Archive for the 'Science or Cetology' Category

Mar 05 2010

The beauty of horror

Published by under Science or Cetology

In Chapter 86, The Tail, Ishmael lauds the whale for handling its immense power with such grace.
Ishmael first goes into a detailed description of the whale’s tail, describing its large size and powerful build (“a dense webbed bed of welded sinews”). Despite it’s enourmousness, however, the whale is also incredibly graceful. Ishmael tells us that:

“Nor does this—its amazing strength, at all tend to cripple the graceful flexion of its motions; where infantileness of ease undulates through a Titanism of power. One the contrary, those motions derive their most appalling beauty from it. ” (365).

I thought Melville’s choice of the phrase “appalling beauty” was interesting. Appalling usually refers to something bad, whereas when something is described as “beautiful,” it’s usually taken as a compliment. Ishmael combines beauty and destruction again when he says: “So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell” (365). His description of Satan as “majestic” emphasizes that simply because Satan is “evil” doesn’t mean we cannot admire the beauty of the terrible power he holds.

Is seems that Melville really wants his readers to know that opposites don’t necessarily have to be opposites, they can complement each other. This pervades in some of the other themes of the book: Religion and science don’t have to disagree, both feminine and masculine traits can be found in the same objects, white and non-white people should be able to coexist happily together, and horrific, appalling events can also be beautiful. Once again, Melville has used the prided whale to highlight his philosophies in an understated way.

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Mar 05 2010

The “true” Moby Dick?

Published by under Science or Cetology

        In the eighty-sixth chapter of Herman Mellville’s Moby Dick, after describing the sperm whale’s tail, Ishmael states that he still has an “inability to express it” (Melville, 366) and that even after dissecting a whale, he “know[s the whale] not, and never will” (Melville, 367).  There is a similar instance in the 103rd chapter of the novel, entitled “Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton.” For the most part, this chapter is a fairly dry and very detailed description of the whale’s skeleton. When Ishmael is examining a skeleton, he suddenly breaks away from his observations and thinks

“How vain and foolish, then, thought I, for timid untraveled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton, stretched in this peaceful wood. No. Only in the heart of the quickest perils; only within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly and livingly found out” (Melville, 438).

As suddenly as this mental soliloque began, it ends and moves back to the description of the skeleton in a manner so abrupt that it is almost comical.  The added factor in this thought – that the “true” whale can be discovered only in a perilous fight – is very likely an allusion to the final hunt of Moby Dick that will finish the novel. Therefore, it would be interesting to examine the first concrete sighting of Moby Dick to attempt to determine if there is an instance in which this particular whale’s true nature is revealed.

            One possible revelation of the true Moby Dick is the shockingly calm and peaceful first description of him: “A gentle joyousness – a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale” (Melville, 525). While this moment does not seem perilous, the danger of hunting Moby Dick has been well forewarned and is not doubted.  The fact that the word “invested” is used to refer to the whale in both instances is especially indicative of a correlation. The descriptions of Moby Dick, for the most part, become increasingly more fearsome as this tragic climax in the novel progresses.

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Mar 05 2010

Ishmael: Just believe.

In Chapter 83, Jonah Historically Regarded, Ishmael interestingly contemplates religion and science. This is not the first time Jonah is mention in the book, nor is it surprising, with the overt mention of the whale in the story. However, I think this chapter adds an interesting dimension to Ishmael’s character.

Ishmaels has shown himself, in certain moments, to lean more towards the logical and scientific than the religious (such as when he criticizes Queequeg’s Ramadan as being silly and bad for the body). In this chapter, he also reveals himself to be religious. Through the character of Sag Harbor, he draws attention to  some of the discrepancies in the story, and his attempts to explain them seem halfhearted. After reading his meticulously detailed descriptions of whaling, one expects him to dissect the story of Jonah in the same way: paying attention to the details. However, he doesn’t. When he addresses the fact that a whale could not swallow a whole man, Ishmael says: “Possibly, too, Jonah might have ensconced himself in a hollow tooth; but, on second thoughts, the Right Whale is toothless.” He leaves the paragraph at that. So, why would Ishmael bring up a possibility, promptly reject it, and then give no other explanations?

