Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ishmael's codpiece

".... nowadays our sex carries the purse."
"Ha, ha!" -- Mardi: and A Voyage Thither
Man these hoes couldn't ball with a testicle... Nicki Minaj, The Boys
It is important, however, that our balls be covered with leather, good & tough, that will stand banging & all "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." 
-- Herman Melville, August 24, 1851 letter to Samuel H. Savage; quoted on Fragments from a Writing Desk
Now, I consider that the phrenologists have omitted an important thing in not pushing their investigations from the cerebellum through the spinal canal. For I believe that much of a man's character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul. I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world. -- Moby-Dick, chapter 80 The Nut
"Firm audacious staff"? That's what she said! 

This being Moby-Dick and all, with so much ado about a sperm whale, you can't miss the phallic suggestiveness of "firm audacious staff." But what to make of Ishmael's figurative flag and its "half out" exposure? Harrison Hayford's long puzzlement lingers in a footnote to the Norton Critical Edition:
The Melvilles took good posture seriously, and even in his last years observers commented on Melville’s erect strides, but “half out” has not been satisfactorily explicated and may not be just what he wrote.
The puzzlement (if not the footnote) I attribute to Hayford only after stealing a glimpse of his communication to Stanton Garner, the part frankly requesting Garner's help on this very point:
"I’ve always been bothered by ‘half out’—what does that mean? As a flag expert… what do you make of it? Is some flag usage or jargon involved? Why not, as with Tashtego in Ch. 135: ‘the red flag… streamed itself straight out from him’? (And similar passages elsewhere.)”
--as quoted by George Cotkin in Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick, p123
How Garner replied I don't know.

In the highly edifying and adventurous book Whipscars and Tattoos, Geoffrey Sanborn makes a brave case for Ishmael's beard as the flag he flings "half out to the world." Sanborn's beard-solution is super tempting in light of the "rebel beards" in White-Jacket that Melville depicts "streaming like a Commodore's bougee." That is, like a flag, the broad pennant of a flag-ship. As Sanborn points out, Melville's hero Jack Chase treats the captain's order to shave all beards in terms of surrender: "striking the flag that Nature herself has nailed to the mast." Melville's narrator swears to the cruelty of the enforced shaving "by this brown beard which now waves from my chin." -- White-Jacket

Still, why "half out"?

Half-out in this reading means at a 45-degree angle. Sanborn elaborates:
Despite being only half out, at a forty-five rather than a ninety degree angle, his beard is an outflung challenge to the world, a flag that will not be hauled down; like the "streaming beard" of the executed John Brown in "The Portent," it is a declaration of war. -- Whipscars and Tattoos p126
For some reason "half out" remains bothersome. For one thing, if Ishmael is that proud of his beard he ought to have mentioned it before. Even eagle-eyed readers like us need a clue now and then. Why so coy all of a sudden, after unrestrained eloquence on the same theme in White-Jacket? Then, too, your beard is pretty much all out there, for better or worse, at all sorts of angles. Not half-out, all out--pretty much by definition. And we're on The Pequod not The Neversink, so nobody is trying to haul down anybody's beard, flag, or any banner of masculinity. Thus we're stuck with the incongruity of "half-out" as a sad half-measure, only a fractional challenge to the world, after all.

Context! We need more context!  Most immediately, in this chapter Ishmael has been anatomizing the whale's head and spine. The spine discussion developed from consideration of phrenology, the science of reading cranial bumps. In a multidisciplinary mood, alluding to Goethe in an echo of Emerson, Ishmael urges a new kind of phrenology applied to the spine:
“For I believe that much of a man’s character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul. I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.”
Literally, Ishmael discourses of spines and skulls. Metaphorically, the flagstaff of the spine holds up, what? Just about everything, the whole physical body. In this view the body or at least torso is the flag held up by the spine. Or, more particularly, say the head and chest, since we're looking for flags, things that stick out. Spine holds up head or skull, and also the ribcage (seat of chest/heart). Therefore also the SOUL, by Ishmael's imaginative extension from the natural and physiological facts to moral and spiritual reality. This conceit is a classical and medieval commonplace, body and soul strangely often antagonistically coexisting, as philosophically explored in Mardi.

