Boy I sure hope you’re ready for more whale physiology!
Continuing on with our little run of non-narrative chapters, today we’re getting a close examination of the sperm whale’s powerful forehead. Of course, this being Moby Dick, it has some deep philosophical implications that would drive a man mad if he fully understood them. Let’s get into it.
SUMMARY: Ishmael warns the reader that they must understand the true nature of the sperm whale’s forehead before we move on in the story. It is simply too important to leave behind at this critical moment. The forehead constitutes almost one third of the whole body of the sperm whale. It is a massive, senseless thing, completely impervious to all external harm, with no sensory organs or other openings. It is where the precious oil is kept, and Ishmael speculates that it uses this mysterious and wonderful substance to somehow aid it in diving and returning to the surface.
In any case, it is a massively powerful feature of the whale, which could be used to destroy just about anything, given the incredible power that is driving it, at the behest of a singular will. The reader must set aside their disbelief and accept that this is the truth of the world, or else they have proved themselves provincial fools!
This is an interesting chapter.
Ishmael is taking a moment here, just a couple pages, to really stop and make you think about the marvel that is the head of a sperm whale. It’s easy to look over it and say “yes, I’ve seen Disney’s Pinocchio, I know that whales are big and scary,” but you have to consider the contemporary audience.
What we’re really getting here is another example of Ishmael, or rather Melville, treating the whale as a kind of Lovecraftian horror. Something that you think you can understand in abstract, but the physical reality of which is difficult for a mortal mind to even comprehend. The knowledge of the Truth of a sperm whale is too much to handle, for most people.
It comes back to the notion of Old Ishmael, the fictional author of this tome, still grappling with the extraordinary events about which he is writing. To wit:
Here is a vital point; for you must either satisfactorily settle this matter with yourself, or for ever remain an infidel as to one of the most appalling, but not the less true events, perhaps anywhere to be found in all recorded history.
The event he’s referring to is the ending of this book, where, if you don’t know, Moby Dick rams the Pequod, causing it to sink in a matter of minutes, killing everyone on board except Ishmael himself. Uh, spoilers, I guess, but the whole book is written with that event looming over it in the background. This is really a case where spoilers will only enhance your understanding and appreciation of the world. Plus it’s like 150 years old, so I will not accepting complaints on the matter.
Anyway, there’s another interesting passage at the end of this chapter that is relevant to interpreting its meaning:
For unless you own the whale, you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth. But clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter; how small the chances for the provincials then? What befell the weakling youth lifting the dread goddess’s veil at Lais?
Apparently that last bit is a reference to some obscure tale where a man seeks Truth at a temple in Egypt, but is horrified by what he finds when he lifts the veil on the statue there.
So, the truth is horrifying to encounter, it is destructive to the mind and senses. The reality of the whale crashing into the ship, the unmitigated power which it wields and its true destructive force, is easy to see in the abstract, but hard to truly reckon with. Especially in the context of reading a novel, it’s easy to get to a whale ramming a ship and sinking it and think “Ridiculous! Such a thing could never happen,” and that’s what Ishmael is trying to avoid.
We all sit in our own comfortable bubble of the things we believe and the things we refuse to believe. It’s different for everyone, which are considered acceptable and comforting, and which are considered abhorrent or ridiculous. There are moments in our lives where we are forced to reckon with the existence of something we thought impossible, or the nonexistence of something we thought certain.
One of these moments is the key to understanding this book. The crew of the Pequod thought themselves certain in victory over Moby Dick. After all, they succeed in all other fights with whales, they have great harpooneers and mates, and their captain is basically a mythological hero. All the forces of fate are at their back, Ahab has invoked God and the Devil to his side, he has declared his intention to carry on his fight even if he is torn limb from limb, and is proving that conviction every day.
But it doesn’t matter. All that bluster and mythology, all that confidence, all the projected glory of mankind, it doesn’t make a difference at the end of the day. Sometimes, reality ensues, and gives you something different from what you expected.
Moby Dick is an interesting book, in that it is its own reflection and analysis alongside the story it is telling. The non-narrative chapters, such as this one, form an attempt to make sense of the events even before they occur in the narrative. This chapter is a warning from Old Ishmael, pleading with us to not make the same mistake he has, to not turn our eyes from the horrible truth.
This Forbidden Truth, this horrible revelation that would drive a man mad to fully comprehend, is that whales are more powerful than humans. To interpret it in a Lovecraftian fashion, that whales are capable of destroying all the works of man in an instant, if they so choose. Their power at sea is greater than anything a mortal man could ever muster.
Truly, for a 19th century American, the idea that there is something out there that is greater than him, that he exists only at its pleasure, is a great horror.
Now, mark. Unerringly impelling this dead, impregnable, uninjurable wall, and this most buoyant thing within; there swims behind it all a mass of tremendous life, only to be adequately estimated as piled wood is—by the cord; and all obedient to one volition, as the smallest insect.
A concentration of power and intellect in one that defies the power of man. The power that we can only put together through collaborative effort, even that is inadequate to the singular power invested in the physical form of a sperm whale.
Anyway, on a less philosophical/meta level, the mystery of what a sperm whale’s big ol’ head is actually for continues to this very day!
Ishmael’s theory, that it is used the same way as a swim bladder in fish, to control buoyancy and more easily dive and rise to the surface, is a popular one. Some scientists have speculated that they somehow drawn in seawater, which cools and contracts the wax in their head, and then heat it up when they want to rise.
The only problem being: there doesn’t seem to be any anatomical way for this to happen! As noted by Ishmael, there is no opening at all on the sperm whale’s head, except its jaw and its spout, which are both set well behind the massive forehead.
Modern biologists are pretty sure that the mysterious mass of mixed wax and fat is somehow used to produce the massively powerful clicks that sperm whales use to communicate and locate food. Maybe. Again, there was speculation that they use these clicks to stun prey, but in tests it was not found to stun anything, powerful though it may be.
The problem being that while the clicks are massively powerful, and cripplingly painful to humans, squid do not actually have ears, nor any bones besides their beaks, so the clicks do not affect them at all. We know for sure that sperm whales mostly eat squid, given the contents of their stomachs and the sucker scars that adorn their hides, so that’s a bust.
There is some evidence that they use the massive head to ram things, perhaps other sperm whales in fights over mates, or other types of whales in fights over prey. One of the interesting things about this book is that it is still used as a valuable source of information about sperm whales by researchers, because information about sperm whales is so hard to come by. Not for data, of course, but just for possible hypotheses.
Well, that ended up being a bit more interesting than I thought.
I looked up that phrase about the “dread goddess’ veil at Lais” to figure out what it was referring to, and I found some forum where people were analyzing this book. They were saying it was something about coming to terms with the subconscious and that Moby Dick was an analogy for the mind, being driven by a singular will, or some such nonsense. I’m not interested in that kind of analysis, frankly.
If you wanted to, you could attach any kind of metaphorical importance to this big ol’ angry whale. It’s much more interesting to examine the story on its own terms. Any time I look up past analysis of it, it’s so different from my own thoughts that it’s hard to even understand. It’s no wonder people who are forced to read it in high school hate it so much!
Until next time, shipmates!