Alright, back into the weeds we go.
This week’s chapter is, as they say, a doozy. Not that it is especially long, but it is dense, and comes to a surprising conclusion at the end. We’re back to pure non-narrative stuff, pontification on the nature of whales, in this case a specific part of their biology: the breath. This one requires a bit of cutting through the underbrush of 19th century vocabulary, but if you can manage that, it’s quite fun.
Ishmael presents the reader with an age old question among whalers: Is the spout of a whale, the jet that it puts into the air as it breathes, water or vapor? That is to say, is it just his exhalation of breath, or is it mixed with water?
First, he explains the anatomy of the spout, how a sperm whale breathes exclusively through a hole on top of its head called a “spiracle”. Unlike other fish, whales lack gills, and have regular lungs, not unlike a human. But, they are capable of storing up oxygenated blood and living off of it for an hour or more as they dive to the bottom of the ocean. And, they always have to come back up to the surface and spend some time spouting after every dive.
Some say that the spout is the vapor that anyone exhales when they breathe out, simply at a larger magnitude. Others say that it is mixed with water that whales accidentally ingest as they feed deep below the surface of the ocean, or which gathers in their spout-hole as they surface.
Ultimately, Ishmael chooses neither, and simply deems the spout to be “mist”. A whale is such a deep and contemplative creature that it generates this mist with the sheer force of its wisdom, as with other great thinkers. The sperm whale is too profound a thing to be explained in such a simple, physical manner; it is beyond normal human understanding, and can only be glimpsed through intuition.
Man, where do I even start with this one? There’s a lot going on here, especially in the last two paragraphs of the chapter, where Ishmael suddenly turns from his scientific inquiry into philosophical reverie, yet again. I suppose it’s a good microcosm for the book itself, starting out with realism and detail, before tricking you into reading a bunch of weird nonsense about whale biology.
Surprisingly Accurate Anatomy
The account that Ishmael gives of a whale’s breathing apparatus is actually very accurate. The past tends to get compressed from our modern perspective, the centuries run together, so it was surprising to me that he had such a complete understanding of how breathing works for mammals.
It goes to show those jokes about the book being full of wrong facts about whales simply because of Ishmael’s insistence that a whale is a fish is a bunch of garbage. He is up to date on all the latest whale facts, and for the most part it’s all accurate.
If I say, that in any creature breathing is only a function indispensable to vitality, inasmuch as it withdraws from the air a certain element, which being subsequently brought into contact with the blood imparts to the blood its vivifying principle, I do not think I shall err;
It makes sense, this was written well into the modern scientific revolution, and a lot of these concepts were still new and exciting. Melville is showing off his knowledge, and frankly is presenting it in a very accessible way for a layperson.
Ishmael spend a while explaining how it is that sperm whales are able to hold their breath, and the strange anatomy of their blow-hole. But ultimately, he gets back around to the central question: what is the spout, anyway?
My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as for this whale spout, you might almost stand in it, and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely.
The Deadly Spout
There are several factors that render the spout a mystery, even to whalers who deal with whales intimately. First of all, you only have chance to get close to a spout when the whale is alarmed and on the run, which is not exactly ideal conditions for a close, scientific examination!
The fact is, the visible spout is at least partially water, since water always does gather in the spout hole, even if the whale is just sitting on the surface. But this is probably just the outer part of the spout, not the whole spout itself, so says Ishmael.
The more specious reason is that the whale is, somehow, poisonous. Ishmael claims that it not only stings if you manage to feel part of it, but that some sailors have had their skin peeled off just from being too close to a spout!
And I know one, who coming into still closer contact with the spout, whether with some scientific object in view, or otherwise, I cannot say, the skin peeled off from his cheek and arm.
So, an actual close examination of the spout itself, in the real world, is deemed to be too dangerous to be practical. Thus, Ishmael is left to hypothesize about the true nature of the spout, which is where things take a turn for the abstract and philosophical.
Explaining the Unexplainable
Left without any sources of physical evidence, we must turn to our intuition, and Ishmael’s intuition is always very grand and fanciful.
And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts.
He lands firmly on the side of the spout being “mist”, which is a word he used for neither option at the beginning of this chapter. Many people assume that this means he thinks it’s water mixed with air, which is Wrong and thus a Mistake in the book, but that’s not what he’s saying at all.
In fact, he is arguing that it is a sort of metaphysical mist, which appears around the heads of deep thinkers, the great philosophers of the world. He has even noticed it himself, when he is writing about deep and profound topics. Ishmael holds the whale in such esteem that it must be this somewhat mystical mist, rather than mere vapor or air, that enshrouds its noble head.
This is a silly pun, of course, since whales are “deep” thinkers in that they dive to the bottom of the ocean, and seem philosophical because they are anatomically incapable of making noise with their mouths (the spiracle is the only external connection to the lungs). Thus, the sperm whale is declared a deep and philosophical thinker by default, and solely on circumstantial evidence.
It’s all very silly, especially after the detailed examination of the actual anatomy of whales earlier in the chapter. But it’s leading up to a very interesting point: It’s hard to really know anything.
Through the Mists of Doubt
The very last few lines of this chapter are the most interesting to me.
Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.
This is as close to a thesis statement of this whole book as we’ve gotten thus far. All of the talk about atheism and God and whatnot, it really comes down to this: everyone is working on some combination of faith and doubt.
It is impossible to be entirely without either element, as you cannot have light without shadow. Anyone who tells you that doubt never creeps into their heart is a liar, nobody is capable of true faith at all times, even in the world as it exists before their eyes.
Some measure of intuition is necessary for there to be any understanding at all. The raw stuff of reality has no logic to it, it has no inherent meaning of purpose. That is all generated from somewhere, and the sooner you admit that you are making these connections from a point of view, the sooner you can understand how that colors your impressions of the world.
Ishmael asserts that the spout is mist. Some modern skeptic derides this opinion as technically incorrect, but what does that matter to Ishmael? The spout is too dangerous and distant to approach.
The world only exists in our perceptions, we cannot access it in its more raw and pure form. To that end, anything we believe we know may as well be truth or fantasy, the only thing that matters is the strength of our belief in it.
Well, took a little detour into epistemology at the end there, but I was just following Melville’s lead. This chapter really made me laugh with delight when I got to that ending, it’s a wonderful surprise. A swerve from spiracle anatomy to profound reflections on the nature of true, you can’t get that from any other book.
Until next time, shipmates!