Now that we’ve got all the finnicky business of epistemological impossibility out of the way, we have some more practical matters to worry about: how do you find a whale?
You can sit around thinking and wondering all day, but you’re not gonna get anywhere unless you take action, and Ahab is our man of action in this story. While Ishmael lays and ruminates in his favorite perch among the rigging, Ahab is busy far below.
SUMMARY: The night after his speech, Ahab descends into cabin and pulls out numerous old charts. He studies them, making calculations, marking them with a pencil, erasing old marks as he goes. Tracking the movement of whales through known sightings in the history of other whaling ships, collating sightings to find the VEINS in which they move, identifying feeding grounds. Ahab finds himself unable to rest, his intensity is so great that it terrifies his soul and his body. The knowledge that he is damning himself with his actions drives him from his hammock whenever he lays down for but a moment. His terrible force of will has been turned inward, and created a monster that even his own body cannot bear.
Ah, kinda nice to get back to some more ordinary business, at least for a little while. Most of this chapter is about how it is even possible to have a shred of a chance of a hope of tracking a single whale in the gigantic oceans of the world, through which they can swim utterly unimpeded. Turns out, whales have certain habits, they’re just mortal creatures after all. They have to eat! They tend to stick together, they tend to follow certain routes, they tend to hang around certain areas at particular times of year.
Ishmael (or Melville?) describes how whales tend to be found wherever there are large herring shoals, which are their food. This doesn’t seem to be true, actually. Sperm whales eat squids and octopodes and other boneless deep-dwelling creatures, not mere herrings. But, Ahab is working mostly off of data from other whaling ships, with regards to whale sightings, so perhaps the hypothesis about food is correct, they simply didn’t know what food they were tracking!
It seems that through observation, the whaling industry as a whole has gathered quite a bit of information about the habits of sperm whales. They tend to stick around certain feeding grounds, and when moving between them will stay within a certain sort of road or vein. Thus, one of the most reliable ways to catch a particular whale would be to patrol a vein between areas where it is known to be at certain times of year, as the veins are narrow enough for a single ship to view the whole width at once from its mastheads.
It also helps that Moby Dick is a famous whale, with certain features that are always noted by those who spot him, such as his awful white hump and ferocious nature. So, the movements of that particular whale, over time, are easier to track than any one of the other anonymous sperm whales that wander about the sea.
For the peculiar snow-white brow of Moby Dick, and his snow-white hump, could not but be unmistakable. And have I not tallied the whale, Ahab would mutter to himself, as after poring over his charts till long after midnight he would throw himself back in reveries—tallied him, and shall he escape? His broad fins are bored, and scalloped out like a lost sheep’s ear!
Which isn’t to say that this is easy work. Scraps of information have to get divined from massive tomes, logs from other whaling ships gathered together and reprinted, then correlated to gigantic and numerous charts of the vast ocean. Ah, in this modern age of information it’s hard to imagine how difficult and fraught the scholarship of the past could be! Systems of strict organization of information were still in their infancy. It took true dedication to figure things out over many, many days and weeks and months, which could be slapped together in a few minutes now.
Even within the scope of this book, things have changed. Ahab had to go rooting around in all these different logs to put the data on whale movement together himself, but at the time of the printing of Moby Dick there was a circular being put together tracking whale movement across the whole globe. A great chart showing how they moved throughout the whole year, allowing whalemen to position themselves for optimum hunting with ease!
That’s it for the practicalities, now we do have a bit of odd metaphysics at the end here. It just wouldn’t be a chapter of Moby Dick without that, eh?
This is another bit I usually just sort of skim over. It’s like, yeah, Ahab is all super intense and menacing and dedicated and so on and so forth. But slowing down and paying closer attention, there’s some wild shit goin’ on here.
We’re coming back around to something that was hinted at earlier: Ahab has a lot of trouble sleeping, and relaxing in general. A few chapters ago, it was noted that the steward would often go into his cabin and find the pillow burning hot, and all the bedclothes twisted up, or it would look like Ahab had never slept at all. Here, we get an explanation, of sorts.
It seems that Ahab’s incessant obsession, his inveterate monomania, leaves him not a moment to rest. He circles around and around in his mind, chasing the same ideas over and over, until he can’t take it anymore and lays down to rest. But then, he with his mind not distracted, he would see how he was damning himself with his actions, how crazy and dangerous this plan was, seeing the very gates of hell yawn open before him, and he runs out his cabin in distress.
Yet these, perhaps, instead of being the unsuppressable symptoms of some latent weakness, or fright at his own resolve, were but the plainest tokens of its intensity. For, at such times, crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale; this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again.
The idea that Ishmael proposes is that the thing that was afraid of the consequences of his actions wasn’t Ahab’s mind, but rather his soul and his body. When he was awake, his mind had an iron grip on those other elements of his being, driving them forward with his aforementioned unchangeable conviction and stubbornness. But when he lays his head upon his pillow, the other elements rise up in rebellion, and do what they can to escape their terrible fate.
However, there was no escape. The mind and soul are inseparable, so saith Ishmael, and so his inner being can only look out in terror from his eyes:
Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to colour, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.
So, what we’ve got here seems to be a kind of cartesian dualism… but with a third thing added in? And Ishmael isn’t specific about it being the soul, per se, but rather whatever sort of internal moral compass or spiritual bit of his existence is still capable of being afraid of eternal damnation, or any other consequence of his blasphemy.
You’ve got three things: mind, body, and soul (or whatever). It is the obsession of the mind that has brought to bear the terror of the body and the soul, the driving will and desire for revenge.
Hmm, Ishmael seems to be saying that it is this obsession that has created this new distinction between the soul and the mind. They are linked, but one has gone too far and driven the other to such extremes of terror that they are operating at cross purposes. This is what makes it so horrific when he leaps out of bed and runs to the deck, the trapped soul is briefly able to command the body while the mind rests in sleep.
Man, this is feeling very cosmic horror-y, just a bit lovecraftian, again. The idea that your body can be driven by something while other parts of it rebel against it. The terror of being trapped within your own body with an agent that desires nothing but the destruction of that same body.
Rather, it is the idea that there are forces at work which you cannot control or comprehend, that are working towards a goal with total disregard for human concerns. In this case, Cthulhu exists within Ahab’s own mind, and takes the form of his obsession with revenge. Bodily health and comfort, community with fellow men, any spiritual or moral concerns, they all fall by the wayside.
It’s fitting that it comes to light in this chapter, where we finally get a window into what Ahab has been doing alone in his cabin for all these months since they left Nantucket. Even as he struggles over the decision of when and how to reveal his true purpose, he has been working towards accomplishing it in his own way. Even as he seemed to be biding his time, he was full-on working on this problem, never letting the obsession go for a single waking moment, the entire time.
Ah, there’s just no getting away from this stuff, in the end. Ishmael just can’t resist throwing a little in there, exposing the themes to broad daylight. As I’ve become a more sophisticated consumer of media in various forms, I’ve really grown tired of subtlety. I’m not saying you have to be like Melville and include actual discussions about symbolism in your work, but leaving everything to an implicit level gets very tiresome, at times.
Also, it leads to your point getting lost with time. As context marches ever forward, your subtle implications will become mere historical mysteries. Your experiences are not universal, you cannot rely on everyone having the same frame of reference. There is a strain in literature against explaining things, as it feels too blunt and artless. Leave it to the people who can understand it to understand it, is the notion, and leave everyone else behind. Anyone who doesn’t get it isn’t worthy of doing so in the first place.
Bah! I spit on such elitism. Speak yourself plainly, bring the reader into your confidence as much as possible.
Until next time, shipmates!