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As much as I thrilled to the technology Melville described in Moby-Dick, I particularly enjoyed laughing at Melville’s bad science. Some of his errors are wholly understandable; Melville lived in a pre-Darwinian world in which biology remained a great mystery. But some of his mistakes reflect what will seem a ridiculous statement, yet one I believe I can defend. Melville, I argue, lacked imagination.

Let’s begin with Darwin. Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and sailed around the world aboard the HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836. While this voyage helped Darwin formulate his ideas on the evolution of life, these ideas didn’t solidify until the early 1840s, and were not published until 1856, five full years after the publication of Moby-Dick.

This pre- vs post-Darwin worldview is most obvious when Melville tries to classify whales in his chapter on cetology. The first mistake occurs before Melville has even begun his classification scheme. For Melville, “a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” (p 198). He then goes on to classify whales by size as their most important and diagnostic characteristic.

Here’s the thing: in a pre-Darwinian world, there’s no particular sense in which we could say that Melville was wrong, either about whales as fish or about their familial relationships. Without Darwin’s insight of common descent, classification is nothing more than sorting. There are many, many ways to sort everyday objects – by color, by utility, by composition, and so on. Not until Darwin showed that all animals evolved from a common ancestor could there be exactly one correct way to classify them. That one way is to follow the concept of adaptive radiation. The history of life is an ever-branching tree, with each branch a species. Pre-Darwin, anyone might make an argument for or against whales as fish or as mammals. Post-Darwin, there is only one correct answer. Whales are mammals, because their ancestors were mammals.*

*Ironically, modern cladistics, which follows logically from Darwin’s insight, shows us that whales (as well as elephants, eagles, rattlesnakes, and we) actually are fish, because deep, deep in our history, we all have fish ancestors. But this is not the sense in which Melville claims whales as fish.

There’s a revealing episode later in the book in which Melville comments on the very human-like hand bones found in every whale’s fins. Melville is commenting on how strange it is that whales’ bodies so poorly match their skeletons. He says this tendency, “is also curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb.” (p 383) What I find curious is that it never occurred to Melville to ask why the one sort of creature in the ocean with both warm blood and lungs also happened to mimic the mammalian hand under its finny flesh.

A humpback whale skeleton – note the tiny hip bone remnant, and the finger bones embedded in the fins.

As mentioned, all this is perhaps excusable; after all, Darwin’s insight was genius. It took a Darwin to show us exactly what whales (and all other animals) were. But I think there’s a deeper issue in much of Melville’s scientific philosophy. He seems trapped in worldview from an earlier time, a time when nothing much ever changed.

For instance, when discussing cetacean art (art of whales, not art by whales!) Melville makes the following bizarre statement: “(A)ny way you look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.”(p. 383) In other words, we’ll never have a good rendering of the whale in life.

A 0.20 second Google image search makes a liar of Melville “about 565,000,000” times. Not fair, you might say. How could Melville ever have predicted the way in which image technology would explode? Yet this is exactly my point. From the moment our ancestors created painted images of the beasts they hunted upon dark and rough cave walls, people have worked to create images of their world. This desire for accurate pictures has never changed, though our technological skill has certainly increased. I take it as a failure of imagination that Melville, steeped as he was in the ingenious technology used to kill whales, could not envision that technology might someday allow us to render those same whales, not into oil, but into faithful images.

More seriously, in chapter 105, Melville asks the question, “Will He (the whale) Perish?”

(W)hether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff. (p. 673)

Melville’s answer is no, we humans will never make the slightest dent in the worldwide whale population. His reasoning, once again, reveals a lack of imagination from this teller of tales. Melville argues that a single whaling ship, on a four-year cruise, is happy to kill and render perhaps forty whales. Such a small number could not possibly affect the whale’s population. He also argues that the ocean is vast, and if whales are chased away from one particular portion of the ocean, they can always relocate to another. Finally, Melville argues that as a last resort whales can always find refuge under the ice, where no human hunter can ever go.

