Another tiny little chapter today. As the title suggests, really more of a postscript to the previous chapter, one little last-minute addition.
Surely there can’t be much to say about this, can there? This tiny half-formed thought doesn’t touch on any great themes like the Lee Shore did. Ohoho, we shall just have to find out!
SUMMARY: Ishmael has heard that the royal coronation in England uses some sort of oil to anoint the head of the new monarch. That must be whale oil, because it’s the best oil there is. Think about that before you insult whalers, British people!!
There’s really not much more to the chapter than that. Ishmael says that he separated this point out from the previous litany because it’s based merely on speculation than on cold hard facts that can be backed up with evidence and citations. The exact details of the royal coronation are unknown to him, so he simply has to guess based on the little tidbits of information he’s been able to glean: that oil is used in part of it.
It’s odd to think, in this modern age, that there could be a ceremony that is utterly mysterious. Why, in this modern age, I can simply type a few words into my magical computer box and find out every single detail about the royal coronations of old England. Who is allowed to attend, what words are said when, exactly which hymns are sung, which pieces of the royal silverware are used for the anointing. And, unfortunately for Ishmael, I can say with no small confidence that the consecrated oil, or “chrism”, used by Anglican churches is almost always olive oil, not whale oil. Perhaps some salty port constructed along the lines of Nantucket or New Bedford may replace it with a local delicacy, but the general rule is to imitate things as they were done in bible times*, so olive oil is the default.
There really are no secrets anymore, at least not in the way there used to be. Nowadays, if you want something to be impressive, you have to be open with regards to what, exactly, is going on with it. Even in the days before the modern internet opened the floodgates for the deepest secrets of every profession and specialty on Earth, journalists in the modern tradition loved nothing more than explicating some formerly mysterious ceremony. Simply because people would like to read about it.
So, it is taken for granted that there are no true secrets anymore. Just think, at one time it was a dire secret how nuclear bombs worked, and now you can read it in a children’s book about science, as I did. People take joy in purposefully denying themselves certain secrets so they can do the work of finding them out personally. There’s a whole genre of games on the internet based around hiding clues in the most arcane and obscure ways on websites and in computer files. They usually involve a sort of fictionalized version of the real world, purporting to hide some conspiracy or secret truth about the world. Thus, they are usually called Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs for short.
You could say it’s a bit like found footage horror films, which purport to be assembled from footage discovered in some mysterious, shadowy corner of the world, and merely edited together. The aim is to deepen the engagement with the fiction, assist the act of verisimilitude, suspending your disbelief, by giving the brain more cues that the things you are seeing are real. Just a bit more coaxing, and the more rational parts of the mind can be put off the scent, and allow the rest to have a bit of fun in the process.
This may seem like a thoroughly modern phenomenon, but it really harkens back to 19th century novels, in a pretty direct way. Many novels, like, say, Dracula by Bram Stoker, purported to be merely edited collections of papers that were discovered by some archivist or librarian. In the case of Dracula, that actually includes transcriptions of phonographs, since that’s how Dr. Seward keeps his diary. But any given epistolary novel of the time will have some sort of short prologue that talks about how the author came across this bundle of letters in an attic and decided to edit and publish them.
They didn’t have to hide the secrets around, because any information that you were not directly privy to, and was kept out of newspapers, was by definition secret. The authors could rely on the extra veracity of the fact that something is printed in a book to take care of the verisimilitude.
I suppose it also goes back to what the societal model for the revelation of secrets is at the time. In a modern context, digging through secret files and finding out about secret mysterious projects is the way of things. Hacks and leaks and whatnot, things that are cleverly, if always imperfectly, protected, being found out by some intrepid digital sleuth. Whereas in the 19th century, finding some sort of huge secret in a dusty old pile of papers was much more common. More and more of the public could read, and they were hungry for content. The printers and publishers of the world turned over every corner of every attic and basement they could, until they had to start asking writers to invent shocking new revelations for the pure entertainment of their customers.
The desire for content is ever growing. As the wheels of industrialization continue to spin, the ability for more and more individuals to produce as well as consume grows ever greater. Thus, the production keeps apace, if not growing faster.
Even though Ishmael does not actually know the secrets of the royal coronation, he still finds some time to have a bit of fun at its expense:
It is well known that at the coronation of kings and queens, even modern ones, a certain curious process of seasoning them for their functions is gone through. There is a saltcellar of state, so called, and there may be a castor of state. How they use the salt, precisely—who knows? Certain I am, however, that a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad.
He seems to be calling attention to how silly the whole thing is. Ishmael is, throughout this book, simultaneously in awe of royalty and uses it as a synonym for majesty, and also pokes holes in its more specific claims to inherent greatness. He recognizes a royalty as a kind of greatness that is achievable, but not by the traditional methods ascribed by European practitioners.
It makes sense, really. What’s a bit of oil and a few magic words going to do for a person’s character as a ruler? This solemnity and heaping on of responsibility is supposed to give the monarch a sense of the gravity of their role in the world. But, people are not so easy to manipulate. If someone is already not given to be serious and hardworking, telling them that they are very important is not going to change that.
And, of course, there are simply bad actors. People with no intention of ruling well, even if everyone around them says they should. This is one of the fundamental problems with monarchy as a concept: you have no control over who gets into the office, and no good way of dealing with them if they turn out to be a bad egg. You can put all sorts of verbal restraints and talk about honor ’til you’re blue in the face, but some people are just assholes. And with some individuals, it doesn’t matter if you pour a whole bucket of consecrated oil on their head, they’re simply not fit to lead.
Alright! Managed to get some real mileage out of that one. All you have to do is be willing to go off on any wild tangent that comes to mind, as you write. It’s fun, you should try it.
Next up, we’re getting into some real meaty business: formally introducing the three mates and their harpooneers.
Until next time, shipmates!
*: “Bible times” is one of my favorite little phrases to use. It’s so instantly evocative, to me, of a particular place and time, even as that may not be accurate. It’s, you know, the vaguely desert-ish Middle East somewhere between 4000 BCE and 200 CE. Camels, palm trees, everyone wearing white robes and sandals: bible times.
It’s funny to think of how much of the practice of Christianity across Europe and in America is built on specific traditions that originate in that broad time and place. The use of oil for anointing, for example, assuredly had some sort of hygienic purpose originally. All these generations of blind replication of foreign customs, removed form their original context.
Ah! the ways of history are ever strange and fascinating.