they hear the words…
Which—when I put it like that—is all that much stranger considering it has the word “Moby” right in the title! (And “Dick,” too.) I mean, how the hell did THAT get past the censors? Maybe…it’s so obvious you don’t even notice? What’s the clichéd phrase? Hiding in plain sight?
(Imagine if Jules Verne called his famous novel Journey to the Center of The Er-other Man’s Anus. Would we—our collective consciousness—have noticed? Or if Mark Twain more accurately named his, Jungle Fever for the Pedophile: Adventures of a Precocious White Boy Named Huckleberry Finn and his “Trip” Down the “Mississippi River” with his Good—But Much, Much Older—Predatory Black “Buddy” Named Jim. Again I ask—would we have noticed?)
Part 3—The Beginning: The Dick, Page 1, Ishmael, Nantucket, All-Male Brothels, and Black Whores
So right out of the gate we have this large and blatantly obvious “Dick” waving (or poking…or throbbing…or undulating…or slapping…or, whatever) about in our faces.
Where we find Ishmael (“Call me Ishmael.”) Who, as his name implies, is a male…but shhh….
Basically he’s some naïve dude who (like a first year medical student studying gastroenterology) is young, has adventure in his heart, and is ready to head out into the big world to “explore.” His is the point of view we readers are spewed through while he narrates the story from his firsthand account of things. He starts off in Manhattan headed towards…
—Oh! That’s right!
There once was a man from Nantucket, Whose schlong was so long he could suck it. He said with a grin, While wiping his chin, ‘If back it would bend, I could f*** it!’
Ah, THAT Nantucket! Mystery solved. Basically the 19th-century municipal equivalent to our modern-day San Francisco. Which lecherous limerick, as will be seen shortly, is relevant.
Anyway, Ishmael works his way to an inn called (and here’s where that limerick starts to become relevant) “The Crossed Harpoons”. He describes this place as possibly being “Gomorrah” (as in, Sodom and Gomorrah? Where we get the word for…sodomy?). But noooo…that’s…not…quite what he’s looking for…so he pushes on to the next place called “The Spouter Inn:—Peter Coffin.”
Peter? Spouter? What’s that? I dunno, but the sign over the door has a painting “faintly representing a tall straight jet of misty spray.”
A tall straight jet? Of misty spray? Coming out of Peter’s…spouter?
I GUESS that’s 19th-century whaling terminology. I guess….
Anyhow, it’s a most curious sort of place. Or rather, as Ishmael puts it, “a queer sort of place.”
But…queer just meant “strange” in Melville’s day, not gay…right?
I THINK so….
So (five-for-five?), I’ll ignore I just read that and press on…oh, wait, maybe I shouldn’t have ignored that—or the book’s title, or the fact Ishmael’s compass needle is aiming for Nantucket of all places, or the Crossed Harpoons, or the sodomy allusion, or the tall straight jet of misty spray spouting out of some dude’s peter—because now he enters this place and discovers what can best be described in modern terms as an all-male, fully-implemented BDSM dungeon:
The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower. You shuddered as you gazed, and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement.
Shuddered and wondered, indeed! Oh, and incidentally, here’s a photo of that very wall—just in case you’re having a hard time visualizing it:
And on the other side of the room? A “number of young seamen gathered about a table.”
“Seamen”? Gathered about a table? Or swimming about a table?
Either way, he goes to the landlord to ask for a room, who answers thusly: “…avast… you haint no objections to sharing a harpooneer’s blanket, have ye? [Depends—do you have a black UV light I can look at it with first?~AI] I s’pose you are goin’ a-whalin’, so you’d better get used to that sort of thing.”
That sort of…“thing”?
Ishmael at first says he’s not into…that sort of “thing,” but rather quickly decides he’s willing to give it a shot. That is, if the other harpooneer is someone he likes. And this other harpooneer he’s promised? A “dark complexioned chap” who (and I further quote) “never eats dumplings…he eats nothing but steaks, and he likes ‘em rare.”
Armed with this insight, Ishmael reasons through it: “I made up my mind that if it so turned out that we should sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did.”