We know, of course, that Melville’s argument fell sloppy dead on all three counts with the coming of more and better technology. Exploding harpoons, more efficient factory ships, and, of course, fossil-fuel engines that could outrun, outmaneuver, and outlast any whale anywhere in the world changed the equation dramatically.

In a related argument, Melville described the blue whale (he called it the sulphur-bottomed whale) quite briefly, merely stating that “he is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line.”(p 204) This to me reveals all, for when whaling began the same might have been said of the sperm whale. No one knew how to hunt it. Then people learned how. Why wouldn’t further learning, further ideas, further technology, reveal a method for hunting this largest of all creatures? Of course, that is exactly what happened, as the technology of World War II, once used to kill people, was soon after turned upon the blue whale, resulting in that magnificent animal’s near-extinction in a matter of decades.

All this makes me think of both David Deutsch’s book, in which he makes a statement so simple and yet deeply profound – we cannot know what we have not yet discovered – and Steven Pinker’s, in which he describes how people have changed over time. In particular, Pinker makes the argument that we today are better at reasoning than were people in the past. I was reminded of this forcefully when I read Melville’s argument that whales are fish. After describing the reasons forwarded by Linnaeus for putting whales into the mammalian class, Melville dismisses these arguments by submitting “all this to my friends . . . both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley (one of the narrator’s friends) profanely hinted they were humbug.” Now there’s an airtight argument for you!

This is so like Pinker’s discussion of the Flynn Effect in IQ testing, reflecting our growing ability to reason. From page 776 of that book:

Consider a typical question from the Similarities section of an IQ test: “What do dogs and rabbits have in common?” The answer, obvious to us, is that they are both mammals. But an American in 1900 would have been just as likely to say, “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.” The difference, Flynn notes, is that today we spontaneously classify the world with the categories of science, but not so long ago the “correct” answer would seem abstruse and irrelevant. “’Who cares that they are both mammals?’” Flynn imagines the test-taker asking in 1900. “That is the least important thing about them from his point of view. What is important is orientation in space and time, what things are useful, and what things are under one’s control.” (p 776)

Pinker goes on to describe how this change Flynn discovered makes a real difference in our lives:

Flynn suggests that over the course of the 20th century, scientific reasoning infiltrated from the schoolhouse and other institutions into everyday thinking. More people worked in offices and the professions, where they manipulated symbols rather than crops, animals, and machines. People had more time for leisure, and they spent it in reading, playing combinatorial games, and keeping up with the world. (p 778)

All this may seem pretty academic. Big deal that Melville got the science wrong – he was writing over 150 years ago! I think, though, that Melville’s failure is telling. Understanding the world through science, particularly since the Enlightenment, has always led to greater control and influence over that world. As we will see, for Melville such control, even such understanding, is illusory. This illusion of reason speaks to the moral struggles that form the heart of the book. It is those moral struggles to which I turn next.

Enough with the metaphysics. Moby-Dick is about much more than life and afterlife. At 845 pages, it would have to be. Many who comment unfavorably on Moby-Dick do so because of the exhaustive (in every sense) descriptions of whales and whaling. On the contrary, I found these parts of the book a joy.

Whaling in the 1840s was a state-of-the-art technology, and a life-and-death struggle at the absolute frontier of our world. Consider how little was known of the world at the time. Consider how mysterious whales themselves remained (more on that in the next blog entry). Consider that ships were still the premier transportation method on the planet, despite the fact that they were still powered, as they always had been, by nothing but wind and muscle.

Take all that into account, and then think about what was involved in hunting the largest creatures on Earth. Sailors suspended high above the decks watched the ocean for spouting whales, finally shouting out “There she blows!” when the tell-tale spout appeared. The ship maneuvered close (remember, these vessels were powered by nothing but wind, yet had to change their heading at a moment’s notice, regardless of the wind’s actual direction), then one or more six-person wooden boats were lowered to the ocean’s surface.

