Chapter 65: The Whale as a Dish

I’m back again!

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I apologize for these long breaks between posts lately. I’ve been very busy with the college quarter winding down, and also the whole pandemic thing going has been very stressful. But with the quarter finally over, I feel at least part of my burden eased for a time, so I will be able to deliver these snippets of wisdom on a more regular schedule.

Thankfully, today’s chapter makes for a bit lighter reading than last week’s, being mostly concerned with the meal that Stubb was partaking in rather than the social dynamics at play around it.SUMMARY: Ishmael takes a moment to discourse on the topic of whale meat. It is not generally eaten, except for smaller porpoises. Some northern tribes of “Esquimaux” have been known to survive on blubber, as well as stranded whalers on the wastes of Greenland, but otherwise it is not commonly consumed on its own.

The reason for this is that whale meat is just too rich. It is so saturated with fat that it cannot be consumed normally by anyone except those desperate to survive, or those with a great tolerance for strange foods (like Stubb). The sperm whale’s titular spermaceti, however, makes for an incredibly delicious garnish, and many whalers will fry their ship biscuits in the boilers while on watch. The brains of a sperm whale are also considered a great delicacy, and are usually eaten.

Some landsmen may consider it somehow unsavory to eat a whale by the light of its own oil, as if that is somehow adding insult to injury. That there is some evil deed that ought to be repented for at the heart of this grisly business of whaling. But Ishmael says: Pshaw! Who doesn’t engage in such hypocrisy? Every living thing that is eaten has at least as much dignity as a whale, and they are insulted in the same ways. The handles of forks used to eat steak are made of cow bones. Hypocrisy is everywhere, so pointing it out is unlikely to win you any points, at the end of the day.


So yeah, as you can see, this chapter takes an odd turn towards the end. We start off with talking why whales aren’t regularly eaten, despite necessarily possessing a tremendous amount of edible meat; but then we shift into a strange argument that compares the killing of livestock to cannibalism.

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Not exactly the kind of thing you expect to see in a book from 1850, is it?

But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on his trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does.

It is easy to imagine that the past was a simpler place, where people knew all sorts of simple truths about the world and were more concrete and assured about the way they lived their lives. Whether through some sort of blessed ignorance, or ancient lost wisdom, there is a kind of noble savagery that is extended to the times before people “knew better”.

This is a fine demonstration to the contrary. People have always had their doubts about the way things are done. As Ishmael goes on to say, what really separates any meat eater from a cannibal? That prime example of debased savagery, the ultimate abhorrence of the “civilized” world. He chooses his words very deliberately:

Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.

Any way you slice it, killing to eat just for the heck of it seems pretty morally dubious, at best. And compounding it with weird torture methods, as with foie-gras only compounds the sin. Even back in the 19th century, this seemed like an absurd and abhorrent practice. Of course, since it was done by rich people, in a traditional manner, it was never actually stopped, and it remains in production to this very day.


But, of course, I am probably taking things too literally here. This is really about the whole notion of hypocrisy, and the way that pointing it out is ultimately a fruitless exercise. After all, whomst among us is not a hypocrite, in one way or another? That’s the whole point of “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, after all.

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It’s a complicated problem, though. It’s very easy to recognize bad things that you yourself do in others, because you are so intimately familiar with it. As my therapist likes to say “if you spot it, you got it”. On a fundamental level, there is nothing wrong with not liking behavior that you yourself partake in, as you may find some compulsion pushing yourself to do it, or you may not be fully cognizant that you are even doing it yourself.

If you truly had to be blameless in order to cast blame, then nobody would, and bad actors would overwhelm us all. There is always a kind of tension between a sort of utopian thinking, the idea that people should just be decent and get along with each other, along with the existence of people who will lie, cheat, and steal if given half a chance. The theory goes that if people were good, then there would be no reason for bad people to be created by bad circumstances. But those circumstances already exist, created by other bad people.

You cannot have a great universal reset, a tabula rasa, where you set everything to a level playing field. Attempts have been made in the past, and are ongoing, to create such a thing, but it truly is impossible. We are all starting from somewhere, like it or not. It can be fun to imagine a better world if some grand idea were introduced a hundred years ago, but you cannot make it so.

Ah, look at that, I accidentally started talking about leftism again in my Moby Dick reflections. Funny how that keeps happening, a lot of these ideas are deep and universal, I suppose. This is what makes this book so fascinating, it’s always coming at you from angles you don’t expect.

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There’s a way to read this chapter that is very flippant. Ishmael is just saying “hey, whalemen who eat whales by whale-oil light aren’t so bad, everyone does stuff like that”. A sort of apologism for barbarity, you may say, of the sort that Ishmael has engaged in many times before, making excuses for his much-maligned profession. But I think the interesting thing is that he’s not excusing it, per se, but rather saying that nobody else is any better, so there’s really no reason to look down on the practice so much. It is, essentially, being blown out of proportion.

It’s easy to miss this idea in a modern reading, of course, because whalers no longer exist, and thus are not looked down on at all, except in a historical context. There is no stereotype of whalers sitting down and (monstrously, shockingly) eating whale meat by whale light.

I think the central idea that Ishmael is getting at here is the same as the one that’s come up before: whalers are disrespected because they are distant from their customers. The labor that they perform is done thousands of miles away from the people who are actually using whale oil, and is thus completely invisible. You buy a can of oil at a store and burn it, and never give a second thought to the people who may have sacrificed their lives to procure it. Maybe hearing some stories seventh-hand about how they hire cannibals as harpooneers, and are a rough and rowdy group.

It reminds one of the current crisis, wherein the truly “essential” members of our society have been laid starkly bare: grocery store clerks, janitors, truck drivers, nurses, doctors, etc. I think a lot about the way that labor is valued and devalued by society, how the decisions are made over who gets paid how much. It is not some sort of perfect, logical machine as is theorized by economists, but rather a loose collection of vague notions and social networks.


Well, I’ve gotten pretty far off track, so I’ll finish here with a bit of sensory delight from this chapter:

Among the Dutch whalemen these scraps are called “fritters”; which, indeed, they greatly resemble, being brown and crisp, and smelling something like old Amsterdam housewives’ dough-nuts or oly-cooks, when fresh. They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.

Trying out the oil on a whaling boat is essentially running a great big deep fryer in the boat, day and night. This is laborious and horrible work, but it does come with its benefits: you can fry your normally bland food, and you can eat delicious bits of fried fat that congeal around the edges.

Ah.

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Well, that turned out to go a bit deeper than I expected, but it is ever thus with this ancient tome, replete as it is with wisdom. I joke, but it still surprises me when I get to writing and thinking about one of these chapters and come up with some new connections to modern ideas I never could have anticipated.

Ah, it’s fun doing these. I’m definitely gonna get back on schedule, at least two a week, maybe more. I need something to do while I’m stuck at home!

Until next time, shipmates!

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