How the bedevil?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Uh…oh…okay…sure, why not? It’s your first time, Ishmael. You’re gun shy. But be forewarned: Once you go black, you never go back (so they say).
Or is it—once you go gay, there’s no other…way?
Soooooo…when you combine both those elements into a one-off event (like a firing squad AND a hanging)…end of story?
Before getting down to monkey business for the night, however, Ishmael decides to “spend the rest of the evening as a looker on.” Makes sense. Considering this is apparently a commitment from which there is—like circumcision, or death—no return. So after noticing the “fine stature” of one “seaman” amongst this group of “seamen” as they participate in “orgies” with other “seamen” (in which surprisingly no mention of pet swallows was brought up), Ishmael either is truly conflicted or at least pretends to hesitate on whether he wants to go through with it: “The more I pondered over this harpooneer, the more I abominated the thought of sleeping with him.” But with a little persuasion from the landlord he ultimately decides he’s ready to head up to the room: “perhaps we may become jolly good bedfellows after all,” he reasons to himself.
However, his promised “dark complexioned” harpooneer is not around. Where could he be? And if he does show up, Ishmael asks himself (and I quote), “how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?”
Annnyyyyhow…shortly thereafter, Queequeg does, in fact, show up. This is him, the “dark complexioned” harpooneer Ishmael had had reserved by the…landlord?…pimp?…lordpimp? So, yet another seaman dude. Take note: two dudes—two “seamen” dudes, right? Who for the first time LITERALLY…MEET…IN…BED…!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????????
Yes, they meet in bed, at an inn with tall straight jets of misty spray spouting out of someone’s peter, right next to The Crossed “Harpoons”—emphasis on “Harpoons”…AND “Crossed”—where perhaps anal probing was alluded to while other “seamen” of “fine stature” are having “orgies” in this man-cave while surrounded by some seriously heavy-duty bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism toys.
And heaven only knows from what “vile hole” Queequeg had just been “coming.” Or did he mean…cumming?
But this was before public schools offered sex (or spelling) education standards. So naturally these two seamen dudes sleep together, I’ll presume without any protection:
Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife….My sensations were strange.
As are mine. I can only assume they enjoyed it, because they do it again…and again…and again…and….
Do what, exactly, your collectively filthy minds ask? Good question. To preface the answer to this…delicate…issue, I found this quote from Wikipedia rather telling: “In Moby-Dick, Melville employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous complex themes.” (You forgot euphemism, double-entendre, innuendo, single-entendre, and tres-amigos-style ménage à trios.)
Symbolism? Metaphor? Complex…themes? (Tres-amigos-style ménage à trios?)
Let’s briefly fast-forward to a wee-bitty, obscure paragraph in chapter 89 that I think gives us a way to interpret some of Melville’s symbolism and metaphors. In talking about one’s legal possession of property, our narrator mentions an interesting court case as an example. During the trial of this case, the defense lawyer for it alluded to yet another recent case:
…wherein a gentleman, after in vain trying to bridle his wife’s viciousness, had at last abandoned her upon the seas of life; but in the course of years, repenting of that step, he instituted an action to recover possession of her….[The defense lawyer] supported it by saying, that though the gentleman had originally harpooned the lady, and had once had her fast, and only by reason of the great stress of her plunging viciousness, had at last abandoned her; yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman’s property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her.
