Chapter 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish

Alright, enough about space whales, let’s get back to good ol’ fashioned domestic Earth whales.

Diver freeing a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) trapped in a fishing net.

We’ve got a real barn burner of a chapter today. One of those ones that feels like it was written specifically for me, or at least the 21st century audience. This is just a beautiful bit of philosophical writing that really gets across an idea in a very neat and tidy way. Sure, there are a few rough edges to it, I won’t ignore those, but we’ve certainly gotten used to them by this point, haven’t we?


Following on a brief allusion to waif-poles in the last chapter, Ishmael regales us with the only iron-clad laws of the whaling business, which are as follows:

  1. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
  2. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

These rules also allow for certain exceptions peculiar to the trade, like waif-poles, which are poles that are stuck in whales to claim them for later processing. Any sort of symbol of possession, along with the obvious ability and willingness to take it, should be respected. These absolute laws have prevented all kinds of bloodshed between whalers over the years.

He recounts an actual court case from England, where in the frigid North Atlantic fishery, a whale was harpooned by a group of whalers from one boat, who were then forced to abandon their boat entirely, with the boat still attached to the whale by the harpoon and line. The whale was subsequently killed and taken by another whaling ship, who also took possession of the harpoon, line, and boat.

Ultimately, the verdict was that the boat should be returned to the initial whalers, but everything else belonged to those who actually came and finished off the whale. The harpoon became the property of the whale when the first whalers abandoned their ship, and then became the property of the second whalers after they took possession of the whale.

Ishmael then goes off into his usual philosophical musings, saying that this is really just an example of one of the foundational principles of all law: possession. What are slaves but fast-fish? What was America before 1492 but one giant loose-fish? What is every human mind but a fast-fish and a loose-fish at once?

Hoo boy, there’s a lot of meat on these bones. Let’s dig in.

 What is the Law, Anyway?

Ishmael sets the scene for us with an obviously unjust decision, where property was taken away that was directly in front of one group of plaintiffs. He even acknowledges this in the text, but then explains, with what is still a pretty common saying:

Is it not a saying in every one’s mouth, Possession is half of the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole of the law.

Hilariously, the version I’ve heard most often is “possession is 9/10ths of the law”. I guess people are being a bit more honest these days.

Basically: If you’ve got it, it might as well legally belong to you. The forces of society operate mostly on inertia, and the law is very reluctant to move against that. If you are enforcing your claim to something in some concrete and commonly recognized way, then it simply must belong to you. And if there’s something out there in the world that nobody has claimed, then whoever does so first is the one who owns it.

All these specific rules and regulations are just narrowing and refining this central concept. This is what he means by it being one of the two pillars of all jurisprudence. Figuring out who really owns what is mostly an exercise in creating excuses to explain away why the people who already have it are the true owners.

The Fragility of Fastness

The whaling boat is an excellent metaphor to get into the broader implications of this chapter. After all, the small rope attached to the harpoon is all that maintains the possession of this vast, powerful bulk to one boat or another. This tenuous thread, no matter how fine, carries with it all the social power, simply because everyone has already agreed to it.

To pull out one of the examples from Ishmael’s litany that really struck my eye:

What is yonder undetected villain’s marble mansion with a door-plate for a waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish?

The small plaque attached to a great mansion is the same as that waif pole on a massive whale. This huge, empty chunk of property is claimed as the possession of an absent person, simply because of a small sign. And that is enforced with the full and lethal force of the law.

But whose claims are supported? And by what standards can you determine whether a fish is even fast or loose in such diverse circumstances as he rattles through in that paragraph? One could argue that, in addition to being the cornerstone of law, resolving such questions is at the heart of all human conflict, throughout history.

Loose-Fish is a State of Mind

Another notable example from Ishmael’s list is the Archbishop Savesoul’s income, coming back to some anti-organized religion that I noted much earlier in the book. Laying claim to money in other peoples pockets is stretching this metaphor in an interesting way, certainly.

