Ahhh, time to get into some real gay content.
I mean, not really, but also, yes. Look, people love to post excerpts of this chapter out of context, to make it sound like Moby-Dick; or, the Whale is some sort of pornographic free-for-all. As you and I well know by this point, that is not quite the case. And yet, there’s only so much that context can really change for writing like this. Let’s dig in and squish our hands around in it.
The whale that Stubb killed (when Pip leaped from the boat) is brought alongside the Pequod and it is processed the way that has been described before. The blubber is stripped off, and the sperm is scooped out of the case in its head with buckets.
Ishmael describes how the sperm congeals overnight into a series of large blobs. Thus, it falls to the crew to squeeze it back into a liquid state with their hands. Sitting at the tub, squeezing the sperm, Ishmael is overcome with intense emotions of camaraderie with his fellow man, and finds himself squeezing their hands as he works the sperm. He also extols the incredible qualities of the sperm itself.
Next, he describes several other strange substances that are harvested in the course of processing a whale.
Finally, Ishmael describes how the blanket (the exterior skin of the whale with blubber attached) is fed into the hold of the ship, where it is chopped up by two crewmembers. One holds it in place with a gaff, and the other stands on it and chops off chunks with a billhook. This tricky, slippery job often causes accidents. “Toes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men.”
Hoo boy, there’s a lot of stuff going on here, thematically speaking. Which makes sense, this is our first real look at the object of this whole voyage (officially speaking, we know the true purpose). Of course, we already know what it’s used for back on land, to burn the sweetest, smokeless flame in fancy lamps, and to annoint the heads of royalty.
What Is This Stuff Anyway
The way spermaceti is described, and honestly even the more modern, scientific descriptions, make it sound like some sort of magical substance from a fantasy book. It is sort of a primeval, purified, perfected form of matter. It is the essence of oil, a sort of waxy and utterly smooth substance with no smell or taste, which will burn with perfect consistence every time.
Here is Ishmael’s rapturous description:
No wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favourite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener! such a delicious molifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralise.
The power of this sperm is to take things and soften them. To moisten and restore the flesh, to mollify and cleanse everything it comes into contact with. Even though it can only be obtained by bloody, horrible slaughter, it maintains its purity. Such is the way of life.
Of course, this sperm is also where the whales get their name from, which is why it is now a word that appears ten thousand times on this website. It is latin for “seed”, and indeed it was believed that this substance was the whale’s sperm. People believed all sorts of wild things about animals back then.
In any case: it is what they’re after, because it is both rare and difficult to obtain and yet also very useful for a wide variety of purposes. This is why everyone puts up with being on a boat for multiple calendar years and all the life-threatening danger of the whale hunt. This is the thing that makes it all worth, so it simply must be a magical substance!
A Thematically Dense Substance
This white substance, then is a kind of thematic opposite to Moby Dick himself. His whiteness represents the terrible blankness of affect that nature presents itself in its most true form. The terror of the underlying reality that surrounds us at all times with a charnel house, you remember that bit I’m sure.
Meanwhile, this marvellous sperm is white, but it represents purity in the positive sense. It contains limitless opportunity, resources to make a better life for the crew, it cleanses the sins of the past literally, in the form of soap. It lights up the dark world, its wonderful lack of perfume provides a backdrop for whatever interpretation or purpose you would care to give it. It is endless possibility in a single thing.
And who is associated with each one? Ahab clings to his enemy, and thus his pessimism and misery. He sees nothing but torment in that blank affect, nothing but the things he has lost. Our young Ishmael, meanwhile, is out here squeezing the sperm, becoming infected with its joyous blankness.
In fact, in association with the wonderful products of the whale, people are even literally losing limbs, like Ahab, but it’s treated as not really a big deal. Just comes with the territory for blubber room men, no problem. Just joyous work in such sweet circumstances allows for little accidents without going on a doomed quest for vengeance.
The Mystery of Joyful Labor
Not to return things back to my favorite interpretation of this book, but this also reminds me a bit of the writings of one Karl Marx.
But! Not his more famous works, actually. When I was in college, we read some other things from him about the nature of work. The great mystery of how to create work that people actually enjoyed, how to make life less miserable for those who labored for their bread. I really wish I could remember what that thing was called, it wasn’t the Communist Manifesto (which we also read, of course), but something else. Ugh, drives me nuts. Might’ve been Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844? Who could say.