In these boats the harpooneer, the lancer, and the rowers pursued the whale until they were near enough for the harpooneer to hurl the line-toting harpoon into the body of the whale. Then the real fun began. Once struck, the whale might swim away with the tiny boat, dive deep below the surface, or turn and attack. In any case, for the most part the whalemen had to just hold on and hope for the best. As Melville described in chapter 60, “The Line”, the rope attached to the harpoon could not also be attached to the whaleboat. That would risk the loss of the boat if the whale dove too deeply. So a truly determined whale had one certain way of escaping – simply pull all the line out of a whale boat. Of course, the whale would still have a harpoon embedded in its flesh, and several hundred feet of rope attached. The whale might well die, anyway, but such a death did the whalers no good, for what use is a dead whale that has escaped you?

The whalers, therefore, needed a method of convincing the whale that it couldn’t just keep pulling and eventually get away. What was that method? The whalers themselves would pull on the line, in opposition to the whale on the other end. But it wasn’t a tug-of-war; no six humans could pull a whale from the water. Instead, the rowers kept rowing toward the whale, while the line pulled over the rowers’ arms and backs, around which it had been wound before the harpoon was ever thrown. As Melville described the moment when the whale pulled and the men pulled back, and “all these horrible contortions be put into play like ringed lightings“ (p 406) Now that’s some serious fishing!

As the whale tired, the whalemen pulled on the line, drawing the boat up to the whale’s body. Then the lancer, who in Melville’s account is also one of the mates aboard the Pequod (more on these men soon, I promise), moved to the front of the boat and stabbed the whale to death.

With a dead 60 foot (or longer) whale on their hands, the next questions was, what to do with it? The whale was the size of the ship, perhaps even larger. It couldn’t possibly be hauled up onto the deck. The whale would have to be dealt with from the water.

For this step in the process, a remarkable transformation occurred, as the whaling boat morphed from a speedy, maneuverable sea wolf to a smoking, stationary whale rendering factory. The whale’s blubber was stripped off, cut up, and boiled down in huge metal pots into whale oil. Consider what that meant. The whaleboat, a wooden vessel on a wide ocean far from any land, burned a fire hot enough to boil oil on its deck, all in an effort to turn one enormous creature into highly condensed and immensely valuable oil.

Whale oil is the oil obtained from the blubber. Much more valuable was the sperm oil, found only in the oversized heads of sperm whales. To remove the sperm oil required a completely different process, in which the enormous and neckless creature strapped to the side of the ship was literally beheaded, then the oil was retrieved in buckets while the slippery, disintegrating cranium hung alongside the ship.

These oils were the lifeblood of the burgeoning industries of the day, oiling the gears, lubricating the flywheels, driving the industrial revolution forward. They were not just another product of the fishery. They were the materials that drove the industrial revolution.

To a modern reader, knowing the intelligence, the majesty, and the modern-day endangered status of whales, we wince at their treatment at the hands of these men, our progenitors. But if you can somehow put all that aside, if for even a moment, you will see that the technology of whaling, at a time before engines and fossil fuels, before airplanes and submarines, before the first hint of long-distance communication, electrical grids, or worldwide transportation networks, was a triumph of human imagination.

The whales didn’t leave their native environment and come onto land to find us. It was we who adapted to their way of life. We went to the oceans to find them. We learned their secrets, and we transformed ourselves into beings who could conquer the largest creatures this planet has ever produced. Whatever you feel about the morality of whaling, you have to admit that it was an impressive accomplishment.

First let me tell you the story of Jonah. Jonah’s this guy who wants to do his own thing, right? Then along comes a bully named God (how being all-powerful excuses you from bullying behavior is beyond me – it didn’t work for Trelaine or Q.) God says to Jonah, “Go to Ninevah and do my bidding. Er else.”

