Wisdom, fear, and beauty within the sea
I remember going on slews of whale watches as a kid and into my teen years in Massachusetts. My parents loved the sea but had grown up in Minnesota and Texas; they wanted to let us experience its full splendor, and they were intrigued by it themselves. We didn’t only plan these trips when a relative was in town or we had a birthday celebration. Sometimes, we would be groggily eating our raisin bran cereal or Dunkin’ Donuts Boston Creams, when somebody would say, ‘Hey, let’s go on a whale watch today!’
The build-up was always the same. We packed Dramamine and snacks to ease the stomach when everyone ran to one side of the boat…then the other. We threw on sunscreen and hats (one of which would get lost at sea each time). There were always bets in the car – how many whales would we see? (My dad felt more comfortable paying knowing that seeing a whale was always guaranteed, or your money back. Although we were paying for a fun day out, he could classify it under ‘educational expenses.’)
I guess it was an educational experience. Scientists ran the boats. They were tracking certain whales and told us all sorts of information about them between sightings. But when the whales actually came – sometimes humpbacks just up to the side of the boat, looking at us with their huge, kind eyes—the researcher on the speaker would simply squeal with delight and say the things we were all thinking: ‘It looks like she’s waving to us!’ / ‘What a beauty!’ / ‘I wonder where she will go next?’
It felt more like art than science to me. Not that there can’t be crossover between the two. Both the scientists and tourists were focused on taking photographs and creating a story of their interaction. There was the beauty of the lines outlining the whale’s tail or striped over its belly; the dancing display of strength and playfulness; the mystery of what happened when the whale dove down deep. As the researchers tracked family lineage, they created stories of royalty inhabiting New England waters, creating homes as well as going on long journeys in the winter. What new stories would they come back with? It was the stuff of ancient Greek tales.
We went on these trips from the North Shore or Cape Cod and took other excursions to Nantucket where ‘whale culture’ is ubiquitous. But it wasn’t until I was much older when I realized that all this whale paraphernalia from rich Nantucket homes was linked to the whaling industry, in other words: killing whales.
Death and the whale
Of course, we know it still happens in a few places. Japan, Iceland, and Norway are the only countries to continue commercial whaling. Japan left the International Whaling Commission just three years ago in order to resume its commercial whaling: “Japan argues hunting and eating whales are part of its culture. A number of coastal communities in Japan have indeed hunted whales for centuries but consumption only became widespread after World War Two when other food was scarce.”
“Whale hunting at the island of Goto in Hizen” by Hiroshige Utagawa (1859) is a print of a woodcut like many Japanese works of this time, the same period when Hokusai was working (I wrote about “The Great Wave” in the last newsletter). You can see in this image the way man vs. nature was viewed in epic proportions with the whale. This was probably first because the animal is large but also because of man’s instability at sea. They had to use even more creativity to kill and there was a kind of beauty to the act of finding the invisible in the water.
Some might say there was beauty in the kill itself, but I personally wouldn’t go that far. I would consider it perhaps a grotesque challenge of masculinity or a way to show one’s dominance over nature. I’m not sure at all about this…but I’ll explore some of these ideas more in general (not about whales) in a different newsletter through Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.
Back in the days when Nantucket was the “Whaling Capital of the World,” hunting was carried out in order to make oil from the sperm whale’s blubber. And because they were good at it with a sustainable labor force (although often indentured servitude), it then became part of the culture, finding itself in art and narratives of that time.
Most countries killed whales for different reasons in the past and some indigenous populations are still allowed to, such as the the Inuit in the Arctic, who began killing whales 4000 years ago. Their continuance is currently under debate as it was banned recently only to be reinstated. They kill an amount of whales deemed sustainable each year for the main purpose of food. (Check out some beautiful Inuit whale art here.)
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a difficult task to accomplish and one that may have to be revisited again. Research shows that “[w]hales and dolphins ‘lead human-like lives’ thanks to big brains.” When should cultures change because of scientific knowledge? Have you given up eating octopus? Is tradition and the preservation of art more important than progress? We’ll come back to these questions with a New Zealand film.
I couldn’t finish watching the recent arctic exploration television series called The Terror after a grotesque whale killing. (To be honest, it wasn’t only because the whale killing scenes were gruesome but also because the drama on the boat just wasn’t that compelling. Maybe supernatural arctic exploration just isn’t for me; isn’t the arctic surreal enough without zombies and spooky stuff?) But one could argue the purpose of whale killing in this series (at least as far as I was able to watch) was more consistent with the metaphor of searching in the vast for one’s own soul…and for humanity at large…and taming the beast within ourselves. These are all echos of the many lessons we investigate as we read the wonderful whale tome: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.
Moby Dick, a category all its own
It is a story of a whale hunt, or is it?
I first encountered Moby-Dick as a grad student in a class simply titled “Melville.” We read pretty much everything he had published, entering his strange and philosophical world that was loaded with references to all kinds of arts as well as the sciences and also documented what life was like at sea in the 1800s. There is a plot about chasing a whale, sure, but as the Melville professor said: this is not a novel but a Book. It is reflections on culture; it is art; it is…too elusive to define. Yes, there is a fictional narrative and a protagonist and some resolution to the conflict, but the 135 chapters take us on many types of journeys.
