Okay, now that that’s out of the way, we can get back to business. I’ve been a bit busy lately: going to school, being overwhelmed by the horrors of the world, fearing for the safety of my city and my friends abroad, making a new website for myself. All very pressing business, I assure you.
So, I have not been spending all this time preparing for this chapter with a very nice number. Still, it looks to be a good one, nice and short, but with plenty of meat on its bones nonetheless, heheh. Let’s get to it!
SUMMARY: Ahab orders the beheaded carcase of the whale released into the ocean, now that the blanket of blubber has been removed from it. The naked, bleached-white corpse bobs in the water, attracting hordes of sharks and sea birds to devour it. Ishmael muses on the sad, meager funeral for such a powerful creature.
So, rather than being a fun examination of everyone’s favorite form of mutual oral sex, this chapter is sort of a reflection on death and the contrast between the power living flesh and its ignominious, inevitable end. I do feel a bit vindicated in some of my interpretations from earlier in the book, there is definitely some subtext being exposed as text here, as is Ishmael’s wont.
Specifically, all this stuff about notions of tradition and the suffocating, pointless nature of it that I keep harping on about. Sometimes I fear that I’m just conjuring up these themes that were never really intended (though it’s totally valid to do that, actually) but no! He just comes out and says it in this chapter.
The whale corpse attracts tons of birds and sharks. These are spotted from afar by other ships crossing the Pacific ocean, and they mistake them for places where hidden shoals or reefs exist, as that’s where seabirds usually congregate. Thus, they mark it down carefully on their chart, and other ships passing that way in the future carefully avoid these phantom hazards. Ishmael finds this whole thing a very apt metaphor:
There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There’s orthodoxy!
Thus, while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world.
Indeed, it serves as a very succinct explanation of the appeal to tradition as an argument. “If this is the way we’ve always done things, then it must be right!” and so on. Which ties into the notion of Ancient Wisdom, and the idea that because the world seems bad now, the past must’ve been better. Just because we can’t figure out why, exactly, these traditions were established, that’s no reason to stop doing them. Someone knew, at some point, and we should trust them!
It’s a whole model for knowledge that is slowly being left, appropriately, in the past. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t check their work from time to time. Those foundations of our civilization may prove to be somewhat unsteady if they are not inspected on regular basis.
It’s interesting to think about this whole retrospective age we’re currently living through. Did people in the past care about their own past as much as we care about ours? And if they did, they certainly didn’t have as much access to information about it, as they didn’t have the tools to actually find things out.
The history of the discovery of history is fascinating stuff, and reveals a lot of the biases inherent in our understanding of the past, from our vantage point of the present, through the lens of the more recent past through which the traditions of viewing the past were established.
That sentence got away from me, let me back up a second.
As you know, nothing in the world is without inherent bias except physical reality. When looking at history, it’s easy to simply examine the lens through which the people who are writing it down are using. But in reality, as with all things, it is much more complicated than that. The perception of history is influenced both by the contemporary views and inherent biases of the people writing it, and also by the tradition of writing history in which they are participating. Which events are seen as important enough to mention, which people are the heroes and which are the villains, and so on.
An easy example is to compare a high school history textbook to, say, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn purposefully looked to tell the history of the US from the perspectives which were largely ignored by more historians, except in very specialized contexts. By compiling these stories in a single book, and rendering them in a form that is more familiar to most readers, he was able to bring those stories to a wider audience, who could then appreciate them for the first time.
This is all to say that blind adherence to the tradition is nothing more than the blind leading the blind. People have always been the same, and that cuts both ways. There is wisdom in the records of the past, but there is also stupidity and straight-up misunderstanding of the facts.
The fundamental error being made in arguments from authority, whatever form of authority it may be, is to appeal to the inherent respectability of that figure of authority. The way to dismantle them is to examine what the truth behind that respectability is. Does it come from a legitimate source, or is it merely a cultural veneration that has no basis in reality? Is it even relevant to the argument being made? If I tell you that keeping slaves is morally right because George Washington did it, you would rightly call me a racist buffoon.
Anyway, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty far from the text, so let’s tack back around and look at one other thing from this short chapter.
There’s a most doleful and most mocking funeral! The sea-vultures all in pious mourning, the air-sharks all punctiliously in black or speckled. […] Oh, horrible vultureism of earth! from which not the mightiest whale is free.
First of all, I love the thing in this book where Melville will have an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence, and then just continue on with lowercase letters. You can shout! and then just keep going, it matches very well to the rhythm of a certain kind of speech, which I always enjoy in writing. My method is basically to write how I speak, so any time I can pick up a method for doing that, it’s good!
Also: “vultureism” is a great word, and speaks to the main thrust of this quote. There’s a sort of memento mori thing that is echoed here and in the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Conqueror Worm“.
“Memento mori” is latin for “remember death”. It refers to a piece of jewelry or a knick-knack for your home or an element in a piece of art that reminds you that the physical world is fleeting, and you, too, shall one day die. Usually in the form of a skull, but also an hourglass or a soap bubble, it is meant to ground a person in their impending mortality as a regular reminder. To step back from the concerns and pleasures of the world and consider the spiritual side of things.
The worm in “The Conqueror Worm” is the hero because it survives everything, and conquers all the greatest kings of the world in the end. If a person is dead, can you tell the difference between a king and commoner by looking at their bones? Does not the humble maggot devour both without prejudice? This is the same idea expressed in this chapter, but with regards to the great kingly presence which it has spent so much ink mythologizing: whales.
In life, the whale is an unmatched power. Even its hunters must rely on hit and run tactics, and are constantly in danger of being smashed to pieces by the whale’s wild thrashing. But in death, it is merely picked apart by thousands of tiny, lesser beings, not unlike worms in comparison to humans.
This is a kind of tradition that goes way back in Christianity, and is part of the more radical message of the early parts of that faith that I really find more of a connection to. Where it was more about equality between all people, a focus on spiritual life instead of on physical things. It always seemed to me that there was a kind of tension between the actual lessons of Christianity and how it was interpreted in the following centuries, up to the current day!
But, perhaps that too is an illusion, brought on by my own wishful perceptions of the past, through the more charitable lens with which I view the faith into which I was born.
Ah, that was a good one. Really feel like I was able to jump back into it this time. The chapter certainly gave me some good material to reflect on.
Since I’m off school for the summer, I am planning on making these more of a regular thing again. If possible, I’d like to finish this Moby Dick project by the end of the year.
Until next time, shipmates!