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  • Writer's pictureDenise Tolan

The Daily Dick: Day 34: Musings From a Sixth Reading of the Great Book

Chapter 33: Day 34: The Specksnyder

“But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!” 




Tough chapter! We learn what a specksnyder is, basically the chief harpooner, and gain some insight into how the hierarchy on a boat works. Ishmael goes into a lot of talk about power among kings and how they use it and wield it. It’s interesting to learn who lives where on the boat according to their rank, but when the chapter winds down, things get a little less clear.

Ish says that although Ahab is the kind of ruler who isn’t a strict traditionalist about certain rules, for example “he required no man to remove the shoes from his feet ere stepping upon the quarter-deck,” Ahab did require “instantaneous obedience.” We saw that in Ahab’s interaction with Stubb.

Ishmael’s description of Ahab’s leadership leans toward a description of a cult of personality. Ahab will be obeyed because he is Ahab, not just a man with a designation of captain. It seems important to Ishmael that we understand that Ahab is not just an empty suit though. Ahab knew how to garner attention and force his men to obey him.

In a way, I wonder if Ishmael wants us to know that whatever tragedy befalls them, the crew was bound to the greatness of Ahab. It wasn’t merely a naked emperor they followed. The end of this chapter is almost a lament, and certainly a spoiler alert. Ish basically says that he may never consort with kings, but Ahab is as majestic a man as Ish will ever meet. But what is grand in Ahab must be ‘plucked at from the skies;’ imagined by Ishmael. And so we grown to learn more about the captain who will lead so many to death. Perhaps a cult leader is born.

I do love this chapter. It’s obscure in meaning, even coming after Cetology, but I felt the quality of an elegy inherent in Ishmael's words.

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