. . . in August 2022, back from my beach holiday, I gave this report to the denizens of the Glue Factory, a weekly online salon organised by the writer David Collard. The audience rubbed in their sun cream as they listened to some riffs on Ahab, surf guitar, and the labyrinth of the ear . . .
was thinking about the demise of Captain Ahab, on the third day of the chase, in Herman Melville’s 1851 Moby-Dick. (I’m often thinking about Moby-Dick.) It happens, Ahab’s death, in surprising silence, for one who’s so given to ranting and roaring.
Ahab’s in one of the boats, off the Pequod, harpoon in his grip, still chasing the whale though everything’s sinking all around him. As Ishmael describes it:
The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove; —ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.
The “tranced” crew with him in the boat look on in amazement before being sucked down by a vortex and all drowned, in turn.
I was interested in this simile that Melville uses: “voicelessly as Turkish mutes.” The adverb is a little vague: technically it applies to Ahab as passive victim: “voicelessly he was shot out of the boat” – he has no time to even cry out as the suddenly taut rope catches his neck (like Isadora Duncan) and pulls him out. But in sentence structure it’s also comparing him to the killer, likening Ahab to the mute Turkish assassin who says nothing as he wields his rope and garottes his (also silent?) victim. Ahab is both killer and killed, which is fitting for a whaler who dies getting the whale. But either way, he’s (finally) silent.
Ahab’s last declamation just before this is shouting at the whale, which he does while using another interesting metaphor: he compares his life and himself to the waves of the sea. He shouts:
‘Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale!'
I am the sea, says Ahab in his last gasp. I’m the billows, the combers, I am the wave. He’s becoming one, first in his language, then straightaway in his material location, with the waves. So my proposition is that Ahab is a surfer. This is, after all, what’s required or aimed for in surfing: oneness with, though a certain detachment from, the wave.
Staying within this category of surfers, I was looking, a couple of years ago, at the obituaries of Dick Dale. That’s full-name Richard Anthony Monsour, guitarist, born 4th May 1937, died 16th March 2019. American guitar player, very popular, successful and rich enough in his prime to buy a mansion and populate it with pet tigers.
Dick Dale didn’t like to tour; he’d play local clubs in California, or, before the release of his Surfer’s Choice album in 1962, you’d have to tune in, on the radio, if you wanted to hear him.
He was given the epithet of “the King of Surf Guitar,” with surf guitar, surf music (for the benefit of any high court judges in the audience) being a genre of rock’n’roll music, popular in the sixties. What is this exactly?
The Encyclopedia of Surfing (a foundational text by Matt Warshaw, 2003, also permanently updating at https://eos.surf ) describes surf music as a “pulsating, reverb-heavy, “wet”-sounding instrumental form,” with “a hammering guitar-pick attack on a single string while sliding the fret hand high to low.”
When Dick Dale himself is asked, by The Surfer magazine in 2010, what he thinks surf music is, he answers:
A: Well, what it is, is the meaning of the sounds of the waves—like the echo and the sounds of the tube when my finger would be in the wall and I could hear it go, “Chhhhhhhhhhh!” And I'd take my strings and go, “Weeeeeeer!” And then you get that rumble just before you're going to be flung over—you know—right before you're going to go over the fucking falls and get slammed down. That rumbling and all that stuff like that they associated the heavy Dick Dale staccato picking tk-tk-tk-tk-tkt on those strings—it sounded like the barrel of a goddamn wave.
This is, clearly, someone who in his life’s work identifies very strongly with his passion for surfing. He’s talking about the sensation of balancing on your surfboard, being inside the curve of the wave, where you can stretch out a hand and touch the inside of wall of water as you go past. He says in the same interview one other comment about the wateriness of his life that I found quite moving as well: talking about enduring health problems, he explains,
“Alright, I smoked cigarettes, and then I quit smoking when I couldn't talk properly anymore and my lungs filled up and they sounded like a fucking ocean.”
He has the sea around him in his music, he surfs in it frequently, and it also fills up his very lungs and his hearing. He’s in it; it’s in him.
One of the reasons Dick Dale was famous in the music world, and is often credited as the father of heavy metal, is that he played so loudly. He’d turn the amps up to eleven and burst them even then. Leo Fender, the eponymous owner of the electric guitar company, collaborated with Dale to design ever-more powerful amplifiers. “When it [an amplifier] can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale, then it is fit for human consumption,” said Fender, approvingly.
I like that Dale just glides along the line that separates excessive noise from silence. He's got his rumble, his “weeer” and his “tk-tk-tk-tk,” in front of the roaring crowds, he’s turning it up and the noise is all around him, then there’s the pop of a valve, a fuse bursts, there’s a sudden roaring silence all over the stage where the music was meant to be. And Dale’s right here at the interface, just keeping control over, this division between extremes, the loud from the no-noise.
