Chapter 86: The Tail

Ahhhhh, good to be back. And today, Ishmael has graced us with a fascinating chapter, with plenty of huge, sinewy subject matter to sink our teeth into.

A photo of a playground with a statue of a whale's tail
Whale tail park, Alki

Yes, this chapter is another one describing the anatomy of the whale, but there are some, uh, very interesting tangents, shall we say. Perhaps a bit revealing of our old friend Ishmael? Who could say, I can only speculate.

Summary

Ishmael attempts to describe the tail of the sperm whale, but finds that his words are inadequate. First, he goes over its anatomical specifications and its shape, but then he attempts to describe its actions and gets lost in poetic comparisons.

The tail is simultaneously enormously powerful, and yet always moves with perfect grace and dexterity. It can be so crushingly strong and harsh as to destroy any ship built by man, or it can sweep across the surface of the water with the dainty precision of a lady’s fan. It is comparable to an elephant’s trunk in its capabilities, but lacks any prehensile capability, and is a thousand times stronger and more massive.

The tail is used for propulsion through the water, with the side fins being only used for steering the vast bulk of the animal. The graceful and reverential appearance of the flukes sticking straight into the air when a whale dives causes Ishmael to name it the most devout creature on Earth. It is also used by whales when they fight one another, they reserve their sharp teeth and enormous heads for their prey.

Analysis

Only in a book like this could we start off with a simple explanation of where the tail is on a whale’s body, and then end up talking about the specific reason that God is drawn especially buff in religious art. What a wild chapter this is.

Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it.

All of the virtues of the whale come together in its tail, it seems. It is massive, it is strong, it is powerful, and it is beautiful. And, on top of all that, it is deadly. Ishmael seems enamored with the tail, because it is a sort of singular point of contact between the whale and the rest of the world. It has no need for separate limbs or fiddly little fingers, it simply swings this one gigantic implement to make its singular impact.

Power is Beautiful

So, let’s address what I found the most interesting part of this chapter: that weird tangent where Ishmael starts talking about how power and beauty go hand in hand. Ishmael says that “Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it;” and goes on to prove his point by stating that:

  • The poet Goethe was discovered to be secretly muscular after his death.
  • God is always drawn as being very muscular in Italian renaissance paintings.
  • Jesus isn’t drawn buff, but that’s part of the peculiar nature of his power.

I really just have to share the full quote about Jesus, it just about knocked me out of my chair:

And whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled, hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings.

Like damn, there sure is a lot to unpack here. The contrast between the masculine, direct power of the Old Testament God, with the soft, feminine power and teachings of Jesus Christ. The fact that Ishmael noticed that God was always drawn buff while Jesus was a bit puny. The canny observation that Christianity is, indeed, more interested in enduring suffering passively than imposing oneself on the world.

Broly, clearly very beautiful in Ishmael’s eyes

There is a hint of a conflict here, which is embodied within the very tail of the whale that is under discussion. How does one resolve the pacifist teachings of Jesus with his true divine nature, and thus omnipotent power? Why, in the figure of the whale’s tail, the instrument which could destroy anything, but is often used for simple play or mundane travel.

An object that combines the perfect grace and irresistible power of the divine in one, the closes that one may come in the mundane, material world.

The Critical Flaw

However, the tail is not without its problems. In comparing it to the elephant’s trunk, Ishmael notes that the tail lacks any prehensile ability. That is, it cannot grasp anything, it can only bump or nudge, even if it can do so with perfect grace.

This one lacking ability is all that prevents the whale from being functionally invincible, as it means that it cannot pluck the harpoons and darts from its own hide. For all its unstoppable power, this flaw is what allows the whale to be hunted and killed for its oil.

The tail, then, is entirely outward-facing to the world. It can only inflict, it cannot care for the body of itself. It propels itself, it smashes its enemies, it sweeps and feels for information, it stands straight out to compel the whale into the depths of the ocean where it may feed. But it has no self-reflection, it cannot scratch its own itches, it cannot defend or heal.

The Ever Unknown

At the end of the chapter, Ishmael laments that he can never truly know the whale inside and out. All of his analysis has only been skin-deep, literally:

Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will.

This is after he notes that whales use their tails for some mysterious purposes when they are grouped together in pods, swirling them around in strange ways that must have some deeper significance. If Ishmael cannot even determine the true purpose of the whale’s tail, what hope does he have determining the use of any other part of its body?

After all, the tail is the most obvious part of the creature, and the most animated. If it still hides secrets there, through its mysterious actions on the surface of the ocean, much less down in the depths where it hunts, then he has no hope.

The whales may have a language all their own, communicating with their tails, and we would never have any idea. They keep their own counsel with the depths of the ocean. They are alien beings to us tiny humans, splashing about in the water with no regard for our curiosity.

This is part of the ongoing theme of whales as these strange, unknowable beings, akin to eldritch monsters of modern sci-fi imagination. There is something deeply intriguing about the idea of these enormous entities, larger than any other living thing on Earth, just being out there doing things without our knowledge. What are they capable of? What could their minds be like? There is no way of knowing.


Hoo, well, that was a pretty fun one. Much to think about with this chapter, I’m going to be ruminating on it as I continue on. It really does connect with many different themes we’ve been tracking, I’m sure, but it’s been too long since I last read this book, or wrote for this blog. A review is necessary.

Going forward, I’m hoping to get at least two chapters done per week, maybe three depending on how busy I am. Man, it really does feel good to be back at this, though. I missed just sitting down and considering literary and philosophical themes, not bothering with code or business metrics. It is necessary for me to stay connected to my passion to disconnect from that world for a while.

Until next time, shipmates!

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