Hmmmmm….many a-harpoon in this lady. This…“loose”…lady…
And speaking of harpoons—turns out, as I learned from the above, they aren’t just for whales anymore. Literally. In fact, as we are about to learn, they aren’t just for ladies anymore, either. Which brings a whole new dimension of understanding to this entire “Crossed Harpoons” place. So with that enlightening interpretive note, I appeal to Ishmael’s symbolic, metaphorical words to help clarify this…“complex theme”…taking place between these two harpooneers, back in the bedroom:
[Queequeg] still hugged me tightly…I now strove to rouse him…I then rolled over, my neck feeling as if it were in a horse-collar; and suddenly felt a slight scratch….[T]hought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal….At length, by dint of much wriggling, and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt….[H]e drew back his arm….[He was] stiff as a pike-staff….Meanwhile, I lay quietly eyeing him, having no serious misgivings now, and bent upon narrowly observing so curious a creature. When, at last, his mind seemed made up touching the character of his bedfellow, and he became, as it were, reconciled to the fact;
I was having a hard time visualizing this affectionate scene since it’s probably symbolic or metaphorical for something…“deep.” So I drew a little diagram to help wrap my straight mind around this complex text:
Some days later, however, with time and practice, Ishmael describes their sleeping together in more relaxed, comforting terms. Like this:
We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we;
Isn’t that nice. Nonetheless, again having a hard time visualizing this, so drew another diagram:
So, these two dudes really seem to like each other. So much, in fact, they eventually embark on a 3 to 5 year voyage of each other’s rectums the sea on board a whaling sailboat along with basically the entire lineup of the Village People: we have some black dudes, some white dudes, some Indians, some Navy sailors, some construction workers (or at least a carpenter and blacksmith)….Hell, for all I know, there may have been a cop, a cowboy, a biker, and an electrician, too.
But what I do know is this: on board was a suave swashbuckler called “Starbuck”…
…which I took to be a nickname he was given for some bodily feature readily apparent to the other seamen. (As an aside, we later learn Stub enjoys eating, and this is word-for-word from the text, “Whale-balls for breakfast.” Maybe he figures because these balls come from whales, they will—like Jack’s beans—magically transmit their essence of enormity and turn his stub into a…ummm…giant beanstalk?)
It’s important to note this crew because our two original homos heroes, Ishmael and Queequeg, had at least three ships to choose from, and they picked this one: “this was the very ship for us.” Some of the highlights of Ishmael’s description of it:
[H]er masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne….She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies.
So these seamen set sail on this bejeweled, effeminate, flamboyant ship dubbed the Pequod (pronounced PEE-quad), where quad, as we all learned in gym class, is another word for…thigh? And pee…hmmm…pee-pee? Penis? Penis flopping on thighs? So the Village People are sailing the high seas on a bejeweled, effeminate, flamboyant thigh-flopping penis vessel? And as one would expect from a ship of this leaning, “seamen” are “swabbing the deck” while talking almost exclusively about “whales,” one in particular called “Dick.”
Naïve Ishmael turns out to be not so naïve, after all. At this point he seems to know (…surprise!…surprise!…) a great deal about “whales.” But he allegedly acquired such (carnal) knowledge merely from books.
He systematically proceeds to describe to us the various “whales” of the ocean. Such as the “hump-back,” which as best as I can determine is a seaman idiom for what us ordinary straight land folks simply call “doggy style.” Which makes sense, considering he goes on to say this whale makes “gay foam,” which is another seaman idiom for what modern gays now call “santorum” (in honor of Rick Santorum).
He also talks about a sperm whale called “Long-John” who gets his name because of his loooooooooonnnnnnnng…john…son? Well, Ishmael says it’s from his long “fin,” yet, oddly, he doesn’t call him…I dunno…Long Fin? He IS sometimes called “Tall-Spout,” though. I can only guess why: because his squirting spout, much like Old Faithful (or Ron Jeremy), is very, very mind-numbingly tall? But I don’t have to do much guess work with that “fin,” as Ishmael describes it in mesmerizingly stunning detail:
This fin is some three or four feet long, growing vertically…of an angular shape, and with a very sharp pointed end. Even if not the slightest other part of the creature be visible, this isolated fin will, at times, be seen plainly projecting from the surface.
Good to know.
Moving on, he also talks about a whale he calls “Black Fish” whose “lips are curved upwards.” And, “Though their blubber is very thin, some of these whales will yield you upwards of thirty gallons of oil.” By which I think he means, thirty gallons of…“oil.”
Pretty much in all these whale discussions, proportions, sizes, and quantities are gargantuan!
Such as with the narwhale, a “creature [that is] is some sixteen feet in length, while its horn averages five feet, though some exceed ten, and even attain to fifteen feet.”
And speaking of short and long narwhale horns: much like the male reproductive organ, some chapters in this book are laughably short, while others are grotesquely long. Chapter 35 is one of the long ones. Which is apt, considering it is entirely about just that—long ones. More specifically, long “mastheads.” Again in mesmerizingly stunning detail, he goes through the entire history of long “mastheads,” beginning with the first (metaphorically speaking, I guess)—the tower at Babel. Seriously.