Anyway, what I remember of it was that it articulated this central problem of human existence: certain things need to get done for all of us to survive. But, doing that work sucks. People don’t enjoy a lot of it, it’s dull and tedious and people feel bad about it. He called it alienation (well, he called it some German word that I don’t recall, but you get the idea). There must be some way to overcome this problem!
Obviously, this would later become a cornerstone of his economic theories around communism, but I always felt like it fell by the wayside, a bit. It’s just sort of another thing that would get solved, a bonus feature, rather than one of the core ideas, and it never really worked out that way in reality.
Anyway, this was brought to my mind because of Ishmael reverie with the sperm. He is stuck on a ship out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, basically compelled to do this job as part of his duties on the crew, but he finds such joy and love in it. Why? Is it just his unfamiliarity with this work that makes it so novel and exciting for him? Are the experienced sperm-squeezers bored by this tedious job?
The Weight of the Mission
Ahab feels the terrible weight of his choices at every turn. He takes on all responsibility for this voyage, the fate of the crew, the betrayal of his duty to the shareholders back in Nantucket. It’s all on him, and he wants it that way, as he views his life as forfeit, grimly moving towards its inevitable conclusion.
Meanwhile: Ishmael. He was truck with the idea to go on a whaling voyage because he was depressed and wanted to go to sea, and do something exciting. He only got on this boat because he and Queequeg got married, out of pure coincidence. He’s getting some small profit in the end, but overall he’s just here for the ride. To get some stories to tell, to kill some time.
So when he sits down to do his duty, he finds unexpected joy. He marvels at all the various whale facts that he learns, the strange mysteries that the creatures bodies reveal to him. Oh, remember how he philosophizes on his night watches on the top of the mainsail, swaying back and forth with the rhythm of the waves, lost in timeless reverie!
Now, there’s one way to read this where Ahab is stressed and miserable because he’s the boss, the one taking a big risk on this venture. That is not what I’m leaning towards, you will not be surprised to learn. No, my thesis is quite simple: it’s about stakes.
Ahab has heaped up all the stakes of the cosmos, his entire existence, on this gamble, getting his revenge. Ishmael is here on a lark. He has all his food and water stacked away in the hold for years to come, he’s just here to have some interesting experiences in the world.
To apply this to the real world: people do their jobs better, and enjoy them more, when their entire existence isn’t on the line. When they are not mistreated. This is actually something of a throughline in Melville’s work, as I may have mentioned before: advocating for the rights of sailors at sea. Petty tyrants ruin a good thing, and that good thing is the life of a sailor. The work is not actually the problem, it’s all the weight placed upon and around the work. If one mistake means unimaginable agony, then it’s hard for anyone to do a good job.
This, of course, is how capitalism organizes our modern world. Of course, it’s far more complicated than that, as it always is, but it’s one small aspect of the melange that makes life so miserable for millions of people around the world.
The Terrible Secret of Video Games
People arguing in favor of slavery or capitalism or whatever sort of scheme involving forcing people to work is currently en vogue, love to trot out the argument that their way is necessary because work is so hard and miserable. “People are naturally lazy, they will never get anything done if you just leave them alone!” is the rallying cry.
It’s a complete misunderstanding of the dynamics at play. Anyone who knows anything about video games knows that people love putting in tons of work into completely pointless things, and will pay you for the privilege. Look at the massive wikis for popular games! Look at the endless grinding marathons! The speed-runners practicing their craft! The massive engineering projects in Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress!
Heck, people even do traditional “labor” on their own, for fun. Knitting, weaving, all sorts of arts and crafts. There are entire media franchises built on the back of little plastic toys that you have to put together and even paint on your own. People love to do things!
The thing is, when you’re grinding for those rare materials in Dragon Quest XI, there are no stakes. You choose it of your own free will, and if you fail, pff, who cares? Not a big deal. It’s not life or death, people can engage or disengage at their leisure.
Treat people well, take care of them, and they will perform miracles for you. The carrot gets you so much further than the stick.
Whew! Sorry for the delay on this one, I really had to sit down and think hard about it. I didn’t feel the need to actually delve into the gay content of this chapter, it feels fairly obvious. But there really are some deep thematic connections here, moreso than I expected.
Until next time, shipmates!