Moby Dick: Leviathan

I’ve been reading a lot about whales recently. I’d bought Philip Hoare’s 2009 Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction prize-winner, Leviathan, but felt I needed to read Moby Dick first (since Philip Hoare’s book was inspired by Melville’s book), so that was where I began. Those books led me back to Whale Nation, first published back in 1988.

From a commodity hunted for its oil and blubber to a potent symbol of the environment, the whale has captured the human imagination for millenia. Ancient myth regarded the whale as an fearsome monster, a creature that might swallow a single human being, such as Jonah, while the poet William Blake wrote of a terrifying vision, ‘the head of Leviathan, his forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple like those on a tyger’s forehead… advancing towards us with all the fury of a spiritual existence’.

Moby Dick was one of those 19th century classics that I’d never read, perhaps because I ignorantly thought it was going to be one of those 19th century sea yarns that never appealed.  However, as soon as I began it I was drawn into a book that feels very modern, starting with the Extracts, ‘supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian’, and continuing with its blend of  adventure narrative and cetacean encyclopedia, full of  information (and, I suspect, a fair amount of misinformation) about whales and the whaling industry that was big business on the eastern seaboard of 19th-century New England.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely –  having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

In the opening chapter, there’s this rather uncanny passage:

…doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States
Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael

Only a few days after the September 11 attacks, Edward Said wrote, ‘Collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby-Dick’.

An interesting feature of this book is its short chapter style. This makes it possible for Melville to digress to explain every aspect of the whaling industry. Though some have found these chapters made the book, for them,  a difficult read, I liked their conversational tone. I found the variety and richness of the language remarkable: from the Shakespearian tone of the monologues of Ahab and other members of the crew to the philosophical passages that become a kind of prose poetry:

‘All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in a whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.’

Herman Melville Moby Dick illustration by Rockwell Kent

I was impressed, too, by  Melville’s obvious respect for other cultures  – the ‘savages’ and ‘cannibals’ of the south seas, with whom Melville had spent time. When he first hears of Queequeg, he hates the idea of sharing a bed with the tatooed ‘cannibal’. However, after meeting him and conversing with him they become fast friends, and Ishmael realizes that though Queequeg is Pagan, he is also one of the most honourable and noble people he has ever met.

‘There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked not civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindess has proved but hollow courtesy…’


‘Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife. The counterpane was of patchwork, full of odd little parti-colored squares and triangles; and this arm of his tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth of a figure, no two parts of which were of one precise shade – owing I suppose to his keeping his arm at sea unmethodically in sun and shade, his shirt sleeves irregularly rolled up at various times – this same arm of his, I say, looked for all the world like a strip of that same patchwork quilt. Indeed, partly lying on it as the arm did when I first awoke, I could hardly tell it from the quilt, they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me’.

Ishmael is required to weigh his idea of religious tolerance as he observes Queequeg getting ready to pray to his idol. Queequeg invites Ishmael to join him, and he wonders what he should do:

‘I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth-pagans and all included-can possible be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?-to do the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite me in my particular Presbyterian form or worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.’

Through Ishmael’s journey, concepts of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of gods are all examined as Ishmael speculates upon his personal beliefs and his place in the universe. Ishmael’s reflections and  his descriptions of life  on board a whaling ship, are woven into the narrative along with Shakespearean literary devices such as stage directions, extended soliloquies and asides. There are marvellous portraits of the crew – Starbuck, the harpooners Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo. There are the haunting encounters with other ships, especially the Rachel ‘searching for her lost children.’ And throughout there are extraordinary passages such as the one in which the Pequod’s sailors squeeze handfuls of white spermacetti:

‘Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness’.

And through it all is Ahab’s vengeful pursuit of the white whale. Starbuck realizes that Ahab’s hatred for the white whale is preternatural, not merely vengeance for the loss of his leg: ‘Vengence on a dumb brute!…that simply smote thee from blindes instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous’

To which Ahab responds, addressing the whole crew:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of it features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike though the mask!

Ahab is obsessed with the ‘inscrutable’ whale and must kill it in order to ‘break through the mask’ and understand what lies beneath; he must know it:

He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Many have interpreted Ahab’s obsession as a symbol of the human desire, ultimately destructive, to master nature. Starbuck mutters, ‘God keep me! – keep us all!’

In pursuit of those mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

And for Melville whales constitute a mythic nation, sharing the planet, but ultimately unknowable:

We account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. 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.