In Ishmael’s (and Melville’s) eyes, it would seem phallic symbols everywhere abound. Like when Melville writes, “Of erections, how few are domed like St. Peter’s!”
Imagine if Melville lived long enough to see the erection of the CN Tower!
Or if he ever went on a hike through Arches National Park in Utah!
With such innumerable distractions erecting everywhere, Melville struggles to keep the plot going. But he shakes his head and resolutely pushes on. We finally learn a little about the namesake of the book, Moby Dick himself, in chapter 36. He is described as a sperm whale, but a “white whale” who “fan-tale[s] a little curious…before he goes down….”
Hmmm…anything else we should know about this…Dick?
Yes: “[He has] a curious spout, too…very bushy…and mighty quick….”
I see. Repugnant. But I see.
Anyhow, up to this point in the book we have only briefly heard, in passing, of the aloof and mysterious Captain Ahab, who turns out to be the real protagonist (or antagonist?) of the story. We don’t actually hear him speak, though, till this same chapter—36. And it soon becomes apparent he’s an old pro. At what, exactly? Well, I guess that’s for each reader to decide for him or herself. I only relay the facts. Which facts are these:
After they’d been at sea for some time and no one on board having actually spoken with the captain, he mysteriously and suddenly spews out of his cabin, quickly gathers all the seamen round him, then delivers his first speech, which, in its symbolic, metaphorical way, illustrates a great deal about the man and his mission (and bear in mind what Melville meant when he used the word “harpoon”—and I suppose by extension(?), “lance,” “weapon,” “iron,” and anything else that’s long…and hard):
[Ahab] turning to the harpooneers, he ordered them to produce their weapons. Then ranging them before him near the capstan, with their harpoons in their hands, while his three mates stood at his side with their lances, and the rest of the ship’s company formed a circle round the group…
“Drink and pass!” he cried, handing the heavy charged flagon to the nearest seaman. “The crew alone now drink. Round with it, round! Short draughts—long swallows, men; ’tis hot as Satan’s hoof…ye mates, flank me with your lances; and ye harpooneers, stand there with your irons; and ye, stout mariners, ring me in, that I may in some sort revive a noble custom of my fisherman fathers before me…Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis.”
So saying, with extended arm, he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed centre; while so doing, suddenly and nervously twitched them…
At this point, right after Ahab “twitched” the lances, they basically all drink…something…“fiery waters”?…jizzing from each other’s “harpoon sockets.” When suddenly, as fast as they drink, Ahab, like a typical man, is exhausted and loses interest. Just as quickly as he had emerged, like a shy turtle he now “retired within his cabin” while everyone else, probably confused at whatever the hell they just did with each other, “dispersed.”
We turn the page to chapter 37 where Ahab, while secluded in his cabin, then revisits this queer (by which I mean strange AND gay) event as he describes to himself what just occurred: “’Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve.”
When I first read that, I was just as dumbfounded as the seamen. But then I realized it did, sort of, sound familiar…
—Ohhhh…yeah! Saw this once before in Brüno:
Moving on to chapter 38, Ishmael, Queequeg’s twinkie (as Diesel is to Brüno), quickly learns he doesn’t like the cut of his creepy-old captain’s jib. He describes him as “a madman!” who “drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason [i.e. santorum~AI] out of me!” It then appears Ahab turned Ishmael into his own personal Wez…or gimp: “the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut.”
The captain, it turns out—unbeknownst to the happy crew until long after they’ve been trapped at sea, where no one can hear them scream—is basically the 19th-century villainous equivalent to…Lord Humungus? Or maybe, more equivalent to Zed…
Either way, how did he become such a raping fiend?
We learn that Ahab had, once before, met Moby Dick, who, being the larger of the two, bit off the captain’s “leg,” making it…smaller (I guess like the seaman they call “Stub”).
