The title of today’s post comes from Moby Dick. Yes, I’m still reading it. I ain’t even close to subduing this beast yet. The chase is still on. Now we both know that a whale is a mammal, not a fish. But Melville, in the confidence that’s born of humor, appeals to no less an authority than the “holy Jonah,” who ought to know, having spent 72 terrifying hours studying a large fish from the inside out before he was belched on shore to share his insight with the world. But I digress.
Order, family, genus and species. Or book, folio, octavo and duodecimo. Choose the set of terms you like best. It doesn’t really matter. We’re highly skilled at untangling almost any knot by defining this or classifying that. It’s how our mind works. We map the world via functional designations. Personally, I’m glad Melville treats whale taxonomy as though it were a book. Give me folios, octavos and duodecimos six days a week and Sunday! So let’s thumb through these pages and discover the pictures and prose that belong to Melville’s neatly penned folios.
BOOK I. (Folio), Chapter I. (Sperm Whale)
“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.”
“In one respect this is the most venerable of the Leviathans, being the one first regularly hunted by man. It yields the article commonly known as whalebone or baleen; and the oil specially known as ‘whale oil’, an inferior article in commerce.”
“In the length he attains, and in his baleen, the Fin-back resembles the Right Whale, but is of a less portly girth, and a lighter color, approaching to olive. His great lips present a cable-like aspect, formed by the intertwisting, slanting folds of large wrinkles. His grand distinguishing feature, the fin, from which he derives his name, is often a conspicuous object.”
“This whale is often seen on the northern American coast. He has been frequently captured there, and towed into harbor. He has a great pack on him like a peddler; or you might call him the Elephant and Castle Whale… His oil is not very valuable… He is the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any other of them.”
BOOK I (Folio), Chapter V (Razor Back)
“Of this whale little is known but his name. I have seen him at a distance off Cape Horn. Of a retiring nature, he eludes both hunters and philosophers. Though no coward, he has never yet shown any part of him but his back, which rises in a long sharp ridge. Let him go. I know little more of him, nor does anybody else.”
Intermezzo. You noticed, there’s no picture. That’s because Melville thinks there’s a difference between the Fin Back and the Razor Back. But we post-moderns know from a higher Nader that this Democrat and Republican is the self-same beast. To Melville’s credit, however, he knows he knows little about this difference without a distinction. “Let him go.” Done. Back to the pages that matter!
“Another retiring gentleman, with a brimstone belly, doubtless got by scraping along the Tartarian tiles in some of his profounder divings. He is seldom seen… 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.”