14 February 2011

The Fastness of the Idea of Property

I'm going to have to admit that I never really understood the phrase "to play fast and loose". I mean I understood it as a phrase and not in its parts. It means to be deceitful, primarily, or unreliable. But I simply thought one played "fast" in a manner akin to "fast cars and loose..." well, you know (hey, what do you want from a guy who thought ELO sang about "space magic" rather than "strange magic").

Anyway to the point, more from Melville! Chapter 89, Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, is a disquisition on the law of property, to wit:

I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

Seems simple, straight-forward...makes sense even! However,

But what plays the mischief with this masterly code is the admirable brevity of it, which necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to expound it.

And then Ishmael goes on to comment, not really volumes, be enough to be exemplary of the issue: property as an idea has you fast!

...these two laws touching Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, I say, will on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence; for notwithstanding its complicated tracery of sculpture, the Temple of the Law, like the Temple of the Philistines, has but two props to stand on.

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?


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 wailing 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?

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