And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too? | Moby-Dick reread, riff 23

Detail from a Barry Moser illustration to Moby-Dick

 

I. In this riff: Chapters 88-90 of Moby-Dick.

II. Ch. 88, “Schools and Schoolmasters.”

In this chapter, Ishmael distinguishes between the two types of “schools” of whales—the harem schools, which are comprised of all adult females and one male (Ish calls the harem-lord the “Grand Turk”), and the all-male schools. Ish points out that these Grand Turks aren’t great dads:

…like certain other omnivorous roving lovers that might be named, my Lord Whale has no taste for the nursery, however much for the bower; and so, being a great traveller, he leaves his anonymous babies all over the world; every baby an exotic.

Ish points out that the all-male schools are far more aggressive than the harem schools. Too, the young males are quick to abandon their wounded fellows:

Another point of difference between the male and female schools is still more characteristic of the sexes. Say you strike a Forty-barrel-bull—poor devil! all his comrades quit him. But strike a member of the harem school, and her companions swim around her with every token of concern, sometimes lingering so near her and so long, as themselves to fall a prey.

III. Ch. 89, “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish.”

In this marvelous chapter, Ishmael begins in a legal mode and ends in a philosophical one. He gives us the (unofficial but self-legislated) code of all whalers:

I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

This doctrine we all may know from our playground days, when it took this form: “Finders keepers, Losers weepers.”

Ever the expansive expander, Ish suggests that “these two laws touching Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, I say, will, on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence . . . Is it not a saying in every one’s mouth, Possession is half of the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession?”

He then pivots, sympathetically pointing out that for all of “fundamentals of human jurisprudence,” property and the power over property comes down to coercive force:

But often possession is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite but a Fast-Fish? What is yonder undetected villain’s marble mansion with a door-plate for a waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish? What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone’s family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul’s income of £100,000 seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken-backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul’s help) what is that globular £100,000 but a Fast-Fish? What are the Duke of Dunder’s hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? What to that redoubted harpooneer, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish? What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas but a Fast-Fish? And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law?

Laws and mores are but window dressing, pasteboard masks veiling the brutally true untrue truth that Might makes right.

But Ish isn’t done. He points out that, “if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so,” and then underlines his application with examples of conquest and imperialism:

What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish.

Swept away in his oversoul passions, Ishmael moves from historical and political examples to metaphysical territory, eventually suggesting (in another of the novel’s many metatextual moves) that the relationship between reader and author is but another application of the loose-fish/fast-fish doctrine:

What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?

IV. Ch. 90, “Heads or Tails.”

Ish begins with what he claims is a order “from the books of the Laws of England: “De balena vero sufficit, si rex habeat caput, et regina caudam.” Bracton, l. 3, c. 3.” He proceeds to tell us that this law stipulates that

…of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooneer, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the whale, is much like halving an apple; there is no intermediate remainder.”

I love that last bit in which we are reminded that power will grab all parts of a substance leaving no intermediate remainder for the powerless.

3 thoughts on “And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too? | Moby-Dick reread, riff 23”

  1. Love the play-by-play. You ever look at the Hendricks House Moby-Dick? It took me over a decade to find one (and w/ a dust jacket!), but man, it has about 250 pages of endnotes. Really worth it if you’re gonna keep chasing the Whale forever, haha.

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  2. Right, right—online’s what I meant. There was a long while where they weren’t even there. I mean, it literally took me 11 or 12 years to find one.
    It’s worth it (to me). But that said, mine was fairly mint at about half of what I’ve seen them go for. I called the bookstore to buy from them directly, and the owner just goes, “Now, what the HELL’S the big to-do about this edition?!”

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