In Melville’s lifetime Moby Dick was neither a popular nor a critical success, and few considered it as the work of  genius that it is seen as today. In Leviathan, Philip Hoare considers the way in which the significance of the book has come to be recognised:

Melville’s White Whale is far from the comforting authropomorphism of the smiling dolphin and the performing orca, from Flipper to Free Willy, or the singing humnpback and the ‘Save the Whale’ campaign — all carriers, in their own way, of our own guilt. Rather, Moby Dick’s ominous shape and uncanny pallor, as seen through Ahab’s eves, represents the Leviathan of the Apocalypse, an avenging angel with a crooked jaw, hung with harpoons from the futile attempts of other hunters. This whale might as well be a dragon as a real animal, with Ahab as his would-be slayer.

The age of whaling brought man into close contact with these animals — never closer, before or since.  The whale represented money, food, livelihood, trade. But it also meant something darker, more metaphysical, by virtue of the fact that men risked their lives to hunt it. The whale was the future, the present and the past, all in one; the destiny of man as much as the destiny of another species. It offered dominion, wealth and power, even as it represented death and disaster, as men met the monster eye to eye, flimsy boat to sinewy flukes, and often died in the process. More than anyone has realized, perhaps, the modern world was built upon the whale. What was at stake was the future of civilization, in the most brutal meeting of man and nature since history began. And as the animals paid for the encounter in their near extinction, so we must ask what price we paid in our souls. How have we moved so far from one notion of the whale to the other, in such a short space of time?

One of the few contemporaries who did regard Moby Dick as exceptional was Nathaniel Hawthorne; the two men established a long-lasting friendship, and after their first encounters, Melville went back to his draft of a romantic tale about whale hunting and infused the text with a transcendentalism that produced the book that Philip Hoare argues, ‘surpasses all other books because it is utterly unlike any other.’

In his review of Leviathan for The Spectator, Adam Nicolson wrote:

On the beautiful jacket of this book, a whale disappears from view. Its blue flukes are all that are left behind as its body slips away unseen. That tail-only view has become what we know of the whale. It is the picture of our ignorance. We don’t know how long whales live. We don’t really know how many there are. We don’t know where they live. We don’t know what their clicks and creaks mean. Nor what damage the three or four centuries of hunting has done to their social networks, or to their understanding of their oceanic world. We know next to nothing about them. Philip Hoare’s new and voluminous book about them is, in that way, a long exploration of an absence.

That isn’t how it was. Whales used to be to hand. They were known for what they could provide. The so-called Right Whale was called that because it floated conveniently near the surface, didn’t sink when dead and so was the right one to hunt and kill. Whales were the ocean equivalent of forests and mines. Oil, baleen, blubber, meat, gut, and the mysterious compacted faeces called ambergris, worth thousands of pounds an ounce, were all extracted with increasing efficiency until the international moratorium on whaling was imposed in 1987. Ambergris is still at the base of many of the most delicious scents. ‘If you happen to be wearing Dioressence today,’ Hoare says, ‘you are wearing the scent of a sperm whale.’

Philip Hoare’s book is an engrossing read and, like Moby Dick, branches out from the novel itself to tell us many astonishing things about the whale. Jackie Kennedy, for example, placed a whale tooth carved with the presidential seal in her assassinated husband’s coffin (and continued the whale association with her later marriage to Aristotle Onassis, whose fleets had profitably slaughtered whales in the Pacific in the 1950s). Even now, whale oil lubricates the Hubble Space Telescope, ‘while the Voyager probe spins into infinity playing the song of the humpback to greet any friendly aliens – who may wonder at our treatment of the species with which we share our planet’.

Amongst many other matters, Hoare touches on Melville’s connections with Liverpool. In 1839 Melville had sailed for Liverpool as a cabin boy aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence—the voyage that inspired his autobiographical novel,  Redburn:

‘…in Liverpool I beheld long China walls of masonry; vast piers of stone; and a succession of granite-rimmed docks, completely enclosed…In magnitude, cost and durability the docks of Liverpool surpass all others in the world.’

‘Prince’s Dock is generally so filled with shipping that the entrance of a newcomer is apt to occasion a universal stir among all the older occupants. The dock-masters mount the poops and forecastles of the various vessels and hail the surrounding strangers in all directions:- “Highlander ahoy! Cast off your bowline and sheer alongside the Neptune!”- “Neptune ahoy! Get out a stern line and sheer alongside the Trident!”- “Trident ahoy! Get out a bow line and drop astern of the Undaunted!” And so it runs round like a shock of electricity; touch one, and you touch all. This kind of work irritates and exasperates the sailors to the last degree’.

