By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

12. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 328-360

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics) Chapter LXXIV: The Sperm Whale's Head -- Contrasted View; Chapter LXXV: The Right Whale's Head -- Contrasted View; Chapter LXXVI: The Battering-Ram; Chapter LXXVII: The Great Heidelburgh Tun; Chapter LXXVIII: Cistern and Buckets; Chapter LXXIX: The Prairie; Chapter LXXX: The Nut; Chapter LXXXI: The Virgin
More whale physiology from Ishmael, this time a bit of comparative anatomy: the sperm whale's head and the right whale's head. As far as Ishmael is concerned, the comparison is all to the benefit of the sperm whale, in whose head he finds "more character."
Sperm whale

Right whale
Both whales, Ishmael observes, have eyes placed where people have ears: on either side of the head. "The whale, therefore, must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side; while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him.... This peculiarity of the whale's eyes is a thing always to be borne in mind in the fishery; and to be remembered by the reader in some subsequent scenes." The phenomenon fascinates Ishmael:
True, both his eyes, in themselves, must simultaneously act; but is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man's, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction? If he can, then it is as marvellous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid.
Again and again, Ishmael makes an imaginative, empathic leap into the whale's existence. It's a reminder that the book is called Moby-Dick and not Ahab or Ishmael. The whale is the novel's true protagonist, and though Ishmael dubs him "monster" or "murderer," his sympathy for the whale runs as an ironic countercurrent throughout the book.

Unfortunately, he doesn't have much sympathy for the right whale, apparently because it's not as handsome as the sperm whale. But he finds something to admire in both: the way they face death. The sperm whale's "broad brow" seems to him "to be full of a prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative indifference as to death." The right whale's head, with its full lower lip, demonstrates "an enormous practical resolution in facing death." So they are philosophical archetypes: "The Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years."

He is awed by the sperm whale's forehead: "a dead, blind wall, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever," it has "a boneless toughness, inestimable by any man who has not handled it. The severest pointed harpoon, the sharpest lance darted by the strongest human arm, impotently rebounds from it." But "there swims behind it all a mass of tremendous life." Of course this is where the goodies are, "the most precious of all his oily vintages; namely, the highly-prized spermaceti, in its absolutely pure, limpid, and odoriferous state." (Most sources say that spermaceti is odorless, which is one reason why it was prized for use in candles.) A single whale, according to Ishmael, contains about five hundred gallons, though much of was lost in the process of harvesting it.  Ishmael likens the reservoir of spermaceti to the Great Heidelberg Tun, an enormous wine vat that also attracted Mark Twain's attention:
Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense.
- A Tramp Abroad
It is Tashtego's job to break into the "tun" and begin the process of retrieving its contents. He lowers a bucket into it with a pole, and by the end of his efforts, the pole is descending some twenty feet:
but, on a sudden, as the eightieth or ninetieth bucket came suckingly up -- my God! poor Tashtego -- like the twin reciprocating bucket in a veritable well, dropped head-foremost down into this great Tun of Heidelburgh, and with a horrible oily gurgling, went clean out of sight!
Daggoo attempts to rescue Tashtego, but as he's making his attempt, "to the unspeakable horror of all, one of the two enormous hooks suspending the head tore out, and with a vast vibration the enormous mass sideways swung, till the drunk ship reeled and shook as if smitten by an iceberg." Daggoo thrusts the pole with the bucket into the head, hoping that Tashtego can grab onto it, but the rigging gives way and the head plunges into the sea, taking Tashtego with it. Daggoo is hanging by the tackles when Queequeg -- Ishmael refers to him as "my brave Queequeg" -- dives in for the rescue attempt.

They see "an arm thrust upright from the blue waves; a strange sight to see, as an arm thrust forth from the grass over a grave." And then "Queequeg was seen boldly striking out with one hand, and with the other clutching the long hair of the Indian." The head had sunk slowly, and Queequeg had been able to slash an opening in it and grab onto Tashtego. On his first contact he had seized Tashtego by the leg, but with "a dexterous heave and toss he had wrought a somerset upon the Indian, and brought him out headfirst.
And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather delivery of Tashtego was successfully accomplished.... Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.
Tashtego survives, but his experience reminds Ishmael of the story of a man who fell into a large store of honey in a hollow tree and "died embalmed." And of course Ishmael has to make a lesson out of it: "How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato's honey head, and sweetly perished there?" As usual, Ishmael is skeptical of any philosophical system, including Platonism.