Jonah doesn’t like either of these options, so he hops on the first boat out of God’s territory. Too bad for Jonah, though, ’cause God don’t play that. God whips up a storm that just about sinks the boat Jonah’s on. Nothin’ like a little collateral damage, right God? Lucky for the ship’s sailors, they figure out before the boat sinks that Jonah’s got enemies in bad places, so they dump him overboard. Just like that, storm’s over. Magic. Pretty powerful guy, this God. More on that later.

Meanwhile, Jonah’s sinking like a stone when all of a sudden he’s swallowed by a “great fish.” Now Jonah’s inside the fish (musta been an air pocket in there somewhere, I guess) and finally he thinks, hmmm, this God guy’s got me by the unmentionables. Guess I better do what the big jerk says.

So Jonah whips up a plan. Flatter the bully, and maybe he’ll let me go. Jonah goes into an obsequiation that would turn any decent creature’s stomach. And it works, because the fish barfs Jonah back up onto the dry land. Unfortunately for Jonah, the dry land where the fish chooses to de-Jonah its belly is none other than Ninevah, right where God wanted Jonah in the first place. And so there you are. The bully wins. Didja learn your lesson, kids?

Maybe not the King James version, but I think there’s a certain something there.

Anyway, a pathetic and sad (but social) character in Melville’s book has a somewhat different take on the Jonah story. Father Mapple is a retired whale hunter who’s now a hunter of men, or something like that. He climbs up on his ship-shaped pulpit and lets Ishmael and the rest of the congregation have what for. In Mapple’s twisted version of the Jonah tale, Jonah is a sinner. His horrible sin? Thinking for himself. Not allowed in Mapple’s world. Jonah is “most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God . . .” (p 63)

It gets worse. After Jonah is swallowed, the fish (which in Mapple’s account must of course be a whale) then “shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison.” Jonah, deep inside the whale, goes into his “God is great” routine. And Father Mapple gets all dewy-eyed over it.

He feels that his dreadful punishment is just . . . And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah . . . (p 68)

Well, yeah! The bully won! He got what He wanted. I’m sure He was pleased as punch with His Cosmicness.

Just one quibble. If God could whip up a storm, if God could prepare a whale (with breathable air inside, no less), if God could stifle a storm at a moment’s notice, if God could monitor Jonah’s every word while covered with both sea and blubber, why couldn’t God have run his own errands back in Ninevah? Just something to ponder.

But the final and most awful blow is still to come. For now, his yarn spun, Father Mapple reveals the great weight and burden that he, like Jonah, feels. “Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me.”(p 69) Mapple now seems near breaking under all the pressure, but Mapple’s own whale returns to the surface and Mapple expresses, of all things, delight.

(D)elight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven . . . And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath – O Father! – chiefly known to me by Thy rod – mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. (p 71)

If Jonah were in my belly, I’d have just barfed him out after listening to that festering twaddle. A victim who is beaten, then expresses love for his tormentor, is in every sense of the word, a pitiful creature. But I feel no pity for Father Mapple. Why?

Because the whole thing is just a ridiculous ruse. The story is metaphor*

*What’s a metaphor? It’s for cows to eat in!

There probably was no Jonah. If there was he certainly wasn’t swallowed by a whale, or any other “great fish.” And he couldn’t have survived the ordeal if he had been. I know it. You know it. Father Mapple probably knew it, too (yeah, I know, Mapple wasn’t real either. Just go with it, ok?) But there’s one thing more that Father Mapple knew (or would have known, if only he had taken a peek). That hand holding the rod, you know the one, Father, that “chiefly known to me by Thy rod” business? Take a good look at that hand, Father Mapple. That hand – it’s yours.

