Chapter 57: Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in the Stars

You thought chapter titles couldn’t get any longer? You fool. You absolute buffoon. Melville has no sympathy, and is following no rulebook.


This chapter is kind of a transition into a different mood from the previous two. Instead of a critical survey of art from the learned eye of an expert, it’s of Ishmael as a man reflecting on the nature of art and the world it inhabits. So yeah, I think I can find something to talk about here.

SUMMARY: Ishmael describes a one-legged beggar in London, with a sign depicting his whaling boat being bitten in two by a very good rendition of a sperm whale. He digresses on the art of scrimshander, where whale teeth are intricately decorated by bored whalers on long voyages. Some houses have door-knockers in the shapes of whales, which are never very accurate. There are weather-cocks atop church spires in the shape of whales, but they are too difficult to inspect for Ishmael to render judgment.

Whales can be found in the form of skeletons entombed in the earth, poking out among the grass. Their shapes can be discerned in the rolling hills and valleys of mountains, by standing in just the right spot. And, of course, there is a whale-shaped constellation, Cetus, which swims forever in the night sky of the northern hemisphere.

So, here we get kind of a grab-bag of leviathanic depictions. All the various places that they can be found outside of the usual ambitious artistic projects.

I didn’t get into it before, but it’s interesting to think about the positions that paintings and ink prints would have back 170 years ago. This was before the invention of photography, so the burden of recreating reality as accurately as possible was still placed solely on artists. That’s why Ishmael was so very concerned with the accuracy of those renditions. But in this case, the purposes are a bit more symbolic rather than literal.


The old one-legged mariner, reduced to begging in his sorry state, is a good example. He can paint up an accurate whale, but for what purpose? Just to hopefully extract some sympathy from a passerby.

Really, the theme for this chapter seems to be the fact that whales are are a part of the fabric of society, though it is in a subtle way. They show up all over the place, incidentally, and are mostly ignored, despite their truly mysterious and imposing nature.

There’s a tension there that Ishmael has examined before, back when we were in the icy streets of New Bedford. The rows and rows of fine houses, well-lit by oil burning in the lamp posts, shining out from every window. A whole prosperous city built on an act of horrific butchery, deadly combat with sea monsters that bite men to pieces. This town that houses a church covered in empty tablets, each bespeaking a terrible tragedy.

Whaling brings great fame and comfort, but not for whalers. Their struggles, because they are remote, are unknown. No, it’s worse than that, they are not unknown, they are also misunderstood and ignored, even when they are staring you right in the face on some London sidewalk. Whalers are nothing but a rowdy bunch who get up to a lot of uncouth and dirty butchery on the high seas, nothing to be concerned with.

Whales are everywhere, and yet they cannot truly be seen.

Anyway, there’s another little digression in this chapter that I found interesting, and not totally relevant to that other tangent.

When Ishmael writes about scrimshander (aka scrimshaw) he ends up on an interesting tangent:

Long exile from Christendom and civilization inevitably restores a man to that condition in which God placed him, i.e. what is called savagery.


Now, one of the peculiar characteristics of the savage in his domestic hours, is his wonderful patience of industry. An ancient Hawaiian war-club or spear-paddle, in its full multiplicity and elaboration of carving, is as great a trophy of human perseverance as a Latin lexicon. For, with but a bit of broken sea-shell or a shark’s tooth, that miraculous intricacy of wooden net-work has been achieved; and it has cost steady years of steady application.

This is an angle on the civilization-savage dichotomy that we haven’t really come across before. The idea that there is a divide between this kind of mind-numbingly tedious yet artistic work and the sort of work that civilized people can stand to do is interesting. I’ve felt that sort of thing myself, looking at intricate, ancient artwork and marveling at the industry and concentration it must have taken.

Some scrimshander

What Ishmael is supposing is that it the lack of civilization also adds up to a lack of distractions. The same way that whalers on years-long voyages are able to work on these elaborate, intricate projects, so too are these so-called “savages” able to just sit down and get stuff done. When you live in a smaller society, in a smaller world, you can really sit down and focus on one particular thing without getting pulled in different directions.

The extent to which Ishmael is being a little facetious here, in saying that anyone doing work must be at least partially savage, is up in the air. It feels a bit fun, but also a bit like he’s mocking the whole dichotomy, rather than the industry of those artists:

As with the Hawaiian savage, so with the white sailor-savage. With the same marvellous patience, and with the same single shark’s tooth, of his one poor jack-knife, he will carve you a bit of bone sculpture, not quite as workmanlike, but as close packed in its maziness of design, as the Greek savage, Achilles’s shield; and full of barbaric spirit and suggestiveness, as the prints of that fine old Dutch savage, Albert Durer.

And hey! He mentioned one of my personal favorite artists, though with the wrong first name. Albrecht Dürer is one of the old masters of woodcut prints, and created several absolutely incredible images, intricately weaving together lines to give the impression of three-dimensional shapes.

The Sea Monster and the Beast with the Lamb’s Horn, by Albrecht Dürer

Perhaps this is just yet another attempt to rescue the dignity of the common whaleman, to compare him to these great artists and heroes of old. But I think it suggests something deeper, a criticism of the whole idea of separating humanity into these categories, civilized and savage, in the first place. If these so-called savages have the ability to sit down and create these incredible works of art, then what makes us so much better than them?

The counter to this line of thinking is, of course, is to undermine the idea that they are really responsible for anything impressive. You see it even today with things like the Egyptian pyramids. Oh no, those are much too impressive to be made by some ancient Africans, it must have been aliens from space! And so on, and so forth.

It all goes to show how this whole notion of racism and colonialism is all tied up in the same grand project of dehumanization and exploitation. You have to argue that the people you’re oppressing aren’t the same as you, so they aren’t worthy of the same considerations. Ishmael is coming in here and saying “ah yes, that’s right, they’re not like you: they’re better”.

The Constellation, Cetus (and another monstrous depiction, if I do say so myself)

Which is fine for 1850, but now smacks a bit of the old noble savage myth, which can be just as harmful. If you buy into the logic that there is anything separating the humanity of the savages from that of the civilized, then you are still on some level carrying water for the colonialist project.

Man, I really thought I was going to steer clear of political discourse this time, but here we are! It just kinda crops up all the time in this book written in pre-civil war America, for some reason.

Perhaps it was always part of the text, and I’m just uncovering it. Or perhaps I am simply creating it whole cloth, interpreting these shapes on the wall in a way that pleases my own interests and ideologies. It doesn’t really matter, it’s valid in either case!

Next chapter’s about plankton.

Until next time, shipmates!

1 thought on “Chapter 57: Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in the Stars”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s