Ishmael said it, "a full and noble soul" requires backbone.  Let's notice that, and appreciate the nifty transition from material to ideal, from profane to sacred. But as so often with Melville, the move is a set up that disappoints, humorously. The next sentence offers Ishmael's personal application of the previous statement about the relation of spine to head or soul. Because he grandly overplayed head into soul into "full and noble soul," we expect the personal application to develop from Ishmael's own upright spine to Ishmael's own virtuously upright soul.

Ishmael rejoices. That's how religious people talk. "Rejoice" keeps up the promise of piety after "full and noble soul." So after "rejoice" we expect a neat parallel to "full and noble soul" in the previous sentence. Instead, however, we get Ishmael's firm staff and flung flag.

Bathos, sort of. The result may not be entirely ridiculous, but the descent from lofty is palpable.

As the primary flag I'm staying with body, most particularly the proud chest and head. Half-out to the world, all-out to nobody but heart and brain surgeons. But there's another level, obviously. Melville's sexually suggestive adjectives "stiff" and "audacious" tease even monkish readers like me into contemplating two heads, the big and little heads of so much popular wisdom and comedy.

Speaking of monks and humor, some of those Old English riddles likewise work on different levels. Two tracks, as my truly great teacher and friend, the late and deeply missed Dr. James Anderson wrote:
"Some riddles, notably the obscene ones, are conceived as double-tracked metaphors, with a true and a false spur for simultaneous trains of analytical thought. Thus obscene riddles lead to an innocent solution and to entrapment in an obscenity at the same time." -- Two Literary Riddles in the Exeter Book
I love to remember translating from Old English in Jim's seminar--how he said with majestic simplicity at the beginning of class, midway through: "We're deep into Beowulf...and there's no turning back!"

On the lower level of Melville's little riddle, the obscene track, something's missing. Context, please: where are we exactly? Chapter 80, The Nut.

Bollocks! Mesmerized by the tiny nut as the whale' tiny brain, and by the hard nut as an emblem of universal inscrutability, in Samuel Otter's words, "a nut that cannot be cracked" (Melville's Anatomies), we forgot the spermy heaps in the whale's head. What to do with this big head and little nut of a chapter?

Quick, somebody get me a codpiece. Say what?
codpiece, noun: A bagged appendage to the front of the close-fitting hose or breeches worn by men from the 15th to the 17th c.: often conspicuous and ornamented. (OED)
... from Old English codd "a bag, pouch, husk," in Middle English, "testicles" (cognate with Old Norse koddi "pillow, scrotum") + piece (n.). --Online Etymology Dictionary
codpiece: an ostentatiously indelicate part of the male dress, which was put to several uses,—to stick pins in, to carry the purse in, etc.... (Alexander Dyce)
Hold up, I'm not trying to argue that veteran whalers like Ishmael actually and necessarily wore Renaissance Festival costumes. I don't suppose they have any old sailor codpieces in the collections of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

