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  • Writer's pictureDenise Tolan

The Daily Dick: Day 82: Musings From a Sixth Reading of the Great Book

Chapters 76, 77, and 78 The Battering-Ram, The Great Heidelburgh Tun, and Cistern and Buckets

“The tun of the whale contains by far the most precious of all his oily vintages; namely, the highly-prized spermaceti, in its absolutely pure, limpid, and odoriferous state. Nor is this precious substance found unalloyed in any other part of the creature. Though in life it remains perfectly fluid, yet, upon exposure to the air, after death, it soon begins to concrete; sending forth beautiful crystalline shoots, as when the first thin delicate ice is just forming in water. [ . . .]

Now, had Tashtego perished in that head, it had been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale. Only one sweeter end can readily be recalled—the delicious death of an Ohio honey-hunter, who seeking honey in the crotch of a hollow tree, found such exceeding store of it, that leaning too far over, it sucked him in, so that he died embalmed. How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?”




We get a lot more info about the head of the Sperm Whale including why the head is so important to whalers. First off, the upper part of the whale’s head holds five hundred gallons of spermaceti! The sperm is like a white, waxy liquid but is slick and fragrant. Perfume is made from the whale’s sperm. It’s a cool chapter in that we learn a lot about how all parts of the sperm whale are important and make the whalers money.


The last chapter in this grouping, Cistern and Buckets, is a of the stories where we learn about how the theory Ish has given us turns into practice. Spermaceti is a money maker. Tashtego is working near the whale's head when the slippery sperm causes him to fall into the head of the whale. Daggoo tries to help, but it is Queequeg who jumps in after Tash, saving him, but losing the whale’s head into the sea. Fortunately the head is mostly empty, this chapter seems to say, so nothing is lost. Except two men almost die, I want to yell.


The chapter seems like a reminder that this whale fishing business is a dangerous game. We want the perfumes and the candles and the cosmetics sperm oil bring us, but people will die getting it to us. And so now we know.  


It is also a bit of a philosophical warning about diving too deeply into thoughts that suck us in and ‘embalm us.’ That Ish – always reminding us that philosophy can hurt us if we take it too far.

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