Chapter 58: Brit

Enough ruminations about various depictions of whales! Let’s just all agree that true life experiences are very difficult to convey and that the skill of it belongs only to the great masters of craft among us.


Today, we’re talking about a much smaller subject: brit, that food that whales crave. Not the whales that Ahab and co. are actually hunting, but the right whale and some other kinds of whale that do not produce enough or the right kind of oil to be noticed.

SUMMARY: The Pequod sails northeast of the Crozetts islands, into the Indian Ocean, and finds itself among vast shoals of brit. This yellow substance, composed of minute particles, covers the surface of the water for miles around, giving the appearance of great rolling meadows. Right whales ply these waters, devouring the brit, leaving blue trails of cleared water behind them.

Do not be deceived by the peaceful appearance of these waters, they still represent the merciless seas which exist only to destroy man! Its inhabitants are cruel and selfish, and the sea itself does not spare them from its wrath! The sea outnumbers and surrounds the land, as the harsh oceans of trouble surround and engulf the innocent soul of man!

So as you can see, this chapter takes a kind of… turn, in the middle. We start off with some lovely reflections about the peace of a whaler passing among whales that it isn’t interested in hunting, and end up with Old Ishmael assaulting us with dire warnings about the dangerous nature of The Sea.

The turn itself is kind of interesting, for a couple reasons:

Indeed, in other respects, you can hardly regard any creatures of the deep with the same feelings that you do those of the shore. For though some old naturalists have maintained that all creatures of the land are of their kind in the sea; and though taking a broad general view of the thing, this may very well be; yet coming to specialties, where, for example, does the ocean furnish any fish that in disposition answers to the sagacious kindness of the dog? The accursed shark alone can in any generic respect be said to bear comparative analogy to him.

First of all, is that a thing naturalists said in the 19th century? Because if so, that’s fuckin’ buckwild, and I love it. You know, the sea is just a kind of weird mirror dimension of the land, they’ve got all the same stuff, just… wetter. Thus you get seahorses and sea cucumbers and sea slugs and sea dragons and whatnot. Catfish, dogfish (which are, indeed, a type of shark), endless sea creatures are named for the land animal that they resemble most closely.

A spiny dogfish. I think they’re kinda cute.

It’s kind of a fascinating way of looking at it. I don’t know if this is a real theory that naturalists had in the early parts of the 19th century, but I’ll take Melville’s word for it, he seems a scholarly type. Also, I don’t even know what terms I could possibly plug into any search engine to research this kind of old timey bullshit. There’s probably some specific term for it based on either some made-up neo-Latin nonsense, or it’s just named after some dude what came up with the idea in the first place. Maybe something like “pelagomimicry” or “St. Johnsian Theory” or whatever.

Anyway, this chapter has a kind of fun structure we’ve seen a couple times now. We start off with a little update on the location of the Pequod (still near the Crozetts, in the far southern Indian Ocean), then we get an idyllic reflection on some little bit of whaling lore, and then a tangent into a dramatic rant cursing a merciless God. You know, standard Moby Dick stuff.

This particular rant gets into some real nice Lovecraft territory. Which is to say, being afraid of weird stuff in the ocean:

But though, to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling; though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.

And really, once again we must confront the reality that, like… he’s not wrong, about the sea. It is indeed a place that is utterly inhospitable to… basically all life. Rather, to put it in a more precise way (and it is always good to be precise with these sorts of things), it is a place which fosters a form of existence for living creatures that is abhorrent to our senses as land-dwellers. Creatures of the sea take on strange forms, they kill and cannibalize one another indiscriminately. Their appearance and habits are repellent to any standard of human decency.

Vampire squid
A vampire squid.

But then, perhaps it is merely the strange forms that reveal the true nature of all life, up to and including man in some more primitive, natural state. The same way that the color white prefigures a kind of removal of the veil of color over the world, a sense of beauty and aesthetics that hides its true cruel, harsh nature, so too does the sea lay bare the awful calculus of continued survival on this wet ball. That in order to live, you must kill, cause suffering, endure humiliation and struggle, struggle, struggle against all other creatures that would see to do the same.

Ishmael calls the sea, essentially, a bad parent, an evil god:

But not only is the sea such a foe to man who is an alien to it, but it is also a fiend to its own off-spring; worse than the Persian host who murdered his own guests; sparing not the creatures which itself hath spawned. Like a savage tigress that tossing in the jungle overlays her own cubs, so the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships. No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe.

