What do you even do with a whale, once you’ve killed it?
Much has been said about what a monumental foe the sperm whale is, in this book thus far. So vast and terrible in its strength, such a rare thing to even see one, much less successfully kill it. After all that is accomplished, what do you do? How on earth does an old timey sailing ship accommodate such a massive carcasse? Well, that’s what today’s chapter, and the several following chapters, are about, so settle in! It’s gonna get gross.
SUMMARY: On the day after the whale was killed, which happened to be a Sunday, the whalers of the Pequod started the long, arduous process of extracting its blubber. A massive block and tackle was brought up from the hold and strung up from the mainmast. The mates Stubb and Flask cut a hole into the whale with the same long spades used to kill sharks the night before, into which is then inserted an enormous hook. The crew then uses the capstan to haul on the hook, causing the ship to tilt over as the whale is pulled up out of the water. Eventually, the whale drops back down, and the mates start cutting off a large strip of blubber. Much like an orange, it is unwrapped from the whale’s body, brought all the way up to the full height of the mast.
This huge, bloody strip of fat is then slowly lowered back down into the ship’s blubber room, where it is cut up by other crewmen with boarding swords. Thus, the work goes on, late into the night, with the weight of the raised strip being used to pull more and more blubber from the ever-spinning whale corpse.
As I said: pretty gross.
[…] the men at the windlass then cease heaving, and for a moment or two the prodigious blood-dripping mass sways to and fro as if let down from the sky, and every one present must take good heed to dodge it when it swings, else it may box his ears and pitch him headlong overboard.
It really puts the whole thing in perspective, though. How do you carry out butchery on such a scale? Well, every little part of it has to be a whole carefully practiced song and dance involving the whole crew working together. Merely the act of skinning the whale involves industrial machinery hoisted to the top of the very highest mast on the ship.
The image of the giant strip of fat, swinging in the breeze, blood still dripping off of it, is extremely evocative. This whole process, rolling the whale around to remove its blubber like an orange’s peel, is something that really stuck in my head after reading this book. It demonstrates what a bizarre undertaking this whole thing is, how different it is from anything I’ve ever experienced in my life.
It brings to mind my relationship with cooking. For a large part of my life, I barely knew how to cook. I could make ramen, and I learned to do pasta, but other than that, it wasn’t something I was interested in. Part of it was just intimidation, using knives and hot burners and whatnot, but also the idea of interacting with uncooked food so directly grossed me out on some level.
Like, I was totally at peace with the notion that food often starts out looking gross, before it is rendered through some mysterious process into an appetizing form. Some sort of shocking content at a younger age, meant to turn me towards vegatarianism, backfired and got me totally comfortable with the notion that some measure of weird, gross-looking business was necessary to get at the delicious end results.
What I was not comfortable with, though, was actually interacting with it myself. See a cow carcasse being butchered? Sure, whatever, I can take it, but don’t ask me to participate. I won’t get my hands dirty, though I have knowledge that others are getting their dirty on my behalf.
Since then, maybe a decade ago, I’ve gotten past that fear and become a pretty good cook. Still not sure if I could get involved with actual butchery, but just dealing with raw animal parts is totally fine. It’s more the fear of the unknown that did it, I think. Not knowing what the rules were, what was safe to do, and knowing that if I did something wrong, I would get myself and others sick as a result.
So, returning to the text, this kind of wildly outsized butchery is yet another level of remove. Being a sailor is something I could never do, and being a whaler is to a sailor what being a sailor is to me. All these strange procedures, dealing with seemingly impossible problems, requiring endless toil and danger at all times. A level of brutality and engagement with gross and bloody reality that is unthinkable in my everday life.
In some sense, this is another theme that’s been developed as the book has gone on, the way that whalers are treated as a class apart from other sailors. Early on, when Ishmael was being hired, Captain Peleg refused to even consider being in “the marchant service” as real sailing experience. Old Ishmael has taken time in several chapters to defend the honor of whaling as a profession, and whalers as a class, from perceived disrespect by the wider society.
There have been some vague intimations about what sets whalers apart before, the large amount of foreigners and “savages” on their ships, but these recent chapters have shown the true division: the nature of the work of whaling. Both the extraordinarily dangerous practices involved in hunting whales, and the absurd lengths that must be gone to to actually extract the actual object of their quest once the whale is dead. We haven’t even gotten to the extraction of the spermacetti from the whale’s skull yet, but rest assured: that too is full of peril.
Other sailors are simply people who run a ship going from place to place. Whalers do that, and also engage in deadly combat with actual sea monsters and then spend days methodically butchering their massive bodies at sea.
It fascinates me so, the way that this book moves between these two worlds; the intellectual one of both Ishmael and Ahab’s internal life, and the real, physical one of their actions, both of which are bizarre and fantastical. Ishmael is a dreamy fellow, always ruminating on the grand meaning of things, but he is also standing watch on the top of masts and participating in these fights with giant whales in a tiny boat, along with everyone else. Ahab is consumed with his metaphysical obsessions, believing himself a legendary hero with a special destiny, but he’s also going out on whale hunts with a single leg using his secret crew that he smuggled onto the ship.
Moby Dick, the book, is often regarded as a certain kind of, not to put too fine a point on it, boring masterpiece. One of those creaky old tomes that is full of archaically worded philosophy and dry descriptions of old timey business. It is shocking, then, to read it and discover images like this, brought to life by lived experience, not mediated by some sort of overly-mannered restraint.
In these times of plague and quarantine, the workers that are truly essential, that make our lives possible, are brought to the surface. The cruel calculus of capitalism is laid bare for all to see. In some way, this is what Ishmael is trying to accomplish with this book, as well. Whale oil was a commonly used thing, which nobody thought twice about using.
Who is actually valued in these arrangements? At least the whalers are honest about the precise shares that every member of the crew is to receive.
Ah, that was a fun one. This is a short chapter, but I think I managed to wring some interesting reflections out of it.
From here on out, I’m going to aim for one post a week, every sunday. With my schedule this quarter, it should work out perfectly. If it doesn’t, eh, so it goes. I’m committed to finishing this, however long it takes.
Come to think of it, I think the middle of this chapter is the precise halfway point of this book! Hard to believe, when I started this whole thing I doubted if I could ever reach ten chapters, much less fifty.
Until next time, shipmates!