The book’s title often includes “or The Whale.” (Additionally, a hyphen is sometimes used between Moby and Dick, even during Melville’s life, which suggests he was prone to “punctuation anxiety,” a wonderful grammar-over-thinker like myself. Aside: I’m editing my own work, so thanks in advance for any private grammar notes, but don’t expect me to be convinced of removing an Oxford comma. [smiley face]) Ok, so back to the alternative title; I guess it emphasizes the naming of the whale (and therefore anthropomorphizing it) as well as marketing the story as one of a creature we are all enticed by. The monstrous and enigmatic nature of mammal mimics that of the book itself. You can also read more about the whale on which Moby Dick was likely based on The Smithsonian website.
The cover of the Norton Critical Edition (above) includes a self-portrait of Tupai Cupa, whom Melville based his character of Queequeg on after reading about him in New Zealanders (1830) (as noted on the book jacket of this edition). Queequeg was a Polynesian prince who stowed away on a whaling ship looking for adventure. While at first he may seem to be a symbol of western views of indigenous or darker skinned people at the time, he becomes the most human character in the book and teaches Ishmael to look beyond race, culture, and nationality when seeking friendship.
Another piece of art that happens to be America’s longest panoramic painting may have informed some of the ideas for Melville’s book or at least functioned as a muse. It is likely Melville had seen the painting in Boston just two years prior to publication of Moby Dick. You can see further historical paintings and photographs at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (Massachusetts).
[As a related aside, Wes Anderson’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) is a fantastic art house film (shot on Super 16mm!) that depicts kids in the eighties going through their parents’ divorce. The title comes from a huge diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. It makes me wonder just how many people have been influenced by often huge sea mammals depicted in different museums around the world. And then as a related aside of the aside, a fantastic band called Noah and the Whale got their name from this film!]
Perhaps Melville was inspired by this painting, although it wasn’t only art that inspired him. Melville spent about five years at sea (on and off) and most of his oeuvre investigates various fears and epiphanies through sea travel and life on a ship.
He makes reference to art and painting several times in the book and in Chapter 55: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales takes time off from the narrative to investigate these paintings of whales from the view of a sailor who has encountered many of them himself. He opens with: “I shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas…”, telling us that his language can go deeper than the images. He says: “It is time to set the world right in this matter, by proving such pictures of the whale all wrong.” He claims both artistic and scientific representations of the whale are false:
The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship…
…the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last….the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him.
Melville’s claim of the elusiveness of the whale shows its mightiness and perhaps speaks of its soul.
A metaphor of a “Symphony” in the title of chapter 132, just before three chapters on the final whale chase, contains an especially beautiful portrait of Captain Ahab’s inner turmoil at peace:
Slowly crossing the deck from the scuttle, Ahab leaned over the side and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul. That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the step-mother world, so long cruel—forbidding—now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.
Ahab is at times a vengeful dictator, blind to reality. Chris Power describes him: “Ahab’s hatred is toxic: it has perverted his perception of the world, which he describes, nihilistically, as a pasteboard mask with only the void lying behind it.” But here, he has his humanity back.
The trailer of the adaptation by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck (1956) starts with a voiceover narration telling us: “Ever since the beginning of time, man has pitted himself against the sea…to learn its secrets…to solve its mysteries.” Later it states that Captain Ahab has “lost his soul” to the whale. One can see why whales spark us to move into the spiritual or surreal.
To read more about another’s perspective on the contemporary virtues of this book, take a look at Philip Hoare’s article in The Guardian: “Subversive, queer and terrifyingly relevant: six reasons why Moby-Dick is the novel for our times.” One reason I love this book is that nothing is taken for granted and all accepted dichotomies of the time are deconstructed (on race, on queerness, on religion, on mortality, on class…). While Ahab negates the world’s beauty, Ishmael finds it through this disorientation. In other novels, too, Melville shows us the way life on a boat questions the accepted social order (although there’s still a clear hierarchy). Add to that a constant threat for one’s life and encounters with sublime beauty and mystery…and your whole world is thrown.
What other novels or films question the foundation on which we base our daily lives? What experiences change our perspective in this way?
If you want a daily dose of Moby-Dick quotes, you can follow this Twitter account to continuously unsettle you.
Children’s whale tales
Children love whales for their seemingly monstrous magical qualities. The mysteries of the sea are (literally) deep and there is something serene about the idea of a huge beast gliding through the water with shared mammalian qualities to us.
Before my son was even born, I would sing “Baby Beluga” by Raffi Cavoukian (who goes by just ‘Raffi’) to him. I sang it over and over again, often changing some of the words to his name and other things that would come to mind. Even though my impromptu lyric-making is much better than the quality of my singing, he seemed to like it, because it’s still one of his favorite songs at age three. After he was about two, we would listen to this along with other Raffi songs and discovered a new version with Yo Yo Ma on cello where he also adds in a bit about climate change (he’s such a wonderful hippy after all).
