The Brutal Business of Butchering, aka Whaling: Reading Melville at Sea: Chapter 24 – 27

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My anchorage in Georgetown.  Early morning.  No whales here.

Written over three days with nasty winds whipping the waves into froth and rocking the boat uncomfortably.  It is not too bad as long as you don’t try to do anything, like move.  I have been sitting in the cockpit reading books that keep my mind off my troubles.  I finished Julie Czerneda’s Beholder’s Eye, about a feminine being who can transform herself into any life-form in the galaxy.  It was mildly entertaining.  Much better, totally compelling, in fact, was Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies.  Beautifully written, thoughtful, literary science fiction.   A meditation on what it means to be human, individual.  “The job of words,” he writes, “is to construct the fiction of our separate identity.” 

I really am finding Melville tedious these days.  Here we go:

Chapter 24 The Advocate

Ishmael—or is this a different narrator?  advocates for “the business of whaling” as a poetical and reputable pursuit, not the “butchering” that the world perceives. 

Butchers we are, that is true.  But butchers, also, and butchers of the bloodiest badge have been all Martial Commanders whom the world invariably delights to honor.…what disordered slippery decks of a whaleship are comparable to the unspeakable carrion of those battle-fields from which so many soldiers return to drink in all ladies’ plaudits?

I found this rant a bit tedious and difficult to take seriously.   Whaling is butchery and the 19th century whaling adventurers, the White financiers who slaughtered these highly intelligent ocean mammals nearly into extinction, are indefensible.  Melville’s advocate fails to persuade. Or perhaps he does succeed.  Whaling is butchery, like warfare, he says, and Yale and Harvard are involved in this butchering business. 

“A whaling ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

Perhaps that is the point, and the elevated tone of this and the next few chapters is meant the paean to sound like the farce it is. 

Chapter 25: Postscript

Ishmael is still ranting in defense of the dignity of whaling, unfortunately..

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

Our narrator introduces us to the commanders on the ship, the higher-ranking “Knights” and then invokes the “just spirit of Equality, at the end of the chapter.  He begs this spirit to lift him up, as the “great democratic God” lifted John Bunyan, and fill him with the power to continue to celebrate the allegedly noble men who make a living slaughtering majestic mammals. 

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires, Round 2

For all his cant about the “just spirit of Equality,” Ishmael reminds us that there is a hierarchy aboard the ship.  It is racial and repugnant, even though the ridiculous rhapsodic tones suggest that Ishmael—our naive narrator—finds it all too wonderful to bear.  He tells us that White “native American” men command while “the rest of the world” do the hard labor.  Bizarrely, the indigenous peoples of North America somehow count as foreigners.  Tashtego’s eyes are

“Oriental in their largeness, but Antarctic in their glittering expression.” 

Indeed, he hardly seems human:

To look at the tawney brown of his lithe snaky limbs, you would have almost have credited the superstitions of some of the earlier Puritans and half-believed this wild Indian to be a son of the Prince of the Powers of the Air.

Daggoo, a “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” who “retained all his barbaric virtues” is one revolting racial stereotype.  

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