Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What is on my mind ...

... think about it, ye who admire Melville (as I do):

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event --in the living act, the undoubted deed --there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines. Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends' glarings is a doltish stare! So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go.


  1. Is this passage from Moby Dick? If it is, I'm really surprised to see 'task' used as a verb, as I'd thought it was a recent innovation.

  2. From the OED:

    task, v.

    [. . .]

    3. transf. and fig.

    a. To occupy or engage fully or burdensomely; to subject to severe burden, labour, or trial; to put a strain upon; to put in a condition of stress or difficulty; to put to the proof; = tax v. 4.

    a1616 Shakespeare Merry Wives of Windsor (1623) iv. vi. 29 Doctor Caius‥Shall shuffle her away, While other sports are tasking of their mindes.

    a1616 Shakespeare Henry V (1623) i. ii. 6 Some things of weight, That taske our thoughts.

    1741 S. Richardson Pamela IV. x. 61 You must not task me too high.

    1840 W. Irving Oliver Goldsmith I. 14 He tasked his slender means to the utmost in educating him.

    1872 J. Yeats Growth Commerce 115 It tasked his diplomatic skill to effect his departure in safety.

    b. spec. To test the soundness of (a ship's timbers, a plank, etc.).

    1803 Naval Chron. 10 259 That‥frigate is‥to be, what is called in the language of the dock yard, tasked, to see if her timbers are sound.

    1867 W. H. Smyth Sailor's Word-bk., Tasking, examining a vessel to see whether her timbers are sound.

    [. . .]

  3. Of course it's from "The Whale," from a later chapter in which Starbuck confronts Ahab about his obsession. This is Ahab's speech in reply. I don't remember the number of the chapter, but I remember the scene well.

    And in some ways this speech is the parallel to, and echo of, the preacher's sermon at the beginning of the book. The morality is reversed, but the intensity is the same. (Which was part of Melville's genius, of course—all those echoes.)

  4. Where would I be without Dave?
    To zmkc: I like "heaps" as a verb, too.

  5. Thanks, Dave. As must be apparent, I have not yet read Moby Dick - only Bartleby the Scrivener, which I loved.
    I like 'heaps' heaps, Frank, she said heaping praise on a slightly neglected verb.