Imagine for a moment spending four years on a ship. It is musty with dampness, creaky, never for an instant motionless. You are without exception subjected to every whim of the weather, with no choice but to stand watch during the worst storms, in winter or summer, at other times unshielded from the fiercest beatings of the sun. Your duty will be to chase creatures as large as the ship you inhabit, whose slightest movement could crush you like waves crush rock into sand. You will not set foot on land for 1,460 days and see no other human being other than those on board with you. And no, you do not have a smart phone. Can you imagine it?
Neither can I.
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, is our window into the exclusive and now mostly extinct world of whaling. Although he both begins and ends the novel as a man with his own will and personality, his time on board the Pequod is characterized by an almost total lack of either. He has in essence become only another appendage of the many-limbed animal that is an efficient whaling crew, his every action dictated by the mates, his captain, and above all, the sea. To be a valuable part of a crew, or any team in which the only hope of success lies in working together seamlessly and almost instinctually, there has to be a certain sacrifice of one’s individuality, at least temporarily. Ishmael likens signing on to a whaling voyage to suicide when he says,
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses… then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship (2).
In this case, Ishmael seems to welcome this relinquishment of personality, of individual responsibility and care in exchange for becoming part of the unified body of the ship’s crew. For further proof of this self-sacrifice, one only need look at Queequeg, the fascinating cannibal whom Ishmael goes into such detail about in the beginning of the novel. Queequeg is a towering man, covered from head to foot in tribal tattoos, who goes everywhere accompanied by his razor-sharp harpoon. And yet both Ishmael and the reader quickly come to find that his threatening exterior conceals a gentle and tolerant soul, which contrast makes Queequeg one of the most intriguing characters in the book. Before embarking on the whaler, Ishmael and Queequeg become fast friends, and Ishmael even makes sure that Queequeg is hired on the same ship. However, almost immediately after setting foot aboard the Pequod, Queequeg is suddenly mentioned rarely, and often only in passing. It seems that Melville created this fascinating and wild character and then almost completely muted him in order to show the reader just how little individuals mattered aboard a whaling ship. However, the bond between Ishmael and Queequeg is not broken by joining the crew; instead it is transformed from one of friendship to one of universal interdependence. In one of the gruesome scenes where the dead whale is being carved into its valuable parts, Ishmael reflects on the extent to which their fates, and ultimately the fate of the crew, are interwoven:
So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have sanctioned so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering… I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die…. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it (329).
In this excerpt, Ishmael brings up a very interesting point. How connected are we to the people around us? The answer is invisibly and irrevocably so. While driving on the freeway, you are unconsciously trusting that the people around you are paying attention. Should the driver in front of you lose focus and then suddenly slam on the brakes to avoid something, you will most likely smash into him. Should the person making your dinner fail to wash the vegetables they’ll be serving you, you may find yourself becoming all too intimate with the toilet. Or, if a chemical processing facility near your town should forgo safety checks on the containment of hazardous materials, you just might find yourself without clean water for drinking, preparing food, showering, or any other of the daily things we think so little about when we have them at our disposal.
It is a wonderful asset of literature that it allows us to find parallels between our own lives, whatever they may consist of, and the very different lives of others. I would never have considered that my life had any similarities with that of a whaler aboard the Pequod, but as Ishmael states above, in some ways there is very little difference. So although I started this entry by attempting to have you imagine being a whaler and pointing out that we could not know what it felt like, perhaps now you’ll agree with me. There is no occupation, no social status, no state of wholeness nor disability, that does not maintain within it some thread of similarity with the existence of every single other human being on the planet. I think the world would be a nicer place if we all reminded ourselves of that more often.