In connexion with the monstrous pictures of whales, I am strongly tempted here to enter upon those still more monstrous stories of them which are to be found in certain books, both ancient and modern, especially in Pliny, Purchas, Hackluyt, Harris, Cuvier, &c. But I pass that matter by.
I know of only four published outlines of the
great Sperm Whale; Colnett's, Huggins's, Frederick Cuvier's, and
Beale's. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred
to. Huggins's is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale's is
the best. All Beale's drawings of this whale are good, excepting the
middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes,
capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm
Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of
some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general
effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty
correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his
Of the Right Whale, the best outline pictures are in
Scoresby; but they are drawn on too small a scale to convey a desirable
impression. He has but one picture of whaling scenes, and this is a sad
deficiency, because it is by such pictures only, when at all well done,
that you can derive anything like a truthful idea of the living whale
as seen by his living hunters.
But, taken for all in all, by far
the finest, though in some details not the most correct, presentations
of whales and whaling scenes to be anywhere found, are two large French
engravings, well executed, and taken from paintings by one Garnery.
Respectively, they represent attacks on the Sperm and Right Whale. In
the first engraving a noble Sperm Whale is depicted in full majesty of
might, just risen beneath the boat from the profundities of the ocean,
and bearing high in the. air upon his back the terrific wreck of the
stoven planks. The prow of the boat is partially unbroken, and is drawn
just balancing upon the monster's spine; and standing in that prow, for
that one single incomputable flash of time, you behold an oarsman, half
shrouded by the incensed boiling spout of the whale, and in the act of
leaping, as if from a precipice. The action of the whole thing is
wonderfully good and true. The half-emptied line-tub floats on the
whitened sea; the wooden poles of the spilled harpoons obliquely bob in
it; the heads of the swimming crew are scattered about the whale in
contrasting expressions of affright; while in the black stormy distance
the ship is bearing down upon the scene. Serious fault might be found
with the anatomical details of this whale, but let that pass; since, for
the life of me, I could not draw so good a one.
In the second
engraving, the boat is in the act of drawing alongside the barnacled
flank of a large running Right Whale, that rolls his black weedy bulk in
the sea like some mossy rock-slide from the Patagonian cliffs. His jets
are erect, full, and black like soot; so that from so abounding a smoke
in the chimney, you would think there must be a brave supper cooking in
the great bowels below. Sea fowls are pecking at the small crabs,
shell-fish, and other sea candies and maccaroni, which the Right Whale
sometimes carries on his pestilent back. And all the while the
thick-lipped leviathan is rushing through the deep, leaving tons of
tumultuous white curds in his wake, and causing the slight boat to rock
in the swells like a skiff caught nigh the paddle-wheels of an ocean
steamer. Thus, the fore-ground is all raging commotion; but behind, in
admirable artistic contrast, is the glassy level of a sea becalmed, the
drooping unstarched sails of the powerless ship, and the inert mass of a
dead whale, a conquered fortress, with the flag of capture lazily
hanging from the inserted into his spout-hole.
Who Garnery the
painter is, or was, I know not. But my life for it he was either
practically conversant with his subject, or else marvellously tutored by
some experienced whaleman. The French are the lads for painting action.
Go and gaze upon all the paintings of Europe, and where will you find
such a gallery of living and breathing commotion on canvas, as in that
triumphal hall at Versailles; where the beholder fights his way,
pell-mell, through the consecutive great battles of France; where every
sword seems a flash of the Northern Lights, and the successive armed
kings and Emperors dash by, like a charge of crowned centaurs? Not
wholly unworthy of a place in that gallery, are these sea battle-pieces
The natural aptitude of the French for seizing the
picturesqueness of things seems to be peculiarly evinced in what
paintings and engravings they have of their whaling scenes. With not one
tenth of England's experience in the fishery, and not the thousandth
part of that of the Americans, they have nevertheless furnished both
nations with the only finished sketches at all capable of conveying the
real spirit of the whale hunt. For the most part, the English and
American whale draughtsmen seem entirely content with presenting the
mechanical outline of things, such as the vacant profile of the whale;
which, so far as picturesqueness of effect is concerned, is about
tantamount to sketching the profile of a pyramid. Even Scoresby, the
justly renowned Right whaleman, after giving us a stiff full length of
the Greenland whale, and three or four delicate miniatures of narwhales
and porpoises, treats us to a series of classical engravings of boat
hooks, chopping knives, and grapnels; and with the microscopic diligence
of a Leuwenhoeck submits to the inspection of a shivering world
ninety-six fac-similes of magnified Arctic snow crystals. I mean no
disparagement to the excellent voyager (I honor him for a veteran), but
in so important a matter it was certainly an oversight not to have
procured for every crystal a sworn affidavit taken before a Greenland
Justice of the Peace.
