Chapter 78: Cistern and Buckets

Ah, here we go, back to action!

Yes, after a few chapters in a row of straight philosophizing, Ishmael has deigned to give us some more Things That Actually Happened on his fateful whaling voyage. I often wonder how much of the initial poor reception of this book would have been mitigated if Melville mixed these two modes of writing together more evenly. I remember hearing that it went narrative and non-narrative every other chapter, but that’s obviously not true.

SUMMARY: Ishmael describes the process of getting the tackle ready for the removal of the sperm from the whale’s case. Tashtego is the one doing it in this case, cutting a hole in the head and then using a simple bucket to draw out the sperm, which the crew then lifts back up onto the deck and pours into a tub. The bucket is attached to a pole, which the harpooneer must shove deeper and deeper into the case to get at the last precious drops of sperm.

Unfortunately, this rough treatment leads to Tashtego falling into the case head-first! This then dislodges one of the hooks attaching the sperm whale’s head to the Pequod, causing it to dip below the water level. Daggoo quickly leaps down and grabs hold of the pole, attempt to use it to rescue his fellow harpooneer, but to no avail. The other hook slips off, and the head begins sinking into the ocean, with Tashtego still entombed within.

Queequeg literally leaps to the rescue, diving overboard with a small sword. He cuts a hole in the side of the head and pulls Tashtego out by his hair. They are both then rescued by other crewmen who have lowered a boat. The whale’s head is lost, continuing to sink to the bottom of the ocean now that it has lost almost all of its buoyant sperm.


This chapter contains one of the all-time great unintentionally suggestive quotes from this book, so we should probably get that out of the way first:

I know that this queer adventure of the Gay-Header’s will be sure to seem incredible to some landsmen, […].

Ah, every time Melville uses “queer” to mean “strange”, it warms my heart. Evolving language is so much fun. There’s a chapter coming in the… not-too-distant future which has even more suggestive language, to the point that it simply must be at least somewhat intentional. But, we’ll get to that when we get to that.

Anyway, this chapter is a fun one to read, and to me mostly serves as a reminder of just how wild industrial accidents can be. Thanks to popular media, there is little knowledge of what the actual dangerous jobs are. If you’re not getting shot at, your job must be safe and boring, right? Well, turns out, not so much.

Back in the 19th century, in the early days of industrialization, there was a huge risk of being maimed or killed by factory equipment. Nowadays it’s not as bad, and in fact the most dangerous jobs are ones that involve either construction or driving. Simply increasing the amount of time you spend on the road increases the mortality of a job by several fold, it’s kind of shocking.

What kind of suffering are you willing to accept on the behalf of others in order to attain the goods or services that you desire? It’s a question we must all ask ourselves at some point or another. Of course, it goes to another point I’ve been hammering on about for a while, the visibility, or lack thereof, of labor. If it is shocking that a roofer or a fisherman is ten times more likely to die on the job than a police officer, what does that mean? Why would that be? Could you sup on fish sticks as comfortable knowing that they were smeared with the blood of a dozen men who died, in aggregate, to obtain them?

Ah! it’s all so abstract, it’s hard to really nail down without hard examples, which is what makes this book so useful. There was a whole sequence way back in New Bedford about the whaling chapel, where the human cost of whaling was established, long before Ishmael ever set eyes on the Pequod. Now that we’ve been at sea, we’ve seen some concrete examples of the perils of the fishery: falling from masts on lookout, being smote dead or dismembered by a whale, being towed out of sight and simply becoming lost at sea. And now, even after the whale is safely killed and secured to the boat, there is the possibility of falling into its disembodied head and sinking to the bottom of the ocean along with it.

To some extent, exposing this peril is the purpose of this book, a sort of prototype for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Which brings me ’round to my political point: Who does it benefit to hide the perils of labor? Why, the bosses of course. The more invisible labor is, the less it is respected by the general public, and thus the more exploitable its workers are, no matter how skilled they are.

To my mind, it all comes down to what is valued by society at large, rather than what is really valued in supply-demand terms. I’ve studied economics, and while they are interesting in theory, they often do not reflect the true dynamics at play in the real world, as there is a vast gulf of information between different parties involved. Not to mention purely emotional motivations that guide vast swathes of the economy, and cannot be counted up or put into equations.

The simple truth is this: Jobs that are valued more highly, more respected, have higher salaries. Unless it is in an industry that is blessedly unionized, and thus can negotiate for higher benefits directly, all workers are paid at the whim of their capitalist overlords.

An example I always think of, which I think comes from the Planet Money podcast on NPR (many years ago), is of Russian doctors. In Russia, most doctors are women, so the profession is seen as more of a purely functional thing. They are paid about as well as we may teachers in the US, which is to say: not well. There is nothing inherent in the skills or required education or the importance of the medical profession that demands higher pay. You get the pay you get, either as a result of societal pressure or direct negotiation.

One of my core political beliefs is that there ought to be a great restructuring of which jobs are most highly valued in society. Right now, there is a strange lionization of technological jobs that don’t actually produce very good results. This ongoing pandemic, however, has exposed which jobs are truly essential to our survival: grocery store workers, farmers, postal workers, etc.

The human bias towards flash and novelty blinds us to the true value of those who allow us to live our lives in relative comfort and peace. Who has the benefit of propaganda in mass media, and who gets left by the wayside, invisibly struggling away to keep us all alive? Think you now of the fisherman or the farmer, toiling away at great personal risk, a thousand miles from where you sit?

There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, so we have to figure out what ethical consumption can look like under socialism.


Haha, whew, got a bit overtly political there towards the end, feels like it’s been a while since I did that. But what the heck, I’ve put in loads of anticapitalist stuff in these posts before. Sometimes I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel, just rediscovering theory that’s already been defined and discussed to death, but hey, nothin’ wrong with that, really.

It helps us all understand these issues more clearly to resolve them again from first principles, or from a 150-year-old book about whaling in this case.

Until next time, shipmates!

2 thoughts on “Chapter 78: Cistern and Buckets”

  1. I didn’t know Sonic was a socialist. I guess I can see it.

    That “exposing work hazards” point is one that I don’t see brought up that much with Moby Dick. Usually it seems to be a lot more about the psychology behind it, the stuff everyone knows about Ahab’s obsession. I think White Jacket takes on those themes more, though it’s not the same kind of novel Moby Dick is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, White Jacket is definitely where he’s hitting that theme more directly. Hell, it got flogging banned in the US navy! It shows up in Moby Dick mostly around trying to explain what whaling is and why whalers should be treated better, which feels more relevant today, really. Nobody is getting flogged at their roofing job, but most people don’t know how dangerous it is.

      Liked by 1 person

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