Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Whale, the Trade of Kings

“Mad with the agonies he endures from these fresh attacks, the infuriated Sperm Whale rolls over and over; he rears his enormous head, and with wide expanded jaw snaps at everything around him; he rushes at the boats with his head; they are propelled before him with vast swiftness, and sometimes utterly destroyed. * * * It is a matter of great astonishment that the consideration of the habits of so interesting, and, in a commercial point of view, of so important an animal (as the Sperm Whale) should have been so entirely neglected, or should have excited so little curiosity among the numerous, and many of them competent observers, that of late years must have possessed the most abundant and the most convenient opportunities of witnessing their habitudes”      Thomas Beal’s History of the Sperm Whale, 1839. (Melville, xlviii).

Reading through all of these extracts, one cannot help but to imagine Melville reading this sometime before beginning the work on his novel. Beal’s quotation perfectly summarizes both the portrayal of whaling within Moby-Dick and the general perception of the status of the whale within the 19th century. The absolute violence with which the quote describes the Sperm Whale completely embodies the honor with which accompanies the hunt – the dangers involved and the hardships endured – and the latter portion of the quote addresses the economic, cultural, scientific, and spiritual fascination the public of that time had (or should have had, according to Melville and Beal) with regards to the Leviathan. Melville’s Moby-Dick is, among many, many other things, a direct response to this quotation. And in turn, the quotation seems to legitimize Melville’s sprawling work. Besides fulfilling that very need for there to exist someone with rabid curiosity and respect for the Sperm Whale as a symbol of man’s technological power and resourcefulness, which Melville has both created and become himself, Moby-Dick creates in whaling what so many other pieces of art have tried with less vigor and success to do in other seemingly blue-collar professions: to create true honor in labor-class individuals and value in the mundane, i.e. one of the very first realizations of the ‘working-class hero.’

Melville of course had other reasons for writing Moby-Dick. He himself had been on a whaling voyage previous to penning the novel which makes personal experience a large portion of his motivation. Furthermore, taking into consideration the thematics of Bartleby and his repeated sardonic references to Wall Street in Moby-Dick (“People in Nantucket invest their money in whaling vessels, the same way that you do yours in approved state stocks bringing in good interest” (Melville, 81-2).), it is clear that through his portrayal of whalers, Melville is criticizing the conflagration of man’s relationships with technology and nature. Thomas Beal highlights how these two concepts, consumerism and naturalism, come to a point within the sperm whale (“so interesting, and, in a commercial point of view,…so important”). What Melville emphasizes, however, is how through the conquering of nature by technology, or rather by man’s transformation of natural entities into technological entities (spermaceti -> candles, lanterns, etc.) the violence which Beal describes in the first portion of his passage is unavoidable.

Ishamel is an excellent narrator to explore this idea through (although Melville often seems to forget exactly who is supposed to be narrating). Although he is very familiar with the sea, so much so as to not be a ‘greenhorn’ at describing the details of shipping, Ishamel is wholly ignorant of the intricacies of whaling and therefore offers an unbiased viewpoint of the profession and his experience within it (again, but only during his actual narrative, which seems ephemeral at times). There are constant martial allusions and connotations throughout the novel which serve to illustrate the very violence of technology’s clash with nature. In the very first chapter, his voyage appears in some sort of list drawn up by the Fates reading “Whaling voyage by one Ishmael/BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN (sic)” (Melville, 7), suggesting sequential events. But Ishmael refers directly to his voyage in the same fashion: “In that grand order of battle in which Captain Ahab would probably marshal his forces to descend on the whales…” (Melville, 130). 

The violence which takes place within whaling is nearly self-evident. Indeed, when defending the profession of whaling against accusations of being no more than butchers, Melville reminds us that soldiers and warriors work on battlegrounds far more bloody than that of a whaler and gain much more honor and respect. Whaling is the war of technology against nature, to the largest extent that it could be in the mid-1850s. For what is the whale than the absolute incarnate of nature’s massive power? It can be seen simply through skimming through Melvilles “extracts” that whales were first seen by humans as a thing of great fantasy, curiosity, and fear, and later they became an economic symbol of human’s progress over nature (although the fear perhaps never quite fully went away).
In essence, Melville is creating tension from the very beginning by forcing two irreconcilable forces to compete with one another, that of the great technology of man and the great nature of the whale. Through this, much of the potential for economic prosperity falls leeward in the actual pursuit of the whale, much as the economic gain of an individual soldier’s country is often forgotten whilst in the field. For there is most likely no better reciprocity than that between technology and war. Increased technology leads to better war, which in turn stimulates the economy and accelerates the rate at which technology advances (not to mention the additive effect of arms races between warring countries). Treating the profession of whaling as that of a warrior, as Melville surely does (within Queequeg especially), and seeing the act of it being carried out (technology: manning the mast-head, harpooneering, etc.), the crew in the novel seems to be gearing up for the very way in which Beal describes the Sperm Whale’s altercation with its boat: complete and inevitable violence, from which only one force will succeed. Thus, the clear draw of the profession of whaling as a great source of adventure and the clear draw to its most famous depiction, also a great source.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick or, The Whale. (1851) New York: Penguin Books, 2003.


  1. Let me first say that I really enjoyed reading this post. I appreciate the concept, I think that it is a very good point to make and I would be curious to read a revision. If you were to expand you could perhaps be a bit more concise and selective in how you want to get across what you're trying to say - I do get what that is but I think that it could probably more sharp in a couple of places - maybe a unifying clear statement about technology, nature, war/violence, and the economy in the third paragraph. I also think that you'll be able to add a lot of new material from the readings as we progress through Moby Dick so you can keep an eye out for relevant passages now. Also I bet you could incorporate Marcuse as I think that his opinions on progress and technology are relevant to your discussion.

  2. You might be interested in *Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways*, which is partially a socialist-infused reading of Moby-Dick.

    Your first paragraph, like the novel, is sprawling, covering both the legitimizing function of the extracts, the whalers as working class heroes, and whaling as a representation of industry and technology as a whole. Not bad - but moving more rapidly to a focus might have been even better.

    In the second paragraph, you come up to the brink (without quite doing it) of bringing in Marcuse's understanding of technology. If you've ever read Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology," it might be useful to know that Marcuse is emerging partially out of Heidegger's thought - there's a hint of Heidegger in your discussion of the nature->technology transformation, so I wanted to bring that up as one way of developing your still somewhat incoherent argument.

    Your last two paragraphs, as you develop *Moby-Dick* as a work about technology (which it assuredly is, even if it has other identities as well), lead us in interesting directions. They also reveal the possibility for a stronger focus.

    "Whaling is the war of technology against nature, to the largest extent that it could be in the mid-1850s." Think of how well this essay could read with that as the very first sentence, then having everything reorganized around it. You could probably do everything you do here with something like half the word count, leaving more room for a detailed reading of the text and/or of the incorporation of further critical material.

    Very well-conceived work, only in need of streamlining as preparation for extending.