Believe it or not, this biting-off-of-another’s-appendage is actually not as uncommon in nature as you might think. Those loveable critters we all affectionately call the slug, it turns out, are largely born hermaphrodites—both male and female parts (sort of a Swiss Army knife of reproductive organs). To remedy this…predicament?…the larger slugs bite off the smaller slugs’ penises, thus creating harmony and balance among all living things by forcing the existence of a submissive “female” bitch for the dominating “male” son-of-a-bitch.
(If the picture to the right seems confusing, that’s because their erections are coming out of their heads. Autofellatio, anyone?)
Ahab, it turns out, is (or thinks he is) a round peg, and was not so submissive with being forced into this square-hole role of Moby Dick’s be-otch. So the now (round) peg-less seaman set sail on this large, prosthetic strap-on called the Pequod with the sole intention, with an unaware crew, of returning the favor to the marine butch by ramming what’s left of his munched-off round peg into the white whale’s square hole till the beast dies a most painful death.
(Of course the other option was to perform a donkey punch. That’s nearly fatal every time. So I’ve heard).
And speaking of white whales, or just “white,” Ishmael in chapter 42 drones on and on—ad infinitum in yet another of these looooooooooooonnnnnng chapters (kind of like this blog post)—about the grandeur of this color (or absence thereof): white pearls…white elephants…milk-white steeds…the white forked flame…the snow-white bull…the sacred white dog…the white tunic…the white robes of St. John…the white robes of the four-and-twenty elders…the great white throne…the white Holy One sitting upon the great white throne….
But for some reason, this whale named Dick, who is also white, just seems wrong to Ishmael: “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”
But…why, Ishmael? Why is it so appalling? If white is so magnificent on everything else, what is soooooooo wrong with a white Dick?
Hmmm…let’s think about this for a sec…‘cause a second is all it takes. Recall with me, if you will, the beginning of the story where a young, virgin Ishmael has his first encounter with…who was it? A “dark complexioned chap”?
I guess it IS true what they say: Once you go…
As we read on, against our better judgment, it becomes apparent that the crew of the Pequod have nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do. So all basically submit to Captain Ahab as his little Wezs and gimps forced to search for the hideous great white Dick. In essence, Ahab is to his crew what Moby Dick is to Ahab: a large, dong-munching bastard—and paying it forward.
And as everyone slowly becomes more aware AND psychotic, wandering aimlessly around in the high seas in their search, they tell stories to keep their morale (among other things) up. By chapter 54 we hear the tale of a vessel called the “Town-Ho.” Yes, you read correctly—the “Town-Ho.” (Take note Merriam-Webster: You say the first recorded use of “ho” as slang for whore was in 1965? Try 1851.)
So what town is this…ho…from, you ask? By now, the answer should be all too obvious:
There once was a ho from—
Anyhow, we hear about this Town Ho, and it turns out to have a hole—a leaky hole—because “a sword-fish had stabbed her.” Which I guess would be a common enough problem for town hos from Nantucket. But maybe more so for this capital “T” and capitol “H” Town Ho—which I take to mean it’s like the headmaster of all town hos. Especially in light of it being another “whaling” ship. As was made amply clear back in chapter 32, when using whaling metaphors, the enormity of the sizes involved are veritable and nothing to laugh at. Clearly great bodily harm is a common theme in this story.
Which brings us to the mutinous de facto leader of this particular vessel—“Steelkilt.” At first I thought he was called this because he wore like a Scottish chastity belt of some sort; you know, to protect from unwanted advances of, say, a wandering narwhale “horn”…or a swordfish’ “sword.” That is until he started speaking with (and I quote Ishmael), “gay banterings.” Yes, gay banterings. Such as, “let me mount you a moment.”
Oh, wait. Just re-read that. He actually says, “let me board you a moment.” But in our modern world (and even in Ishmael’s less-than-modern world), that still fits within the rubric of “gay banterings.”
Leaving the story of the Town Ho behind (like the town ho it is), and back to reality (of a fictional story, where the first rule of writing seems to apply: write what you know), the Pequod periodically crosses paths with other vessels. They bump ‘n grind into one in chapter 81 called the Virgin. Simultaneously, these two ships, the Peqoud and the Virgin, spot a sperm whale and both competitively go in for the kill. The Peqoud “spears” the whale first. Needless to say, the Virgin, sadly, remained that day, still a virgin. I guess it has a reputation to keep.
