Whaling and Wailing

There is a mistake, or amendment, in the first print run of Moby Dick. Ishmael is doing a catalogue of technical whaling terms, and describes a fish as ‘technically fast when it bears a waif, or any other recognized symbol of possession; so long as the party wailing it plainly evince their ability at any time to take it alongside’.

That is, the whale is technically held by the ship when it cannot escape from the whalers, and they are able to bring it back to them, which they intend to do. The body must be in a situation where it cannot escape from its pursuers – ‘the party wailing it’. I think he is talking about a whaling party, not a wailing party.

Earlier, while still in Nantucket, Ishmael walks passed what he calls a negro church:


A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in the pulpit. It was a negro church, and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there.


This weeping and wailing is not the same was what happens in a wailing party. There is a third wailing mission on board the boat, when a preacher comes on. There is a fiery sermon about Jonah in the whale, concluding with what the preacher calls ‘a weighty lesson’:


For sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his punishment is just.


Rather than weep and wail, Jonah chooses to pray, and God hears him because God is everywhere. It’s strange that the preacher uses the same terms as Ishmael uses for the sounds coming from the ‘negro church ‘. The preacher says that weeping and wailing is what happens when you are hopeless or wordless – when you haven’t got a prayer. The preacher says that it is fruitless to weep and wail. Jonah didn’t do it! How superior it is to pray, says the preacher superiorly. I don’t know whether Ishmael’s description of the weeping and wailing coming from within the church is dismissive of, or attentive to, this feeling of fruitlessness – a point where saying something wouldn’t serve anything. His wailing party is a group of men who are firmly connected to a strange body but don’t own it yet.