The meaning of whales

This morning, Mathieu P. left the following comment to my post on Melville's poem "Monody":

I am currently reading Melville's Moby Dick. Although I enjoy the book, I fail to understand fully the meaning of the chapter devoted to whaling, such as the one about cetology or the one about whalemen eating whale meat. There are enough comments about religion or cannibals to make me think that these chapter should be taken with a pinch of salt. I do not however understand to which degree exactly they should be taken and what their precise aim is. I would welcome any pointers or explanations. I may add that my only clue about American literature is Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden, which I read eagerly (my English professor of my undergrad years praised that book).

I thought I'd try to answer publicly, not because I have the answer, but because by coincidence I've been thinking about this very question, among others, for a lecture that I've been invited to give at SUNY Geneseo's English department in honor of the Thoreau scholar Walter Harding. (The lecture is scheduled to take place at 4pm on September 23 on the SUNY Geneseo campus.)

What I hope to talk about at Geneseo is the problem of esoteric knowledge in Melville's work—that is, the sense that the reader has that Melville's work has a secret meaning, and that among the pleasures and duties of reading him is the pursuit of his secret. It isn't at all obvious that a work of art should have a secret meaning, and I think most successful works of art don't. It's hard enough to communicate when one is taking care to be honest and forthcoming. Jane Austen's novels don't seem to have secrets; not even a book as heavy with symbolism as the Great Gatsby does. Infinite Jest, on the other hand, seems to me to be hiding something—to be begging for exegesis—especially toward the end, when it turns compressed and the allusions to Hamlet start to accumulate. Books that provoke in the reader a sense of secret knowledge almost never, of course, make a claim to such knowledge explicitly, so deciding which books fall into the category is tricky and somewhat subjective.

There are more books in the world than anyone has time to read. Why should a reader think it worth his while to ferret out the meaning of a writer who is withholding it? Moreover, why should a reader believe that a withheld meaning is true? When people believe that someone has access to secret truths, it's generally because they think of the person as a prophet, a guru, or even an incarnated god. Why should a novelist have such access? Or to put the question another way: How does a novelist go about convincing readers that he has such access?

This is all a little far afield from Mathieu P.'s particular question, the short answer to which is that there is no consensus about what whaling signifies in Moby-Dick. Two books that suggest answers are Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael and C. L. R. James's Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, both of which lay more emphasis on political and economic meanings than is common in academic analyses. I hope in my lecture that I will be able to articulate some of my own hunches about the secrets in Moby-Dick, which always sound half-mad even to myself when I try to put them into words. My method will be to compare them to the half-submerged ideas that appear in Mardi and Clarel, two works of Melville's that are less successful but also try to lure the reader into the pursuit of hidden meanings. A whale is an intelligent mammal that doesn't kill, doesn't have to work, and needn't have second thoughts about its sexual nature. Though apparently simple, when that definition works its way through Melville's strangely intertwined ideas about gender, incarnation, sexuality, immortality, and capitalism, the reader ends up in a strange place. I read Byron's Cain this week, and it occurred to me that Melville's whales share a great deal with the beings that existed in the world before Adam, shown to Cain by Lucifer during a visit to Hades:

Cain. What are these mighty phantoms which I see
Floating around me?—They wear not the form
Of the Intelligences I have seen
Round our regretted and unentered Eden;
Nor wear the form of man as I have viewed it
In Adam's and in Abel's, and in mine,
Nor in my sister-bride's, nor in my children's:
And yet they have an aspect, which, though not
Of men nor angels, looks like something, which,
If not the last, rose higher than the first,
Haughty, and high, and beautiful, and full
Of seeming strength, but of inexplicable
Shape; for I never saw such. They bear not
The wing of Seraph, nor the face of man,
Nor form of mightiest brute, nor aught that is
Now breathing; mighty yet and beautiful
As the most beautiful and mighty which
Live, and yet so unlike them, that I scarce
Can call them living.

In Byron's play, the pre-Adamites are not the same as whales, which do however make an appearance a few pages later, when Lucifer, on the same tour of Hades, shows Cain an ocean, a thing Cain has never seen before:

Cain. 'Tis like another world; a liquid sun—
And those inordinate creatures sporting o'er
Its shining surface?

Lucifer. Are its inhabitants,
The past Leviathans.

Crowd-sourcing a lost Melville-related index

Extracts, the Melville Society’s newsletter from 1969 to 2005, is freely available online, including an index to a few dozen of the issues (number 49 to 72). Once upon a time, there also existed online an index to all the issues of Extracts. I seem to remember that this index was hosted on the site of someone not officially associated with the Melville Society. I also remember that when cross-referenced with the page images of the newsletter itself, it was very useful for tracking down odd bits of information about Melville not readily found elsewhere. But Google can’t tell me where this index is anymore, if indeed it still exists. Does anyone know?