Unlike the reputation of the Bachelor. Another ship the Peqoud cops a feel of as it grazes past in chapter 115. This vessel is explicitly described as being “gay” with a captain who “stood erect.”
But enough of these other ho, virgin, and gay ships. Let’s get back to the virgins, hos, and intrepid sailors on our gay ship. In which chapter 56 is all about our brave seamen whiling away their down time by looking at what I can best describe, using modern language, as…whale porn—drawings of whales and seamen doing unthinkable acts with each other, such as one of a whale with a (and I quote) “pole inserted into his spout-hole.”
What I will say, though, is that a large swathe of this book, maybe as much as a quarter, is dedicated to the intimate details of the capture and dissection of some ordinary, ho-hum whales, where ambiguously gay things are shouted starboard and larboard. Such as in chapter 73, where we are introduced to the not-so-PC phrase, “fagged whale.” Which I feel inclined to interpret, no matter how incorrectly, as a 19th-century nautical term for a whale that has been buggered.
But by whom? Another whale? Another seaman? The latter seems feasible since one of the seamen, we’re told by chapter 78, “has to ram his long pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper into the [whale]…”
At least two whole chapters, 67-68, are all about how these seamen skin a whale—turns out you peel ‘em like an orange: “Now as the blubber envelopes the whale precisely as the rind does an orange, so is it stripped off from the body precisely as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it.” Melville goes into lengthy, intimate particulars about this process, describing it in a way that seems almost like a Jonathon Swift allegory to circumcision, with a mythical land of little people capturing, tying down, and cutting away the foreskin of this MOTHER-FREAKIN’ GINORMOUS MALE GENITAL METAPHORICALLY CALLED THE BIGGEST CREATURE KNOWN TO HUMANKIND—A DAMN FRIGGEN WHALE…BRAZENLY…NAMED…“DICK”!!!!!!!! ANYONE???????????
Chapter 91 tells a…interesting?…tantalizing?… story. This one takes a bit of explaining, but it’s worth it. So bear with me:
The Peqoud comes across a French whaling ship trying to haul in what’s called a “blasted whale,” which is “a whale that has died unmolested.” I don’t want to get into the particulars of whatever the hell Melville may or may not have meant by that, but suffice to say that, ostensibly at least, whales that die “unmolested” are inferior; i.e. they don’t have enough “oil” left in them to be worth a damn. So the Peqoud gropes up alongside this French vessel, and Stub shouts to them they are wasting their time. Some French dude, the chief mate (basically the rank of Riker from Star Trek: TNG), shouts back in English that he knows, but is unable to convince his inexperienced captain of this. Stub wastes no time—he shouts to the French chief mate: “[M]y sweet and pleasant fellow,” he says. Then he mounts him—by which I mean Stub mounts the French boat—to talk more intimately with him. The chief mate in return seems to take to liking Stub pretty much immediately, as he instantly reveals to Stub, “his detestation of his Captain as a conceited ignoramus”. As a result of their instant bromance, these two guys, on the spot, concocted a dangerous love-triangle game to play, as follows:
When the French captain, who did not speak English, came out, Stub said facetious nonsense; then the French chief mate pretended to interpret for his captain while all the while really saying his thoughts; namely, that hauling in this “unmolested” whale was a waste of time.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting (i.e. gay): Among the things Stub had been saying in English and pretending to be intended for the French captain but really goofing around with the chief mate, one was this: “tell him I’ve diddled him….”
I must confess, I was unfamiliar with this word. But it sounded gay. So I had to look it up. In Merriam-Webster’s. I discovered several meanings, two of which are totally different yet both perfectly applicable in the context. One is to “fool,” which Stub was indeed doing to the French captain. The other meaning is “to copulate with,” which Stub was not doing (I don’t think) but maybe…wanted to be doing? To the French captain?
I can only imagine Melville sitting around by candlelight with quill in hand writing this fictional conversation, and thinking to himself:
Looky here! My boy Stub wants to have coitus with this French captain, but I couldn’t possibly get away with writing that outright without risk of being tarred & feathered, pilloried, and burned at the stake—living as I do in 19th -century puritan-descended New England and all.
