Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Voice of the Whale

Throughout Moby-Dick, we look at Whales from many perspectives, considering their classification, the function of a whale's body, the whale's phrenology, the uses of various body parts, from blubber to skelaton, hide, muscle and brain, the history of whale hunting, the taste, and many more, too numerous to usefully catalog. We try to understand what The Whale is to Ahab, and what it is to Ishmael. Melville teases us throughout, however, with our failures of knowledge and the limitations of each perspective.

In the chapter, "The Sphynx", Melville very nicely has Ahab summarize the frustrations of our limitations, and highlights the one perspective we will not get: the whale's own:
"Speak, thou vast and venerable head," muttered Ahab, "which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world's foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor's side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw'st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw'st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed - while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!"

Is the whale a divinity? Is the whale endowed with godlike power, the power of omnipresence, the power of life and death? Or is the whale simply the faceless, voiceless and ever-distant observer of history? Mid-way through the book, in a chapter that serves as a bit of a finale to the gory chapters of the cutting in and dissection of the whale (we will revisit the dissected whale and its parts later, as they are fed to the try-pots and the oil is rendered), Melville wishes only to heighten our questions, and brings Ahab on the stage to ensure we are paying attention.

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