Man, what a chapter title.
After so many chapters titled “The [noun]”, we get an old fashioned summary, like this is a danged penny dreadful or dime novel. Also, apparently hunting a whale is now a single-chapter affair, or half a chapter, as we’ll soon see. The real focus is on the eponymous Talk.
SUMMARY: Ahab makes it known that the crew should sing out if they happen to see a right whale, which the Pequod does not usually hunt. They had drifted into a part of the ocean where that particular whale is plentiful, so it didn’t take long to find one. Stubb and Flask head off in pursuit, and manage to both secure their harpoons in the whale. They are dragged back towards the ship, but the whale dives just before colliding with it. The whale returns to the surface and drags the two boats in a complete circuit around the ship, while the two makes kill it by tossing lance after lance into its back.
Pulling up next to the whale to begin securing to the ship, Stubb and Flask have a little chat. It turns out, there’s an old superstition that a boat with a sperm whale head lashed to one side and a right whale head lashed to the other cannot be capsized, no matter how rough the sea. The Pequod had been listing pretty heavily to one side since they strung up the sperm whale head, so it made a certain amount of sense. But this wisdom is attributed to Fedallah, Ahab’s mysterious Persian harpooneer, and the two men speculate that he is the devil himself. They discourse on the immortal and intractable nature of the devil, and Stubb claims to not be afraid of him at all. He would simply toss the devil off the ship, if it were up to him, and continue doing it every time he showed up again.
The whale’s head is lashed to the side of the boat opposite the sperm whale’s, righting it in the water once more.
Ah, what a fun chapter. First, we get that great bit of whale-hunting action, which reads a lot more clearly to me than some of the earlier hunts. There’s some good ~foreshadowing~ for the eventual fate of the Pequod mixed in as well:
So close did the monster come to the hull, that at first it seemed as if he meant it malice; but suddenly going down in a maelstrom, within three rods of the planks, he wholly disappeared from view, as if diving under the keel.
Imagine a whale ramming a whaling ship! Why, that would be horrible, good thing it’ll never happen to the good ol’ Pequod. Luckily, this particular ship is fated to be rammed and sunk by a different whale. Certainly not a common and degraded right whale, which isn’t even their prey of choice.
And though all hands commonly disdained the capture of those inferior creatures; and though the Pequod was not commissioned to cruise for them at all, and though she had passed numbers of them near the Crozetts without lowering a boat; yet now that a Sperm Whale had been brought alongside and beheaded, to the surprise of all, the announcement was made that a Right Whale should be captured that day, if opportunity offered.
There’s a certain lightness all throughout this chapter. An almost slapstick quality to the chase with the right whale, and a definitely comedic tone to the conversation afterwards. Hunting a right whale is a walk in the park, this is nothing like the intensity of a sperm whale hunt.
As you’ll no doubt recall from the riveting chapter Cetology, right whales are the ones that are hunted in the northern whale fishery, up in the icy seas of the north Atlantic. They’re probably closer to your mental image of a whale, they’re a bit like the famous blue whale, but a bit smaller. They’ve got the filter-feeding mouths, and thus lack the precious spermaceti of the sperm whale. Which, come to think of it, hasn’t even been discussed in this book thus far.
It’s kind of funny that the crew of the Pequod doesn’t even bother rendering the blubber from the right whale, it is so beneath them. They’re just here for the head, to act as a counterbalance to the sperm whale head on the other side. Once they’re done with the sperm whale, no doubt they’ll cut the right whale head free without so much as a second glance.
Now, the matter of the purpose of the head is pretty interesting. The idea that you’d want to counterbalance the enormous weight on one side of the ship with a roughly equal weight on the other side seems like pretty basic logic, but it’s treated as a sort of deep wisdom or even evil magic by Stubb and Flask.
“I don’t know, but I heard that gamboge ghost of a Fedallah saying so, and he seems to know all about ships’ charms. But I sometimes think he’ll charm the ship to no good at last. […] “
(“Gamboge” is, of course, an archaic term for “yellow”, which, yikes.)
The understanding of how knowledge works is so different depending on the context. What is the difference between wisdom passed down through the ages, and the tricks of the trade gleaned from a master craftsman? Where is the line between an old magic charm, and a common sense practice that just helps you do your job better?
Depending on your method of viewing the world, there is no functional difference. From our modern perspective, it’s very easy to look down our noses at the people of the past and their incredible ignorance. Belief in things that turned out to be wrong, like the miasma theory of disease or that the sun revolves around the earth. But, really, the thing to consider is: what gets results?
My particular view of things is that what matters is what happens. The story you tell yourself about with all the whys and wherefores about it happening is only as useful as the results you get in the end. A sort of “there is no substitute for victory” but for epistemology. After all, what is knowledge? Nothing but a bunch of assumptions about how the world works.
Does it matter if you believe that heads from different whale species on either side of a ship are a magic charm against capsizing, or if you know that a counterbalance is a good idea? Let’s think it through.
A whale head is an enormously heavy thing, and would need something very heavy to counterbalance it. On the open ocean, thousands of miles from land, where would you find something like that? Bring up supplies from the hold? Oh yes, that’s a great idea, just hang them over the edge of the ship, let them get ruined by the wind and rain.
