It is Ishmael’s duty to “squeeze” the oil taken from the most recent whale killed by Stubb—because the oil can congeal in the warmth of the southern sun, the sailors must do their best to rub it back into its oily form. While doing so, Ishmael becomes so excited, so sensorialy satisfied, that he wonders whether he couldn’t squeeze this whale oil all day—and whether it’s the case that angels in heaven also have their hand in sperm whale oil, rubbing it ceaselessly high in heaven. Ishmael goes onto to describe the various other parts that can be taken from the whale—its tail tendons, the bits of the case in which sperm is found—but he reserves special love for the oil, which soothes him greatly. Ishmael also notes that, in squeezing the oil near his fellow-sailors, he is often not sure which is “oil” and which are the sailors’ hands, and he reports that he does not mind this confusion between whale-oil and human flesh.
Another strange and important chapter. Again, one might quickly come to the conclusion that Ishmael delights, simply, in touching his fellow-sailors, and that this scene therefore has clear homoerotic overtones, like those scenes involving Queequeg and Ishmael in bed together, earlier in the novel. But, once again, it is hard to separate contemporary understandings of sexuality from the kind of human togetherness to which Melville was accustomed at the time. As above, it seems possible that Melville intended both a sexual and a non-sexual, communion between men in these scene—an ambiguity with which the reader himself must then grapple. Ishmael's speculation about angels squeezing whale oil all day is a connection of the high and the low, the heavenly and the earthly, but it also offers an interesting point: that the true pleasure and joy for men comes from earthly things, not from the pursuit of high or abstract ideals. This idea further explains Ishmael's insistence on explaining the workings of a whaling ship, which might strike many readers as boring: he does so not just to acquaint the reader with whaling, but because he sees in these things the true expression of human dignity and joy.