At twelve o’clock the crews of hundreds and hundreds of ships issue in crowds from the dock gates to go to their dinner in the town. (cooking fires being strictly prohibited within the dock estate) This hour is seized upon by multitudes of beggars to plant themselves against the outside of the walls, while others stand against the curbstone to excite the charity of the seamen… The first time that I passed through this long lane of pauperism, it seemed hard to believe that such an array of misery could be furnished by any town in the world’

Melville’s father, an importer, had been a friend of the Liverpool abolitionist William Roscoe. In 1856, after the publication of Moby Dick, Melville set out on a tour of Europe and arrived once more in Liverpool, lodging at the White Bear on Dale Street and visiting Nathanial Hawthorne who was now the American consul in Liverpool with a home in Southport.

Another strand that reels out from Philip Hoare’s narrative concerns Henry Thoreau and the transcendendalists.  The connection is Cape Cod, the location of  the great whaling towns of Nantucket and New Bedford. In its time New Bedford was America’s richest city, based on an industry worth millions of dollars annually to its largely Quaker entrepreneurial population. Between 1849 and 1855, just as Melville was completing and then publishing Moby Dick, Thoreau was walking the Cape.  His visits to the Cape and Maine resulted in two books – The Maine Woods and Cape Cod. The latter is considered the bleakest of Thoreau’s works, resembling Melville’s prose in its vision of the enormous  indifference of nature. Cape Cod appears as both ocean and desert, a vast expanse of shipwrecks and barren soil, peopled by hardy, weathered inhabitants who endure in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay.

‘Can he who has discovered only the values of whale bone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have ‘seen the elephant’?  These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones..
Henry Thoreau, The Maine Woods

We do not associate the idea of antiquity with the ocean, nor wonder how it looked a thousand years ago, as we do of the land, for it was equally wild and unfathomable always…The ocean is a wilderness reaching rouund the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle…’
Henry Thoreau, Cape Cod

In the same chapter in which he discusses Thoreau’s peregrinations on Cape Cod, Hoare quotes a magnificent passage from a book – and a writer – of which I was unaware: Henry Beston, and his book, The Outermost House, written in 1926 about a year spent living literally on the beach on the Cape. I’ve bought the book and will write about it in another post:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

I’ve illustrated this post with Rockwell Kent’s haunting pen and ink drawings  for the 1930 edition of Moby Dick, published by the Lakeside Press of Chicago.  A previously obscure book, Moby Dick had been rediscovered by critics in the early 1920s. The success of the Rockwell Kent illustrated edition was a factor in its becoming recognized as the classic it is today. A transcendentalist and mystic in the tradition of Thoreau and Emerson whose works he read, Kent found inspiration in the austerity and stark beauty of wilderness.

Reading Leviathan reminded me of an environmental classic from 1988, Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation, a hymn to the beauty, intelligence and majesty of the largest mammal on earth. I got it down from the shelf and re-read it. The book is in two parts, the first of which is a celebratory poem about whales, drawing on history, biology, the details of their hunting and processing, and all aspects of the cultural impact of the whale. Reading this part again, I have to say I was less than impressed by the quality of the writing – difficult, in fact, to consider it as poetry:

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Without killing their own kind.

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Though they allow the resources they use to renew themselves.

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Though they use language to communicate, rather than to eliminate rivals.

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Though they do not broodily guard their patch with bristling security.

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Without trading innocence for the pretension of possessions.

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
Without allowing their population to reach plague proportions.

In the water, whales have become the dominant species,
An extra-terrestrial, who has already landed . . .
A marine intelligentsia, with a knowledge of the deep.

From space, the planet is blue.
From space, the planet is the territory
Not of humans, but of the whale.

The second half of the book is much more interesting, and rather like an updated version of Melville’s Extracts, with hundreds of quotations about whales, the whaling industry and attempts to restrict it. Even twenty years later, the fine photographs that illustrate the book, from beautiful colour photos of whales in their natural habitat, to images showing how humans have exploited and profited from the whale, are striking and moving.

Both Leviathan and Whale Nation tell of how whales, as much as coal, underpinned the industrial revolution. Their oil lit and lubricated the new industrial cities. Their bodies have supplied a huge variety of human needs. As recently as the 1960s, whale oil went into ice cream, soap, brake fluid, linoleum and margarine; whale livers were turned into vitamin A; whale ink was used to dye typewriter ribbons; tennis rackets were strung with whales’ insides and cat food was made from whale meat. During the 19th century, whales provided whalebone corsets, lamp oil to light houses, the perfume of ambergris, and whale ivory – the teeth – for piano keys. Since the international moratorium on whaling of 1986, most of this giant whale economy has collapsed, with soya, plastics and various mineral oils taking its place.

