This is week II of the Moby-Dick read-along hosted by Roof Beam Reader. We are now getting to the notoriously heavy/boring parts of the novel. However, I didn’t mind much the chapters on the different kinds of whales and the chapters that praise whaling. Ishamael’s descriptions of the whales may not be accurate, but I didn’t think those pages were meaningless.
I have wanted to be an entomologist since I was nine or ten years old. During most of my high school years, I remember feeling disappointed that invertebrates were hardly ever mentioned in my biology classes. Finally, the summer before my senior year, I got the opportunity to do an internship at the local museum of natural history. My project? Identifying spider wasps down to the species level. That summer, I spent hours peering through a microscope at the wing venation and abdominal setae of wasps, with only a hundred year old guide to help me. You read that right – a hundred year old guide! The pages were yellow and not held together by much.
I mention this experience by way of explaining why I valued the Moby-Dick chapters on cetology. I have never studied whales; I get seasick like no one I know. But, taxonomy is no easy task. Ishamael mentions the challenges taxonomists face in studying whales. The same is true for any other organism. In Melville’s time, the only way scientists could build cladograms was by studying the morphological similarities and differences between species. However, as Ishmael argues in the chapters on cetology, classification based on morphology alone is not always accurate.
“Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.”
My time at the museum and the evolutionary biology courses I took later in college gave me a great appreciation for the field of taxonomy, although this is not what I will be studying in graduate school. Ishmael is not a scientist. He admits to not understanding whale speciation like the naturalists he cites. Yet, I found the cetology passages to be valuable because of Ishmael’s commentary on taxonomy. I also learned a lot about the products that were produced from the different whales at a time when whaling was legal.
Enough about cetology. On to the other chapters of the reading.
Ahab is quite a memorable character. With a giant scar on his face and a peg leg, who can forget him. He is not interested in killing any whale. He wants to kill Moby-Dick, the white whale that dismembered him. Starbuck, the chief mate, may be ethically opposed to the killing of Moby-Dick, but Ahab is the captain. Like the whale he wants to destroy, Ahab is larger than life itself.
Ishmael gives the reader a very striking description of the three mates having dinner with the captain in his cabin.
“Over his ivory-inlaid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his war-like but still deferential cubs. In his own proper turn, each officer waited to be served. They were was little children before Ahab; and yet, in Ahab, there seemed not to lurk the smallest social arrogance. With one mind, their intent eyes all fastened upon the old man’s knife, as he carved the chief dish before him. I do not suppose that for the world they would have profaned that moment with the slightest observation, even upon so neutral a topic as the weather.”
The shipmates do not need to be told how to behave before their captain. They know that he is not a force to be reckoned with. He is respected (except maybe by the second mate, Stubb).
I could go on and on about the many observations I made in this week’s reading, but I will stop here. I am welcoming Melville’s digressions with open arms.