Whales Through Melville’s Eyes

October 14, 2015

Browsing through the highlights and notes, the brilliant moments from the long journey of Moby Dick came to life again. I remember being repelled by the second half of Heinlain’s A Stranger from A Strage Land, despising its complete derailment from the story and the endless spouting of his unimportant opinions. But I totally enjoyed the random thoughts and musings Melville offered.

The narratives of the plot constitute just a small part of the volume. In an unintruding manner, the various aspects of the whaling business was laid out. If these descriptions are more out of necessity for later understanding, then what branches out from them emitting witty insights and wild deduction, touching ancient history, philosophy, social issues, are pure brain food. One example is taken from the last passage of the chapter debuting Ahab’s harpooneer Fedallah,

…according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours.

As Melville’s ambition commanded, the book also contains large quantities of encyclopedic entries. Similarly, his comments are most worthwhile paying attention to. In particular, he revealed one peculiar aspect of the whale’s vision system: the sideway positioned eyes separated by a dead wall of face, thus two completely different images at the brain’s processing center, and thus two fronts and two backs! I’m surprised how I have never thought of this amusing problem. I’m less troubled by his classification of whales as fish though. He explained reasonably, and that’s his personal choice. But it’s indeed questionable whether his description of whale’s exceptionally small brain is true by today’s standard. That aside, it nevertheless illustrates Melville’s powerful armament of similes.

… hidden away behind its vast outworks, like the innermost citadel within the amplified fortifications of Quebec.

Perhaps the tranquil tropical cruising that Melville so lavishly and untiringly depicted – which I already quoted before and had better refrain from doing so again – is truely the source of the freest thoughts seen all over the book. Yet my constant theme has always been the conflict between the strong sympathy towards the whales and reading of what the main characters are doing to them. This is intensified by the author’s own manifested contradiction of attitudes. He did not withhold any bit of admiration for or marveling at the whales’ mild profoundness and joyous swiftness. But no less praising was given to the whaling business and killing scenes. I don’t attempt to guess which side he stands, but he clearly knows what they are doing down to the core –

But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.

And wasn’t he also aware how humans look like before the whales?

… withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.

One of the most heartbreaking moments was when the boats were forced to the nursery water and the crews encountered some unsophisticated baby whales and their mothers.

Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the time refrained from darting it.

The chief mate used his fatal weapon – with which he would have murdered any whales within his reach in cold blood – to scratch the young whales’ backs! If not driven by profits, shouldn’t this harmony be the norm? My heart cries out.

And in the end there comes at last the white whale. Throughout the book, his name is like a haunting ghost, and his characters could only be dimly inferred from the monomaniac captain and other whaling ships’ tragedies. But when he finally emerged, before our eyes is

A gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale.

The soft words flowed through my mind and created in my imagination a kind of self-sufficiency, pleasant buoyancy, with which a hermit moves about the vast ocean who has a whole world’s deep blue to accommodate his meditating soul. Then what is all this ferocity, cruelty and cunningness alluded to Moby Dick before? One realizes it doesn’t originate from the white whale himself. On the contrary it’s a mirrored image of all those who tried to hurt him.

Once, Ahab pursued, stroke, failed and was kept alive. Twice, Ahab pursued, stroke, failed and was kept alive. It’s apparent to me Moby Dick is not interested in human slaying, or even humans as an object of surveying. Perhaps all the more humiliated by this indifference towards his self-perceived unique suffering, Ahab lowered for the third time before all the insanity was dragged down to the deeps of calm.

I read the passage of Ahab’s decease over and again, trying to figure out if the wound he inflicted to the white whale is a mortal one. There doesn’t seem to be a definitive conclusion. I hope Moby Dick had gotten rid of this inexplicable nonsense and recovered to live long. My hopes are high because

In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats*, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.

* And yes, I know what those rats of the Netherlands are.