We’re finally out of the non-narrative chapters! Enough about whale anatomy, lets get back to story, shall we? Or, at any rate, some interesting disconnected incidents which the Pequod had while sailing about the ocean.
This one is pretty lengthy, and pretty thrilling. It’s one that never makes it into the filmed adaptations, which is a shame because it’s so very dramatic. Then again, there hasn’t been one since the advent of CG, you could really do it justice now. Of course, Moby Dick is probably unfilmable, or would require more of a broad TV approach to really do justice.
The Pequod passes through the Strait of Malacca, the main route between the Indian Ocean and the vast expanse of the Pacific. Unlike the Strait of Gibraltar, there is no need to pay respects to any forts, but pirates abound, even after the European powers began using the strait regularly and tried to stamp them out. Some pirates attempt to chase the whaling ship, but cannot compete against its sails.
Especially when the lookouts spot a vast armada of sperm whales encircling half of the horizon! Hoping to snag a few stragglers from this incredible bounty, the ship puts out every scrap of cloth it can muster to chase after the massive group of whales, who are soon roused to flee by some unknown sense of danger. They chase the whales out of the strait and into the open ocean, where the wind begins to fail, so all three boats set out to row after them.
Queequeg manages to secure a line on a whale, and the boat is dragged into the heart of the huge pod. Skillfully steering the craft, bouncing off of whales and poking them with oars, they are taken into the hidden center of the herd, a perfectly calm lake where whale calfs bound and play, coming right up to the whaling boats like inquisitive puppies. The men reach down and pet the whales, and observe mother whales in the water below, feeding their newborn children, one even still attached to its mother by an umbilical cord as long and coiling as a harpoon line.
The outer circles of the group are perturbed by the other whaling boats, which are trying to tag and injure as many whales as possible. One whale gets a loose harpoon caught on its tail, and flails around in a panic, injuring many other whales, and driving them to a frenzy. The pod breaks up and moves on, with Ishmael and Queequeg’s boat safely escaping by sliding in between them, narrowly avoiding destruction at many points.
In the end, only two whales were caught, one that was targeted by Flask, and one that was drugged. That is, it was hit with a harpoon attached to a couple of wooden blocks (called “druggs”, which hinder the whale’s momentum through the water. The whale slowly bleeds to death, without being able to get too far away. Several whales were hit with these, but all managed to escape save one.
As I said, this is a rather spectacular chapter, which is always ignored or disregarded in adaptation. I must admit, that is probably because it actually leads into an extended reflection on the nature of legal ownership, but that’s a topic for another chapter.
Babes in the Woods
One thing that struck me in this chapter is the time that Ishmael spend in the calm at the center of the herd. He and the other whalers showed no animosity towards their quarry, they didn’t even think of harming the docile calves or mothers that swam around them in those placid waters.
This goes to show the disconnect between the time in which this book was writing and a lot of modern readers. There is an expectation that the hunters are inured to the feeling of their prey, that they must become heartless in order to enact their violence. But this is obviously not true, and is also seen through Ahab’s relentless deification of Moby Dick himself.
The farmer does not hate his chickens, even if he makes a meal of them. There is a different type of relationship to animals and the natural world in general, that is necessary in a time before the complete dominion over the natural world by humanity was established. Whaling may be an industry in the 19th century, but it is not yet industralized (that would happen in the early 20th century, as I’ve mentioned).
Like household dogs they came snuffling round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the time refrained from darting it.
Forces of Nature
The other striking thing about this chapter is how it demonstrates that the whalers are hopelessly outmatched by their foes. If these whales had the inclination to kill every last one of them, there’s nothing they could do to stop them. But they are dumb beasts, and the most dangerous thing we see is an inadvertent combination of their might with human tools: the whale which has a harpoon tangled in its tail.
As in the last chapter, we know that whales have unparalleled physical size and strength, but they are still vulnerable to human attacks because they lack sapience. They are a force of nature, existing in the world, which can be manipulated and utilized by humans for our own purposes.
Because of this, they are treated as a mere object, something in the world to be dealt with and processed into materials, and then into profits for the whalers. To bring out my old anticapitalist reading of this book, it is much like the vast pool of labor that is exploited by the wealthy.
Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded together in the sheepfold of a theatre’s pit, they will, at the slightest alarm of fire, rush helter-skelter for the outlets, crowding, trampling, jamming, and remorselessly dashing each other to death. Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.
The lower classes are a resource to be managed, they are not treated with any more human dignity than the whales are. I’m sure you’ve heard of “human resources” departments, but have you ever thought about that phrase? The sinister philosophy that is hidden in its common usage? You and I are nothing but whales, to be strung up and stripped of our blubber.
Wherefore the Butcher’s Blade?
So, we have these two notions: that the whalers can have sympathy for their quarry, and that the capitalist overclass treats us all as whalers treat whales. What to make of it?
Well, this is all to say that the people caught in the gears of the system, or even administering the system, are not themselves without pity or remorse. But there is an overriding sense of duty, a moral philosophy that overcomes emotional connection, which drives the system forward nonetheless.
This is something I often think of: how do these harmful systems of thought perpetuate themselves? It is because they offer something that is necessary for life, a coping mechanism, a survival strategy. To exist in a brutal world, you need to be able to tell yourself that you are not brutal, that you are only acting as you must in order to survive.
What can one whale do about an entire pod flying into a panic? What can one person do against a worldwide system in which everyone they will ever meet is deeply enmeshed? It is an impossible task, to even conceive of life as something you have no experience with.
Ahhh, that’s more like it. Feels like I’m getting back into form. Sorry for the last of posts earlier this week, I’m dogsitting again and have been busy with other work. Always nice to come up with another anticapitalist interpretation of a seemingly innocuous chapter.
I actually took a class last year, a humanities class, that helped me understand a lot of these concepts more clearly. I’ve never been one for reading theory, I’m sure I’m reinventing the wheel a lot, and that class reinforced that idea. These things all have names and long histories already, of course, but I’m not the academic sort, so I’ve forgotten them already!
Until next time, shipmates!