But here's the thing. You only need the chapter title. Codpiece is implied already in The Nut. Shakespeare and Rabelais, two big and bawdy influences on Melville, famously excel at codpiece jokes. (Sterne and Cervantes might have one or two as well, not to mention Shakespeare's forerunners and rivals, but on this subject Rabelais rules.) For example, the young Gargantua's governesses had great fun adorning his codpiece every day. In the most pertinent illustration from Rabelais, Panurge learnedly explains what the hard nut naturally and organically is: the nut protectively harnesses "sperm and semence." In other words, if the apple be nature's toothbrush, the nut is nature's codpiece. From the third book of Gargantua and Pantagruel:
.... Behold how nature, having a fervent desire, after its production of plants, trees, shrubs, herbs, sponges, and plant-animals, to eternize and continue them unto all succession of ages (in their several kinds or sorts, at least, although the individuals perish) unruinable, and in an everlasting being, hath most curiously armed and fenced their buds, sprouts, shoots, and seeds, wherein the above-mentioned perpetuity consisteth, by strengthening, covering, guarding, and fortifying them with an admirable industry, with husks, cases, scurfs and swads, hulls, cods, stones, films, cartels, shells, ears, rinds, barks, skins, ridges, and prickles, which serve them instead of strong, fair, and natural codpieces. As is manifestly apparent in pease, beans, fasels, pomegranates, peaches, cottons, gourds, pumpions, melons, corn, lemons, almonds, walnuts, filberts, and chestnuts; as likewise in all plants, slips, or sets whatsoever, wherein it is plainly and evidently seen, that the sperm and semence is more closely veiled, overshadowed, corroborated, and thoroughly harnessed, than any other part, portion, or parcel of the whole. -- Gargantua and Pantagruel 3.8
The passage above is from the chapter titled

Panurge goes for the gaudy, especially commending "a brave and gallant codpiece" such as the fig leaf described in Genesis, or in modern times:
"... the stately fashion of the high and lofty codpiece; as is manifest by the noble Valentine Viardiere, whom I found at Nancy, on the first day of May — the more flauntingly to gallantrize it afterwards — rubbing his ballocks, spread out upon a table after the manner of a Spanish cloak. Wherefore it is, that none should henceforth say, who would not speak improperly, when any country bumpkin hieth to the wars, Have a care, my roister, of the wine-pot, that is, the skull, but, Have a care, my roister, of the milk-pot, that is, the testicles. By the whole rabble of the horned fiends of hell, the head being cut off, that single person only thereby dieth. But, if the ballocks be marred, the whole race of human kind would forthwith perish, and be lost for ever.
-- Gargantua and Pantagruel
Rabelais! Who remembers now how much of Ishmael on The Whiteness of the Whale is plagiarized from Gargantua chapter 10, Of That Which is Signified by the Colours White and Blue? Whitney Hastings Wells crams the details all in one page:
Wells, Whitney Hastings. “Moby Dick and Rabelais.” Modern Language Notes 38, no. 2 (1923): 123–123.

Thankfully, Caleb Crain remembers how Howard P. Vincent thought "The Cassock" chapter "came from memory or from an imagination profoundly Rabelaisian.” -- Did Melville invent sperm-squeezing?

If Melville's Cassock is so Rabelaisian, and it is (Crain agrees), why not his Nut? As a paradoxically ostentatious yet protective covering for male genitals, the codpiece solves the essential dilemma of Ishmael's figurative flag which is audaciously presented "half out to the world."
"... they were designed, along with doublets with massive chests and coats with wide shoulders, to enhance and exaggerate the masculine attributes of the wearer, to ‘disclose’ rather than conceal or contain, the ‘sex they are’.... the codpiece served as an emblem for manhood, the part standing for the whole.... even after its demise, it retained its metaphorical associations with masculine essence." 
--codpiece facts at
For those who scorn anachronism, drop the codpiece and what do you have left? Nature's codpiece. Admit the anachronism, and codpiece beautifully suits the Renaissance trappings we encounter elsewhere in Moby-Dick: echoes of King Lear and other "Shakespearean Resonances" such as Sanford E. Marovitz critically surveys in his contribution to the 2001 volume of conference papers titled Melville among the Nations (267-76).

If Ishmael never actually wore one, perhaps his fancy Lima friends in the Town-Ho chapter, "those fine cavaliers, the young Dons, Pedro and Sebastian" did.

So then, which is the fittingest emblem of masculinity, beard or codpiece?  Some say both...,2833,311654,00.html

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