Okay, so this chapter isn’t technically the one with the first game, that would be chapter 53, titled: The Gam. But it is the first time the Pequod meets another whaling ship, so I think it technically counts.
Oh, by the bye, “gam” is a term used for a meeting between whaling ships on the open ocean. This is explained in the next chapter, but I figured I ought to get out ahead of that so you’ll know what the heck I’m talking about.
SUMMARY: Southeast of the Cape of Good Hope, just off the coast of the Crozetts, nearer to Antarctica than any other continent, the Pequod passes by another whaling ship, inward bound, heading back towards America. It is called the Goney (Albatross), and it looks like it has been out for at least four years, the crew and ship both. Ahab gets his speaking trumpet, and asks the captain of the Goney (Albatross) if he’s seen the white whale. The other captain brings his trumpet to his mouth, but drops it at the last moment, and it tumbles into the waves. He can only wave his arms, acknowledging Ahab but unable to relay any intelligence. As the ships get further apart, Ahab speaks one more time through the trumped, asking for all mail for the Pequod to be forwarded to the Pacific ocean. And, if they aren’t back after three years, it should all be sent to- but he cuts off, upon seeing a school of fish suddenly start following the Goney instead of the Pequod.
There are a couple of interesting things to focus in on here.
First off, we get some great description of the inbound Goney:
As if the waves had been fullers, this craft was bleached like the skeleton of a stranded walrus. All down her sides, this spectral appearance was traced with long channels of reddened rust, while all her spars and her rigging were like the thick branches of trees furred over with hoar-frost.
This ship is absolutely worn out. All the color leached away from its planks and its crew by the merciless assault of the oceans, and the weather. Ishmael mentions that the cruising ground they’re passing through, off the Crozetts, is for right whales, not sperm whales. And this fits with what we’ve learned about them so far, that they stick mostly to colder water near the poles, rather than the tropical waters that sperm whales prefer.
So, the Goney is probably a right whaler, so has been wandering all around the frigid oceans near Antarctica for four long years. It’s no wonder that it looks so ghostly, and the crew so weary, after such an extreme voyage.
Quick side note, but I love the fact that right whales are called “right” whales because they were considered the “right ones” to hunt. They’re filter feeders like blue whales, but smaller, so they’re easier to deal with than the aggressive sperm whales, but they also don’t have that premium spermacetti in their heads. So, to Ishmael, they’re a lesser class of whalers, and whales. It’s worth catching one if you happen to see it, but they’re not the real object of the hunt.
Anyway, what do we make of this? Perhaps this worn out counterpart to the Pequod presages its future, a failed voyage with only a paltry amount of oil to show for it. Or, even if the hunt is successful, their ship and their bodies will be wrecked by the experience of getting it. This pale echo of the vibrant, fiery ship heading towards the tropical seas, it shows us that no matter the financial outcome, the physical toll is the same.
Yes, I can find another anticapitalist meaning here! And nobody can stop me! Again, the recurring theme of the physical and spiritual destruction or wasting of the crew is set as a necessity to the very business itself. The tireless efforts of the crew, waging a war against nature, may or may not produce profits, but it inevitably saps them of their color and energy.
The other part that I found interesting is right at the end of this chapter, as the Pequod raises its full sails again and shoots off towards the Pacific. Ahab calls for the steersman to continue “Round the world”, which leaves Ishmael, as always, waxing philosophical:
Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.
Ishmael laments the loss of new lands to discover, the hollowness of what was once and unimaginable voyage around the entire globe. Everything has been found, there are no new wonders to discover, all you can do is keep going until you end up right back where you started.
And this in 1850! It’s incredible, even back then people were lamenting that there was no frontier to conquer, no new discoveries to be made. The myth of the virgin land, the wild frontier, was an unattainable dream even back before the god damned Civil War. And, indeed, it was always a lie, basically for all of recorded history.
But this myth of an untamed wilderness, just ready and waiting for strong, independent men to come in and be rugged and independent all over it, still pervades our culture. Especially when it comes to speculative fiction, fantasy and sci-fi, where there are always new lands to discover and explore, as Ishmael imagines here.
This fantasy has real consequences: it is, in a way, inherently bigoted. In order to have a new wild land to explore, you have to dehumanize any inhabitants that are already there. They don’t really count, in one way or another. Nowadays, in fiction, they are often literally not human, some sort of fantastical monster, but still given the traits found in so-called “savage” peoples of old. It perpetuates the myths of the dichotomy between “civilization” and “savagery” that is an underpinning for racism, as an idea.
Again, it blows my mind that Ishmael is lamenting the lack of new discoveries to be made, in a book written over a hundred and fifty years ago. He even identifies that the pursuit of this phantom of a new frontier can only lead to death or disappointment.
This may also be another attack on the transcendentalists, but I don’t really know enough about them to make that connection very clear. The whole notion of going out into the wilderness on your own, experiencing the grandeur of nature and whatnot; all this bringing you closer to some greater cosmic truth. Ishmael says: no, you just end up back where you started. The only prize at the end of this long voyage is what you left behind at the start of it.
Aw yeah, got some anticapitalism in there again. Kinda squeezing blood from a stone, extrapolating wildly, but hey, that’s what this project is about, in a way. Often times I will expand on a tiny point, but only because I get the general feeling of it from the surrounding context of the larger work. This fine examination of the book, chopping it up chapter by chapter, makes it easy to lose track of the forest for the trees. That’s the benefit of having read it so many times, I have a feeling for what has come before and what is yet to come, through faint impressions of memory.
So yeah, as I said up top, next time we get a proper gam, not just one captain yelling at the other through a trumpet.
Until next time, shipmates!
1 thought on “Chapter 52: The Albatross”
And I’m also taken with how this chapter is showing the deterioration of Ahab. He started as an unknown man of mystery but certainly vigorous and powerful. Now: his message to the Goney is almost hopeless (send mail to the Pacific Ocean), the fish that had surrounded him now abandon him for that other ship (“the stranger’s flanks”) and he takes it personally, chastising them (and, even at that, not in his prior tone of personal anger but now in a depressive tone of sadness). But he’s not completely dead–he still has “his old lion voice.” The final “message” here seems to be that there is no hope, that all our activities will either lead us on in barren mazes (hmmm, like agonizing over the fine details of this worthy literary achievement???) or will engulf us. (Cue Neil Young, Helpless, Helpless, Helpless.)
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