What to do…?
What to do…?
Is there a word…that I could use…that means to “fool”… but ALSO means…to “copulate”? So if anyone ever calls me out on it I’ll simply play dumb and say, “Oh heavens to Betsy! Goodness gracious me! I had NO IDEA! Are you telling me that word also means THAT?!?!?”
Well I’ll be! Today must be my lucky day! Because here’s the very word I was looking for—
How perfect! Oh I love Love LOVE the ambiguous English language!
Yes you do, Mr. Melville. Yes you do….
Such as in chapter 94. This is a…sticky?…chapter. Appropriately called “A Squeeze of the Hand.” The crew of the Peqoud by this point had captured yet another generic sperm whale. In the process of dissecting and extracting the oil, we find this fine gem of Ishmael’s thoughts within those gooey pages (in what I imagine a ruggedly masculine Richard Simmons’ voice):
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
One commenter on The Straight Dope message boards perfectly sums this up:
[T]his ‘sperm’ is spermaceti which is not really whale semen but people used to think it was, despite its being found in the animal’s head. It is a form of wax and you can, among other things, make candles out of it. Long, thick candles…
Touché, my online friend. Touché.
As we read on, it is clear that Captain Ahab has become a ripe bastard. It’s never perfectly clear as to why…that is until Ishmael in chapter 115 points out something revealing—almost too revealing: “…everything was filled with sperm, except the captain’s pantaloons…”
ED much, Ahab? Stick around for a hundred-fifty more years—our modern apothecaries can do wonders for you.
Part 5—Marsellus and Zed
So, as you can imagine, we get to the end of the book, and lo! Ahab indeed finds the white whale. With all the captain’s pent up anger, he goes in for the kill, personally lunging his special “harpoon” into him…
…only to have this Dick not only survive, but—to add insult to injury, as if biting off his “leg” all those years prior wasn’t bad enough—the whale then in turn bites off Ahab’s peg leg strap-on!
Yes! I know! Who’s your daddy NOW, you SONABITCH!
Oh, and incidentally, guess who still does not have sploog in his pantaloons? Hint: it’s not Moby Dick, for he left the surface of the water, with Ahab floating in it, “…creamed like new milk….”
Though, I guess in a gallows-humor sense, Ahab in fact did end up with love juice in his britches—albeit not his. Nonetheless, I would like to say the story ended on this happy note. But it actually gets better, surprisingly.
Oh, do read on:
I won’t go into the details of how, but basically Ahab—like Ishmael before, now in a perfect what-goes-around-comes-around moment—gets tethered to the watery beast and towed out to sea as Moby Dick’s gimp. We’ll never know for sure, but perhaps for one fleeting moment, Ishmael’s earlier words to describe Ahab flitted through the madman’s mind as the whale dragged him under: “the ineffable thing has tied me to him, tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut.”
What Ahab-slash-Zed didn’t seem to realize is that Moby Dick was never gimp material. Ahab may have TRIED to make the whale his sex slave, but that big-ass motha’ fricken’ Dick, aside from being white, was really more Marsellus Wallace material—and yes, he got medieval on Ahab’s ass.
Be that as it may, and needless to say—Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.
I’ll wrap this up more or less how I began:
Is Herman Melville gay?
Is Moby-Dick written intentionally to be metaphorically or allegorically gay?
But when viewed with a modern sense of things (as well as looking at passages somewhat out of context), is this canonical Great Book of the Western World ambiguously gay?
Does Stephen Hawking have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?
Is Charles Manson crazy, crazy insane?
Is Saddam Hussein…just resting?
Is Snooki an orange, skanky, Oompa-Loompa-like ho?
I won’t answer these…difficult…questions for you. But what I will do is conclude with one final quote from the book which I think will shed some light on this hard(?) question. Bear in mind, these are Herman Melville’s words, not mine. So I mean no disrespect. I only add this:
Mr. Melville, I humbly present to you your own words, lifted from chapter 108, as a mirror reflection of your innermost soul:
[H]e’s queer…that one sufficient little word queer; he’s queer…he’s queer—queer, queer…all the time—queer—sir—queer, queer, very queer.