Chapter 70: The Sphynx

See? I said I would start posting more regularly, and here I am at it again, less than a week later.

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This chapter is a fun one, kind of a bridge between narrative and non-narrative. You get a bit of everything, including a return to Ahab being extremely portentous all the time. Let’s get into it!

SUMMARY: Ishmael forgot to mention before that the whale was beheaded before its body was discarded. The head is the most important part, so it is kept on for further processing. Cutting off a whale’s head is an extremely difficult and dangerous job, but Stubb performs it with remarkable aplomb in only ten minutes’ time. Going out in a boat alongside the whale, he plunges his long, sharp spade into its neck and just keeps cutting until he manages to separate it from the rest of its body.

The head cannot actually be brought on board unless the whale is very young, since it makes up roughly one third of a sperm whale’s body. So, it is pulled halfway out of the water but left attached to the side of the ship, floating alongside it. After cutting and securing the head, the crew go down for dinner.

Ahab goes up to the quarter deck for his usual pacing, but pauses when he comes to the side where the whale head lays bobbing in the water. He takes Stubb’s spade and leans over the edge, planting it in the head so he can get a better look at it. He delivers a soliloquy asking the head to reveal the secrets it has discovered on the bottom of the ocean, but it remains silent.

The sailor on the main-mast-head calls out a sail on the horizon, which brings with it a breeze that will finally move the Pequod from where it is becalmed. Ahab is almost pleased.


Ah, another short chapter, really, but full of import.

We get more on the theme of the incredible degree of difficulty involved with whaling, where cutting off the head is concerned. A sperm whale doesn’t really have anything you’d consider a “neck”, so you just kinda have to judge where the head ends and cut in there. With a blade on the end of a ten foot long pole, while you’re standing in a rocking boat, and the thing you’re cutting is underwater.

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This is part of what I’ve started thinking of as the anthropological project of this book, explaining and exposing the habits of whalemen, as a culture. It is definitely something we’ve seen come up again and again, and seems to be a concern of both Ishmael,  the fictional author, and Melville, the factual author. As I’ve mentioned before, he was no stranger to documentary writing, and indeed took on special causes for the humane treatment of merchant and military sailors in later stories.

I would imagine that Melville had this experience of being on a whaling ship, marveled at the tasks they performed at the stories he heard, and then set out to put them into a format where other people could learn about it. After all, this is what brought him fame and fortune when he did it with his experiences in the South Pacific, why not for whaling? But then, it got all caught up in these weird experimental writing techniques and genre-mashups that he was getting into, so it didn’t hit the same audience.

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After all, a story extolling the virtues of the common workin’ man isn’t exactly going to be appealing to the high literary crowd, and the high literary crowd is not going to be convinced to care about the working man so easily.

But that’s just speculation, it’s probably just the more experimental style in general, mixing together all this narrative and non-narrative stuff, putting in plays and extended unrelated story, things like that. This is just a book that people at the time didn’t get, on a fundamental level. It wasn’t rediscovered and lauded as a classic until the 1920s, decades after Melville’s death.

Anyway.

The imagery of the whale’s head being lashed to the side of the ship is pretty striking:

The Pequod’s whale being decapitated and the body stripped, the head was hoisted against the ship’s side—about half way out of the sea, so that it might yet in great part be buoyed up by its native element. And there with the strained craft steeply leaning over to it, by reason of the enormous downward drag from the lower mast-head, and every yard-arm on that side projecting like a crane over the waves; there, that blood-dripping head hung to the Pequod’s waist like the giant Holofernes’s from the girdle of Judith.

And we get a stray biblical reference here, to the Book of Judith. In it, a Hebrew woman visits the camp of an enemy general, Holofernes, promising to give him the secrets to destroy her people. But, instead, in the middle of the night, she sneaks in and beheads him, then flees the camp and returns to Jerusalem.

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It’s not considered primary canon by Jewish scholars or Protestants, but it’s a very influential and popular story. There are many great pieces of art depicting Holofernes being beheaded, a massive man being destroyed by a humble woman. Very appropriate, then, to draw the comparison to the Pequod with its quarry, the massive bloody trophy still plastered to its hull.


Alright, time to get to Ahab’s monologue.

He speaks to the head with a mix of respect and bitter scorn:

[…]; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home.

Here we see a return to the theme of The Sea as a strange and alien world. Also that idea from way back in the chapter about the Chapel, that sailors deaths are more tragic because their bodies are lost to the abyss forever.

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Ahab seeks to understand his foe, to gain that secret knowledge of the deep. In his despair, he reaches out in bitterness, feeling that he is somehow close to his goal, seeking to surpass his mortal limits. He sees the whale as something that has already transcended this physical plane, or at least the parts of it that he is familiar with.

O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine.

Alas! it cannot answer him, as it has passed beyond the veil of death, another which Ahab would puncture if he could. This builds his spiteful, omni-heretical character further, showing how his grief has made him not a hot and spiteful madman, but a cool and collected atheist.

Although, to my mind, that’s not even really the right term. It’s not that Ahab doesn’t believe in God, per se, so much as that he doesn’t believe that God is benevolent. He has lost his faith, but not his belief, not entirely. Existing still in the culture that values it so highly, steeped it in from a young age, he cannot turn his eyes from the notion of grand fate and those who control it. But he has decided that they are his enemies. Anything that is higher than him on the metaphysical totem pole, playing with his life as if a game, is his mortal foe.

Outside of the myth-building and themes, this moment is also deeply relatable. It’s a man bitterly asking his kill to give him information about where he can find more prey. Just kind of bitterly asking the fish if it can tell him any hot tips on catching more fish.


That was a good chapter, though it does make me wish I’d been keeping up with this project over the past six months or so. It’s harder to keep all these various themes and callbacks in mind when it’s been over a year since I started this project. It’s a good thing I’ve read the whole book like five times, I can remember lot of the early bits pretty well.

Next chapter will be a bit more substantial, after these short ones. It’s another gam! What will we learn from the crew of the Jeroboam? Will they reveal the location of Moby Dick?

Until next time, shipmates!

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