Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Moby Dick, chapter 32 "Cetology"

1/ The Sperm Whale
2/ The Right Whale 
3/ The Fin Back Whale 
4/ The Hump-backed Whale 
5/ The Razor Back Whale 
6/ The Sulphur Bottom Whale 
1/ The Grampus 
2/ The Black Fish 
3/ The Narwhale 
4/ The Killer
5/ The Thrasher 
1/ The Huzza Porpoise 
2/ The Algerine Porpoise 
3/ The Mealy-mouthed Porpoise


Instead of skipping and complaining about Chapter 32 "Cetology", which many readers do, I decided to read it carefully. Here are some thoughts: 
- Ishmael's fascinated by whales. The book begins with Etymology (the different words for "whale") and Extracts (quotes about whales). Out of the 31 chapters before "Cetology", only 6 chapters (4, 10, 11, 21, 23 and 29) don't have any words like "whale", "whales", "whaling" or something beginning with "whale" ("whalebone", "whalemen"...) in them. 
- His classification is incomplete.  As he says himself "I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty." And later: "It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word." Not that I knew it myself, of course
- He doesn't introduce Latin scientific names. 
- His classification is largely based on size, and not very accurate. It's problematic from the start, as Ishmael sees whales as fish (referring to Jonah as authority).
- Ishmael sees them in terms of value- whether they're often hunted, whether they're needed for bones, baleen or oil, whether they have much oil and how much. Which is to say, his point of view is that of a whale hunter. 
- At the same time, he also sees whales as leviathans, so his view is not only practical but also religious/ mystical. 
- As he tries to classify whales, he talks about the difficulty (and the ridiculousness?) of such classification. 
"Some pretend to see a difference between the Greenland whale of the English and the right whale of the Americans. But they precisely agree in all their grand features; nor has there yet been presented a single determinate fact upon which to ground a radical distinction. It is by endless subdivisions based upon the most inconclusive differences, that some departments of natural history become so repellingly intricate." 
"In connection with this appellative of "Whalebone whales," it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. 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.
But it may possibly be conceived that, in the internal parts of the whale, in his anatomy—there, at least, we shall be able to hit the right classification. Nay; what thing, for example, is there in the Greenland whale's anatomy more striking than his baleen? Yet we have seen that by his baleen it is impossible correctly to classify the Greenland whale. And if you descend into the bowels of the various leviathans, why there you will not find distinctions a fiftieth part as available to the systematizer as those external ones already enumerated. What then remains? nothing but to take hold of the whales bodily, in their entire liberal volume, and boldly sort them that way." 
- Ishmael also touches upon the problem of naming. 
(about the Sperm whale) "It is chiefly with his name that I now have to do. Philologically considered, it is absurd." 
(about the Right whale) "Among the fishermen, he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale; the Greenland Whale; the Black Whale; the Great Whale; the True Whale; the Right Whale. There is a deal of obscurity concerning the identity of the species thus multitudinously baptised. What then is the whale, which I include in the second species of my Folios? It is the Great Mysticetus of the English naturalists; the Greenland Whale of the English whalemen; the Baleine Ordinaire of the French whalemen; the Growlands Walfish of the Swede." 
(about the Humpback) "At any rate, the popular name for him does not sufficiently distinguish him, since the sperm whale also has a hump though a smaller one." 
(about the Black fish) "I give the popular fishermen's names for all these fish, for generally they are the best. Where any name happens to be vague or inexpressive, I shall say so, and suggest another. I do so now, touching the Black Fish, so-called, because blackness is the rule among almost all whales. So, call him the Hyena Whale, if you please." 
(about the Narwhale, "that is, Nostril whale") "Another instance of a curiously named whale, so named I suppose from his peculiar horn being originally mistaken for a peaked nose." 
(about the Killer) "Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included." 
- And, as he writes about whales, Ishmael also writes about the limitation of his own knowledge. 
(about the Razor back) "Let him go. I know little more of him, nor does anybody else." 
(about the Sulphur-bottom) "He is seldom seen; at least I have never seen him except in the remoter southern seas, and then always at too great a distance to study his countenance. He is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line. Prodigies are told of him. Adieu, Sulphur Bottom! I can say nothing more that is true of ye, nor can the oldest Nantucketer." 
(about the Narwhale) "What precise purpose this ivory horn or lance answers, it would be hard to say. It does not seem to be used like the blade of the sword-fish and bill-fish; though some sailors tell me that the Narwhale employs it for a rake in turning over the bottom of the sea for food. Charley Coffin said it was used for an ice-piercer; for the Narwhale, rising to the surface of the Polar Sea, and finding it sheeted with ice, thrusts his horn up, and so breaks through. But you cannot prove either of these surmises to be correct. My own opinion is, that however this one-sided horn may really be used by the Narwhale—however that may be—it would certainly be very convenient to him for a folder in reading pamphlets." 
(about the Killer) "Of this whale little is precisely known to the Nantucketer, and nothing at all to the professed naturalist. [...] I never heard what sort of oil he has."
(about the Thrasher) "Still less is known of the Thrasher than of the Killer." 
At the end of the chapter, he says "This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught." Why does he still write about whales, then? Because he was unsatisfied with existing books about whales. And "But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity." Ishmael tries to grasp the ungraspable- he can never know/ understand the whale, but wants to come closer and closer. 
Chapter 32 is important and necessary and shouldn't be skipped, because it's not about whales as much as it's about Ishmael. Whilst the digressions in War and Peace are Tolstoy's, the digressions in Moby Dick are Ishmael's rather than than Melville's. In addition to showing that Ishmael has a mystical side and has a fascination with, and yearning to fully understand, whales that other whale hunters don't quite share (Ahab wants a revenge, Flask follows whales for the fun of it, etc.), the chapter also lets us see what he thinks about the different kinds of whales, about science and knowledge and our ignorance, about the act of classifying and naming the sub-groups of the species. Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that perhaps the chapter may also be about race, that it's Melville's or Ishmael's attack on the classifying, dividing, categorising of Homo sapiens? Probably not, we know the narrator to be liberal, cosmopolitan and anti-racist. 
To skip chapter 32 is a mistake. 

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