Circumnavigating the World

(chapters 103–119), etching

Measurement of the whale

The skeleton to the left refers to chapter 103, Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton. Underneath, the same goes for a photograph of a sperm whale foetus with a gauntlet for measurement next to it.


After his ivory leg received a half-splintering shock and a twist, Ahab does not deem it entirely reliable and orders the carpenter to make a new leg from the jaw-ivory of a sperm whale, as seen to the right of the etching. When Ahab tells the carpenter about the phantom pain in his lost leg, he challenges him: ‘How dost thou know that some entire, living, thinking thing may not be invisibly and uninterpenetratingly standing precisely where thou now standest; aye, and standing there in spite? Hah!’ Reuvers has transcribed this exclamation – HaHa! in the Dutch translation – in red Hebrew letters in the middle of the etching. Melville has concealed so much symbolism in his book that every word, every full stop, or every comma has been meticulously examined by exegetes for a hidden meaning. In some cases, this has taken on ridiculous proportions. On account of Ahab’s ‘Hah!’, for example, Viola Sachs researched the pattern of the H’s and A’s in the book. According to her, ‘Hah’ takes away the difference between ‘Ha’ and ‘Ah’, with which Melville wants to express that there is no fundamental difference between happiness (Ha!) and anguish (Ah!). After endless juggling with the numerical value of the eight letter and unfathomable cabbalistic additions, she finally comes up with the number 666, the number of the beast. In psychiatrics, this is usually considered as a guide fossil to religious mania. Stubbs called out for good reason: ‘Book! you lie there; the fact is you books must know your places.’ The preliminary sketches of this etching, which Reuvers showed me, were covered with compositions of dozens of capitalized Hah!’s, as if he was laughing the viewer in the face. Much more seriously than I perceived, however, Reuvers felt that he was being laughed at by his own work.

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.