And yet – the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society reports that 125 endangered fin whales and at least 80 minke whales were killed by Iceland during its 2009 whaling season, marking the return of large scale commercial whaling to the northwest Atlantic.

Reading Whale Nation again, I was reminded of the time, in January 2006, that a northern bottle-nosed whale swam up the Thames, the first live whale to be seen in the Thames in living memory. The emotional impact of that event is summed up perfectly in this post from the Rachel From North London blog:

It sounds like a magical story: The Whale who Came to London. But it had a sad ending.

What can he teach us? It was inspiring to see so many people wishing him well, the sad little pats people gave him when they waded into the water to try to encourage him to keep swimming. Small gestures of solidarity: none of us is alone in this big city. We breathe the same air and we live in close promimity to each other and however different we seem to each other, we can wish each other well and try to help each other on our journey. This was one of the things I learned last summer. Even a giant visitor from the mysterious ocean depths was surrounded by hopeful new friends when he swam up the Thames and past the Houses of Parliament .

I am sorry he did not finish his journey. Or perhaps he did, he swam into a strange new world, and he knew he was dying. But he was not butchered, as he would have been a hundred years ago. He was wondered at and stroked and everybody wanted very much to help him and he died, frightened and shocked but with creatures of a different species anxious to be at his side as he struggled to breathe the cold London air.

We were awed by his presence and we are sad at his passing. He made us stop and think and wonder.

You came out of unfathomable distance
Swimming for real life, adrift on current
Beyond your comprehension, a shadowy presence.

I suppose each one of us is far from home
Whose lives arc out through empty, unknown
Space, strangely familiar only when its gone.

We made a place for you that you could not fill
In one of those worlds that run parallel
Perhaps you stay, an ordinary miracle.

Here we have only absence to make sense of
A memory to try and make light of
When we think of what we lost with you of love.

– Lost, Rita Cordon

Philip Hoare’s Leviathan concludes with his own personal mid-ocean encounter with a sperm whale, doubly extraordinary for someone afraid of deep water:

‘Back in the boat, I watched as the whale turned in a circle. Raising his head one last time, he dipped down, then lifted his flukes, and was gone.’

This old world may never change
The way it’s been
And all the ways of war
Can’t change it back again

I’ve been searchin’
For the dolphins in the sea
And sometimes I wonder
Do you ever think of me

I’m not the one to tell this world
How to get along
I only know the peace will come
When all hate is gone

FredNeil, Dolphins

There is, all around us,
this country
of original fire.

You know what I mean.

The sky, after all, stops at nothing so something
has to be holding
our bodies
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.

Off Stellwagan
off the Cape,
the humpbacks rise. Carrying their tonnage
of barnacles and joy
they leap through the water, they nuzzle back under it
like children
at play.

They sing, too.
And not for any reason
you can’t imagine.

Three of them
rise to the surface near the bow of the boat,
then dive
deeply, their huge scarred flukes
tipped to the air.

We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash thorugh the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky —
like nothing you’ve ever imagined —
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning; then
they crash back under those black silks
and we all fall back
together into that wet fire, you
know what I mean.

I know a captain who has seen them
playing with seaweed, swimming
through the green islands, tossing
the slippery branches into the air.

I know a whale that will come to the boat whenever
she can, and nudge it gently along the bow
with her long flipper.

I know several lives worth living.

Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire
where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.

– Mary Oliver, Humpbacks

Footnote 18 October 2009:

I’ve just watched the last of Stephen Fry’s series on BBC2, Last Chance to See: A Search For Animals on the Edge of Extinction, in which Stephen Fry retraces the journeys of his friends Mark Carwardine and Douglas Adams 25 years ago in search of animals on the brink of extinction. In tonight’s episode Fry encountered the Grey Whale, Humpback Whales, and finally Blue Whales, the largest animal known to have lived on earth. In 1985 the Observer Colour Magazine paired up the naturalist Mark Carwardine and the writer Douglas Adams and invited them to travel to Madagascar in search of the aye-aye, a strange and little known nocturnal lemur thought to be on the edge of extinction. Douglas and Mark found that they enjoyed the journey, and each other’s company, to such a degree that they decided to spend a year travelling the globe in search of other endangered animals. Read more.



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