Ahhh, nice to be back. It’s been far too long since I really had time to sit down and work on this blog or read this book. I’ve been much too busy and not quite comfortable enough with my new surroundings and situation, but now… it is Time.
Let us see, where ever did I leave off in this magnificent tome… ah yes, the aftermath of The Pequod‘s encounter with a vast school of whales. We encountered an exciting new phenomenon… which means it’s time for Old Ishmael to regale us with some more whale facts!
Ishmael reflects on the large group of whales which The Pequod just encountered, informing us that they are referred to as “schools”. These schools are sometimes composed of a group of femals surrounding one male, as in a harem, and that leading male is known as the schoolmaster. Other schools are composed of a group of males, and go around rowdily fighting each other and any other whales they encounter.
The life of a male sperm whale is described, from his younger days being raised, up through gaining his own harem, and then retiring to explore the world alone. Ishmael compares these whale harems to those of the Turks, and how they are violently defended from interloping lotharios.
Finally, he describes how male sperm whales, when hunted, will abandon their fellows and flee, while females will stay nearby, often ending up hunted and killed along with their stricken comrades.
Boy howdy, it’s always fun to come back to a book that one consistently rates as their favorite and read a whole chapter of prototypical racism, huh?
Ha ha, I kid, but for real: this is one of those chapters that makes you tug your collar a bit as you read it, especially if you are informed about certain cultural stereotypes that find their origins in literally medieval understandings of other cultures. In this case: The Harem, that perennial feature of the Mysterious Orient.
Orientalism: A Different Flavor
There’s a problem with talking about this in that, like… “orientialism” feels like it’s one of those old-timey kinds of racism that doesn’t exist anymore. And, indeed, it certainly shouldn’t, but it very much does, and it rears its ugly head more often than one might think.
Essentially, the idea is that things in the East (the Orient, defined as everything east of, say, France) are different and weird and don’t follow the same rules. This often takes an appearance that is not altogether negative, especially in modern times, but it is no less harmful.
If you’ve ever heard anyone bloviating about how Chinese people are somehow psychologically or even biologically different from “normal” people in some bizarre way, that’s part of it. Oh, they’re just better at cooperating, being harmonious, taking in the whole picture, etc etc.
This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t different cultures and cultural standards in different places, that much is blindingly obvious. It’s more that it seeks to both exaggerate those differences and also seat them in biology in some way. Very quickly, you end up back in scientific racism without even realising it!
Now, what does this have to do with this chapter all about how sperm whales have harems? Well, the very idea of the harem was a bizarre fetish that western thinkers were positively obsessed with for hundreds and hundreds of years.
The idea that “Turks” (again: anyone east of, say, Italy) have this totally different way of doing things, and they sought to abduct Our Women into it. It’s all very salacious and absurd on its face when you get down to it. Based on a complete lack of cross-cultural understanding, and this bizarre hermetic effect you get when people are just left to speculate based on rumors for hundreds and hundreds of years.
And, of course, any contrary information could easily be ignored, because it would be contradicted by the great thinkers and scholars of history! And common sense, everyone knows how a harem works, you can’t let a little thing like reality get in the way of it.
We see in this chapter the two competing modes of masculinity pitted against each other: the dutiful husband and the lothario. And, in the process, a whole lot of anthropomorphizing of whales, applying human ideas and standards to them, drawing from their “natural” behaviors a sort of secret truth about the “right” way for things to be.
Young whales are promiscuous, always trying to steal away the “wives” of older whales from their “harems”. Older whales settle down and seek to protect what they see as their property. Then, elderly whales go off on their own, put out to pasture and roam the world, their work for the species already done.
It’s easy to see the reflection here that Ishmael is making to human nature. If one wishes to be absurdly generous to the novel, as I do, then we can take this as another wild attempt to make sense of a chaotic world.
Of course these animals behave just like humans! This is the truth underlying everything. We can divine the truth of the world by examining nature, ie: looking closely at the lives of whales to determine the destiny of men.
Ahhhhhh, man, it’s been way too long. And I’ve gotten too busy! But I’ve been feeling the Urge to come and express myself, to engage in this kind of active thinking and criticism, for some time.
If you let this kind of thing back up in your ol’ head meats, you start yelling at your youtube videos and podcasts because you disagree with the hosts. You’ll snap at people at work. You’ll turn viciously on the most innocuous post on social media.
I cannot promise regular updates, but I can promise that I am still commited to finishing this damnable project. I have received several messages and comments from people who enjoy my work, which is always very much appreciated.
Up next is… more musings from Ishmael! Less racist this time, though, I believe.
Until next time, shipmates!