Now that Ishmael has properly begun his fateful voyage, this book will freely shift between narrative and non-narrative sections with no transition necessary. Ishmael doesn’t need an excuse to go off on a tangent at sea, there’s plenty of free time to sit around and think his thoughts.
This is the first chapter where we’re not following the narrative at all. This isn’t inspired by something in the last chapter. It’s not an anecdote connected to some incident that we get a glimpse of. It is purely Old Ishmael rambling about something. The narrative chain has been broken. The next time we pick it up, it may be hours after the Pequod left port, or months. We have no way of knowing.
SUMMARY: Ishmael advocates for the respectability of whaling as a profession, and whalers as a class.
Ishmael has decided to break up this traditional narrative structure with something clearly very important: A persuasive essay about how whalers are cool, actually, and everyone should respect them more.
While on the surface, this sounds like one of the more boring subjects for a chapter, it’s actually one of the funnier ones in practice. Our old whaler pal gets so worked up about people not respecting whalers. He goes point by point like an old high school essay and counters each one, getting angrier every time. My favorite is the one about whaling having no good authors:
The whale has no famous author, and whaling no famous chronicler, you will say.
The whale no famous author, and whaling no famous chronicler? Who wrote the first account of our Leviathan? Who but mighty Job! And who composed the first narrative of a whaling-voyage? Who, but no less a prince than Alfred the Great, who, with his own royal pen, took down the words from Other, the Norwegian whale-hunter of those times! And who pronounced our glowing eulogy in Parliament? Who, but Edmund Burke!
But that’s from the end, where he’s going rapid-fire through some minor quibbles. The main thrusts of his argument are thus:
- Whalers are no worse butchers than the average soldier, and they are accorded all sorts of honor and respect by society.
- Whaling makes a lot of money.
- Whalers have explored the furthest reaches of the globe and made important inroads in previously uncontacted nations.
To me, this chapter is key in establishing the character of Old Ishmael, the fictional author of this book. His fierce defense of the whaling business, despite having just had a pretty rough start at it, shows that this isn’t being written immediately after the events of the book, or even just a few years later.
This is being written after Ishmael has thrown his whole life into whaling, after he has decided to become that which the industry lacks: a scholar, a chronicler, a defender. Someone to jump through the hoops that society puts up to get it the accolades that he believes it truly deserves.
And this isn’t borne from just a single experience, but from a lifetime obsession. Old Ishmael has been in the whaling business for years and years, and is now deciding to set down all his knowledge in the form of a telling of his first voyage. So, this chapter that goes off on a wild tangent right out of the gate is, in fact, part of the actual main project of the book: to educate the sort of people who read books about whaling.
After all, if you want to get some respect, you have to target respectable people. This is written as a direct appeal to the reader because it is one. Taking them off to the side and saying “hey, I know you’ve heard some things about whalers, but let me set you straight.” Which is kind of funny when I noted how he made a big show of talking about all the savages and cannibals that you see in whaling towns like New Bedford earlier. I suppose it all goes towards inflating the sense of Adventure and capital-r Romance in whaling.
No more! Drive down your hat in presence of the Czar, and take it off to Queequeg! No more! I know a man that, in his lifetime, has taken three hundred and fifty whales. I account that man more honorable than that great captain of antiquity who boasted of taking as many walled towns.
You can practically hear Ishmael’s fist pounding the table as he passionately makes his argument in these paragraphs. I have read, in my day, some extraordinarily dry tomes from the 1800s, and this is not that, let me tell you. This is a plea with real passion behind it, being delivered in a genuinely entertaining way. In a similar way, I myself will go to bat for the non-narrative chapters of Moby Dick.
Why, I’ve heard it argued that you can simply skip over them, and only read a rip-roaring whaling tale if you should find the book a bit dusty and over-long. My friends, if you do that you are denying yourself the heart and soul of this book! You are depriving yourself of some real fun, some real joy, and just a bit of education. If you skip the non-narrative chapter, you miss out on all the characterization of Old Ishmael, and how are you to interpret his interpretations of Ahab and the other mates if you don’t have this important context? I ask you!
There was something interesting in Ishmael’s argument about the military. Why is it that soldiers are given such a place of honor in society, when their job is so horrible on its face? Sure, sure, you can trot out old arguments about them being protectors and whatnot, but that is only very rarely the actual truth, for very long.
The answer is very simple and direct: you give them respect because they’re the ones with the weapons. You want to keep them happy, keep them bound by their reason in some sort of system of honor and respectability. Otherwise, you get more violence. You get coups. You get horrific massacres. Especially with modern weaponry, but even back in Melville’s time. A military run amok can utterly destroy a population many times its size.
Look at the history of coups and horrific conflict in Central and South America! Look at Napoleon firing on the mob! Caesar crossing the Rubicon, to return to Rome with his army intact, to challenge the authority of its rulers and its people! Humanity has tipped the scales of the few against the many, with the weapons that we have made. So, let the plaudits and medals flow, heap them high with honors, that they might not turn their wrath upon us.
This is not to say that a modern military is all-powerful, of course. One need only look at a single one of the disastrous wars that the United States has been involved with in the last 50 years to see that a small, dedicated resistance can win against a larger, more well-funded aggressor. But winning in the end does not prevent tremendous suffering in the near future. Vietnam was no land of milk and honey by the time the US was done with it, I don’t have to tell you.
what disordered slippery decks of a whale-ship are comparable to the unspeakable carrion of those battle-fields from which so many soldiers return to drink in all ladies’ plaudits?
Still, Ishmael has a point, especially since whaling is producing something quite useful in the end: whale oil. We’ll get deep, deep into the specific properties and uses of this particular substance later on, but for now know that it is a great source of light that burns cleanly. In the pre-electric days, that was a mighty valuable thing, especially in northern climes.
Respect is a funny thing, in society at large. It must be taught, it can be earned, and it is demanded to be given. Where is the line between respect begrudgingly granted and that which is truly earned through merit? Is there even any distinction there? Despite his arguments here, I think that Ishmael wants to engender a respect in the reader of this book by describing whaling as it is practiced. He puts these forth merely to set the stage.
It is rather unusual to see a book put forth its thesis so directly, though. This was still the early days of novel-writing, authors were still experimenting with form. Moby Dick is highly acclaimed in part for its willingness to try some strange new formats, all jumbled together. That all goes back to Ishmael’s obsession with encompassing the whole entire business of whales and whaling in a single volume.
How can you really replicate a whole experience in the form of a book? A whole multi-year voyage? You simply have to try a bunch of different things, to cover the whole scope of experiences that one has had. This is why I feel that it would be impossible to really adapt Moby Dick for any other format, at least by traditional means. Perhaps some sort of mixture of documentary and drama in a television series would work. Really, I think animation would be the best medium, to best facilitate Ishmael’s flights of philosophical fancy as we get further out to sea.
if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.
At the end of this chapter, Ishmael makes one last plea: if you find any merit in this book, ascribe all credit to the institution of whaling. In the end, this whole journey is both an example of and a product of that industry, so even if you disagree with his particular arguments, you might find some merit in the way they’re presented.
If I were to describe some of the contemporary responses to this book, I would be writing about writing about writing. Perhaps even deeper. At a certain point, you’ve just got to call it a day.
Ah, that was a fun one. Got a bit rambling at times, perhaps, but so it goes.
The next chapter is even shorter, and has less of interest to say, than The Lee Shore. Come back to see what blood I can get from that particular stone!
Until next time, shipmates!