This week’s reading made me think a lot about Others.
The first chapter (The Whiteness of the Whale) sets up some very broad (and, yes, some offensive) dichotomies: “though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe” (185). And yet, it also sets the tone for dealing with Others.
It seems like this section of the book shows more encounters with Others than any area of the book (aside from the opening scenes, of course). And in this section we learn how to deal with Others. In fact, the entire chapter The Gam discusses the protocol for when two ships encounter each other. He even defines this alien word for us:
GAM. Noun – A social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising- ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other (239).
And he uses a wonderful metaphor for us lubbers.
If two strangers crossing the Pine Barrens in New York State, or the equally desolate Salisbury Plain in England; if casually encountering each other in such inhospitable wilds, these twain, for the life of them, cannot well avoid a mutual salutation; and stopping for a moment to interchange the news; and, perhaps, sitting down for a while and resting in concert: then, how much more natural that upon the illimitable Pine Barrens and Salisbury Plains of the sea, two whaling vessels descrying each other at the ends of the earth… should not only interchange hails, but come into still closer, more friendly and sociable contact (237).
In fact, even ships from different countries welcome each other provided they can communicate:
Nor would difference of country make any very essential difference; that is, so long as both parties speak one language, as is the case with Americans and English. (237).
Of course, according to Ishmael, it is the whalers who are the sociable ones; that other ships are somewhat less gregarious:
So, then, we see that of all ships separately sailing the sea, the whalers have most reason to be sociable – and they are so. Whereas, some merchant ships crossing each other’s wake in the mid-Atlantic, will oftentimes pass on without so much as a single word of recognition, mutually cutting each other on the high seas, like a brace of dandies in Broadway; and all the time indulging, perhaps, in finical criticism upon each other’s rig. As for Men-of-War, when they chance to meet at sea, they first go through such a string of silly bowings and scrapings, such a ducking of ensigns, that there does not seem to be much right-down hearty good-will and brotherly love about it at all. As touching Slave-ships meeting, why, they are in such a prodigious hurry, they run away from each other as soon as possible. And as for Pirates, when they chance to cross each other’s cross-bones, the first hail is – “How many skulls?” – the same way that whalers hail – “How many barrels?” And that question once answered, pirates straightway steer apart, for they are infernal villains on both sides, and don’t like to see overmuch of each other’s villanous likenesses. (238).
Given this basis, we then see that Ahab himself acts unlike other whalers. His desire on this trip is only for information about the white whale. Ahab
cared not to consort, even for five minutes, with any stranger captain, except he could contribute some of that information he so absorbingly sought (237).
This becomes most evident with The Goney. When the Pequod comes across the Goney, Ahab shouts, “Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?” (235). Atmospheric conditions prevent any reasonable communication, but without any news of the Whale, Ahab is unwilling to pursue the matter much further.
Contrast this with The Town-Ho. They have news about the White Whale and so, “in the short gam that ensued she gave us strong news of Moby Dick” (241). Of course, this leads to a very lengthy story (which Ahab is not privy to) about a mutiny on board (and the death by Moby Dick of one of the men involved in a scuffle). We aren’t told just how long the gam lasts (although it is “short”), but during it a very lengthy story is related.
Interestingly though, Otherness does not seem to apply to race specifically. The crew is a motley assortment of men from all nations. And aside from casual comments, there appears to be nothing but trust among all of the men. The only sign of negative racial categorization comes when Fedallah and his men, who the crew had not met and were deemed stowaways, finally come aboard: “Now the advent of these outlandish strangers at such a critical instant as the lowering of the boats from the deck, this had not unreasonably awakened a sort of superstitious amazement in some of the ship’s company” (218).
But it’s clear contextually that the outrage is more about the fact that they are not known to the crew (and clearly had not participated in any of the workload–not that they are of a different race. Although there is some concern that they are from “a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere” (215).
And yet, as we saw with Queequeg the cannibal acceptance is not hard to gain if you prove yourself worthy of it: “the subordinate phantoms soon found their place among the crew, though still as it were somehow distinct from them” (229).
The only one who doesn’t fit is Fedallah: “that hair-turbaned Fedallah remained a muffled mystery to the last” (229). [Of course, what exactly he means by hair-turbaned is still something of a mystery. He’s described that way initially: “crowning his ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head” (215). The crew’s disapproval of Fedallah seems to be his absolute Otherness. Not just a different race or even a different ship, he seems to be a different species:
He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams…when the memory of the first man was a distinct recollection, and all men his descendants, unknowing whence he came, eyed each other as real phantoms…[when] the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours. (230)
Will he ever be embraced by the crew? Is that even a concern of the book? Or will his Otherness prove too insurmountable.
The book so far gives plenty of evidence that racism was alive and well, even if only because of a profound lack of understanding among people. And yet, once the whalers head out to sea, Otherness seems to slip away altogether, provided you have joined the crew (or any crew) under proper circumstances. I have to wonder if this all-inclusiveness was seen as shocking to 19th-century readers.