Okay, I misremembered the sequence of events just a bit. There is no actual gam in this chapter, in fact there are no events at all! It’s another non-narrative chapter, turns out.
There’s a whoooooole Thing about the various gams the Pequod has over the course of its fatal voyage. The names of the various ships and captains, the condition of the crews, the stories they have to tell, and so on. It is rich with symbolic meaning, but it is not yet time to really plunge into those particular deep, dark waters.
SUMMARY: Ishmael explains what a game is, and how the culture of whaling is different from that of other ships at sea. A gam is a meeting of two whaling boats on the open ocean, where the captains will meet together on one ship and the chief mates on the other. The crews tend to intermingle between ships for the duration, exchanging mail and other intelligence, gossiping, catching up with old friends, and so on. Whaling is such a solitary endeavor that the appearance of any remotely friendly face is a relief for all involved. Whalers tend to have nothing but time while they look for their quarry, so they have no problem stopping for a day to chat with each other, as opposed to other ships which have schedules to keep.
I had a little trouble getting motivated to keep doing these posts, lately. Getting back into the weekly grind just felt like a horrible obligation. Like some sort of job, but one that I wasn’t getting paid for. But this chapter was just a delight to read. It’s nice to get back to Old Ishmael’s almost comedic tone while discussing the ins and outs of whaling:
Whereas, some merchant ships crossing each other’s wake in the mid-Atlantic, will oftentimes pass on without so much as a single word of recognition, mutually cutting each other on the high seas, like a brace of dandies in Broadway; and all the time indulging, perhaps, in finical criticism upon each other’s rig. As for Men-of-War, when they chance to meet at sea, they first go through such a string of silly bowings and scrapings, such a ducking of ensigns, that there does not seem to be much right-down hearty good-will and brotherly love about it at all.
Talking about ships disregarding each other with smug superiority, making fun of military ships being so stiff and formal. It’s just a good time, even with a mention of slave ships thrown into the same paragraph.
This is Ishmael in his element, talking up the superiority of whaling as profession and whalers as a class, compared to other kinds of sailors. In this case, they are easy-going and friendly, and love to stop and chat with each other on the open ocean, rather than seeing every other sail as a potential enemy or competitor. In this case, he seems particularly put out that pirates have a better reputation than whalers:
Because, in the case of pirates, say, I should like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on.
Literally “Oh you think you’re so high and mighty? The only time you’re elevated above me is when you’re being hanged at the gallows!“. I love catty Ishmael so much. We saw him praise whaling in a very official, almost legalistic manner earlier in the book, but he’s just throwing out jabs for the fun of it now.
This talk of how military ships and merchant ships are regarded in comparison to whalers… it got me thinking about pretty much any depiction you see of old timey sailing ships like this are definitely going to be military. Or, it’ll just be part of a montage of someone going from one place to another. But almost every time, it’s either a pirate or a military ship of some sort, with a strict hierarchy and rules. It ends up painting the whole era in a certain light.
When you think of an old-fashioned sailing ship, you probably imagine it having cannons, even if it’s a merchant ship. The sea is a dangerous place, where people go to kill each other, back in those barbaric days. Meanwhile, there are all these whalers out here just hunting around for their particular prey. There are particular ideas about what these different classes of sailors were like that have all vanished.
As we get further from the past, it is reduced and simplified, so that it can be understood. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
This also gets me thinking about the different lenses we use when looking at any media. I remember learning about this in a religious studies class I took back in college, the idea that you have to pay attention to how you are framing things to yourself. What framework are you actually using when you reach certain conclusions? How is that framework affecting those conclusions and the whole process that leads to them?
Lately, I think about this in terms of straightforward reading of stories as opposed to meta readings. On the one hand, you can enjoy a story and be along for the ride. Not looking into things, not analyzing the greater structure, just being entertained by the character dynamics and plots as they go along.
But, nowadays it seems like most discussion of media happens with a totally different framework. You get a lot of discussion of story structure and tropes. It’s almost like people are trying to read the omens and portents of a story and guess where it’s going, and if they can’t they call it bad writing. Stories are objects to be picked up and analyzed for objective qualities.
I kinda hate it! It really bugs me when people will not stop talking about a character having a lot of “death flags” or extrapolating some wild theories out of scattered evidence. It’s as if there really are laws for fiction that must be followed, or else a story is somehow invalid or compromised. It turns the whole business into a kind of accounting spreadsheet. Every box must be checked and every line signed or else the story isn’t good.
The thing that really makes me angry is the Hero’s Journey. A rigid formula for telling a story that many authors seem obsessed with. I must admit I haven’t read the book or really studied it, and I can only speak about how it is spoken of. I don’t want to learn more, frankly; it feels like a sort of toxic meme. Once it is drilled into you that this is the proper form for stories, then you cannot stop seeing them through this lens, and you cannot stop yourself from working within its framework exclusively. You are either deliberately breaking it, or you are attempting to adhere to it.
This kind of analysis is tiresome to me. It is a practice of detaching yourself from your own emotional reactions in the moment, and trying to rationalize them. There is a thrill in exposing the mechanics of writing, the machinery of storytelling, figuring out how things fit together. I understand that! But it is too easy to allow that to become your only lens for viewing a story. Your only framework for interpreting it, when it is only the basic underpinnings of the whole thing.
It’s like if you went to a stage play and then only talked about the craft of the set movers and the elegance of the hidden trap doors. It’s not like it’s a wrong way of looking at it, it’s just incomplete. Every piece of art is operating on so many different levels, and constraining yourself to just one method of interpretation is limiting to your own imagination and experience.
How can you separate a piece of art from the room you viewed it in? How you slept the night before? The traffic on the day you saw it? It’s all utterly subjective, and all in flux at all times.
This is one of those times when I’m certain I’m reinventing some wheel or other. I don’t have the words to explain these ideas as clearly as I would like, and I don’t have the expertise or training to really delve into them as much as I do, either. But hey, it’s fun, and this is all for me, at the end of the day.
Ah, that was a fun one. I feel like my train of thought went a little off the rails, but whatever. That’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?
Hoo boy, next chapter is a long one. This is going to be one hell of a post, I think. This is another point where I almost put the book down my first time through, if I recall correctly.
Until next time, shipmates!