Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to worry you, I’m still at it!
No, friends, I won’t be disappearing for months on end in between posts anymore, as long as nothing catastrophic happens in my life (knock on wood). I’ve just been busy for the past week gorging myself on the game Pentiment, which really is incredible. There’s a big ol’ post incoming for that one, don’t you worry. Anyway, on to the chapter!
Two weeks after the last whale hunt, the Pequod comes across a strange odor on the sea. This terrible stench leads them to a French whaling ship, the Bouton de Rose (Rose-Bud), which has two whales pulled up to its sides. Stubb identifies one of them as a whale the Pequod drugged (hit with a harpoon that has a float on it, to slow the whale down) in her recent encounter with the large herd.
Both of the whales are putting out a horrible stench, and one of them shows signs of being a “blasted whale”, which has died on its own, of natural causes, and is all shriveled up. Nobody knows why this happens, but these whales have almost no good oil left in them, and the other whale shows signs of rotting that will have ruined all of its oil as well.
Stubb notes this, and the fact that the French are notoriously unskilled and naive whalers, and hatches a plan. Taking his boat to the Rose-Bud, he finds that the chief mate is a Guernseyman, who happens to speak English. The crew of the ship are all holding their noses or finding some other way to keep the horrible stench away, and are loudly grumbling about the captain’s order to prepare the whales to be processed.
Working his charms, Stubb convinces the mate that he will help him pull one over on his captain, allowing them to abandon these whales and escape this horrible miasma. Stubb talks nonsense, directly insulting the captain, while the Guernseyman, pretending to translate, concocts a story that blasted whales are known to carry the plague, and have killed entire boats of whalers in the past. The captain quickly orders the whales abandoned.
Stubb helps to tow the blasted whale away, but when the Rose-Bud is out of sight, quickly comes alongside it and begins digging into it with his spade. Deep within the whale, he finds a precious substance known as ambergris, which is highly prized by druggists and perfumiers, which the captain of the Rose-Bud was in his former life. Ahab calls him back to the ship before he can excavate more, but he still gets a good few handfuls, cackling at the naivete of the French whalers all the while.
Ahhh, back to the proper narrative, with another gam and some more Whaling Facts for good measure. This is a really fun chapter, but when you’re in the midst of reading this giant tome, it’s easy to just breeze through it and come away with “haha, ambergris, like in Futurama” and “Stubb sure likes to talk to himself”.
But, this is a chapter rich in delicious irony, that favorite subject of clever writers for ages untold. Using this, it ties back into my favorite theme of this book: anticapitalism! Specifically, the notion that people end up alienated from the products which they use in their daily life, and the labor used to produce them. Of course, it’s all done in a fun and comedic way, as is often the case in this book.
There’s a Frenchman Born Every Minute
The bulk of this chapter is concerned with that favorite pastime of Americans and Brits alike: skewering those haughty Frenchmen. First Stubb describes the incompetence of French whalers at length, and then decides to steal their prize right from under their noses.
This is a place where it’s interesting to think about how the place of that European nation has shifted over the years in the American imagination. During the revolutionary war, they were the United States’ staunchest allies, and we cheered them in their own revolution soon after. Then, they took on a fearful affect, as their armies marched across Europe, annihilating all resistance (until they reached Russia, natch).
And thus, finally, a return to form: the French represent decadence. An obsession with luxury, with earthly pleasures, and a disconnection and naivete about the true ways of the world.
This is the character they take on here, with the fancy rose-shaped figurehead, their concern with blocking out the vile smell of the rotting whales, and their captain who lets his men toil while he sits in his cabin. Narratives often conflate the nature of the pre-revolutionary French nobility with the national character as a whole. It’s an easy shorthand, especially when making broad comparisons on a national level.
Right Under His Nose
The central irony of this chapter is something that will be familiar to any fan of Futurama: the presence of ambergris. The captain of the Bouton de Rose was formerly a manufacturer of cologne, but is nonetheless ignorant of the fact that he is sitting on a goldmine in the form of a tremendous amount of that most valuable and rare of aromatic ingredients.
This is a direct example of people being disconnected from the process by which their good are manufactured. A more extreme example than we’ve seen so far, in fact, since the French captain was on the production side of things, so has insight into at least part of the process, but alas, not full knowledge.
I mentioned earlier that this was part of a larger anticapitalist theme, which goes thusly: it’s about control. Control over the conditions of labor are only possible when it is obscured. When you don’t know who is laboring on your behalf, under what conditions. When there is a separation between classes of those who engage in different kinds of labor.
If you don’t know what work actually goes into the creation of something, it is easy to over or under value it. Thus, it is easier to fracture groups of those who would otherwise stand in solidarity with one another, to demand better conditions, and easier to extract profit from those gullible fools who can only pay what you ask.
As far as we know, this French whaling captain has no notion of where the precious ambergris he used to ply his trade comes from. Even as he now experiences the conditions under which it must be gathered, he is outmatched and hoodwinked by those with more knowledge and experience.
The modern experience is constantly being presented with myriad scams, and trying to pick out the least bad ones to engage with.
Everyone is just trying to get money out of you. They want to give you less for more, to create an unequal exchange, that is the lifeblood of this economic system we exist in. It is utterly ubiquitous, and with the enduring popularity of modern apologia, people engage in more crude and obvious scams all the time.
The “competition” induced by capitalism is not actually a matter of efficiency or good management, it’s simply a matter of having the right connections and techniques. Being in a position to exercise power, or to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. Stubb acts as our capitalist here, extracting value from someone who doesn’t know what they’ve got.
We are all but French whalers, out here toiling away, trying to make a living. And what should our fellow men do but trick us out of our livelihood?
Well, that was a fun little chapter. A bit less consequential than the other whale boat meetings, I feel, but still. They’re really in the thick of things now, in whaling territory, this isn’t the last game we’ll be having.
Always fun to bring things back to my particular anticapitalist reading of the text. Of course, I doubt this was ever the intention of Melville, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there for me to tease out as I so please. He was writing on the same themes, with different language, that’s all. The Communist Manifesto had only been penned a couple of years ago, I doubt Melville even knew it existed.
But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? You don’t need some codified theory, you only need to look and see what is before you, and describe your own feelings.
Anyway, I’m perfectly happy to reinterpret something into a lens that suits me. Leftists too often get caught up in the project of tearing down everything around them, which always strikes me as counterproductive. Provocative, sure, but often preaching to the choir.
Until next time, shipmates!