It is, really, a different view of a natural environment. The modern environmentalist movement was not yet close to being born, nature was seen as something to be tamed and used by humanity. The sea steadfastly refused any such attempts. Even to this very day, these things are true. Rogue waves in the middle of the ocean can toss the greatest container ships or aircraft carriers that man has ever built as if they were children’s toys.

A right whale, chowing down.

Ishmael is kind of coming at the old Problem of Evil at a slant, here. The sea is this horrific, almost eldritch Thing that surrounds us on all sides, promising instant destruction if it is approached the wrong way. What kind of benevolent God would position those creatures whom he most loves in this way? Indeed, Ishmael makes a direct analogy between the sea and the evils of the world at the end of the chapter:

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

If the sea is those sinful temptations that would despoil and destroy the soul if given half a chance, then why does it even exist? It seems to me that this exposes a Gnostic, or at least Machinean, strain within American christianity. The idea of the Devil constantly out to destroy man, that the evil forces of Worldliness were waging an eternal siege on the fortress of the soul.

An extremely brief explanation of Gnosticism and Manicheanism is probably a good idea, so here goes: Gnosticism is a type of Christianity that dates way, way back to the earliest days of the church (probably). It states that the physical world, the stuff you see around you, was not actually made by God. It was made by the Demiurge, an evil entity that seeks to corrupt mankind. So, it is important to disregard physical things in general, and focus only on the spiritual. Manicheanism more generally is used as a term for any system with two gods that rule over all creation, one evil and one good.

Both of these provide a neat little theodicy, as I’ve discussed lately: there’s evil in the world because of the evil God, duh. Your Ahrimans, your Devils, your Demiurges, and so on.

In this chapter, Ishmael is proposing a kind of naturalist version of this theology. The sea is the source of all horror and pain, and also the source of all life! We cannot escape these truths of reality except by withdrawing within ourselves completely, and disregarding the world as it exists.

Ah… what is about 19th century writers and the sea? A couple years ago, I read The Toilers of the Sea by one Victor Hugo, famous author of Les Miserables. It was written during his political exile on the isle of Guernsey, a tiny speck in the middle of the English Channel. It concerns a local lad believed to be a witch, who falls in love with a girl and sets out to rescue her father’s steamboat when it is stranded on another, even smaller bit of half-submerged rock miles away from Guernsey.

The man, Gilliat, sets off and battles the elements as he pursues his herculean task of single-handedly salvaging the precious engine of the steamboat. Along the way, he must do battle with that greatest horror of the seas, which drives fear into the hearts of all men: the octopus!

A giant pacific octopus, I hear they’re great wrestlers.

Ah, the passages detailing his struggle with this unearthly foe were so incredibly dramatic I almost burst out laughing several times. It seems like it tries to suck his blood through its tentacles? And somehow paralyzes his arms by latching onto them? And it is, of course, inhumanly strong, attempting to drag Gilliat down an drown him, presumably out of some sort of pure octopodal malice.

And, of course, I don’t even have to mention Lovecraft’s own… issues with fish and crustaceans and octopuses. These strange sea-creatures inspired a dread in that man that was only matched by someone with dark skin.

It’s funny, people always imitate those aspects when they make modern lovecraftian horrors. It’s gotta have tentacles, it’s just part of the whole aesthetic, y’know? To a modern audience, though, these aspects do not really carry the same impact. Tastes change over time, and the horrors of the deep are not so horrible anymore. Octopuses are cute, and all the but most horrible animals inhabiting the deepest depths of the ocean are put on display for children in zoos all around the world.

Some giant isopod plush toys.

Part of engaging with literature from the past is a recognition that the world has changed a lot over the years. Moby-Dick; or, the Whale was written some one hundred and seventy years ago! The shape of the world, and of culture, has shifted in some big ways, which changes the way that we engage with the text itself. It is, of course, impossible to recreate the original context in which it was received.

Which, in the case of Moby Dick is probably a good thing, as it was a huge flop and went out of print almost immediately.

Well, that was a fun one.

Sorry for the lateness of this post, I’ve been very busy with school and other such things lately. I had trouble getting in just the right mindset to sit down and respond to this very interesting chapter.

Well, luckily the next one should be a bit more low key, after it’s about… giant squid? Uhh… maybe not.

Until next time, shipmates!

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