I think he purposely doesn’t try to give readers any convincing scientific or logical explanation for the discrepancies because he wants the reader to recognize that there are some things for which one just has to put logic aside and believe. Ishmael finally ends the chapter by telling us: “all these foolish arguments of old Sag-Harbor only evinced his foolish pride of reason […] Besides, to this day, the highly enlightened Turks devoutly believe in the historical story of Jonah” (355). Don’t reason it too much, just believe it, Ishmael seems to tell us. His repetition of the word “foolish” in his description of Sag Harbor is especially striking—Ishmael, to this point, has hardly struck me as a character who would find logic foolish. His use of the word foolish here to describe Sag Harbor’s pride, once again, reminds men to not be too arrogant (something that comes up again and again in this book). In this chapter, he checks man’s pride, telling them not to try and use reason to justify religion, because religion is bigger, and beyond the reach of logic.   This shows his religious side, the side of him inclined to believe in this story and in God even though the facts don’t add up.

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Mar 05 2010

The Spout and the Tail of the Whale

Published by under Science or Cetology

         Around two thirds of the way through Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, there are two consecutive chapters dedicated to describing physical attributes of the sperm whale. The first of these, Chapter 85, is entitled “The Fountain” and depicts the spouting of the whale. The eighty-sixth chapter is entitled “The Tail” and discusses this part of the whale.

      At the beginning of “The Fountain,” a moment of the religion versus science debate that has undercurrents throughout the novel arises. Ishmael states that whales have been “spouting all over the sea” for “six thousand years” (Melville, 357). This follows the creationist theory, as the bible presents the idea that god created life six thousand years ago. However, immediately following this statement, Ishmael adds “—and no one knows how many millions of ages before” (Melville, 357). This interjected addendum expresses doubt towards creationism, lightly supporting evolution.

            Melville’s depiction of the whales’ spouts adds to the sense of mystery about the whale. He describes them with the metaphor “sprinkling or mystifying pots” (Melville, 358). Melville also uses the discussion of the whale’s spout to create an emotional response in the readers to the whale through stating that they have “regular lungs, like a human beings” (Melville, 358).  Ishmael describes the internal anatomical evolutionary adaptations that whales have developed that allow them to remain underwater without drawing breath for long periods of time.  The whales’ need to come to the surface to breath is represented as a reason that the whaler should be humbled, as he is only so powerful and cannot chase the whale into the depths of the sea (Melville, 359). The spout adds more mystery to the whale by Ishmael’s wonder as to what exactly is being expelled from the whale’s blowhole – if there is anything besides water, and what form that water is in (Melville, 360-361).

            Coming full circle and returning to religion at the end of the chapter, Ishmael describes rainbows as rays from “Heaven” (Melville, 362). He discusses the idea that rainbows only appear when sunlight shines through water vapor/mist, and thus presents the rainbows that sometime appear in the spouts of whales as religious symbols.

            In the following chapter, “The Tail,” Ishmael describes the tail of the sperm whale and its motions in detail, and illustrates it as a thing of immense power and size, but also of delicate beauty and grace (Melville, 363-365). Ishmael states that “real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but often bestows it” (Melville, 363). This sentence can be viewed in several manners. When applied to humans, there could be some gender connotations intended that would break down some of the gender binary – i.e., that “strong men” can/should have beauty, and “beautiful women” can/should have strength.   Ishmael also states that the sperm whales often use their tails when attacking ships, serving to place the tail as an element of foreboding.

            The chapter ends somewhat ironically. The chapter is the description of the tail, but ends with the mention of the whale’s face (367). In addition, although the entire chapter has been dedicated to describing the sperm whale’s tail and how it is used, Ishmael states that he has an “inability to express it” (Melville, 366). He proceeds to state “dissect him how I may, then,…but….I know him not, and never will” (Melville, 367). This again serves to add a sense of mystery to the whale. It also is humbling to mankind. Thirdly, it conveys the idea that whales are not just simple beings – a “shell” of a body and nothing inside – but that they have souls.