In addition to those fine engravings from
Garnery, there are two other French engravings worthy of note, by some
one who subscribes himself "H. Durand." One of them, though not
precisely adapted to our present purpose, nevertheless deserves mention
on other accounts. It is a quiet noon-scene among the isles of the
Pacific; a French whaler anchored, inshore, in a calm, and lazily taking
water on board; the loosened sails of the ship, and the long leaves of
the palms in the background, both drooping together in the breezeless
air. The effect is very fine, when considered with reference to its
presenting the hardy fishermen under one of their few aspects of
oriental repose. The other engraving is quite a different affair: the
ship hove-to upon the open sea, and in the very heart of the Leviathanic
life, with a Right Whale alongside; the vessel (in the act of
cutting-in) hove over to the monster as if to a quay; and a boat,
hurriedly pushing off from this scene of activity, is about giving chase
to whales in the distance. The harpoons and lances lie levelled for
use; three oarsmen are just setting the mast in its hole; while from a
sudden roll of the ship, the little craft stands half-erect out of the
water, like a rearing horse. From that ship, the smoke of the torments
of the boiling whale is going up like the smoke over a village of
smithies; and to windward, a black cloud, rising up with earnest of
squalls and rains, seems to quicken the activity of the excited seamen.
Another chapter of digression. Melville continues his examination of renderings of whales by various artists, this time focusing on a French painter named Garnery who almost gets it right, according to narrator Ishmael. Keep in mind, not a lot of people had actually seen a whale up-close-and-personal at the time Melville wrote the book, so any author or artist was working on secondhand information, at best, in any depiction of any kind of sea creature. That's why there's so much inaccuracy. Herman Melville, who was a sailor and, for a short time, whaler, had a little experience to back up his little whale tale. That's why Moby-Dick is a cut above the rest.
Melville wrote a lot about the sea. Of course, this fact reflects the advice all writers receive in workshops: write what you know. Melville knew about sailing and whaling, so he wrote about them. Me? I know about the Upper Peninsula, mental illness, nature (to some extent), religion, raising kids (to some lesser extent), and being in love. Therefore, these last couple years, I've been writing about Bigfoot.
At a workshop a couple days ago, a poet friend of mind said that she pictures my Bigfoot as "a wild prophet who knows about everything." I kind of like that description. Of course, much like the sperm whale in Melville's time, Bigfoot is still a mythical figure in the world. Not taken very seriously by scientists or conservationists or anthropologists. So, he (and his family) remain on the edges of human knowledge, hiding in the treeline. That seems pretty appropriate.
I am not going to talk about the existence or nonexistence of Bigfoot in this post. In some way, I hope that Bigfoot remains a myth. There's not a whole lot of that left in the universe. When something unknown is encountered these days, humankind's first response is generally to autopsy it--take it apart in order to understand it. No mystery is allowed to exist in the digital age where all information is just a Google away.
I guess Bigfoot is my Moby Dick. I've read about him. Watched videos. Listened to podcasts. Studied photos. Sifted through accounts of supposed encounters with the hairy guy. I find some of this material compelling and some of it questionable. If Bigfoot is real, I think scientists are being incredibly shortsighted, if not downright arrogant, by not pursuing a methodical investigation of the subject. If Bigfoot isn't real, then I think it's one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated--spanning centuries, cultures, countries, and continents.
As I said, I've not made up my mind on Bigfoot. I revel in what John Keats referred to as Negative Capability. In Keats' own words, "“At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement,
especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so
enormously . . . I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is
capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any
irritable reaching after fact and reason.” That's where I am at this moment in time. I don't really need to know whether Bigfoot is real or not. That's not my thing.
My thing is letting Bigfoot be Bigfoot--a large, dark, hairy uncertainty living in the mountains and forests of possibility. That, to me, is more exciting than finding out that Bigfoot is an undiscovered primate or a practical-joking family from Minnesota. By doing this, I can let him be anything. Prophet. Renegade. Missing Link. Heartbroken father. Lovesick mate. Philosopher. Environmentalist. Social activist. Poet.
Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for Negative Capability.