Philip Hoare, in his analysis of Moby-Dick (G2, 30 July), is wrong in one respect at least: the substance the sailors were massaging their hands with was definitely not sperm oil, it was spermaceti, or casein – the curious white substance, liquid at blood heat, solid at room temperature, that fills the massive reservoir in the characteristic forehead of the sperm whale, and gave the whale its name. If the harvested casein is not thoroughly massaged as it coagulates, it fails to solidify into a homogenous mass. And it was Ishmael, not all the other sailors, who became so intoxicated by the sensation that he was grabbing his shipmates’ hands and gazing lovingly into their eyes.
My personal analysis of the book is that you cannot believe a word Ishmael says. After all, if the ship’s boy was driven mad by being left alone in the sea for two hours, what can you think of Ishmael, floating alone in the Pacific on Queequeg’s coffin for 30 hours?
East Finchley, London
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