Ti of the blog Book Chatter is sponsoring a challenge/readalong to read the classic Moby Dick. On Mondays, we’ll be posting about our progress. I am listening to the unabridged audiodisks for this book, which my husband listened to and loved.
Our narrator Ishmael decides he should educate us about cetology [the study of whales, dolphins, and porpoises] before the ship actually encounters “the Leviathan,” as he calls the sperm whale.
He determines (by reference once again to the Story of Jonah, in the Bible) that a whale is not a mammal but a fish, specifically “a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” He then classifies whales in a clever scheme that separates them into Books and Chapters. The books are divided by size, reflecting his division of the whales, into either Folios (large books), Octavos (medium sized books) or Duodecimos (small books). Of the sperm whale – first in the Folio book, needless to add – he notes:
“He is, without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce; he being the only creature from which that valuable substance, spermaceti, is obtained.”
Spermaceti is not, as you might guess, a form of pasta, but rather, is a wax obtained from the head of a sperm whale that, when melted down, was used as oil. A large male sperm whale may have up to four tons of spermaceti oil. We now know that the spermaceti organ may contribute to the sperm whale’s ability to submerge and remain at great depths in water.
[As is noted by the American Cetacean Society, sperm whales were greatly reduced by two massive hunts: the Moby Dick era whalers who worked mainly between 1740-1880, and the modern whalers whose operations peaked in 1964, when 29,255 were killed. Most recent estimates suggest a global population of about 360,000 animals down from about 1,100,000 before whaling.]
Ishmael gives a brief description of all the known whales and apologizes for any lapses (comparing his work to one of the architectural wonders of the world):
“I now leave my cetological system standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower.”
He then goes on to describe the role of a harpooner on the whale ship. (His digressions seem like a deliberate attempt to bait us into hanging on more breathlessly for what is to come.)
A harpooneer was originally called a specksynder, which means fat-cutter. Harpooneers used to have higher rank on a whale voyage, and the success of the voyage still is determined to a large extent by their skill. [As the website Biocurious explains, harpooners must not only be able to estimate the location of the prey by taking its forward motion into account, but also to compensate for the light refraction at the air-water interface. Refraction causes light to bend when it passes from one substance into another, in this case from air to water. Note the distortion of the pencil’s location as shown below.
In Melville’s time, however, authority rested not with the harpooners, but with the Captain and main mates, or as Ishmael dubs them, The Sultan and his Emirs. [This may have resulted from the fact that so many of the best harpooneers were nonwhites, and moreover, often barely spoke English.]
The chain of influence on the ship is clearly reflected at mealtime on the Pequod. At dinnertime, Ahab announces to his First Emir, “Dinner, Mr. Starbuck.” Starbuck then finds the Second Emir and says “Dinner, Mr. Stubb.” And of course Stubb then follows with “Dinner, Mr. Flask.” Ishmael describes the dining routine:
“Over his ivory-inlaid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his warlike but still deferential cubs. In his own proper turn, each officer waited to be served. They were as little children before Ahab…”
After Ahab and his mates had dined, the three harpooners, Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo, are summoned to the cabin. There is a noticeable difference:
“In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooneers. While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooneers chewed their food with such a relish that there was a report [explosive noise like a rifle] to it. They dined like lords; they filled their bellies like Indian ships all day loading with spices.”
The pale serving boy, whom Ishmael dubs “Dough-Boy” is teased unmercifully by the harpooners, who know they are considered to be cannibalistic barbarians:
“And what with the standing spectacle of the black terrific Ahab, and the periodical tumultuous visitations of these three savages, Dough-Boy’s whole life was one continual lip-quiver.”