This is a complete digression: It was a 40th anniversary edition, and I realized the song (at the time) was exactly as old as I. I’ve seen Raffi in concert as a preschooler (but I remember it) and Yo Yo Ma walking on the streets of Harvard Square (what a cool guy). Somehow these encounters made the space of the song in my mind more ‘real.’ I’m awed by them both as I am by the haunting melodies of this ‘children’s song.’ It amazes me the way music can at once be so universal and so personal.
Many children, of course, encounter Pinocchio and the whale at a young age. There is an eerie and strange calm inside the whale’s belly until Pinocchio lights a fire to get out. The 1940 Disney film has no problem killing off a whale in front of children. I guess we might, too, if we were stuck in a whale belly. But these days, whales tend to be the good guys in kids’ stories.
Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Snail and the Whale is a beautiful story of a snail who rides the tail of a friendly whale around the world. When the whale is beached, the snail slithers off to get help from some school children. The whole community comes to save him and the snail friends get a tour of the world the following year. There is a good BBC animation here.
The freedom a whale has to see the world is central to this story and may entice children’s curiosities. But seeing the world here isn’t visiting cities and monuments; it is purely seeing the variety of our natural world around the globe. Perhaps one reason we are drawn to whales and dolphins is their intelligent existence in a mostly natural world.
Whale Rider is a New Zealand book by Witi Ihimaera (1987) and adapted to film by Kiwi director Niki Caro (2002). A young Maori girl named Kahu is the only heir to the chief who claims it must be boy. Their tribe is descended from the legendary ‘whale rider’ and Kahu is able to communicate with him in order to save the beached whales and go on a supernatural underwater journey to prove that she is a rightful heir and that some traditions need to change.
After the suggestion from a Kiwi colleague, we taught this film to Year 9 (Grade 8) students in Hong Kong to investigate whether or not cultural traditions should change. We explored this as a debatable topic in connection to our own cultures. The indigenous people of New Zealand include nature within their culture. But even they do not claim to truly understand the elusive whales. Whales represent beauty, power, mystery, and even the violence of the sea, all at once.
Still, their knowledge is a kind of TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) that has been used recently with indigenous people in the Arctic for application to scientific research on whales. TEK is the “system of knowledge gained by experience, observation, and analysis of natural events that is transmitted among members of a community.”
Another research paper investigates the relationship between Maori and whales in the Antarctic, including TEK as well as spiritual explanations:
There are many versions of how whales came into being. The most common is that Tangaroa, atua of the oceans, created them as one of his children. Others say that Te Puwhakahara, Takaaho or Tinirau are the progenitors of whales and another links whales to the ancestor Te Hapuku, who is also the creator of tree ferns, which is why ferns are referred to as ‘ngā ika ō te ngahere’ the fish of the forest (Haami, 2006). Through these whakapapa links Māori are bound to whales, giving whales the status of tupuna (ancestor) (Jolly, 2014) and a connection to the supernatural (Gillespie, 2001).
The only way to truly understand a whale—Ihimaera and Melville tell us—is through experience. Even then, you can’t really understand. I like to think some things should be left unexplained.
Lastly and relatedly, the Maine-set YA fiction titled Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt (USA, 2004) is a gorgeous story about friendship, racism, baseball, poverty, and nature. Any Maine-based story is close to my heart; I spent my university years there as well as many holidays as a child. There is something humble, ancient, and magical about this place.
Pages 79-81 describe a first enchanting and surreal encounter with a whale as the children row their boat (an escape from society’s ills). Here are a few highlights, but please read the passage in full!
In the moonlight he saw a silver spray burst up into the air, a shower of diamond dust….[A] great Presence broke the surface of the sea and Turner knew, or felt, the vastness of whales….[He] felt the diamond spray sprinkle down on him in the moonlight like a benediction. He knew he was in the middle of something much larger than himself, and not just larger in size.
…Turner reached the whale’s eye, and they looked at each other. They looked at each other a long time—two souls rolling on the sea under the silvery moon, peering into each other’s eyes. Turner wished with a desire greater than anything he had ever desired that he might understand what it was in the eye of the whale that shivered his soul.
If we were to have souls—a word that appears more than a hundred times in Melville’s book—would we even want to know exactly what they were? Would it negate the ability to use our soul for its true purpose, whatever that might be?
There is something in art that remains elusive, which I would argue makes it art. There is a special force that allows us to be impacted through aesthetic beauty or powerful dissonant feelings (political or personal).
Later, I’ll be investigating Walls, including a documentary by Agnès Varda with an opening Tai Chi sequence in front of an amazing whale mural. Next week, we take a look at Soundtracks with its own accompanying Spotify playlist. See you then!
This is the second edition of my weekly newsletter: The Matterhorn. Thank you for reading! As a subscriber, you will also receive other articles about writing, reading, art, and culture. Thank you for supporting this initiative!
Kathleen Waller is a novelist with a PhD in Comparative Literature. She previously taught literature, cultural studies, art, ethics, and epistemology to high school and university students for twenty years. For more information: kathleenwaller.com