I have given no small attention to that not unvexed subject, the skin of the whale. I have had controversies about it with experienced whalemen afloat, and learned naturalists ashore. My original opinion remains unchanged; but it is only an opinion.
The question is,
what and where is the skin of the whale. Already you know what his
blubber is. That blubber is something of the consistence of firm,
close-grained beef, but tougher, more elastic and compact, and ranges
from eight or ten to twelve and fifteen inches in thickness.
however preposterous it may at first seem to talk of any creature's skin
as being of that sort of consistence and thickness, yet in point of
fact these are no arguments against such a presumption; because you
cannot raise any other dense enveloping layer from the whale's body but
that same blubber; and the outermost enveloping layer of any animal, if
reasonably dense, what can that be but the skin? True, from the unmarred
dead body of the whale, you may scrape off with your hand an infinitely
thin, transparent substance, somewhat resembling the thinnest shreds of
isinglass, only it is almost as flexible and soft as satin; that is,
previous to being dried, when it not only contracts and thickens, but
becomes rather hard and brittle. I have several such dried bits, which I
use for marks in my whale-books. It is transparent, as I said before;
and being laid upon the printed page, I have sometimes pleased myself
with fancying it exerted a magnifying influence. At any rate, it is
pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles, as you may
say. But what I am driving at here is this. That same infinitely thin,
isinglass substance, which, I admit, invests the entire body of the
whale, is not so much to be regarded as the skin of the creature, as the
skin of the skin, so to speak; for it were simply ridiculous to say,
that the proper skin of the tremendous whale is thinner and more tender
than the skin of a new-born child. But no more of this.
the blubber to be the skin of the whale; then, when this skin, as in the
case of a very large Sperm Whale, will yield the bulk of one hundred
barrels of oil; and, when it is considered that, in quantity, or rather
weight, that oil, in its expressed state, is only three fourths, and not
the entire substance of the coat; some idea may hence be had of the
enormousness of that animated mass, a mere part of whose mere integument
yields such a lake of liquid as that. Reckoning ten barrels to the ton,
you have ten tons for the net weight of only three quarters of the
stuff of the whale's skin.
In life, the visible surface of the
Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents.
invariably it is all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with
numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the
finest Italian line engravings. But these marks do not seem to be
impressed upon the isinglass substance above mentioned, but seem to be
seen through it, as if they were engraved upon the body itself. Nor is
this all. In some instances, to the quick, observant eye, those linear
marks, as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other
delineations. These are hieroglyphical; that is, if you call those
mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids hieroglyphics, then that is
the proper word to use in the present connexion. By my retentive memory
of the hieroglyphics upon one Sperm Whale in particular, I was much
struck with a plate representing the old Indian characters chiselled on
the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi.
Like those mystic rocks, too, the mystic-marked whale remains
undecipherable. This allusion to the Indian rocks reminds me of another
thing. Besides all the other phenomena which the exterior of the Sperm
Whale presents, he not seldom displays the back, and more especially his
flanks, effaced in great part of the regular linear appearance, by
reason of numerous rude scratches, altogether of an irregular, random
aspect. I should say that those New England rocks on the seacoast, which
Agassiz imagines to bear the marks of violent scraping contact with
vast floating icebergs- I should say, that those rocks must not a little
resemble the Sperm Whale in this particular. It also seems to me that
such scratches in the whale are probably made by hostile contact with
other whales; for I have most remarked them in the large, full-grown
bulls of the species.
A word or two more concerning this matter of
the skin or blubber of the whale. It has already been said, that it is
stript from him in long pieces, called blanket-pieces. Like most
sea-terms, this one is very happy and significant. For the whale is
indeed wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or,
still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his
extremity. It is by reason of this cosy blanketing of his body, that the
whale is enabled to keep himself comfortable in all weathers, in all
seas, times, and tides. What would become of a Greenland whale, say, in
those shuddering, icy seas of the North, if unsupplied with his cosy
surtout? True, other fish are found exceedingly brisk in those
Hyperborean waters; but these, be it observed, are your cold-blooded,
lungless fish, whose very bellies are refrigerators; creatures, that
warm themselves under the lee of an iceberg, as a traveller in winter
would bask before an inn fire; whereas, like man, the whale has lungs
and warm blood. Freeze his blood, and he dies. How wonderful is it then-
except after explanation- that this great monster, to whom corporeal
warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should
be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters!
where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months
afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a
fly is found glued in amber. But more surprising is it to know, as has
been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer
than that of a Borneo negro in summer.
It does seem to me, that
herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the
rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior
spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do
thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world
without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the
Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale,
retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.
easy and how hopeless to teach these fine things! Of erections, how few
are domed like St. Peter's! of creatures, how few vast as the whale!
Often, after I read a chapter of Moby-Dick for my daily blog post, I ask myself, "What is this all about? What does it boil down to?" Is it about loss? Or obsession? Of the natural world? Whale science or the science of whaling? Sometimes, the answer comes to me easily. Other times, it's more elusive, like the white whale.
Tonight, it's all about skin and blood, how the warm-blooded sperm whale can survive in arctic waters. And how the whale and human beings are somehow connected. But the whale is something to be admired, even emulated. As Melville writes, the whale lives "in the world without being of it."
That's a difficult thing to do. Every day, I find myself being sucked into the daily grind of worry that plagues humanity. I worry about money and food and mental illness. Today, I'm worrying about the retirement of a Supreme Court Justice in the United States. Which leads me to worrying about the Republicans in Congress and the person currently sitting in the Oval Office. I worry that my kids are going to be perpetually chained to struggle and debt and poverty.
Now, I know that worry is a product of fear, and I know fear is the exact opposite of faith. As a Christian, I'm supposed to rely on faith, or, as Melville puts it, being in this world without being of it. Being a part of life without being swallowed by it. I DO have faith. I believe that God isn't going to let intolerance and hate and bigotry win this battle, but it's difficult to see children torn away from parents, lawmakers solving gun violence with thoughts and prayers, and not wade into the fray swinging fists.
I'm not saying that I'm just going to sit back and watch my country be transformed into a fascist state. There is power in prayer. But sometimes prayer needs to be coupled with action. I'm not swords and guns. Gandhi toppled the British Empire by marching to the sea for salt. Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and simply spoke about a dream he had. Jesus Christ told his followers to love their enemies.
All of those people I just named were in this world, but not of it. Their visions were vast, like the body of a whale in the Pacific.
Saint Marty is thankful tonight for love and resistance.