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A whale of a tome

I know you're not allowed to 'not like' Moby Dick, but in honesty I didn't enjoy it very much, and my laborious pursuit of the final page of the ample tome is material enough for many a frivolous analogy with Captain Ahab's own undertaking. I liked the start -- it was mostly about people. After that, save for tantalisingly occasional people-oriented diversions, it was mostly about whales. This, perhaps, should not have surprised me as much as it did. But it was *really* about whales…not just in a symbolic or allegoric way so as to indulge the would-be poet/philosopher in me, but in a detailed, nuts-and-bolts, zoologic/mechanistic type way that showed up the short attention span of my should-be scientific mind.

The cetological taxonomies are wonderfully emblematic of what I eventually found all too wearying about the book. This excerpt from Chapter 32, for example:
"First: According to magnitude I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS), and these shall comprehend them all, both small and large.

I. THE FOLIO WHALE; II. the OCTAVO WHALE; III. the DUODECIMO WHALE. As the type of the FOLIO I present the Sperm Whale; of the OCTAVO, the Grampus; of the DUODECIMO, the Porpoise.

FOLIOS. Among these I here include the following chapters:- I. The Sperm Whale; II. the Right Whale; III. the Fin Back Whale; IV. the Humpbacked Whale; V. the Razor Back Whale; VI. the Sulphur Bottom Whale.

BOOK I. (Folio), CHAPTER I. (Sperm Whale).—This whale, among the English of old vaguely known as the Trumpa whale and the Physeter whale, and the Anvil Headed whale, is the present Cachalot of the French, and the Pottsfich of the Germans, and the Macrocephalus of the Long Words. He is, without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce; he being the only creature from which that valuable substance, spermaceti, is obtained. All his peculiarities will, in many other places, be enlarged upon…."

And so it proceeds in like manner, for 13-odd pages. Be assured he very much keeps that promise to enlarge upon all, and I mean ALL, peculiarities, in later chapters. And that's not to mention the in-depth descriptions of the equipment and operation of the whaling vessel, and the pages devoted to the dissection of the whale carcass into its various sale-able components and extractable substances of differing meticulously elaborated utility. My limited appetite for such detail aside, it doesn't exactly strike me as a worthy or noble activity or one for which I can muster much enthusiasm.

Of course I get that it's an epic and important work, and although I fear lots of it passed me by I picked up on enough interesting ideas and snippets of wit, and appreciated the cleverness and uniqueness of style sufficiently, to be almost as glad to have read it as I was to be done reading it. (I'm not really one for finishing a book for the sake of finishing it, so I wouldn't have persevered if I didn't feel I was getting something from it).

The great titular whale seems to stand for the immense and unassailable force of Nature: all that is wild and uncertain and outside of our control; a proof of man's insignificance and powerlessness and a symbol of unexplained suffering and terror -- and at the same time, beautiful, majestic, mysterious and somehow beyond reproach (outside of questions of good and evil perhaps). The book is rife with intentional Biblical allusion, so it's hardly insightful to draw out the obvious parallel with Job 41 (v1-11) [1]:
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook
    or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose
    or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many pleas to you?
    Will he speak to you soft words?
Will he make a covenant with you
    to take him for your servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird,
    or will you put him on a leash for your girls?
Will traders bargain over him?
    Will they divide him up among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with harpoons
    or his head with fishing spears?
Lay your hands on him;
    remember the battle—you will not do it again!
Behold, the hope of a man is false;
    he is laid low even at the sight of him.
No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up.
    Who then is he who can stand before me?
Who has first given to me, that I should repay him?
    Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.
But just because Melville writes with a transparent Bible awareness does not mean he accepts or supports a biblical perspective; my impression was of a rather cynical and dismissive reading of the texts to which he alludes. (This would tally with his personal wranglings over matters of faith and the problem of evil -- though Mr. Whitnall, B.A. is now gleefully accusing me of 'reading outside the text'...)

'Job's leviathan' reads as a lesson in man's humble state and the sovereignty of God. No matter how much power we accrue for ourselves within the world, we cannot tame nature, and things will happen that are outside of our control. There have been many tragic reminders of this fact in recent years -- the Haiti earthquake of 2010, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the 2008 cyclone in Myanmar, Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But it doesn't take tragedy to demonstrate the reality of our ultimate powerlessness -- I think particularly of the Eyjafjallaj√∂kull eruptions that all but halted international travel for several months in 2010. What a harsh check it was to our collective arrogance -- we who have conquered the skies and made all the world small and accessible. We, at least those of us who can afford to, are now well-used to going anywhere we want, any time…for reasons ranging from 'critically important' political or business rendez-vous to 'frivolous' last minute getaways in the sun. But the indolent belchings of a 'mere' geological feature and we're suddenly floored; and we somehow take offense at this. It was an amazingly frustrating and unsettling situation, particularly for the five million (according to Wikipedia) passengers left stranded, many of whom have pretty horrendous tales of expensive, grueling, and rather scary alternative travel arrangements in the slow bid to get home. Take a step back, though, and we remember that international travel should, by all reasonable expectation, be hard -- the surprise is the technology and advancement that has made it not so. But even our technology is subject to greater powers, and does not, as we sometimes begin to believe, make us masters of all we survey.

Anyway, Moby Dick does a pretty good job of getting across the 'Nature 1 - 0 Man' thing. But it does not share the bigger picture verdict of Job, which is the existence of a personal creator God who is at once sovereign over nature and know-able to man. Job's encounter with God seems to inspire humility and wonder, and affirm the possibility and significance of relationship with Him. Whilst he doesn't receive answers for all the questions raised by his extensive suffering he does learn something of the pre-eminence of God and moreover receives blessing and reassurance of God's concern for him. By contrast, the lingering impression of the novel is that nature is unsubduable and that God (if He exists) is neither outside of it nor personal. Mankind (as represented by Ahab) remains defiant in the face of nature, and nature (as embodied by Moby Dick) remains defiant in the face of mankind. There is no lesson in humility for man and there is no Divine intervention to reassert the authority of God or His interest in His creatures or creation. Suffering remains senseless and brutal and without the hope of redemption.

Melville rejected, or at least struggled with, the God of the Bible and the Christian hope of redemption. This hope, though, is not mere wish-fulfillment thinking but is grounded in the person and resurrection of Jesus (claims which call for faith, but not blind faith, as they can be tested by a reasoned evaluation of evidence [2]). Read Romans 8 for example. Paul vision of this future hope is great enough to answer, not only to human suffering but even to the 'frustration of creation' itself -- God effecting a glorious reconciliation between the wild and unruly 'Nature' of which Melville writes and human beings whom He created to be its stewards (Genesis 1:28, 2:15), and, ultimately, reconciling both us and the rest of creation to Himself.
"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (v18-25, but read the rest too!)


[1] 'Leviathan', from Hebrew, means sea monster -- often read as whale, though some think it may have referred to a crocodile.

[2] Here's a good place to start on the 'reasoned evaluation of evidence': There's rather a long introduction before his talk starts so you might want to skip the first 9 minutes. Sorry for yet more N. T. Wright…I do read/listen to other people but he is a very consistently good communicator and I pretty well trust his academic integrity (even if I don't always agree with his conclusions).

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