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Mar 05 2010

The Beginning of the End of the Pequod

Ahab’s maniacal obsessive mind finally takes full control in the chapter The Quadrant.  This instrument is used to measure the position of the sun in order to determine a ship’s latitude.  Ahab decides that it is useless on his quest to find Moby Dick, exclaiming

Foolish toy! Babies’ plaything of haughty admirals, and commodores, and captains…Science! Curse thee thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that casts man’s eyes aloft to that heaven…Curse thee thou quadrant!  No longer will I guide my earthly way by thee…thus I split and destroy thee!” (481)

Ahab proceeds to crush the quadrant by stepping on it with both his foot and peg-leg.  This dramatic display of the destruction of this tool signifies the disintegration of Ahab’s sanity and the loss a sense of reality.  By ruining the Pequod’s navigation instrument, Ahab is left in complete control of the ship’s course and direction.  No sound, stable tool can help guide the ship in a reasonable manner.  The sailors are left to depend on the fallible mind of their captain, an almost definite sign that the ship will be wrecked and end in doom.  By crushing the very tool that can provide a practical mapping for the Pequod to follow a logical course, Ahab exerts himself and his authority over science and in a broader sense, destiny and the larger external forces that affect human lives.  Again, this bold gesture serves as an omen that hints of Ahab’s destruction by a man-made object (the harpoon line) that has yet to occur.  It also implies the Pequod’s downfall, as all the sailors can do is to follow their insane Captain on his brazen quest to seek revenge upon an angry whale.  Breaking the quadrant in a way removes any hope the men, especially Starbuck, might have of ending their journey and finding their way safely back home.

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Mar 04 2010

The foreshadowing of the disastrous hunt for Moby Dick: a revisit to Melville’s first presentation of whales

Published by under Science or Cetology

           Throughout the novel of Moby Dick, Herman Melville presents the whale in various ways, and these different methods of presentation serve various purposes in how the Herman Melville would, presumably, like the reader to perceive the whale. As the sperm whale is the object of the hunt in the novel, the descriptions of this species are generally the most important.

            The first main mention of the sperm whale comes relatively early in the novel, in the thirty-second chapter, which is entitled “Cetology.” The very first description of the sperm whale is that

“He is, without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce; he being the only creature from which that valuable substance, spermaceti, is obtained” (Melville, 129).

This description serves to make the plot of the novel more impressive to the reader and to add suspense to the moment in which the sperm whale is first “encounter[ed]” (Melville, 129.) As the chapter does, in many ways, come from a cetological and taxonomic viewpoint, however, this first description of the sperm whale can be viewed as a scientific one.

            There are several other descriptions of the sperm whale that serve to add an element of excitement and fear to the novel, such as in chapter forty-one, where Ishmale states that the sperm whale is “fearfully distinguished from all other species of Leviathan” and adds that many experienced and courageous whalers, refuse to hunt the sperm whale because of its “monst[rous]” nature (Melville, 173). Another example that adds to the intimidation of this species of whale is the mention in forty-fifth chapter that sperm whales can have a tendency to attack the ships that hunt them – a statement that ends up being foreshadowing. In the 133rd chapter, “The Chase – The First Day,” Moby Dick “shoot[s] his pleated head lengthwise beneath the boat” and takes “its bows full within his mouth” (Melville, 526).

            The first encounter with the sperm whales occurs during the forty-eighth chapter, entitled “The First Lowering.” In this chapter, the whales are almost described as being a force of nature and completely one with the sea – “All four boats were now in keen pursuit of that one spot of troubled water and air” (Melville, 219). While this is literally the state of the particular area of ocean as caused by the whales, this can also be viewed as metonymy. This use of metonymy instills a sense of mystery, intangibility, and uncontrollability in the reader about the whales. In the same hunt, the whales are compared to an earthquake (Melville, 218). This hunt ends in failure and disaster, with the whale escaping, the boat capsizing, and the men stranded for a night. As Moby Dick has already been presented as the fiercest and most difficult to catch of all whales, the fact that the hunt of other sperms whales ends so badly sets a feeling of unease in the reader of what is to come.