It’s a crashing between extremes that you notice also in the description of shark attacks on people. Just browsing my shark book library, here’s, for example, Sanford Moss in Sharks: an Introduction for the Amateur Naturalist (1984). He says:
Rodney Fox never saw the great white that savaged him off Aldinga Beach in 1963 until he felt the cruel teeth lacerating his flesh. He was conscious only of a sudden stillness in the water around him, ‘… a silence, a perceptible hush’. Diver Henri Bource, too, experienced the same eerie silence of a sea suddenly empty of the seals and fish that moments before he had been photographing.
If it all falls quiet, that is the moment to worry.
Thinking back to Ahab in the water, it was ambiguous as to whether he’s the silent protagonist or the astonished victim. Or both, killer and killed, in a bubble of silence. Similarly looking at an issue from both sides, for fairness, I wondered how the shark attack appears to the shark. Everything might, in the preceding moment, go very quiet for the victim, but what does the shark hear?
Back to my shark library, (to Rodney Steel, Sharks of the World, of 1985), who explains in detail about the ear of the shark, but who disclaims that “Precisely what sharks can hear is unknown;” apparently they lack the sophisticated cochlear mechanisms that allow for “verbal communication and the composition of music.” Sharks can’t do this. But they do retain an inner ear system consisting of chambers and canals – it sounds like Venice – chambers and canals lined in places with delicate hairs. These hairs are rooted in cells which register motion, and translate it into electrical signal that are then sent to the brain. Like the stylus on a record player, a thin strand that picks up good vibrations from the vinyl.
At the opposite end from the roots, the hairs in the shark’s ear have their top ends stuck into what Steel rather nicely calls “a calcified otolith” which is, “a rather crumbly, amorphous mass of crystals.” (From the ancient Greek, otolith means “ear-stone.”)
Moss, the other shark biologist, in contrast, states that “the shark otolith has the consistency of thick cream.” They might both be right, with crystal and cream; sharks differ enormously by species and age. In any case, the otolith shifts about as the shark moves, but with a degree of inertia. So the hairs measure the delay between the movement as it's perceived in the hair follicle, and the slightly lagging movement in the otolith, at the other end of the hair. By registering these small differences, the shark is able to calculate its speed, acceleration, position, balance.
This otolith – on the hair in the chamber in the ear in the shark – is formed of calcium carbonate, a mineral that’s found, variously, as far away as Mars; here, in foods like broccoli; geologically, in chalk and limestone. I found this curious, a mineral substance in the heart of the shark’s auditory system, which is really its balance and movement (or, surfing) system. It caught my attention because there’s another set-up with a chunk of mineral at the centre of the labyrinth, and that’s the crystal radio set.
This is, old-fashioned radio, what was used by Marconi and co. until its replacement in the 1920s by the tube receiver (that’s vacuum tube, not big wave tube). A crystal radio set contains: an antenna, a resonant circuit, a detector, and an earphone: unlike Dick Dale, it’s got no amplifying components. At the centre of the set-up is the demodulator, which is a small blob of crystal and a short length of metal wire.
You set up your radio by adjusting the relative positions of these, finding the fine line to receive your signal not noise. I mentioned earlier how Dale seems to surf the interface between excessive noise and silence, a metaphor of motion. I like how with the radio we have “static,” the noise of not moving, just fuzzy.
For these components, the wire in a crystal radio was usually phosphor bronze; the crystal itself was most often made of galena, which is lead sulfide. Now I’ll detour into etymology.
Galena is the substance in the radio set. The name derives from the ancient Greek galene, which is, “the stillness of the sea; a calm.” Its meanings are, first, maritime, and then, metaphorically, referring to mental calm, serenity. It's just through chance (and lexicography) that this galene lands in my ears, spirals through my cochlea and washes up in my language field, right next to galeos, which is the ancient Greek for “shark.” And which gives us galeus, which is a genus of shark: the saw-tailed catshark.
I like this adjacency, the way that a galeos or shark, oriented and balanced by the calcified mineral in its ear, this galeos swims, linguistically and functionally, alongside the radio, with the galena at its centre.
It’s like the shark is an autonomous, mobile receiver, ploughing around all over the ocean, with its receiving set-up there in the ear, just tuned in to the right frequencies. It’s hitting the longitudes, appreciating the waves, or sometimes just the galene, the stillness. And everyone – sharks, radio enthusiasts, us – everyone is listening carefully. Waiting for Dick Dale to start with the thrumming and TKTKTK. Waiting for the silence, the noise, the silence.
I’ll go quiet now.
Melissa McCarthy’s Sharks, Death, Surfers: An Illustrated Companion was published by Sternberg in 2019. Her next book, Photo, Phyto, Proto, Nitro, comes out with Sagging Meniscus in the autumn of 2023. In the meantime, other pieces from Full Stop magazine, Public Domain Review, The Yellow Paper, and more; and her two radio series—Melissa McCarthy’s View from a Shark and The Slipping Forecast—can be found at http://sharksillustrated.org. She lives in Edinburgh.