Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Cetology" and "The Whiteness of the Whale"

 In the chapter titled “Cetology,” Ishmael puts forth his own attempt to classify and organize the different species of whales. He presents his organizational attempt in a much different way compared to the modern science of the time.  Even back then, the Linnaean system was the standard for classifying organisms.  Instead of following this route, Ishmael organizes the many different species of whales into three categories referred to as Folio, Octavo, and Duodecimo.  Although Ishmael goes into great detail in his attempt, he admits that it is not a perfect attempt by any means. One of the reasons given for this imperfection is that Ishmael finds it difficult to distinguish if whales are indeed fish; he decides to state that they are indeed fish, which flies in the face of the Linnaean concept. Ishmael also points out that there is no real definition of what a whale is exactly. In response, he devises his own definition defining a whale as, “a spouting fish with a horizontal tale” (Melville, 148). As one reads through Ishmael’s attempt of organization, imperfection rears its head once again in the fact that Ishmael is unable to finish his classification system. The amount of imperfection in his scientific attempt has great relevance to other parts of Moby-Dick in my opinion. Specifically, I believe that we can use “Cetology” to help guide our interpretation of the later chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.”
“There are only two books in being which at all pretend to put the living sperm whale before you, and at the same time, in the remotest degree succeed in the attempt. Those books are Beale’s and Bennett’s; both in their time surgeons to English South-Sea whale-ships, and both exact and reliable men.  The original matter touching the sperm whale to be found in their volumes is necessarily small; but so far as it goes, it is of excellent quality, though mostly confined to scientific description. As yet, however, the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature. Far above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life” (Melville, 146).
The preceding quote from “Cetology” emphasizes Ishmael’s viewpoint that thus far, science has not, nor will it ever, accurately portray the sperm whale in its true form. This quote about the imperfection of science foreshadows Ishmael’s own scientific imperfection that I described previously.  In this chapter, I believe that Melville is in a way scoffing at any attempt to truly understand the whale using science alone. It seems that Melville is trying to make the point that scientific knowledge needs poetic knowledge (knowledge that I understand as relating to seeking meaning in life or experiences) to achieve a true understanding of anything. The quote above also states that neither scientific or poetic attempts at understanding the whale are complete.  Science only has the ability to offer empirical, surface knowledge about whales, whereas poetic knowledge lacks a real scientific basis.   In order to truly understand the organism that is the whale, one must combine both scientific and poetic knowledge.  This relationship between scientific and poetic knowledge is the reason I believe we can use “Cetology” to interpret “The Whiteness of the Whale.”
The following quote is from “The Whiteness of the Whale.” “Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; an yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in comprehensible form.  It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me” (Melville, 204).  In this quote, Ishmael explains that the terrifying white color of the whale trumps all scientific facts when one witnesses the creature. It is this whiteness that scares Ishmael greatly, giving more meaning to the whale than any scientific fact ever could. In this chapter, I feel that Melville is giving an example to show the importance of poetic knowledge in true understanding by using the symbolism of the whiteness of the whale. He does this by showing that the feeling of fright that the whiteness evokes in Ishmael, has more importance in Ishmael’s mind than all the hard scientific facts.  This relates back to idea of the imperfection of science alone that is presented in “Cetology.”  The scientific facts by themselves cannot account for most people’s understanding of the whale; they cannot alone account for the fear that the whale creates. “Cetology” helps us see the true meaning of Ishmael going on and on about the whiteness of the whale. The main purpose of this is to convey the point that often times scientific fact is trumped in importance by poetic knowledge in the minds of people. This chapter alludes to the fact that the main characteristic that is most often attributed to the whale is its frightening, ghastly appearance, not the empirical scientific facts that have been provided in an attempt to understand the whale. For one whom actually experiences an encounter with one of these organisms, scientific facts seem almost meaningless compared to the whale’s whiteness which can be nothing short of petrifying. This chapter serves the purpose of providing an example to demonstrate the point of view that Melville suggests in “Cetology.” That is, scientific knowledge is not complete knowledge if it excludes poetic knowledge.  It is my belief that Melville wants to convey that neither scientific or poetic knowledge are complete, but when combined, true understanding may be found.

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


  1. I enjoy your paper and think it's rather solid. However you state that, "Although Ishmael goes into great detail in his attempt, he admits that it is not a perfect attempt by any means." you give the example of the difficulty of placing whales into a category of fish or mammal. You could expand on this using those whales which also do not fall into his classification system. Also, there is a wonderful subscript within this chapter that would fit nicely in that discussion. “I am aware that down to the present time, the fish styled Lamantins and Dugongs (Pig-fish and Sow-fish of the Coffins of Nantucket) are included by many naturalists among the whales. But as these pig-fish are nosey, contemptible set… I deny their credentials as whales.”(148). I enjoy your discussion of knowledge and poetic knowledge. However, I wish you would have elaborated on your discussion of feelings and their relavance to scientific knowledge. I think that you are on to something with that, and there is a lot to be said about how our human reactions to a situation/creature can change our logical notions.

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  2. This is a good, focused essay which at least eventually develops a clear thesis about the relationship between scientific knowledge and poetic knowledge in MD. I don't object to anything here, but I have two major things in mind for development/expansion that I'd like you to think about.

    You're writing not about poetry, or literature, but about poetic *knowledge*. Now, normally we don't think of poetry as granting knowledge (as opposed to feeling, etc.). I think, if you're following an intuition, that you're write to understand poetry, or at least Melville's concept of it, in this way. But it would still help enormously to be able to say something clear about what poetic knowledge *is*. In the absence of that explanation, you flounder a little, especially toward the end of the essay.

    Second, I think your recognize that Melville is doing somethign weird with Linnaeaus - but you underplay it. He is defying, mocking, inverting, parodying, something, that system of classification - what you say about that is fine, but I think that you underplay your hand, and could do much more, if you were so inclined.

  3. There is an element in the Cetology chapter I think that you missed. The element of Real Knowledge. "Nevertheless, though of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty; and so in some small degree, with cetology, or the science of the whales" 135. To boot, Melville gives a reason for the lack of real knowledge about whales. He gives a list of authors who wrote about whales and then writes, "Of the names in this list of whale authors only those following Owen ever saw a living whales; and but one of them was a real professional harpooneer and whaleman." 135. Notice the importance of sight and experience. Also worth noting is Melville's disdain toward certain intellectuals and his praise of the Whaleman as an authority on the whale.