Notebook: “There She Blew”

Harry V. Givens, photographer, 'Whale Skeleton, Point Lobos, California,' American Environmental Photographs Collection (1891-1936), AEP-CAS206, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library

“There She Blew,” my review of Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, is in the 23 July 2007 issue of The New Yorker. Herewith a few web extras and informal footnotes.

As ever, my first thanks go to the book under review. I also consulted the conservationist and historian Richard Ellis’s Men and Whales (Knopf, 1991), which takes the story of whaling beyond America, and the economists Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Karin Gleiter’s In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906 (University of Chicago, 1997), which contains empirical data and insights that will interest Ph.D.’s as well as M.B.A.’s. The best documentation of Melville’s life as a whaler is in Herman Melville’s Whaling Years (Vanderbilt, 2004), a 1952 dissertation revised by its author, Wilson Heflin, until his death in 1985, and astutely edited for publication by Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Thomas Farel Heffernan. (It’s from a note in Heflin’s book that I found the description of sperm-squeezing in William M. Davis’s 1874 memoir.) Two nineteenth-century memoirs of whaling that I refer to—J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise and Francis Allyn Olmsted’s Incidents of a Whaling Voyage—are available online thanks to Tom Tyler of Denver, Colorado, as part of his edition of journals kept aboard the Nantucket whaler Plough Boy between 1827 and 1834. William Scoresby Jr.’s Account of the Arctic Regions, with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery is available in Google Books. (For the record, though, I read on paper, not online. I’m not really capable of reading books online.)

Also very useful was Briton Cooper Busch’s “Whaling Will Never Do for Me”: The American Whaleman in the Nineteenth Century (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), which told me about bored shipboard wives and the whaler who read Moby-Dick while at sea, and Pamela A. Miller’s And the Whale Is Ours: Creative Writing of American Whalemen (Godine, 1971), my source for the quatrain about sperm whales vanishing from “Japan Ground.”

Now for the wildly miscellaneous. While I was researching the review, some Eskimos killed a bowhead whale off the shores of Alaska and found in its blubber the unexploded explosive tip of a bomb lance manufactured in the 1880s; the discovery got a short paragraph in the New York Times (“This Whale’s Life . . . It Was a Long One”), and a longer explanation on the website of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (“125-year-old New Bedford Bomb Fragment Found Embedded in Alaskan Bowhead Whale”). The NBWM has some great photographs of whaling in its online archives, from an inadvertently campy tableau of a librarian showing a young sailor how to handle his harpoon in the 1950s (item 2000.100.1449), to a sublime and otherworldly image of a backlit “blanket piece” of blubber being hauled on board a whaler in 1904 (item 1974.3.1.93). The blanket piece was photographed by the whaling artist Clifford W. Ashley, as part of his research for his paintings; he also took pictures of a lookout high in a mast (item 1974.3.1.221), a sperm whale lying fin out beside a whaler (item 1974.3.1.73), the “cutting in” of a whale beside a ship (item 1974.3.1.34), and whalers giving each other haircuts (item 1974.3.1.29). Though taken in 1904, they’re the best photos of nineteenth-century-style whaling I’ve seen, and they’re also available in a book, Elton W. Hall’s Sperm Whaling from New Bedford, through the museum’s store.

The best moving images of whaling are in Elmer Clifton’s 1922 silent movie “Down to the Sea in Ships,” which features Clara Bow as a stowaway in drag and has an absurd plot, complete with a villain who is secretly Asian. It stars Marguerite Courtot and Raymond McKee (who was said to have thrown the harpoon himself during the filming), as well as real New Bedfordites and their ships, as Dolin explains, and even has a scene of Quakers sitting wordlessly in meeting, the purity of which tickled me. It has been released by Kino Video on DVD and is available via Netflix as part of a double feature with Parisian Love. The NBWM has a great many stills; try searching for “Clifton” as a keyword.

If photographs strike you as too anachronistic, you can find the occasional watercolor whaling scene in the nineteenth-century logbooks digitized by the G. W. Blunt White Library of the Mystic Seaport Museum, such as these images from the 1841-42 logbook of the Charles W. Morgan (MVHS Log 52, pages 37 and 43). There is more scrimshaw than you will know what to do with at the Nantucket Historical Association. If you want to hear whales, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has at least two websites with samples, and there are more here, courtesy of the University of Rhode Island.

The conceptual, book-based artist Alex Itin has an intriguing video collage of Moby-Dick the text and Orson Welles the actor; Welles tried a number of times to stage a version of the novel. And much further down the brow of culture, the Disney corporation did an animated book review of Moby-Dick a few years ago. (I can’t promise it won’t work your last nerve.) Last but not least, here are NOAA’s estimates of current whale populations, by species, and the homepage of the International Whaling Commission, responsible for the animals’ welfare.

Photo credit: Harry V. Givens, photographer, “Whale Skeleton, Point Lobos, California,” American Environmental Photographs Collection (1891-1936), AEP-CAS206, Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library (accessed through the Library of Congress’s American Memory website).