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  • Writer's pictureDenise Tolan

The Daily Dick: Day 92: Musings From a Sixth Reading of the Great Book

Day 92 Chapter 89 Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish

“What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?” 



This is a mighty powerful chapter! It seems simple at first – Ishmael, now a legal expert, is explaining the difference between a fast-fish and a loose-fish. He uses research from an actual court case. And it seems easy enough to understand. As long as you have your hooks in a thing/person, it belongs to you. Once it gets away and is not tethered to you, it is free.  


Melville uses this hilarious example of how the argument works: “a gentleman, after in vain trying to bridle his wife’s viciousness, had at last abandoned her upon the seas of life; but in the course of years, repenting of that step, he instituted an action to recover possession of her. Erskine was on the other side; and he then supported it by saying, that though the gentleman had originally harpooned the lady, and had once had her fast, and only by reason of the great stress of her plunging viciousness, had at last abandoned her; yet abandon her he did, so that she became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that subsequent gentleman’s property, along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her.”


I declare this chapter brilliant! Melville goes beyond whaling to possession of people and countries and spits on colonizers and slave holders alike. What does it mean to be affixed to anything? When can you really own anything? If you do not want to read the entirety of Moby-Dick, cool-cool. Read this chapter through. It will really get you thinking.

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