After all, it’s not so much that the Archbishop is laying a legal claim to that money, but he is laying a social claim to it. It belongs to him already, because he is capable of getting his hands on it. He convinces people that it ought to belong to him, and thus secured it with his harpoon just as viciously as any whaler.

But Ishmael goes even further:

What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish?

It’s one thing to equate the colonization of a country to the enslavement of an individual, but to come right down and say that ideologues are coming in and laying claim to the thoughts of their followers is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

This is something I’ve pondered, in the past. That feeling that one gets when you are particularly engrossed in a book, especially on a non-fiction subject, where you are following the lines of thought of the author so closely, you lose track of your own reactions. It’s easy to ready and just sop up whatever is put in front of you like a sponge, especially if it is difficult to parse. You feel a sense of accomplishment, that then only further intensifies your own identification with the ideas that are being presented.

Making you arrive at an idea on your own tempers your subsequent belief in it. This is why Socratic dialogues are such an effective technique. Gently leading someone to a conclusion has a way of making them believe that this is what they always thought, or that it is the plain and obvious truth, common sense all along.

The Duality of Fishness

As Ishmael says in the very last line: we are all both fast and loose at the same time.

You cannot exist in the world without being compromised by it in some way. Whether you believe that is by Earthly sins or the corrupting physicality of the Demiurge or the inescapable power of capitalism, everything is connected, and that means to bad and good things.

At the same time, that fastness is not absolute. It is gossamer-thin, and it is constantly being negotiated and litigated and fought over with words and bullets. What is up for grabs? What is already claimed? People have different ideas, but the important thing is to recognize that this pillar is sunk in sand.

We are building it all from nothing. These laws only work because everyone agreed on them. One day, whalers were tossing harpoons and firing pistols at each other, and the next, there was peace.

It was not, and still is not, an immutable law of the universe. And, neither is any other law. A fast-fish is only a matter of opinion, and only exists as far as it can be enforced.


That’s all well and good, but I feel as though I’ve been losing sight of one of the original purposes of this blog: tracking down references and pointing out jokes.

There’s one very dirty joke in this chapter that comes from the (supposed) court case involving Judge Erskine, where he compares the whale to a man’s wife. The woman was basically abandoned, and ended up living with another man. You could say she was “harpooned”, ohoho, how droll.

Another is a strange reference to the “Chinese Society for the Suppression of Meddling with other People’s Business”, which one can only assume is some manner of 19th century racist joke, which has become completely obscure to the modern reader. It’s not offensive on its face, but it has that vibe.

Finally, it must acknowledged that this chapter features some antisemitism in the form of naming an insidious broker “Mordecai” in his litany on fastness and looseness. Which is pretty much par for the course at this point in history, and is, naturally, deplorable.

Although, honestly, the thing about that segment that is most puzzling is the use of the word “discount”, which seems to be used to describe the payment on a loan? It is funny how the meanings of words shift so much over time, even in a chapter that otherwise reads as being so clear and understandable to a modern reader.

Ahhh, man, that was a great chapter. Definitely very provocative, I can only imagine how controversial this would have been in the 19th century if the book hadn’t been an absolute and unequivocal failure.

It’s a funny thing to remember: this book only sold around 3,000 copies when it was first published. It was roundly ignored and dismissed, and wouldn’t be rediscovered until the 1920s, when it picked up the moniker of the “Great American Novel”.

Context shifts so much over time. I imagine the things that those 1920s literary types found interesting is just as different to me as the 1850s literary types were to them.

Until next time, shipmates!

1 thought on “Chapter 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish”

  1. The historian Robert C. Deal traces the then-evolving law of “fast-fish/loose fish” versus concepts of interference with trade in “The Law of the Whale Hunt: Dispute Resolution, Property Law, and American Whalers, 1780-1880” (Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society, 2019).

    Liked by 1 person

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