Ahhhhh, my vacation is nearly over, but I managed to find time to do a bit more reading.
This chapter is a bit meatier, a hint at things to come, and it’s a really good one. We’re back into some classic Ishmael philosophizing here. I simply had to tear myself away from various JRPGs to get down to writing about it, before the specter of the work week comes once more to sap all of my creative energies.
Ishmael describes the miraculous process whereby the Pequod is completely cleaned up after butchering a whale. The oil is placed in casks, which are wrangled into the hold and sealed inside. Then, all the specialized equipment is put away and the ship is cleaned using sperm soap and lye made from the whale’s bones. The ship is completely transformed, the crew relish in making everything as neat and tidy as possible after all the carnage.
Man, it’s nice when Ishmael just outright tells you the metaphor at the end of the chapter, huh.
Oh! the metempsychosis! Oh! Pythagoras, that in bright Greece, two thousand years ago, did die, so good, so wise, so mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage—and, foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope!
For those of you not familiar with classical philosophy, “metempsychosis” is the term used by ancient Greeks for reincarnation, most famously Plato.
Ship as Life, Life as Ship
Ishmael takes great delight in relaying how the ships was made absolutely filthy by the process of butchering the whale. After all, they’ve just got the corpse floating by the side of the ship, cutting off pieces of it, sliding them all over the place. And then there’s all the horrible smoke from rendering all that sperm and blubber, getting all up in the rigging and all over all the whalers.
Then, we get some more fun irony, as he describes not only the spotless appearance of the ship post-cleansing, but also the attitude of the crew. Rather than a bunch of wild, half-civilized brutes, they affect refined manners and delight in the perfection of the surroundings.
Now, with elated step, they pace the planks in twos and threes, and humorously discourse of parlors, sofas, carpets, and fine cambrics; propose to mat the deck; think of having hanging to the top; object not to taking tea by moonlight on the piazza of the forecastle. To hint to such musked mariners of oil, and bone, and blubber, were little short of audacity. They know not the thing you distantly allude to. Away, and bring us napkins!
I really love the prose in this chapter, it’s just a lot of fun. If you ever have trouble with it, try reading it aloud, I’ve been doing that lately. A lot of 19th century literature reads better when it is loudly performed, rather than silently read to oneself.
Anyway, as I mentioned, this is all in service of this central metaphor: the ship as the human soul. It enters the world and is stained and defiled by all the stuff going on there, and then is cleansed. And, importantly, it is ready and willing to go and get defiled again, immediately, just as the whaling ship is constantly on the lookout for more whales to butcher.
Let’s Go Again!
Something that’s always fascinated me about the notion of reincarnation is: what is the point of it? Like, I understand it purely as a sort of mechanical explanation for where the You that exists in the abstract “goes” after dying, as a grand sort of cycle that metaphorizes the physical processes of the world, but like… what’s the point?
Hear me out: if the soul is stripped of all memories before being stuck in another body, human or otherwise, why does it even matter that it’s the same soul? If souls were destroyed and the soul-bits were used to make a new one, would there be any appreciable difference?
Well, I think the metaphor used here offers some interesting ideas. The soul is the ship, and the experiences of life are the unspeakable carnage that are committed on its decks. The result of the experiences of life, all the blood and grime and smoke, is easily washed away, but the ship remains.
Wasn’t there a passage, ages ago, where Ishmael opined that his physical body was on the lesser part of his beings compared to the deeper parts of his soul? That seems to be bourne out by the metaphor here.
The ship can be made shiny and new again… but can the blood really be washed away? Is Pythagoras completely new-made as a green whaler, or does he yet retain some ineffable essence of his former self?
You can play pretend that you are newly remade, but the world continues on based on your past actions. The blood seeps into your boards. Ishmael, then, strikes me as somewhat skeptical of true renewal through reincarnation. No, the stains of the past are not so easily removed.
Ahhh, what a fun chapter. I always love when Ishmael gets a bit silly, this is such a funny book. That was the most surprising thing to me when I read it the first time, and this chapter is a bit of a breath of fresh air after a lot of dull exposition on the process of processing a whale.
Until next time, shipmates!
3 thoughts on “Chapter 98: Stowing Down and Clearing Up”
Great one Robin! Liked the thought of whalers transformed after ship cleaning into sophisticated consumers.
Thank you so much for your interesting insights on Moby Dick. They really help me to understand the novel better! Can’t wait for the next chapter.
Thanks! Your work is appreciated.