Enough of this reflection and philosophizing, it’s time for more action!
I do wonder if Melville was a bit self-conscious in writing this book, aware that he was a bit too heavy on the high-minded discourse, when his audience was expecting more of a rollicking action-adventure yarn. After all, his most successful previous books, Typee and Omoo were more in that vein. Thus, the sudden shift in tone here, to a good ol’ fashioned whale hunt.
The Pequod meets with a German whaler, the Jungfrau, or Virgin. Ships from that country are very rare, but do show up occasionally. This one has been very unlucky, and her captain, one Derick De Beer, comes aboard the Pequod with a lamp-feeder to beg for some oil. Ahab, naturally, immediately interrogates him about the White Whale, but Derick is entirely ignorant of this legendary monster. He takes his filled oil can and starts heading back to his ship, when suddenly both ships spot a whole pod of whales.
Eight whales travel in parallel, leaving a large wake behind them, in which flounders an old bull of whale, a true giant, but not a very healthy one. Derick directs his boat to change course and give chase immediately, as his own ship and the Pequod launch the rest of their whaleboats. The German has the advantage, being that he was already in the water when the whale was spotted, and taunts the mates of the Pequod with his lamp-feeder, eventually tossing it overboard to lighten the load.
Alas, the speed of the Pequod‘s, boats proves superior, and they are able to snatch away the prize in the end, landing three harpoons simultaneously in the whale’s flank. The whale dives deep, but soon resurfaces and bleeds to death. It is found to have one crippled fin, and both of its eyes are grown over with a strange mass.
No sooner has the whale been secured to the Pequod that it starts to sink. The ship is in danger of capsizing, and the great chains binding the whale to her side must be quickly cut. The prize disappeared into the depths before the crew’s eyes, as the Jungfrau takes off in pursuit of another whale. But, they are chasing a fin-back whale, which is among those whales deemed uncatchable by seasoned whalers, because of its incredible swimming ability.
While there is some interesting action here, as usual Melville is very good at capturing the incredible physical reality of whaling, the real meat is in the concepts at play. But I will take a moment to appreciate this one image, when the whale dives for the bottom of the ocean after all three harpooneers land their irons in its flank:
[…]; till at last—owing to the perpendicular strain from the lead-lined chocks of the boats, whence the three ropes went straight down into the blue—the gunwales of the bows were almost even with the water, while the three sterns tilted high in the air. And the whale soon ceasing to sound, for some time they remained in that attitude, fearful of expending more line, though the position was a little ticklish. But though boats have been taken down and lost in this way, yet it is this “holding on,” as it is called; this hooking up by the sharp barbs of his live flesh from the back; this it is that often torments the Leviathan into soon rising again to meet the sharp lance of his foes.
Three boats tipped high into the air, held up by the tension of the ropes holding onto a great big sea monster in the depths of the ocean… I love it. It really gets across how absurd whaling is as an activity, at its very core. These tiny humans tormenting this great beast, harrying it until they can finally succeed, against all odds, in ending its life.
But that’s all old hat at this point, window dressing for the true purpose of this chapter: making fun of Germany, and the “Old World” in general.
The Roots of American Exceptionalism
One of the most interesting things about reading an American book from 150 years ago is how some things haven’t changed. One thing that was really striking to me is this perpetual defensive attitude that Americans have towards Europe. This chip that has forever been on our shoulder over not being European.
In this case, in manifests in the relative incompetence of the German whaling boat. They are introduced as almost comically inept and unfortunate whalers, asking for oil for their lamps, the same oil that the Pequod is practically overflowing with after a few successful hunts.
But it doesn’t stop there. Captain Derick is humiliated several times: He loses the race for the whale, despite having a huge head start and the whale being especially old and slow, he is forced to watch as his benefactors kill it and claim its corpse, and then he runs off on a doomed quest for a whale he can never catch.
It demonstrates that the American whalers are not only more skilled, but more knowledgeable. This American ascendency is shown as the right way of things, simply a fact of the world. It ties into the idea, often presented in this novel, that Americans are primarily concerned with practical matters.
This sort of attitude would continue and fester for decades and decades, even as America rose to be an actual superpower. In much the same way that Christians are perpetually oppressed even as they become a huge world religion, America is forever living in its past as an upstart colony of a powerful empire.
The Eternal American Grudge
It’s important to remember that, at the time, America was not really a world power. It was a curiosity, if anything. A colony that had become independent, but mostly served as a side-show to the real, important business going on in Europe.
As such, seeing Melville seize on this opportunity to put his great American whalers above those smug Germans makes a lot more sense. It is symbolically sayin that they have surpassed their origins. These colonists who have broken away, they have now come into their own as true masters of a craft, they have left their ancient forebears behind.
This desire to escape the past, but being completely incapable of letting go of a grudge, is a quintessentially American attitude. To this very day, American politicians use Europe as a stick to beat one another with. European socialism is mocked and derided, because we are different. We don’t want to be like them.
In a sense, I personally engage in the same sort of casual chauvinism, but with regards to the East Coast of the US. I begrudge being beholden to this place that is thousands of miles away, to people who barely share my culture, at least in my mind’s eye.
Ahh, that was a good one. I’ve been thinking about this chapter for a couple weeks, while I was busy with school work and other projects. This strain of American exceptionalism is one of those themes that really stands out when you take a view of the book from a good distance.
From a modern perspective, it’s not quite making the same point that Melville intended, and in a very obvious way. Things have changed so much in the past 150 years, we can see the seeds of intellectual concepts that endure to this very day.
Subtle attitudes and notions, hiding just beneath the surface, that were once proudly proclaimed by popular authors. Yesterday’s revolutions become the very air that we breathe, to the point that we forget they even happened.
Until next time, shipmates!