Moby-Dick Big Read, Day 32

“Cetology” is long, and it’s definitely at the head of many readers’ lists of the “boring” chapters in Moby-Dick. It is most emphatically not included in the expurgated version known as Moby Dick, Or The Whale: The Good Parts, “edited” by Susan Brassfield Cogan. Here, by the way, is the preface to that volume:

I have committed the ultimate blasphemy for a writer. I’ve edited one of the greatest works in the English language.

When this book was published in 1851, reading for pleasure was still a fairly new idea. There were no televisions, no movies, no mp3 players, no internet and no cell phones. If you wanted to hear music you picked up a fiddle or a guitar and  played it for yourself or you talked someone into doing it for you. In 1851 books were very expensive. If you bought a book to read for pleasure there’d better be a lot in it for your Yankee dollar. Melville knew his audience and he knew he needed to add a lot of stuff to his plain sea tale to make it interesting to his readers. This book was written for the average reader of the mid-19th century.

Here we are  now in the early 21st century and Melville is competing with anime,  Disney, Spielberg  and  millions of blogs. If he were publishing this book today he would have written the book for us 21st century people and wouldn’t have included a 3000 word essay on “The Whiteness of The Whale” plopped down into the middle of a great and gripping story about  monumental evil and passionate revenge.

So here is Moby Dick for the 21st Century. All the long boring parts demanded by our ancestors have been deleted while preserving the story that still entertains after more than 150 years.

Now before you start fuming about all of the things that are wrong with that preface, take a deep breath and have a gander at Cogan’s bio on”Susan Cogan is a full time writer and occasionally amuses herself as a graphic designer. She writes things that she enjoys and she enjoys quite a lot. She has been at various times a nurse’s aid, a belly dancer, an actress, a journalist, and a radio shock jock. Her career is long, varied, colorful, often exaggerated occasionally untrue.” Hmm. And what about that first sentence about “blasphemy.” Sounds pretty Ishmaelian to me. I prefer to think about Moby Dick, Or The Whale: The Good Parts as an elaborate Ishmaelian joke.

On the other hand, I think the Orion Press was all-too-serious when it published Moby Dick: In Half the Time. On the upside, that volume spawned a delightful rejoinder, a special issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction entitled Herman Melville’s ; or The Whale, edited by Damion Searls. (You can read an interview with Searls about his volume and other literary matters here.)

But I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes: “Cetology.”

In a comment on Day 19, one of our readers asked, “When were whales first classified as mammals? Did Melville know that they were mammals?”

In his History of Animals, Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC) essentially classified whales as a mammals, noting that they produce milk, lack gills, and bear live young (like human beings). In Book VIII, Chapter 2, he writes:

2. Of those that breathe water, none have feet or wings, nor seek their food on land ; but many of those that are terrestrial, and breathe air, do so ; some of them so much so, that they cannot live when separated from the water, as those . which are called marine turtles, and crocodiles, and hippopotami, and seals, and some of the smaller creatures, as the . water tortoise and the frog tribe; for all these are suffocated if their respiration is suspended for any length of time. They produce their young and rear them on dry land ; others do so near the dry land, while they reside in the water.
3. Of all animals the most remarkable in this particular is the dolphin, and some other aquatic animals and cetacea, which are of this habit, as the whale and others which have a blowhole; for it is not easy to arrange them either with aquatic or terrestrial animals, if we consider animals that breathe air as terrestrial, and those that breathe water as aquatics, for they partake of the characters of both classes; for they receive the sea and eject it; through their blowhole, .and air through their lungs, for they have this part, and breathe through it. And the dolphin, when captured in nets, is often suffocated, from the impossibility of breathing. It will live for a long while out of water, snoring and groaning like other breathing animals. It sleeps with ita snout above the water, in order that it may breathe through it.

But the idea that whales were fish persisted for centuries nonetheless. That master of Enlightenment zoological classification, Linnaeus, insisted through the first nine editions of his Systema Naturae on classifying whales as fish, not classifying them among mammals until the 10th edition appeared in 1758. His reluctance to reclassify whales is a sign of how settled scientific opinion was on the matter: as D. Graham Burnett points out in Trying Leviathan, an engaging history of an 1818 trial that turned on the question of whether whales are fish, Linnaeus “had since 1744 defined breasts as ‘the essential characteristics of the “Quadrupeds”‘; and … knew very well that the cetes, as well as the manatees gave suck to their young.”

As the editors of the Norton Critical Edition remind us in their footnotes to this chapter. Melville drew most of the information on whales that he presents in “Cetology” from the chapter on “Whales” in the Penny Cyclopedia, and then he added the reference to Sir Thomas Browne, whom he had actually read. So, after his fashion, Melville was, like Ishmael, aware of “what the best and latest authorities have laid down” concerning whales. But he has Ishmael reject the findings of these scientific authorities in favor of what might be called local knowledge and, by imposing a whimsical classification based on Ishmael’s experience as a librarian, literature.

The point of the “Cetology” chapter, in my view, is to make fun of system of classification, which are all about separating things out and pigeonholing them. Ishmael makes fun of the impulse to classify and divide when he cites Linnaeus, adopting a willfully obtuse misreading of Linnaeus’ idea of separation:

The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A. D. 1766, Linnaeus declares, “I hereby separate the whales from the fish.” But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnaeus’s express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan.

Moreover, Ishmael finds the ground on which Linnaeus bases his distinction shaky, and so do the local authorities whom he consults:

The grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: ‘On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,’ and finally, ‘ex lege naturae jure meritoque.’ I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.

So why mess with what works? Ishmael goes the traditional route:

Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me. This fundamental thing settled, the next point is, in what internal respect does the whale differ from other fish. Above, Linnaeus has given you those items. But in brief, they are these: lungs and warm blood; whereas, all other fish are lungless and cold blooded.

A whale is a fish with lungs. Let’s move on. Mammal or fish, it’ll still kill you if you’re not careful.

Ultimately the chapter is a critique of Enlightenment rationalism (though Ishmael does provide a lot of interesting facts about whales along the way) and, significantly, teleology. We should bear in mind Ishmael’s final words when we think about the novel as a whole:

Finally: 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. 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. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!

Would it surprise you to learn that I could go on a lot longer about this chapter. But I think I’ll stop here.

The chapter, by the way, is read for us by Martin Atrill, who (appropriately enough) is Director of the Marine Institute at Plymouth University. The illustration, Whale (2011) by Chris Jordan, “depicts 50,000 plastic bags, equal to the estimated number of pieces of floating plastic in every square mile in the world’s oceans and is based on a photograph by Bryant Austin.”

The “Big Read” is asking its listeners to donate to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Fund. Click here for more information.


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