BOOK I. (Folio), CHAPTER II. (Right Whale).- In one respect this is the most venerable of the leviathans, being the one first regularly hunted by man. It yields the article commonly known as whalebone or baleen; and the oil specially known as "whale oil," an inferior article in commerce. Among the fishermen, he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale; the Greenland Whale; the Black Whale; the Great Whale; the True Whale; the Right Whale. There is a deal of obscurity concerning the Identity of the species thus multitudinously baptized. What then is the whale, which I include in the second species of my Folios? It is the Great Mysticetus of the English naturalists; the Greenland Whale of the English whaleman; the Baliene Ordinaire of the French whalemen; the Growlands Walfish of the Swedes. It is the whale which for more than two centuries past has been hunted by the Dutch and English in the Arctic seas; it is the whale which the American fishermen have long pursued in the Indian ocean, on the Brazil Banks, on the Nor' West Coast, and various other parts of the world, designated by them Right Whale Cruising Grounds.
Some pretend to
see a difference between the Greenland whale of the English and the
right whale of the Americans. But they precisely agree in all their
grand features; nor has there yet been presented a single determinate
fact upon which to ground a radical distinction. It is by endless
subdivisions based upon the most inconclusive differences, that some
departments of natural history become so repellingly intricate. The
right whale will be elsewhere treated of at some length, with reference
to elucidating the sperm whale.
BOOK I. (Folio), CHAPTER III.
(Fin-Back).- Under this head I reckon a monster which, by the various
names of Fin-Back, Tall-Spout, and Long-John, has been seen almost in
every sea and is commonly the whale whose distant jet is so often
descried by passengers crossing the Atlantic, in the New York
packet-tracks. In the length he attains, and in his baleen, the Fin-back
resembles the right whale, but is of a less portly girth, and a lighter
color, approaching to olive. His great lips present a cable-like
aspect, formed by the intertwisting, slanting folds of large wrinkles.
His grand distinguishing feature, the fin, from which he derives his
name, is often a conspicuous object. This fin is some three or four feet
long, growing vertically from the hinder part of the back, of an
angular shape, and with a very sharp pointed end. Even if not the
slightest other part of the creature be visible, this isolated fin will,
at times, be seen plainly projecting from the surface. When the sea is
moderately calm, and slightly marked with spherical ripples, and this
gnomon-like fin stands up and casts shadows upon the wrinkled surface,
it may well be supposed that the watery circle surrounding it somewhat
resembles a dial, with its style and wavy hour-lines graved on it. On
that Ahaz-dial the shadow often goes back. The Fin-Back is not
gregarious. He seems a whale-hater, as some men are man-haters. Very
shy; always going solitary; unexpectedly rising to the surface in the
remotest and most sullen waters; his straight and single lofty jet
rising like a tall misanthropic spear upon a barren plain; gifted with
such wondrous power and velocity in swimming, as to defy all present
pursuit from man; this leviathan seems the banished and unconquerable
Cain of his race, bearing for his mark that style upon his back. From
having the baleen in his mouth, the Fin-Back is sometimes included with
the right whale, among a theoretic species denominated Whalebone whales,
that is, whales with baleen. Of these so-called Whalebone whales, there
would seem to be several varieties, most of which, however, are little
known. Broad-nosed whales and beaked whales; pike-headed whales; bunched
whales; under-jawed whales and rostrated whales, are the fisherman's
names for a few sorts.
In connexion with this appellative of
"Whalebone whales," it is of great importance to mention, that however
such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some
kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of
the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or
teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very
obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system
of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the
whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and
teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately
dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any record to what may be
the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars.
Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but
there the similitude ceases. Then this same humpbacked whale and the
Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the
similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above
mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular
combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an
irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed
upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has
But it may possibly be conceived that, in the internal
parts of the whale, in his anatomy- there, at least, we shall be able to
hit the right classification. Nay; what thing, for example, is there in
the Greenland whale's anatomy more striking than his baleen? Yet we
have seen that by his baleen it is impossible correctly to classify the
Greenland whale. And if you descend into the bowels of the various
leviathans, why there you will not find distinctions a fiftieth part as
available to the systematizer as those external ones already enumerated.
What then remains? nothing but to take hold of the whales bodily, in
their entire liberal volume, and boldly sort them that way. And this is
the Bibliographical system here adopted; and it is the only one that can
possibly succeed, for it alone is practicable. To proceed.
So continues the naming and categorizing of whales, however inaccurate it may be. Remember, Melville is working with a nineteenth-century understanding of the whale. Most of his information seems to come from observations by a few scientists and quite a few whalers like Ishmael and Starbuck and Ahab. Thus, the leviathan, as Melville calls it, is a commodity--valued more for its individual parts than for its whole. That is the way of the human world. Everything stickered and priced.
I have been thinking a lot about value recently. I have to say that most of the things I value--poetry, literature, art, writing--are not highly valued by people in the United States. In fact, unless your name is Stephen King or van Gogh, the Western world, dominated by capitalism and wealth, isn't really about rewarding artists and writers at all. (Keep in mind that Herman Melville struggled all of his life as a writer. Moby-Dick didn't really grow in reputation until well after his death. Vincent van Gogh, whose paintings now sell in the hundreds of millions of dollars, sold only one painting in his entire lifetime--400 Francs for "The Red Vineyard" a few months before he died.)
This is the sad reality for artists and writers now. Death is the only thing that seems to increase value and reputation. Granted, there are always stories of first-time writers who sell their novels for a million dollars. Andrew Wyeth had his first art exhibition in New York when he was only 18- or 19-years-old. (Wyeth came from a wealthy, artistic family, so he really doesn't count.) Overall, there is no real support system in my part of the world for any kind of artist.
This fact makes me sort of nostalgic for the days when artists and writers had wealthy patrons. Those lucky bastards didn't have to worry about how to support their families, feed their kids, or pay their bills. Prince Moneybanks would take care of those concerns. All the artist had to do was paint or write or compose. Every once in a while, maybe release a new painting or perform a new symphony or read a new sonnet sequence. That was the life of an artist with a sponsor.
Of course, those days are long gone, along with smallpox and the Black Death. Yes, there were trade-offs for living in those times. Health care wasn't always the greatest, and Pizza Hut didn't exist. I, myself, being an insulin-dependent diabetic, would have died at the age of 13, which is when I spent a week or so in the hospital in a coma. So, I guess I wouldn't have fared well in the Renaissance as an artist and writer.
Success is a matter of hard work AND luck now. While digital media has expanded the possibilities for artists, it hasn't expanded the rewards. If I like a song these days, I don't have to go out and buy a CD. All I have to do is Google it. If I like a book, I can get my hands on an electronic copy of it for just a couple dollars. Technology has not improved the plight of artists. It has improved the possibilities for thieves.
If I sound like a Luddite, I'm not. I love my laptop and iPhone just as much as the next person. One of main creative outlets is this blog. I enjoy modern conveniences a great deal. However, I am bemoaning the devaluation of the arts and artists, in which technology plays a huge role.
Whales are no longer hunted the way they were in the 1800s. For the most part, they are protected from the likes of Ahab and his crew. Harpoons are pretty much things of the past. Instead of being valued in part, whales are now valued as whole living creatures. Artists, on the other hand, have gone in the opposite direction--from being completely appreciated and valued to being fry cooks and contingent instructors.
As a poet, Saint Marty simply appreciates when he's valued for anything.