Ahab starts to lose his way
Circles, spheres, circumnavigation: at the top left, we see a barometer that refers to the hurricane near Japan; in the background, bigger-sized, there is a chronometer. In order to determine their position at sea, sailors compared the time difference between the time of their home base, as shown on the chronometer, and the local time. To determine the latter, Ahab directed his quadrant at the sun. Reuvers chose to depict a sextant, the successor to the quadrant, and, behind it, an astrolabe.
Ahab wants to no longer be dependent on the sun for charting the ship’s course. If Nature had wanted man to be dependent of the sun for his orientation, she would have given us an eye on the crown of our heads! Moreover, caution and calculation alone will not suffice to catch Moby Dick. Ahab decides he will no longer be guided by the quadrant, and he tramples it. Only the levelled ship’s compass, the levelled dead-reckoning by log and by line, and his own will power would conduct him and show him his place in the sea… And the dot on the horizon, Moby Dick’s blow! So, he orders the ship to wheel around.
To the right, we see a compass rose from Amsterdam; on top, there is the label of a bottle of spermaceti oil. At the centre left, a 10th-century plate from Samarkand with an inscription in Farsi: Be patient. Initially I’ll taste bitter, but in the end I am sweeter than honey. To your health! The image refers to the Parsi Fedallah, who furtively witnesses Ahab’s reckless rejection of the sun as a navigational tool, but is also grinning from ear to ear.
When Starbuck asks permission to break out the hold because some casks of train appear to be leaking, the impatient Ahab gets so outraged over this possible holdup (merely out of commercial necessity) that he seizes a musket, seen at the top of the etching, and points it at his chief mate.
When the corposant, or St. Elmo’s fire, tips the mastheads with a pallid blue fire during an electrical storm, a hysterically heroic Ahab challenges the lightning by grabbing one of the rods that has to conduct the electrical discharge into the water after lightning has struck the masts. It is almost as if he wants to defy the lightning, and tries to cauterize his undauntedness and will power into an even harder steel. At the climax of the storm, a flame of pale, forked fire arises from the steel barb of Ahab’s special harpoon for Moby Dick, which is represented vertically in the middle of the image. Quite an omen, but, not in the least intimidated, Ahab extinguishes the ghostly flame with one blast of his breath.