Chapter 81: The Pequod meets the Virgin

When I watch nature documentaries on TV, I find myself experiencing a strange mix of clinical interest and upsetting empathy. I know that animals eat each other, that this is a fact and necessity of nature, but I can’t help pitying that grazing mammal as it hopelessly tries to kick itself free of locked crocodile jaws. For thousands of years of recorded history, humans have expressed a recognition of a similar dilemma as they hunt — the natural necessity of eating on one hand, the sacred value of life on the other.

In “The Pequod Meets the Virgin,” Ishmael weaves a narrative that evokes a similar mix of emotion. The majority of the chapter slowly and excruciatingly details the killing of an enormous and powerful whale, now sick in his old age. Ishmael alternates with pity for the dying, and cold indifference for the killing. But the brutality of the killing itself, undertaken for frivolous reasons, brings us to an uncomfortable moral ground. The whale was “horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches who preach unconditional inoffensiveness of all to all.” In framing the hunt thus, Ishmael frames the pursuit of whaling as needless, cruel, and unappreciative of the life in sacrifice — a group of bullies taking advantage of the weak.

So too, do we see in the Pequod’s interactions with the incompetent German ship, the Virgin. In competition to harpoon the whale, both crews fight tooth and nail, hurling insults as well as objects as they row into harpoon range. In the end, the Pequod’s boats win out, throwing their harpoons over the heads of the Germans, and knocking the captain out of his boat in the subsequent rush of the pricked whale. The glee with which the Pequod’s mates lord over not only their victory, but the failure of their competitors, complements their cruelty with the whale. Here we have not an unfortunate recognition that one side must win out over the other, but a joyful and abusive wielding of power.

Chapter 81: The Pequod meets the Virgin

Who knew, under placid waters
King Erudition writhes?
Barbed by weaker opposition,
Pitied for muted cries.

Were it head on, no one could resist him,
Strength of a thousand thighs,
But with one prick, hiding in the water,
King Erudition writhes.

And I, I, I,
Heavy with a grievance, heavy with a grievance.
And I, I, I,
Heavy with a grievance, heavy with a grievance.

The good folk, dark if for the pity
Man brings to suicide.
With a cheek turned, live your final moments
Deep in a ponderous mind.

And I, I, I,
Heavy with a grievance, heavy with a grievance.
And I, I, I,
Heavy with a grievance, heavy with a grievance.

Who knew, under placid waters
King Erudition writhes?
With a cheek turned, live your final moments
Deep in a ponderous mind.

And I, I, I,
Heavy with a grievance, heavy with a grievance.
And I, I, I,
Heavy with a grievance, heavy with a grievance.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea October 6, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea October 31, 2009

Published in: on November 22, 2009 at 11:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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