He's also a little wary of phrenology, which he lampoons by observing how difficult it would be to read the bumps on the sperm whale's wrinkled head. He lauds the "high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow" of the whale, in which "you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature." And he observes that the "horizontal, semi-crescentic depression" in the whale's forehead "in a man, is [the physiologist Johann Kaspar] Lavater's mark of genius."
But how? Genius in the Sperm Whale? Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing to prove it. It is moreover declared in his pyramidical silence.
(Recall once again Stubb's dream in which Ahab turned into a pyramid.) The whale's brain, Ishmael notes, is "at least twenty feet" away from his forehead. "The whale, like all things that are mighty, wears a false brow to the common world. And anyway, Ishmael doesn't believe that the brain alone is the locus of  intelligence: "For I believe that much of man's character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul." And the sperm whale has quite a spine:
"His cranial cavity is continuous with the first neck-vertebra; and in that vertebra the bottom of the spinal canal will measure ten inches across, being eight in height.... For, viewed in this light, the wonderful comparative smallness of his brain proper is more than compensated by the wonderful comparative magnitude of his spinal cord."

Now the Pequod encounters yet another whaler, the Jungfrau, and her captain, Derick De Deer. The captain comes aboard the Pequod bearing a container for whale oil, hoping to borrow some because he has yet to kill any whales: "his ship was indeed what in the Fishery is technically called a clean one (that is, an empty one), well deserving the name of Jungfrau or the Virgin." But as the captain is leaving with his borrowed oil, both ships cite a pod of whales, and both launch boats for the chase.

Most of the whales leave in a hurry, but an elderly whale is slower than the others: "His spout was short, slow, and laborious; coming forth with a choking sort of gush, and spending itself in torn shreds, followed by strange subterranean commotions in him, which seemed to have egress at his other buried extremity, causing the waters behind him to upbubble." The old whale's gastric distress amuses Stubb, who jokes about the whale's "having half an acre of stomach-ache" and observing, "It's the first foul wind I ever knew to blow from astern."

They also observe that the whale is missing his "starboard fin. Whether he had lost that fin in battle, or had been born without it, it were hard to say." Derick, the Jungrau's captain, gets a start on the Pequod boats, and "with a deriding gesture shook his lamp-feeder" -- the oil container -- at them, spurring Starbuck to give chase. Stubb humorously chides his rowers for not pulling fast enough: "Who's that been dropping an anchor overboard -- we don't budge an inch -- we're becalmed.. Halloo, here's grass growing in the boat's bottom -- and by the Lord, the mast there's budding."

The Pequod's three boats overtake the German, causing his boat to overturn, and the three harpooners each land a hit on the whale. "Giving a sudden gasp, he tumultuously sounded" and "the three lines flew round the loggerheads with such a force as to gouge deep grooves in them." The boats are in danger of being pulled under.
Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said -- "Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear?" 
The quotation is a conflation of several verses about Leviathan in Job 41. But this is an old, wounded, and possibly ill Leviathan, for he soon surfaces, and they can see that he is blind as well as crippled.
But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
Yes, Ishmael/Melville lays it on here with a trowel. But that makes it a key passage, underscoring the disproportionate effort of the whaling pursuit and the inhumane character of the hunt. And another key moment follows, as they discover an old sore spot low on the whale's flank.
"A nice spot," cried Flask; "just let me prick him there once."

"Avast!" cried Starbuck, "there's no need of that!"

But humane Starbuck was too late. 
Flask, the mediocrity, prevails over the humane but ineffectual Starbuck. The old whale dies in agony as the spear enters the wound, but at least he capsizes Flask's boat. "It was most piteous, that last expiring spout." But the irony deepens when the whale begins to sink, "with all its treasures unrifled." Before the whale sinks, they find a stone lance-head in him. "It might have been darted by some Nor' West Indian long before America was discovered." Highly doubtful, since the sperm whale's life span is about 70 years, but Ishmael probably didn't know that.

They have succeeded in tying the whale to the ship, but the body's tendency to sink threatens to overturn the Pequod, and finally Queequeg succeeds in cutting the fluke-chains. "With a terrific snap, every fastening went adrift; the ship righted, the carcase sank." And soon after the body sinks, the watch on the masthead reports that the Jungfrau is lowering her boat to chase a finback whale, which belongs "to the species of uncapturable whales, because of its incredible power of swimming.... Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend."

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