Upon first glance, Cetology seems to be irrelevant, apropos only because the action takes place on a whaling vessel. It does not seem necessary that the reader understand the differences between the types of whales, but still Melville includes this lengthy biology lesson. The chapter at first seems a nuisance and a frustration to the reader, but upon a second reading, the chapter becomes a euphemism or a micro scale version of a macro scale relevant idea.
As he describes each kind of whale in detail, Ishmael insists that each have its own specifications, and that he must describe it to a “T”. He seems desperate to share his knowledge and that his knowledge prove important. To Ishmael, it is extremely important to understand nature and its classifications and its every detail. To be so knowledgeable is a source of comfort to Ishmael. But even more than the knowledge itself, Ishmael takes comfort in the organization and presentation of this knowledge. “It was stated at the outset,” says Ishmael. “that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected” (157). That is to say that Ishmael feels better having laid forth his knowledge and thoughts on the subject and organizing them thus, even though he does not necessarily understand what it all means or how it is altogether relevant to his life upon the ship and his current situation. Ishmael takes pleasure in the actual categorization of the whale, rather than the understanding of the complete science of cetology. The categorizing and defining of whale comforts Ishmael.
This chapter on cetology can be used to understand and color our reading of Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg, or at least how Ishmael deals with their relationship as he gains information. First, all he knows is that Queequeg is a harpooner and he shall be sharing a bed with him. Soon, the landlord explains to Ishmael that Queequeg has been selling human heads from New Zealand. “Depend upon it, landlord,” says Ishmael. “that harpooneer is a dangerous man” (21). It comforts Ishmael, even though he has not yet met Queequeg, to put him in a neat little category. By doing so, Ishmael can reasonably conjecture as to Queequeg’s nature and what to expect when they finally do meet.
As he goes to bed that first night, Ishmael “sat down on the side of the bed, and commenced thinking about this head-peddling harpooneer” (22). Ishmael, being the academic we know he is from the exposition before this, thinks deeply about everything and everyone. He is comforted and pleased while he thinks and categorizes. Knowledge and its organization is his comfort zone. While in an unfamiliar place, facing an unfamiliar and dangerous task, Ishmael keeps himself sane and calm by analyzing any new information he receives just like he always has.
This analysis is evident in his assessment of Queequeg upon meeting him. As Melville describes Queequeg through Ishmael’s eyes, he uses intellectual and categorizing words and phrases such as “what to make of his unearthly complexion” (23), “I concluded” (23) and “at first I knew not what to make of this” (23). Now these phrases themselves may not point to any specific tone, but when combined with the inclusion of anecdotal stories or facts relating to how this new man may be based on his appearance—the new data Ishmael has recovered—the reader can plainly see that
Ishmael is interpreting and categorizing these thoughts and observations in an academic and scientific way to make him feel more at ease even if he does not understand everything.
In Cetology, Melville writes, “How shall we define the whale, by his obvious externals, so as conspicuously to label him for all time to come?” (148). This same kind of oversimplification of Queequeg’s appearance and thus his character are present in Ishmael’s initial interaction with Queequeg. Although Ishmael does make the concession that “[i]t’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin” (23), he continues to make assumptions about what Queequeg’s likely temperament is. This, again, is merely to calm himself. It seems that Ishmael cannot help but perform this type of analysis and categorization, a sort of academic idiosyncratic quirk that allows him some form of control over his life and the situations in which he finds himself.
It is clear to the reader that, though he doesn’t know exactly what Ishmael has gone through, Ishmael desires anything that is a departure from his regular life. Perhaps it is his proficient at all things, master of none syndrome that makes his life unbearable. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;” Melville writes. “[W]henever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street…I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can” (3). The sea is his escape from the rigid monotony of academia.
Ishmael has condemned himself to death. He tells the reader at the very beginning that “[t]his is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship” (3). He has chosen an inconspicuous way of death. It was well-known at this time that many people did not return from whaling voyages. Although he chooses the sea and his death, he is understandably anxious about what with happen in the meantime. His anxiety presses him back into his comfort zone, what he knows, what he understands. The thought of facing something he does not fully understand nor can he fully categorize, like death, forces him back to his overly academic model of the world.
Ishmael treats everything around him like a categorical set of data so that he can calculate his next move. This seems rather unusual considering the fact that he has accepted his almost certain death, has made peace with his impending demise, but Ishmael is comforted and placated in the meantime by being able to control at least this part of his life. By imposing his intelligence and knowledge on decidedly nonacademic situations, like whaling, he owns a sense of comfort that he cannot find anywhere else.
This obsessively academic world view does not stop when it comes to humanity. Whereas most people have a natural tendency to treat fellow humans with a sort of tenderness, if not tenderness, then something less than a scientific overview, Ishmael refuses to soften his view of the world to account for humanity. He ignores what he considers a weakness, any sort of emotion that cannot be characterized or categorized within his academic schema of the life he has created around the notion that his life will end soon.
Thus, he begins a critical analysis of his bedfellow, taking into account his occupation, both on board as harpooner and on land, selling heads. He conjectures that Queequeg must be quite dangerous before he even meets the man. Once he sees Queequeg, Ishmael judges him based on his outward appearance, stating “[His face] was of a dark, purplish, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares. Yes, it’s just as I thought, he’s a terrible bed fellow” (23). Ishmael spends a good amount of time reasoning as to Queequeg’s racial origin, and what his skin tone means. He believes that Queequeg is white and has been captured and tattooed and his complexion is due to sun exposure. When he stumbles upon things about the man that are inexplicable, he recognizes his experiential shortcomings: “…I had never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one. However, I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin” (23).
It is strange that Ishmael should take such a categorical and impersonal attitude with a man with whom he is going to be sharing a bed. In the circumstances, would it not benefit Ishmael to accept the man for whatever he is since he must share a bed with him? It would be better to have a bed in which to sleep than to lose even that because of judgment passed, specifically judgment based solely on physical appearance. It is particularly harsh when Ishmael tells the reader how afraid he is. In fact, it is mildly offensive that Ishmael want to “demand a satisfactory answer concerning what seemed inexplicable in him” (24). All this analysis of Queequeg, although meant to calm Ishmael, unsettles him. This failure of Ishmael’s academic model to comfort him accounts for the personal and intimate nature of the relationship that follows. Queequeg intrigues Ishmael.
As Cetology evinces the prevalence of Ishmael’s academic obsession, the reader can look back and also forward in the novel to Ishmael and Queequeg’s interactions, and find that after the initial interaction between the pair, Ishmael is decidedly less academic. The relationship that Ishmael forms with Queequeg is a direct result of Ishmael’s interest and initial discomfort. Ishmael realizes that, within this particular human interaction, immediate analysis and categorization was somehow inappropriate. Ishmael tells the reader: “For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man’s a human being just as I am” (26). This realization on Ishmael’s part acts as a breaking down of barriers, allowing Queequeg to break into and surpass his academic comfort zone, and for a more intimate relationship.
Because Cetology makes the reader aware of Ishmael’s obsessive academic mindset, it is essential to understanding Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg. Although Ishmael does at first attempt to analyze and categorize Queequeg to keep himself at ease, he realizes that he is unable to do so, and that Queequeg is an enigma of sorts. Because Queequeg exists outside Ishmael’s academic schema of life, Ishmael latches on to his relationship with Queequeg.