So, shall you find the head of another sperm whale? Good luck with that one, that’s the whole reason you’re out there, it’s the default mission of the ship, so looking for one extra hard won’t really get you anything. But, if you expand your mission to include a right whale, which is easier to find, then you’ll be able to get your counterweight more easily. You see, the right whale feasts on brit, as mentioned in a previous chapter, which floats on the surface, thus making their territory easier to identify. Sperm whales feed on squid at abyssal depths in the ocean, so it’s a bit harder to identify their regular haunts.
There you have it, a perfectly logical explanation for this specific bit of arcane whaling lore, this ancient Ship Charm.
The problem, then, is how does one determine which bits of old mariner wisdom are like this, actual good advice shrouded in fantasy, and which are pure superstition? What method do you actually use to separate out good information from bad, in a time before this world of ours was shrunk to the size where it fits in the palm of your hand?
It’s no wonder that sailors are famously superstitious, and whalers doubly so. Out at sea, all you have to rely on is what you hear from the people around you all the time. It’s a setting ripe for rumors and wild speculation, running up and down the width and breadth of the ship. You are relying on your fellow shipmates to keep you alive at all times, it’s no wonder that you’d rely on them as a source of information about how the world works as well.
It turns out, many of those rumors have to do with good ol’ Fedallah, the Persian harpooneer that Ahab was hiding in the ship’s hold until the first whale hunt. Stubb is pretty sure he’s the devil, and simply appeared on the ship one day:
Do you believe that cock and bull story about his having been stowed away on board ship? He’s the devil, I say. The reason why you don’t see his tail, is because he tucks it up out of sight; he carries it coiled away in his pocket, I guess. Blast him! now that I think of it, he’s always wanting oakum to stuff into the toes of his boots.
For some reason, the big sticking point seems to be where Fedallah is hiding his tail. Stubb thinks he stuffs it in his pocket, and Flask says he coils it up beneath him when he sleeps in piles of rigging. They are both operating on the assumption that the devil is just a dude w/ a tail and no other unusual characteristics whatsoever. As if he could use his devilish magic to change his appearance, but that tail is always gonna be a dead giveaway, so he has to do something else with it.
There’s so much folklore surrounding the devil, it’s hard to even know where to start. The idea that he’s just running around causing trouble for individual people is an ancient one, and became even more prominent with the strains of protestantism present in early America.
Along those lines, I really love this little story that Stubb tells about the devil visiting another ship:
‘I want John.’ ‘What for?’ says the old governor. ‘What business is that of yours,’ says the devil, getting mad,—‘I want to use him.’ ‘Take him,’ says the governor—and by the Lord, Flask, if the devil didn’t give John the Asiatic cholera before he got through with him, I’ll eat this whale in one mouthful.
It’s just such a hilarious mental image. The devil comes and takes some random sailor, and just gives him cholera. Something about the devil just doing completely mundane evil things is always funny to me. Not trying to steal away immortal souls or cause some sort of cosmic imbalance, just givin’ some guy cholera.
Towards the end of the chapter, Ishmael gives us a bit of a metaphor attached to the heads. One of them is Kant, and the other is Locke, both famous philosophers. If you keep both in mind, you will be balanced, but if you simply toss both overboard, you’ll be free of your burden, and float light and free.
Knowledge of philosophy is truly a terrible burden, for Ishmael and for me, personally. That nonsense I was rambling about earlier about the nature of knowledge and epistemology, that’s something I constantly find myself revisiting. Back in college, I took a class on epistemology, and my mind was poisoned forever by the knowledge of radical skepticism.
I no longer believe it is possible to know anything, not in any real way. It provides a useful lens, a way to step back and consider things, but it also makes it difficult to engage with things on the level at which most people are able. All I have now are beliefs, and I can try them on and toss them away as I please.
When you start thinking too much about things, looking at them too closely, they will inevitably fall apart. Any sort of rule or maxim, any sort of physical relationship. It’s all built on a hill of sand, ready to collapse at the application of too much scrutiny. This includes, it turns out, the sum of all human knowledge and history. Did you know that it’s impossible to prove that causality, of all things, is true?
But what does that get you? What results can you produce with all the world’s philosophy at your fingertips? Well, it helps one to understand where one stands. This whole book we’re reading is an exercise in philosophy as a form of personal therapy. Ishmael is minutely examining his experiences, trying to apply different types of understanding, in order to make sense of things.
A useful term I picked up in my philosophical studies is this: “telling a story”. When you construct an elaborate explanation, a thought experiment, some sort of narrative to make an argument, you’re “telling a story” about it. The usage that sticks in my mind is that it can be dismissive. As in, “oh I could tell you a story where [x] is true, but that doesn’t mean that it is.” The human mind loves narratives, and it is more easily tricked into following logic that accompanies them, no matter how flawed it may be.
Whew, that ended up being a long one. I feel like I had a bit of trouble getting going, had a couple false starts, but it ended up being very good. I may do a separate post on epistemology and some other issues raised here… some time. It’s been on my mind lately, as I’m sure you can tell.
I hope you’re not sick of philosophy, because the next two chapters are going in deep. Might have to look at some of my old notes to figure out what all is going on here, that’ll be fun.
Until next time, shipmates!