We meet Ishmael, as odd a choice for narrator as ever there’s been. Until the moment the Pequod leaves its Nantucket port, Ishmael is essentially the entire story – his uncomfortably romantic nights with Queequeg the “cannibal” harpooneer, his journeys through the streets of New Bedford, his debate with the owners of the whaling ship regarding his pay, and his secret desire to become the world’s first serial hat-assaulter. Then, once the journey has begun, Melville conveniently forgets his mouthpiece, to the point that there are many scenes described later in the book that Ishmael could not possibly have observed, yet somehow can faithfully record. No matter, as at least he gives us one of the most memorable first lines in all literature.*

*Copied by P. Roth in his epic baseball tale, The Great American Novel, in which Roth’s narrator Word Smith begins by intoning, “Call me Smitty.” It’s no Great American Novel, that Great American Novel, but it’s worth reading. You can look it up.

Before the Pequod, before Ahab, and long before the eponymous whale, while we are still exploring with Ishmael at the edge of the unknown, there comes a scene in which Melville stirs the blood of this atheist reader, almost (almost) convincing him that the book will be that clarion call to reason that will win my soul (irony is thick in these here parts). In Chapter 7 (only 128 to go!), Ishmael enters a whaler’s chapel and, after some solemn reading of long-lost sailor epitaphs, he comes so close to embracing the secular.

(W)hy the life insurance companies pay death-forfeitures upon immortals . . .how is it that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss . . . wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. These things are not without their meanings. (p 55)

So close, Ishmael. So close. But then he frontslides.

Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance . . . methinks my body is but the lees of my better being . . . come a stove boat and a stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot. (p 56)

The New Bedford Seaman’s Chapel, where Ishmael prepared for the journey

There’s no question that Ishmael’s views of Christianity and religion are quite unorthodox for his day. There’s no doubt that he would have shocked many a reader of his own time with his irreverence (at one point (p 55) Ishmael delivers a lovely backhanded compliment, “But faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.”) But as much as I’d like to turn Ishmael into my non-believing guide through the wide ocean to come, the text simply won’t allow it. Melville may be throwing rotten tomatoes, but they’re tomatoes aimed from within the sanctuary.

I finally did it. I made it through all 845 pages (free Google ebook version), all 135 exhausting chapters of Herman Melville’s bizarre and extraordinary book. An English teacher once told me (I think he was quoting someone famous) that a fiction book changes you, but it’s not possible to say exactly how you are changed. In fact, that might be the best definition of a good fiction book I’ve ever heard. And Moby-Dick is definitely a good book.

In these next few blog entries, I’ll try to discover how (if?) Moby-Dick has changed me.

Why title this first entry “An Atheist Reads Moby-Dick”? I struggled with that choice. I certainly don’t believe that my atheism defines me. I might have written “A Science Teacher Reads Moby-Dick” or “An Ocean Lover Reads Moby-Dick” or even “A Husband and Father Reads Moby-Dick” because all those parts of me played into my reading, too. But the overwhelming impression that struck me again and again as I read is that this book reveals within its several pages the great gulf that separates me from the characters and events of Moby-Dick, a gulf that has at its heart the dichotomy between the supernatural and the secular. I think Melville would be baffled by what I’m about to write, because separating oneself so entirely from the supernatural would be for him like removing a body part (yes, I realize what I’ve just said. Wait and see.)

None of us is a blank slate; we all bring ourselves into any new experience. I read Moby-Dick through the filter of the two life-altering non-fiction books I read and studied over the past two years, The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. Both these books changed me so profoundly that I’m still sorting through the wreckage – in fact, reading and then writing about Moby-Dick is part of that effort.

I’ll also consider Moby-Dick through the filter of what remains my favorite fiction book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. With apologies to Melville fans, while Moby-Dick is undoubtedly an epic tale, it’s still lovely to live on a raft. Besides, as you’ll see by and by, Melville is fond of the Shakespearean finale, and like Huck, I don’t put no stock in dead people.

Finally, speaking of Shakespearean endings, I’ll consider Moby-Dick in the light (or rather the darkness) of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth. The parallels between these two stories is striking, and speaks, I think, to what Melville was trying to tell us through the character of Ahab.

The time has come. Let the great flood-gates of the wonder world swing open. Let the adventure begin . . .

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
September 2012
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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