Chapter 30: The Pipe

Another tiny little chapter! I think this might be even shorter than Postscript, but it’s too close to call.

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This one has a bit more weight to it, though, as it concerns the actions of one Captain Ahab, who is quite an interesting subject. But what could even one such as he get up to in four short paragraphs? Let us see.

SUMMARY: After scaring off Stubb, Ahab calls for his pipe and stool, to have a little smoke. However, he soon realizes that he can no longer enjoy his pipe, and tosses it overboard.


So, we’ve got here a tiny narrative chapter, this time around, following up immediately after the last one. More along the lines of The Lee Shore, for all its gravity in spite of its brevity.

Ahab calls for his pipe and stool, and what a stool it is. Again, we have Ishmael comparing him to royalty, noting that his stool is a tripod of whale ivory, as the stools of old Danish sea-kings were made from narwhal tusks. It is yet another symbol of his mastery of this trade, Ishmael gushes. So on and so forth, I think we get the idea at this point, but it’s going to keep coming up.

How could one look at Ahab then, seated on that tripod of bones, without bethinking him of the royalty it symbolized? For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.

It is interesting that Ishmael is literally talking about the symbolism of this story as he’s telling it. Just more grist for my mill! That is, my theory that this book is, as a fictional artifact, a way that Old Ishmael is trying to process the trauma of this voyage, looking to figure out the signs that he missed, his own self-mythologizing as therapy.

After all, if Ahab really is this destined figure going off to his doom, and bringing the rest of them with him, well, that explains everything in a neat little bow, doesn’t it? It’s classic magical thinking, the need to impose narrative and order on a chaotic universe. But the story is in conflict with that interpretation in its very telling, as Ishmael grapples with this tragedy.

Thus this zoom in on a tiny, private moment for the old captain. We see here a very portrait of clinical depression: he cannot enjoy his old pleasures, only going through them mechanically. Ahab all but spells this out, as his reasoning for tossing away his beloved pipe:

Oh, my pipe! hard must it go with me if thy charm be gone! Here have I been unconsciously toiling, not pleasuring—aye, and ignorantly smoking to windward all the while; to windward, and with such nervous whiffs, as if, like the dying whale, my final jets were the strongest and fullest of trouble. What business have I with this pipe?

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The conversion of previous joys into unfeeling drudgery is a classic symptom of depression… the very sort that afflicted Ishmael, way back the beginning of our story. You remember, he called it his “hypos” and I had to look up what the heck that even means? But whereas Ishmael has a known cure for his doldrums, Ahab is at a loss. He is mired in internal conflict, and cannot find his way out. He seeks solace in his old habits, his old profession, but sees only death all around him.

In the last chapter, he compared his cabin to the grave, and here he sees the smoke from his pipe as the final jets of a dying whale. This bloody line of work is not likely to surround him with an image of joy and life, but even so he finds only the worst omens in everything.

So, we have here, in this small aside, a deeper insight into the troubles of the mysterious Captain Ahab.

Oh, also, small bit of nautical terminology that I found interesting the last time I read this book: he lights his pipe at the binnacle light. What the heck is a binnacle anyway?

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Well, it’s like a little cabinet kept right by the ship’s wheel (or tiller, in the case of the Pequod) which holds a lantern and all manner of necessary navigational instruments, particularly a compass. This is secured and reinforced, usually with only a small window to see in, so as to protect the precious instruments from the weather.

It’s another thing that only makes sense if you take a moment to think on it. How does a ship navigate at night, in a storm? Surely you can’t just pull a compass out of your pocket and wait for it to settle. You need to have that somewhere protected, and also lit up so you can actually see the dang thing. Thus, the binnacle.

Sometimes, especially when reading old books like this, I think about the types of human experience that are just… lost, forever, because they had no great chronicler. Nobody ever sat down and recorded the way they worked, and they were slowly abandoned or made obsolete over the centuries. The secrets of a million trades lost, forever, to the whims of history.

There are some famous cases, like the mystery of seawater-proof concrete of ancient Rome, or Damascus steel, but who knows how many secret techniques have been forgotten? Even of the fragments of the past that survived, how many are known, and of those, how many understood?

I learned just the other day that there are thousands and thousands of cuneiform tablets from ancient Sumeria and Babylon that are just… sitting in a warehouse. Perfectly intact, but untranslated, for lack of interest. Whole aeons of history go unstudied because they lack fame and prestige. The study of history is as much a popularity contest as anything else in academia.

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Progress is moved by inertia, but like all things it too must slow unless given new purpose, new energy. Ah! Nothing ever lives, but it dies.


Alright, not as long as usual, but I think I have a good excuse. There’s really not a lot to this chapter, and I am rapidly running out of ways to say that Ahab is Mysterious and Sad.

The next chapter is everyone’s favorite thing in the world: a description of a dream! It’s a wild one.

Until next time, shipmates!

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