Enough with the metaphysics. Moby-Dick is about much more than life and afterlife. At 845 pages, it would have to be. Many who comment unfavorably on Moby-Dick do so because of the exhaustive (in every sense) descriptions of whales and whaling. On the contrary, I found these parts of the book a joy.
Whaling in the 1840s was a state-of-the-art technology, and a life-and-death struggle at the absolute frontier of our world. Consider how little was known of the world at the time. Consider how mysterious whales themselves remained (more on that in the next blog entry). Consider that ships were still the premier transportation method on the planet, despite the fact that they were still powered, as they always had been, by nothing but wind and muscle.
Take all that into account, and then think about what was involved in hunting the largest creatures on Earth. Sailors suspended high above the decks watched the ocean for spouting whales, finally shouting out “There she blows!” when the tell-tale spout appeared. The ship maneuvered close (remember, these vessels were powered by nothing but wind, yet had to change their heading at a moment’s notice, regardless of the wind’s actual direction), then one or more six-person wooden boats were lowered to the ocean’s surface.
In these boats the harpooneer, the lancer, and the rowers pursued the whale until they were near enough for the harpooneer to hurl the line-toting harpoon into the body of the whale. Then the real fun began. Once struck, the whale might swim away with the tiny boat, dive deep below the surface, or turn and attack. In any case, for the most part the whalemen had to just hold on and hope for the best. As Melville described in chapter 60, “The Line”, the rope attached to the harpoon could not also be attached to the whaleboat. That would risk the loss of the boat if the whale dove too deeply. So a truly determined whale had one certain way of escaping – simply pull all the line out of a whale boat. Of course, the whale would still have a harpoon embedded in its flesh, and several hundred feet of rope attached. The whale might well die, anyway, but such a death did the whalers no good, for what use is a dead whale that has escaped you?
The whalers, therefore, needed a method of convincing the whale that it couldn’t just keep pulling and eventually get away. What was that method? The whalers themselves would pull on the line, in opposition to the whale on the other end. But it wasn’t a tug-of-war; no six humans could pull a whale from the water. Instead, the rowers kept rowing toward the whale, while the line pulled over the rowers’ arms and backs, around which it had been wound before the harpoon was ever thrown. As Melville described the moment when the whale pulled and the men pulled back, and “all these horrible contortions be put into play like ringed lightings“ (p 406) Now that’s some serious fishing!
As the whale tired, the whalemen pulled on the line, drawing the boat up to the whale’s body. Then the lancer, who in Melville’s account is also one of the mates aboard the Pequod (more on these men soon, I promise), moved to the front of the boat and stabbed the whale to death.
With a dead 60 foot (or longer) whale on their hands, the next questions was, what to do with it? The whale was the size of the ship, perhaps even larger. It couldn’t possibly be hauled up onto the deck. The whale would have to be dealt with from the water.
For this step in the process, a remarkable transformation occurred, as the whaling boat morphed from a speedy, maneuverable sea wolf to a smoking, stationary whale rendering factory. The whale’s blubber was stripped off, cut up, and boiled down in huge metal pots into whale oil. Consider what that meant. The whaleboat, a wooden vessel on a wide ocean far from any land, burned a fire hot enough to boil oil on its deck, all in an effort to turn one enormous creature into highly condensed and immensely valuable oil.
Whale oil is the oil obtained from the blubber. Much more valuable was the sperm oil, found only in the oversized heads of sperm whales. To remove the sperm oil required a completely different process, in which the enormous and neckless creature strapped to the side of the ship was literally beheaded, then the oil was retrieved in buckets while the slippery, disintegrating cranium hung alongside the ship.
These oils were the lifeblood of the burgeoning industries of the day, oiling the gears, lubricating the flywheels, driving the industrial revolution forward. They were not just another product of the fishery. They were the materials that drove the industrial revolution.
To a modern reader, knowing the intelligence, the majesty, and the modern-day endangered status of whales, we wince at their treatment at the hands of these men, our progenitors. But if you can somehow put all that aside, if for even a moment, you will see that the technology of whaling, at a time before engines and fossil fuels, before airplanes and submarines, before the first hint of long-distance communication, electrical grids, or worldwide transportation networks, was a triumph of human imagination.
The whales didn’t leave their native environment and come onto land to find us. It was we who adapted to their way of life. We went to the oceans to find them. We learned their secrets, and we transformed ourselves into beings who could conquer the largest creatures this planet has ever produced. Whatever you feel about the morality of whaling, you have to admit that it was an impressive accomplishment.