Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it. | Moby-Dick reread, riff 18

I. In this riff: Chapters 74 and 75 of Moby-Dick. (And I go back and pick up a little of Ch. 73.)

II. In my last riff, I glibly skipped over Ch. 73, “Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him,” simply adding that, “In this chapter, Stubb and Flask kill a right whale and then have a talk over him.”

That chapter though is germane to the following pair of chapters, both of which focus on two massive but distinctly different whale heads. (The chapter also brims with Flask’s racism against Fedallah (he calls him a “gamboge ghost” at one point), whom he equates with the devil. More foreshadowing.)

Flask outlines the rationale for raising two whale heads to The Pequod’s sides:

…did you never hear that the ship which but once has a Sperm Whale’s head hoisted on her starboard side, and at the same time a Right Whale’s on the larboard; did you never hear, Stubb, that that ship can never afterwards capsize?

Can never afterwards capsize—more ironic foreshadowing.

III. Ch. 74, “The Sperm Whale’s Head—Contrasted View.”

“Here, now, are two great whales, laying their heads together; let us join them, and lay together our own,” begins Ishmael. He continues, suggesting that “the Sperm Whale and the Right Whale are by far the most noteworthy” and “the only whales regularly hunted by man.” Additionally, “they present the two extremes of all the known varieties of the whale,” pointing again to Moby-Dick’s themes of duality and opposition. Pointing out that a head of each whale is currently hoisted to each side of The Pequod, our defensive narrator protests, “…where, I should like to know, will you obtain a better chance to study practical cetology than here?”

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

IV. So our practical cetologist is not exactly unbiased:

…there is a certain mathematical symmetry in the Sperm Whale’s which the Right Whale’s sadly lacks. There is more character in the Sperm Whale’s head. As you behold it, you involuntarily yield the immense superiority to him, in point of pervading dignity.

V. Ishmael then asks us to consider “the position of the whale’s eyes” which “corresponds to that of a man’s ears.” Abstract Ishmael becomes practical Ish:

You would find that you could only command some thirty degrees of vision in advance of the straight side-line of sight; and about thirty more behind it. If your bitterest foe were walking straight towards you, with dagger uplifted in broad day, you would not be able to see him, any more than if he were stealing upon you from behind. In a word, you would have two backs, so to speak; but, at the same time, also, two fronts (side fronts): for what is it that makes the front of a man—what, indeed, but his eyes?

Front/back—again, duality/opposition.

VI. Ish (and Melville, always Melville) then goes through the imaginative process of seeing how whales might see (boldfaced emphasis is mine, as always):

…in most other animals that I can now think of, the eyes are so planted as imperceptibly to blend their visual power, so as to produce one picture and not two to the brain; the peculiar position of the whale’s eyes, effectually divided as they are by many cubic feet of solid head, which towers between them like a great mountain separating two lakes in valleys; this, of course, must wholly separate the impressions which each independent organ imparts. 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. Man may, in effect, be said to look out on the world from a sentry-box with two joined sashes for his window. But with the whale, these two sashes are separately inserted, making two distinct windows, but sadly impairing the view. 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.


VII. Ishmael turns his thought experiment from seeing to consciousness:

 But if you now come to separate these two objects, and surround each by a circle of profound darkness; then, in order to see one of them, in such a manner as to bring your mind to bear on it, the other will be utterly excluded from your contemporary consciousness. How is it, then, with the whale? 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 is it as marvellous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid.

I’m reminded of Keats’s negative capability: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

VIII. Ish then turns his attention to the sperm whale’s tiny ears, which have “no external leaf whatever; and into the hole itself you can hardly insert a quill, so wondrously minute is it.” Like the whale’s eyes, the whale’s ears are proportionally small to its massive body (when compared with humans, at least). Ishmael arrives at his own answer, his own negative capability:

Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.—Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.

IX. Ishmael—and Melville—then moves the cinematographer’s camera about the whale skull “with whatever levers and steam-engines we have at hand…over the sperm whale’s head.” In this filmic tour, Ish takes us in particular through the jaws of the whale, noting that, when we “expose its rows of teeth, it seems a terrific portcullis; and such, alas! it proves to many a poor wight in the fishery, upon whom these spikes fall with impaling force.” The following lines are of greater interest to me than the poor dead fisherman in the previous sentence. Ish suggest that,

….far more terrible is it to behold, when fathoms down in the sea, you see some sulky whale, floating there suspended, with his prodigious jaw, some fifteen feet long, hanging straight down at right-angles with his body, for all the world like a ship’s jib-boom. This whale is not dead; he is only dispirited; out of sorts, perhaps; hypochondriac; and so supine, that the hinges of his jaw have relaxed, leaving him there in that ungainly sort of plight, a reproach to all his tribe, who must, no doubt, imprecate lock-jaws upon him.

Where did Ishmael encounter such a “dispirited” whaleout of sorts, fathoms down in the sea?

X. Ish concludes the chapter with concludes Ch. 74 with a practical business-person’s tone:

There are generally forty-two teeth in all; in old whales, much worn down, but undecayed; nor filled after our artificial fashion. The jaw is afterwards sawn into slabs, and piled away like joists for building houses.

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

XI. Ch. 75, “The Right Whale’s Head—Contrasted View.”

“Crossing the deck, let us now have a good long look at the Right Whale’s head.”

Okay, Ish.

XII. Our boy starts off a bit mean:

As in general shape the noble Sperm Whale’s head may be compared to a Roman war-chariot (especially in front, where it is so broadly rounded); so, at a broad view, the Right Whale’s head bears a rather inelegant resemblance to a gigantic galliot-toed shoe.

Galliot-toed means square-toed, and as the owner of many pairs of Clark’s Wallabees over the years, I take exception to Ishmael’s slight.

XIII. He continues to lambaste the head with its “strange, crested, comb-like incrustation.” It is a “green, barnacled thing…you would take the head for the trunk of some huge oak, with a bird’s nest in its crotch.” He goes on to point out that crabs nestle in this “king’s” crown, and “that he is a very sulky looking fellow to grace a diadem.” Ish seems to take a particular glee in insulting this particular right whale’s face, noting that it’s a “great pity, now, that this unfortunate whale should be hare-lipped.” (Superstitious Ish suggests the harelip is the result of a curse: “Probably the mother during an important interval was sailing down the Peruvian coast, when earthquakes caused the beach to gape.” He then brings us into the right whale’s jaws, it’s mouth the size of “an Indian wigwam,” before going on about its “whiskers,” which “furnish to the ladies their busks and other stiffening contrivances” as well as more contemporary umbrellas.

XIV. Ish concludes by restating his position “that the Sperm Whale and the Right Whale have almost entirely different heads.”

He then implores,

Look your last, now, on these venerable hooded heads, while they yet lie together; for one will soon sink, unrecorded, in the sea; the other will not be very long in following.


XV. Taking a final look at the whale’s faces, Ishmael moves again from the concrete/technical to the abstract/philosophical:

This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.

(I don’t remember, let alone know, much of Spinoza, so I could be wrong in suggesting that he proposed a godhead through which the concrete and abstract were indivisible, a metaphysics imprinted into physics.)

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