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CHAPTER 35: THE MASTHEAD
A crucial job on whale ships is searching the sea for whales from the mast-head. Once again Ishmael links a whaling practice with great historic endeavors. What were the builders of the tower of Babel doing if not constructing a mast-head? Ishmael finds the job of standing watch pleasant, especially in fine, warm weather. Can't you practically hear him sliding off into sleep as he describes the drowsy trade winds.
Ishmael likes standing watch, but is terrible at it, tending to lapse into deep thought when he should be scanning the horizon for whales. Watch out, he warns shipowners, for men like him-men who are more concerned with philosophy than with work. Too many young men who go to sea have read Byron (the 19th-century romantic poet) rather than navigation manuals; they're Platonists (students of the Greek philosopher, Plato) rather than sailors. In fact, Ishmael seems to be saying, not only can deep thought be costly to a ship, it can be fatal to the man engaged in it. It's easy to think that the ocean represents the soul of the universe and that the fins of swimming fish are that soul's elusive thoughts. But if you slip back an inch you'll find that these objects aren't merely symbols, they're real, as you fall through the air into the ocean, never to be seen again.
Ishmael is parodying his own desire to see importance in every natural object. But in particular he's parodying writers, like many in mid-19th-century America, who found a too-easy, too-happy meaning in the universe. Pantheists believe that every part of nature reflects an essentially benevolent God. This is a cheerful belief, Ishmael says, until you fall into the sea-and drown.
What do you think Melville means by these criticisms of thinking and philosophy? Is he suggesting that speculating about the universe is very difficult and can't be practiced while engaged in another job? Is he saying that such speculation is futile, and that philosophic systems are likely to be silly in some ways? Do you find it odd to read such criticisms in a book that is a profound exercise in deep thinking and philosophy? Isn't Melville somewhat like Ishmael at the mast-head-concerned with whaling, but really focused on greater things?Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version