This is a reading of the classic American novel Moby-Dick, as interpreted by Jack Pendarvis. To embark at the beginning, please click here.
I was in the doctor’s office. The doctor came in. I have a funny doctor. He said, “Do you want me to freeze this thing off?” Talking about an unattractive, uh, growth on my… unattractive body. And I said, “Will it hurt?” And he said, “No, not me.” That’s the kind of thing he says. Made me laugh.
And freezing things off is a good way to get into this chapter, because it’s all about the freezing, blank, icy, snowy whiteness that terrifies Ishmael.
Ishmael says, “You know why Ahab wants to… kill Moby Dick, but why—why, why did Moby Dick upset me so much? Ishmael?” [Laughter.]
The answer is because he’s afraid of the color white. I’ll just put it to you that bluntly. I’ve only had a piece of bread to eat today. [Laughter.] That’s me talking, not Ishmael.
So, I’m not sure I’m up for a good discussion of this very complicated chapter that I read in the doctor’s office.
After looking at a People magazine article about the marriage of Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard. [Throat clearing.] I’d like to mention that I saw both of them at a party! In, uhm… when was that?
[Throat noise. Chair creaking. Laughter.]
That was a really, th—I had to work really, uhm… hard to get that bit of name-dracking…
[Short, rueful laugh.]
See? I told you I’ve only eaten a piece of bread. I had to work really hard to get that piece of namedropping into a discussion of [stifled laugh] Moby-Dick. [Laughter.]
So. “Oh, white scares me! I know a lot of people like it, but… and it’s attached to purity and ceremony of various sorts down through history, but… when you think of it, it’s really scary! What’s the scariest kind of bear? A polar bear. What’s the scariest kind of fish? A shark. I rest my case.” [Laughter.] “Both fearful for their…”
And this is a quote: “their smooth, flaky whiteness.” Which doesn’t sound scary when you say it that way, to me. It sounds like an advertisement for tuna.
Hey, there’s a giant… oh, that’s a sweet dog in our yard. I’ve seen that dog before.
Hey, I’m talking into my recorder, sorry.
[Indistinct answer from Theresa from down the hall. Laughter from Pendarvis in response.]
Oh, good! I’m glad you didn’t think I was just… although it could be. Maybe I don’t have a recorder.
What was I…? I was—I don’t know if I finished my sentence, but I was saying that “smooth, flaky whiteness,” which is [short burst of laughter] a quality that Ishmael ascribes to both polar bears and sharks, is something you’d see on a tuna can, maybe. As an enticement! Anyway, he says, in a footnote… rrrrr… really reminiscent of David Foster Wallace, although, of course, it would be oth—the other way around. And I believe it’s the first footnote that I remember in the text. But it’s a lengthy… David-Foster-Wallace-style footnote about “So you might disagree with me about polar bears. Maybe you think polar bears are scary because their fleecy, snowy, fluffy, cuddly whiteness is in contrast with their big… scary teeth and… disgruntled attitudes. Well, I’d say to you, white is still what makes it scary, then. Checkmate! Signed, Ishmael.”
[Rattling sigh that ends in a kind of hum.]
He uses a phrase that sort of haunted me to describe whiteness. Uhm… “dumb blankness, full of meaning. Dumb blankness… full of meaning.” That’s… that is scary! And what does it describe? I think… and I also have to say… maybe this is tied into it.
Ishmael says, “Okay, Ahab’s afraid of Moby Dick…”
No, no! Let me rephrase that. All I’ve eaten today was a piece of bread.
Ahab hates Moby Dick because he took his leg. Ishmael hates Moby Dick because he’s scared of the color white? Or the idea behind the color white? Here’s a problem, Ishmael! You’re really in your head. And his… obsession as a character with, uhm, cataloguing… with trying to… grapple with things… through… meticulous cataloguing! That’s the way he deals with his… that’s too intellectual. Or too… it seems like a way to avoid your problem. And to me, when Ishmael talks about… “dumb blankness, full of meaning,” that’s a description of his own… way of coping with things. The whiteness…! I don’t mean to be too dramatic. But he’s afraid of himself! That—that’s what the whiteness is.
[Extremely long pause.]
I paused to contemplate whether, or exactly… how much crap I’m full of.
[Another long pause precedes the termination of this recording.]
[Having just read Chapter Forty-Three of Moby-Dick, Pendarvis attempts to recreate it.]
Okay, two guys with water buckets, trying to work very quietly. It’s the middle of the night. Not even their feet are rustling. On the deck. But one turns to the other and whispers, “Hey, did you hear something?”
And his friend says, “No, and I don’t believe your crap about your great hearing. Stop talkin’ about how great your hearing is. I’m—I’ve had it up to here with your… constant… what a weird thing to brag about!”
Although—and this is me interjecting—I’ve bragged about my great sense of smell before.
“Well, uh, no, I’m not kidding! I heard… the sound of a… I heard the sound of somebody rollin’ over in their sleep! You know. And, moreover, let me lay this on you! If that isn’t incredible enough. Uh… I he—I—I—the rumor h—rumor has it that there’s somebody onboard that we haven’t seen! Like, somebody just stashed away. Some secret… you know… a, what…? Who or what can it be? Whatever! Whoever it is, they just… farted.”
I’m sorry I said “farted.” That was my own addition.
I’m gonna start over.
No I’m not.
[Recorder is turned off.]
Chapter… Forty-Four… Ahab’s wrinkled brow… You know who else has a wrinkled brow? Moby Dick.
Moby Dick’s wrinkled brow.
I was gonna say a whole sentence, but then I just… liked the sound of that.
Both Ahab’s and Moby Dick’s wrinkled… browwww… brows?
The wrinkled brows of both Ahab and Moby Dick are… mentioned in Chapter Forty-Four. Wrinkled brow! Wrinkled brow!
Ahab, stooped over his—hunched over his whaling charts, making lines with pencils… yes! Like the lines in his wrinkled brow.
And believe or not, he’s obsessed… with finding Moby Dick.
Anchors aweigh! Let’s sail with Jack into the next chapter.
Jack Pendarvis is a writer who lives in Oxford, Mississippi. In this weekly transcription, we join him as he reads Moby-Dick.
Please follow the original text of Moby-Dick here, if you like (highly recommended).