Chapter 87 – The Grand Armada

This passage struck me. Ishmael and the harpooning crews have unexpectedly been pulled into the middle of an enormous pod of sperm whales, the “Grand Armada,” where, utterly surrounded and one flick of a fluke from death, Ishmael marvels at the playful newborn calves nudging his boat, and revelates:  

…thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

What a moment. Ishmael and his crew, the hunters, are suddenly a part of an enormous, deistic, revolving clockwork of whales — their fates, their powers, their deadly potential is instantaneously nullified in this moment of concentric calm. It is a moment of pause in which one’s miniscule position in the universe is made smoothly, silently, terrifyingly clear. It is a moment of universal judgment, when one realizes his fate is entirely out of his own hands. And here, the serene pause of judgment:

…we glided between two whales into the innermost heart of the shoal, as if from some mountain torrent we had slid into a serene valley lake. Here the storms in the roaring glens between the outermost whales, were heard but not felt. In this central expanse the sea presented that smooth satin-like surface, called a sleek, produced by the subtle moisture thrown off by the whale in his more quiet moods. Yes, we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion.

Yet Ishmael has no real fear of death. In an sense, he has already died — a suicide — at page one, when he commits himself to the sea. This, I suppose, explains his extraordinary, revelatory calm in the face of overwhelming danger. Like a samurai, Ishmael has already accepted death, and is therefore able to truly enjoy life, not by clinging to it, but by knowing it is already gone. And so he considers the metaphysical implications of his situation, the idea of a universal calm before the storm, the smooth, serene, calmness that is often the greatest virtue of a magnanimous hero in the face of emergency, and simultaneously the most disturbing and unnerving quality of the sociopath, who, with the same degree of clarity, enacts some gruesome evil. Thankfully, our narrator is Ishmael. He’s the magnanimous type (we can look to Ahab for the other sort), whose ruminations recall my favorite lines from Candide:

“What is that–optimism?”
“Why, it is the mania of maintaining that all is well,
even when you are feeling bad.”


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