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Mar 01 2010

Moby Dick’s pitchpoling

Published by under Science or Cetology

I previously posted about an instance in which Melville uses a footnote to describe the migratory patterns of sperm whales.   Stylistically this had struck me, as it was an interesting device to find used sparingly in the middle of the novel.  I noticed too how the narrator’s voice changed between the footnote and the rest of the text.  He sounded more authoritative on the nature of whales, referring to a scientific publication that appeared to be fictionalized.

Much later on in the book, there is notably another example of Melville’s use of a footnote to describe the habits of whales.  In the middle of the The Chase – First Day chapter (the bottom of page 537 in the Signet book), the narrator illustrates a maneuver of the whale in which the whale leaps into the air, as if to obtain a better vantage point of the area around him. I wonder how certain Melville himself felt about this reason for the whale’s breaching, or rather, if  people in his time commonly believed this.  One web page I’ve found lists other plausible explanations for breaching, and says that scientists are still speculative as to an exact reasoning.

Interestingly, the narrator says this is “peculiar” to sperm whales, which does not seem to be the case, as other types of whales, especially the humpback, are known to breach.

Here is a video of  a humpback’s impressive breaching:

You can see the great ocean swells that come after the whale hits the water, which Melville describes in the line before the footnote mentioned.

Of note, Melville does not refer to the whale’s leaping as “breaching,” but rather as “pitchpoling,” which is a dangerous type of capsizing, and is nicely illustrated here:

“Pitchpoling” is the title of Chapter 84 in the book, but  is actually referring to the ship and not the whale.

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Mar 01 2010

The Mystery of The Fountain

Published by under Science or Cetology

In Chapter 85, The Fountain, Ishmael explains the Sperm Whale’s spout, and proceeds to explain how the Sperm Whale has many features he admires, further elevating his opinion of the Sperm Whale and perhaps hinting at conservation, as we discussed in class.

As Ishmael explains, the Sperm Whale spouts when he surfaces to breathe. In a way, the whale’s spout is his achilles heel; the way whalers spot whales is usually by their spouts, and if a whale hadn’t surfaced whalers couldn’t harpoon them. Ishmael comments on this when he says “Not so much thy skill, then, O hunter, as the great necessities that strike the victory to thee!” (359). This sentence humbles whalers. You are indebted to the whale and his anatomy, Ishmael seems to say, for if he didn’t need to surface you would never catch him at all.

Ishmael continues to tick off the features of the whale that he admires. He likes that whales don’t talk: “Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living” (360). His admiration culminates in his admiration of the whales as great thinkers, and he compares the whale spout to the “visible steam” above the heads of Plato, Pyrrho, etc. that comes from the activity of thinking hard, similar to the way his hair was wet because he had drank six cups of hot tea in August. This last comparison sounds ironic, but it is by his exagerration that Ishmael makes it clear how much he respects the Sperm Whales.

In terms of conservation, Ishmael includes how the whale’s spout is believed to be acidic and poisonous, and says that “the wisest thing the investigator can do then, it seems to me, is to let this deadly spout alone” (361). This seems to  refer to Ahab’s stubborn pursuit of that which he knows to be harmful, with Ishmael suggesting that the wisest thing Ahab can to is to leave Moby Dick alone. I think that Ishmael also meant it as a conservationist message.  Even though Ishmael must kill the whales, he by no means thinks of himself as superior to them because he pursues them. He does not eve think of himself  as their equals. Rather, he is humbled by them, recognizing that it is only in their need to spout that he can hunt them, and furthermore, only in their existance that he can even define himself as a “whaler.”

