Is it not a saying in every one’s mouth, Possession is half of the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite but a Fast-Fish? What is yonder undetected villain’s marble mansion with a door- plate for a waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish? What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone’s family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the archbishop of Savesoul’s income of £100,000 seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken- backed laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul’s help) what is that globular 100,000 but a Fast-Fish? What are the Duke of Dunder’s hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? What to that redoubted harpooneer, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish? What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas but a Fast-Fish? And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law?
But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so. That is internationally and universally applicable.
What was America in 1492 but a loose-fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All 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?
—Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish
There is a small, unexpected, and brilliant chapter, Chapter 89; Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, in which Melville flexes his poetic and political muscles, as he divides various worldly complexities into two simple legal categories of the whale fishery, dropping each inside a heightening refrain, presupposing Whitman’s Leaves in its poetics, its structure, and its transcendent repetitions. Read it again and again and new meanings will invariably surface.
Loose Fish was a card that was destined to be left out, since the difficulty of the hunt mechanic is such that ‘lose fastening,’ i.e. stepping back down the ladder of the hunt, is far too frustrating an effect. And not really in that existential way that can generate greater heights of feeling. The death of a sailor is devastating, and felt more deeply than being forced back one step within the mechanic. Of course, a player may cut their line at any time after drawing their Whale card, if they wish no part in the ensuing disaster.
Original Image Courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum.