Chapter 35: The Mast-Head

Sorry for the break in updates there, I had a very busy week and then a cold. Still just barely getting over the later, but I had an urge to do some bloggin’.


So, today’s chapter returns us squarely to non-narrative status, with what amounts to a bunch of whaling trivia, at first glance. It is, in fact, very revealing about the character of both young and old Ishmael. It’s one of the more evocative chapters, getting us back to some of that fun prose we had very early on.

SUMMARY: Ishmael has his first rotation duty standing on the masthead. He reflects on the practice of masthead-standing across all human history, and in the whaling business.

The masthead (or mast-head as Melville always spells it) is the highest point on the ship, the very top of the mast. Most ships would want to post a lookout up there only in special situations, like searching for an enemy vessel during a war. But a whaling ship is always looking for something, namely: whales. Thus, the mastheads are manned during daylight hours for the entire voyage, from the moment the ship leaves port until it pulls up to the dock.

The exact arrangements at the top of the mast are described by Ishmael: it’s just a couple of boards, nailed to either side, which you must keep your balance on. Being exposed to the elements isn’t a particular problem, most of the time, since whaling ships generally stick to tropical climes. And those who venture north have the specialized crow’s nest, which you, the reader, are probably more familiar with. It’s essentially a little shack at the top of the mast, with a place to sit down and store blankets and whatnot.

The duty of standing on the masthead is a set rotation, for the whole crew, or at least those who are able. Incidentally, the same setup is used for the helm, managing the actual direction of the ship on a moment-to-moment basis. In films and modern stories, manning the helm is always the duty of either a specialist or the actual captain, who will stay at it until the ship goes down. But in practice, it’s just another chore that has to get done. Someone always has to be watching it, to make sure the ship doesn’t go off-course, but it’s not like it’s an exciting job.


Similarly, standing on the masthead, looking off into the distance, is a job anyone can do. It’s essential, the only way to actually reliably spot whales, but also boring, so they just do it on a rotation.

Ishmael goes off on a bunch of wild proclamations about the history of masthead-standing throughout the ages, but it doesn’t really add up to much.

And that the Egyptians were a nation of mast-head standers, is an assertion based upon the general belief among archæologists, that the first pyramids were founded for astronomical purposes: a theory singularly supported by the peculiar stair-like formation of all four sides of those edifices; whereby, with prodigious long upliftings of their legs, those old astronomers were wont to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars; even as the look-outs of a modern ship sing out for a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight.

I suppose there’s something here about what the metaphor for masthead standing really is. Keeping a look out for possibilities to seize to make life better for everyone, the way that the innovation of agriculture allowed for a class of humanity who could just look out and speculate, and so on. That doesn’t interest me as much, in this chapter.

Rather, it is just the simple, evocative image of standing at the absolute peak of a ship, with nothing around for hundreds of miles, the ship a mere dot below you. Standing on top of that tall mast, bobbing to and fro, gazing off into the infinite expanse of the ocean.

Ishmael describes how it affected him, and how he loved to go up into the rigging thereafter to relax.

For one, I used to lounge up the rigging very leisurely, resting in the top to have a chat with Queequeg, or any one else off duty whom I might find there; then ascending a little way further, and throwing a lazy leg over the top-sail yard, take a preliminary view of the watery pastures, and so at last mount to my ultimate destination.

Lastly, Ishmael describes how he was actually pretty bad at this part of the job. He never once actually spotted a whale, and was constantly in danger of falling too deeply into a reverie and falling to his death. This take the form of a stern warning to other whaling captains, telling them not to hire philosophers, as they are likely to waste their time thinking instead of doing their work!

In a sense, it’s the age old warning about these dang young people with their head in the clouds. Really, he’s just having a bit of fun at himself, for always overthinking everything, always sitting around thinking about things instead of attending to the business at hand. The whole book is a testament to that!

This chapter is one that really struck me my first time through the book. Somehow, it really highlights the physical reality of Ishmael’s situation, the strangeness of it compared to my own experiences in life. Not only is he on this sailing ship, at the whim of the winds and the skill of the people on board, that is out in the middle of the ocean, but he’s also stuck there for literal years. All the food for the whole voyage is stored below him. He is adrift on this speck of wood in the vast ocean, standing on top of this mast a hundred feet in the air, just gazing off and thinking about things.


This isn’t some speculative thing, some fantasy, this is a real thing that people actually did. That Herman Melville probably did when he was on a whaling ship, even for a short voyage. We spend our whole lives focused on our own times and worries, even when we read stories about the past it somehow feels fake and unreal. Because it’s fictional and therefor has a fantastical air to it, or because it’s dry history, and is categorized along with boring facts and figures.

This sort of direct experience, related in such a vivid way, can kind of break that spell of fiction, or cast a deeper one. Humans haven’t changed, on a fundamental, biological level, at all in the time since this book was written, nor in the time since recorded history started. The thoughts you have now, the way your brain works, is exactly the same as it was for people back then. Only the input is different, only the context and circumstance.

Much like the first chapter of this book, this one connects to me. Who doesn’t like to just gaze off at the horizon, on occasion, and think? Who doesn’t just like being near water, not for any purpose than to just look at it? The long distance and change in custom tricks us into thinking that people in the past are a whole different species, but it’s not true.

When a book says something true on a fundamental level, it doesn’t have to be deep and full of a thousand meanings. It can be a simple statement that resonates across the ages.

Ah, getting back into the swing of it. I felt a bit nervous about this one, since I was a little out of practice. I always psych myself out whenever it comes to writing one of these.

It works best to just get in and write!

In the next chapter, we’re coming crashing back down to reality from lofty masthead, smack dab into some important narrative business!

Until next time, shipmates!

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