Throughout “The Fountain,” Ishmael tells readers how they should be amazed and humbled the way he is by a beautiful and majestic creature. Reading this chapter after we discussed Melville’s desire to “save the whales,” or at least some of them, I feel that this was one chapter where Melville had conservation on his mind.

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Feb 28 2010

The Sperm Whale’s Head

Published by under Science or Cetology

Great Sperm Whale Video

In chapter 74 Ishmael discusses the sperm whale’s head.  As with many other discussions of cetology and the business of whaling in this book, Ishmael uses scientific fact to produce insightful metaphors.  He opens this chapter: “Here, now, are two great whales, laying their heads together; let us join them, and lay together our own” (295).  Ishmael and the reader join their heads together, and the lessons of Moby-Dick are imparted to those who are willing to subtilize their minds.

Ishmael first gives us a sense of general appearance.  This is not the awe-inspiring white emptiness of Moby Dick, with elements of divinity and innocence, but rather a dignified old “grey-headed whale.”  It is a proper subject for study.

Ishmael goes on to a fascinating discussion of the sperm whale’s eyes as compared to a human’s.  At first, the whale, with the darkness in between its two windows, seems to be at a disadvantage.  But then Ishmael makes an interesting point:

“…anyone’s experience will teach him, that though he can take in an undiscriminating sweep of things at one glance, it is quite impossible for him, attentively, and completely, to examine two things—however large or however small—at one and the same instant of time…” (297)

This reminds of the old Indian story of the blind men and the elephant.  It has been reproduced many times elsewhere.   Wikipedia provides a few versions of the story, this one the most succinct:

A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: ‘It is like a pillar.’ This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently.

This tale can be read as a parable on Moby-Dick and many great literary works for that matter.  The book is too large a mass to take in as a whole.  The maelstrom of Moby-Dick can only be understood by observing one object at a time.

If this is the case, Ishmael’s description of the whale’s sense of sight has haunting implications:

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?” (297)

Oh, what a loathsome lot, to be born such a lesser creature than the fearsome Leviathan!

Ishmael, in his discussion of the size of the whale’s sensory organs, gives the readers a hint to understanding life with their limited ability of sight.  He says that enlarging a whale’s eyes or ears is totally unnecessary, considering its proposed superiority to humans in that regard.  He tells us: “Why then do you try to ‘enlarge’ your mind?  Subtilize it” (298).   Melville, in studying whales and whales only, discovered themes, characters, and drama that seem to refer to all of human experience.  He is a perfect example for us.

Each man sees a different creature.

Each man sees a different creature.

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

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Feb 25 2010

The ‘Spirit Spout’ through the lens of (slightly hyperbolic) realism

Ah, the Spirit Spout. The chapter that supposes the great whale is following the Peaquod. Rife with foreshadowing and ominous imagery, this chapter can also be read as a testimony to the serenity and solitude of the sea–and the tricks such solitude can play in the minds of men. Alone for an eternity without so much as a humpback to show for it, the crew of the Peaquod have become accustomed to an empty ocean; a monotonous, pristine blue-grey sheet that plods along til disappearing beneath the fog of the horizon. Once broken by a spout–real or imagined–the shattered serenity evokes nightmarish thoughts of monsters and fiendish leviathans. Indeed the sea has been for some time their peaceful feminine companion, but as becomes clear in “The Symphony,” it had begun to turn on them in their minds. No longer peaceful, serene, and feminine, the once calm sea now the portent of their impending downfall.

Sailors of a whaling vessel had little to go by in the way of guarantees. The industry of Melville’s era did not benefit from the technologies of today’s world. Fishing then was a crapshoot of epic proportions. For the men of Ahab’s craft, the prospects of a payday were ever-dwindling and the horror of their doom-bound journey was creeping ever steadily into their consciousness. These were men primed for a conjured sign–a affirmation of their terrible destiny. Form the standpoint of a psychologist, the Peaquod was a case study for the breeding grounds of group-effect driven hysteria. One man’s diluted vision yielded the panic (or beginnings thereof) of an entire crew.

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