Issues of class and rank resonate through the whole of Moby-Dick, and in this chapter we see these themes examined through the station of Harpooneer. “Specksynder” is a title on Dutch whaling vessels that equates to “Chief Harpooneer.” For the Dutch, the Chief Harpooneer ran everything on the ship relating to whaling, while the Captain was left to run only the general operation and maintenance of the ship itself. In other words, to the Dutch, command of the ship was divided between two officers, unlike in Britain or America.
American harpooneers, on the other hand, received many of the honors and duties of officers not as a function of rank, but rather as a function of expertise. American whaling crews were not paid an outright salary, but rather a share of profits called a “lay.” Whaling crews and officers, who recognized Harpooneers as an integral part of the success of a whaling voyage, tended to give the Harpooneer exalted respect and accomodations despite the Harpooneer’s lack of rank.
Ahab also has an expertise that compels deference from the less experienced crew. The problem is the combination of Ahab’s natural and well-deserved professional superiority and the “paltry and base” superiority of rank and ceremony afforded to him by his status as Captain. Ahab, Ishmael tells us, is not unlike Czar Nicholas, a perfect match of rank and intellect who inspires “plebian herds [to] crouch abased before the tremendous centralization.” In other words, rank is enough to demand obedience, but rank bestowed on a natural leader is unstoppable.
Through all of this cautionary observation, I still stick on one chosen phrase in the last paragraph: Ishmael refers to “Ahab, my Captain.” He could have said “Captain Ahab,” or “our Captain,” or any other phrase that makes him sound less personally invested, but instead he comes off as Ahab’s man. And it makes me think that the issue of greatness is not so cut and dry. Are some among us irresistibly followed? Are some among us irresistibly led? Is that, perhaps, all the more the more reason for the Specksynder?
Chapter 33: The Specksynder
The bigger the pomp, the lessor the leader —
Compensatory trappings, you know?
An officer’s supremacy
Is idiot supremacy, whoa!
The harpooneer gets to sleep by the captain,
But he’s not called an officer, no!
He’s just set apart
So the men will heed his art.
On a whaling ship, there’s a shared interest —
You see, we’re all working,
And there is no rank
‘Til a whale is on the planks
‘Cause men are men alike in reason.
Oh, oh Ahab, you’re the truth,
‘Cause you never play the emperor
But you still stand apart.
What shall be
Grand in thee
Must needs be plucked at
From the skies, and dived for in the deep!
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 13, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea November 16, 2008