Chapter 60: The Line

Oof, it’s been a while, huh? Sorry I haven’t been getting these out as frequently lately, I’ve been busy with school stuff. And also several extremely good videogames that I hope to write about some time.


Today’s chapter is a nice meaty one. A bit of whaling paraphernalia and trivia leads Ishmael off onto a philosophical reverie, the usual bit. It is an interesting subject, though, and quite worth the space dedicated to it.

SUMMARY: Realizing that he needs to give some explanatory information ahead of upcoming whale-hunting action, Ishmael decides to describe the line attached to a harpoon, how it is stored and deployed during a hunt. The line is made of thin but extremely strong and elastic manilla rope, and stored extremely carefully and tightly in a single huge tub. It is usually about two hundred fathoms long, which translates to 1200 feet (or roughly 400 meters), and is coiled into its tub by being strung all the way from the ship’s rigging down onto the deck, to ensure it has no kinks or twists.

The line must be very carefully maintained and looked after at all times. A single error in its management could mean bodily dismemberment or death in the heat of a whale hunt! The line is run from its tub across the oars of all the rowers in a boat, bumping up against their wrists, and is kept ready to be used at both the prow and stern. The crew must be extremely careful and aware of the line at all times, though they cannot remain still as the rocking and heaving of the ocean will not allow it.

Does this not represent the state of all mankind? Garlanded with sure death at all times, kept in suspense of when danger may fall, unable to relax fully for even a moment!

Lots of interesting tidbits here.

What kind of stood out to me on this reading is that, like… Ishmael never explains why the line is wrapped all the way around the whaling boat, literally on top of the oars. This is just the way things are done. He even mentions that the tub is very heavy, and has been known to break the floors of boats. In the British fishery, they break it into two tubs, which distributes the weight more evenly. Why don’t they do that in the American fishery? Because that’s not how they do things.

It goes back to these ideas of authority and tradition at sea that run through a lot of Melville’s works. Stories on ships naturally have a kind of allegorical flavor, being mini-societies all their own, and none moreso than whaling ships, with their years-long voyages. How do you maintain order under such conditions? What sorts of practices develop over time? What is a “moral” way to run a ship? These questions then have obvious grander implications.


In the case of whaling, there is a very orderly yet loose way of running things. There is not a strict order of things, people aren’t out here getting flogged all the time, but there is nonetheless a very strong bottom line to everything. Things are done because that is the way they are done, practices are passed down over time and adhered to strictly. It is in everyone’s best interest for the best practices to be followed, because everyone has a share of the profits of the whole voyage.

In the Town-Ho’s Story, we saw what happens when this order breaks down, when the trust between the officers and crew is broken. In the end, the officers have no ability to compel the crew to do anything, all of their power is soft, where as the only recourse the crew has is hard: mutiny or mass abandonment. Thus, the careful balance must be maintained, for the benefit of everyone.

line3Anyway, the preference of mariners for Tradition over innovation is longstanding and well documented. I don’t need to go over that now, except to note that the way the line is treated is an interesting fusion of the two. Ishmael notes that all the ropes on American ships used to be made of hemp, but nowadays everyone uses Manilla rope, because it’s stronger. Old traditions are capable of adapting themselves to new technologies, as long as the basic ideas remain intact.

But, I should get back to the actual metaphor that Ishmael draws in this chapter: being in a whaling boat is not unlike the human condition, in general. He compares the sense of danger, of imminent bodily harm if every variable is not constantly accounted for, to sitting in the middle of a working steam engine. Things are happening around you, forces are in motion which could cause your instant death, and you have absolutely no control over any of it. All you can do is sit there and try to move in the right way to stay safe.

What is this infernal machinery, or the forces of the sea and the whims of the leader of the whale hunt, if not the same as the vast forces of fate? The web of interactions and unseen subtle influences that make up the reality we experience every day! Do you not take your life into your hands every time you walk across the street? The very visible and obvious machinery of cars and busses and trucks whizzing about you in a flurry. Only the thin social conventions, those motions that you go through because it’s what everyone knows, are capable of keeping you safe.

Thus, the metaphor is complete. Only by following these arbitrary rules, which nobody can really point to the origin of, can we successfully keep ourselves alive another day. At a certain point, you don’t even realize how close you come to death on a day-to-day basis. How many bored commuters are there, travelling in metal coffins weighing thousands of pounds, moving faster than any human could run, only half paying attention?

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

It is no wonder, in the end, that an old, experienced whaleman like Stubb could transform the jaws of death into an easy chair, then. If you are constantly exposed to the gravest peril, and manage to survive, then it is easy to become accustomed to it. Even the most horrible extremes of danger becomes just another joke, another anecdote to tell. If you make it through, it couldn’t have been that bad, in the end.

We all have to learn to live with the specter of death, and to ignore it.

MEMENTO MORI – by Kevin Grass

A little short this time, but I said what I wanted to say. Really, I should be attempting to get more efficient, not less, but sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t learn to do more research and go more in-depth… but eh, this is my project, I can do what I want.

Until next time, shipmates!

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