Crossing the deck, let us now have a good long look at the the Right Whale's head.
in general shape the noble Sperm Whale's head may be compared to a
Roman war-chariot (especially in front, where it is so broadly rounded);
so, at a broad view, the Right Whale's head bears a rather inelegant
resemblance to a gigantic galliot-toed shoe. Two hundred years ago an
old Dutch voyager likened its shape to that of a shoemaker's last. And
in this same last or shoe, that old woman of the nursery tale with the
swarming brood, might very comfortably be lodged, she and all her
But as you come nearer to this great head it begins to
assume different aspects, according to your point of view. If you stand
on its summit and look at these two f-shaped spout-holes, you would take
the whole head for an enormous bass viol, and these spiracles, the
apertures in its soundingboard. Then, again, if you fix your eye upon
this strange, crested, comblike incrustation on the top of the mass-
this green, barnacled thing, which the Greenlanders call the "crown,"
and the Southern fishers the "bonnet" of the Right Whale; fixing your
eyes solely on this, you would take the head for the trunk of some huge
oak, with a bird's nest in its crotch. At any rate, when you watch those
live crabs that nestle here on this bonnet, such an idea will be almost
sure to occur to you; unless, indeed, your fancy has been fixed by the
technical term "crown" also bestowed upon it; in which case you will
take great interest in thinking how this mighty monster is actually a
diademed king of the sea, whose green crown has been put together for
him in this marvellous manner. But if this whale be a king, he is a very
sulky looking fellow to grace a diadem. Look at that hanging lower lip!
what a huge sulk and pout is there! a sulk and pout, by carpenter's
measurement, about twenty feet long and five feet deep; a sulk and pout
that will yield you some 500 gallons of oil and more.
pity, now, that this unfortunate whale should be hare-lipped. The
fissure is about a foot across. Probably the mother during an important
interval was sailing down the Peruvian coast, when earthquakes caused
the beach to gape. Over this lip, as over a slippery threshold, we now
slide into the mouth. Upon my word were I at Mackinaw, I should take
this to be the inside of an Indian wigwam. Good Lord! is this the road
that Jonah went? The roof is about twelve feet high, and runs to a
pretty sharp angle, as if there were a regular ridge-pole there; while
these ribbed, arched, hairy sides, present us with those wondrous, half
vertical, scimitar-shaped slats of whalebone, say three hundred on a
side, which depending from the upper part of the head or crown bone,
form those Venetian blinds which have elsewhere been cursorily
mentioned. The edges of these bones are fringed with hairy fibres,
through which the Right Whale strains the water, and in whose
intricacies he retains the small fish, when openmouthed he goes through
the seas of brit in feeding time. In the central blinds of bone, as they
stand in their natural order, there are certain curious marks, curves,
hollows, and ridges, whereby some whalemen calculate the creature's age,
as the age of an oak by its circular rings. Though the certainty of
this criterion is far from demonstrable, yet it has the savor of
analogical probability. At any rate, if we yield to it, we must grant a
far greater age to the Right Whale than at first glance will seem
In old times, there seem to have prevailed the most
curious fancies concerning these blinds. One voyager in Purchas calls
them the wondrous "whiskers" inside of the whale's mouth;* another,
"hogs' bristles"; a third old gentleman in Hackluyt uses the following
elegant language: "There are about two hundred and fifty fins growing on
each side of his upper chop, which arch over his tongue on each side of
*This reminds us that the Right Whale really has a
sort of whisker, or rather a moustache, consisting of a few scattered
white hairs on the upper part of the outer end of the lower jaw.
Sometimes these tufts impart a rather brigandish expression to his
otherwise solemn countenance.
As every one knows, these same
"hogs' bristles," "fins," "whiskers," "blinds," or whatever you please,
furnish to the ladies their busks and other stiffening contrivances. But
in this particular, the demand has long been on the decline. It was in
Queen Anne's time that the bone was in its glory, the farthingale being
then all the fashion. And as those ancient dames moved about gaily,
though in the jaws of the whale, as you may say; even so, in a shower,
with the like thoughtlessness, do we nowadays fly under the same jaws
for protection; the umbrella being a tent spread over the same bone.
now forget all about blinds and whiskers for a moment, and, standing in
the Right Whale's mouth, look around you afresh. Seeing all these
colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you
were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand
pipes? For a carpet to the organ we have a rug of the softest Turkey-
the tongue, which is glued, as it were, to the floor of the mouth. It is
very fat and tender, and apt to tear in pieces in hoisting it on deck.
This particular tongue now before us; at a passing glance I should say
it was a six-barreler; that is, it will yield you about that amount of
Ere this, you must have plainly seen the truth of what I
started with- that the Sperm Whale and the Right Whale have almost
entirely different heads. To sum up, then: in the Right Whale's there is
no great well of sperm; no ivory teeth at all; no long, slender
mandible of a lower jaw, like the Sperm Whale's. Nor in the Sperm Whale
are there any of those blinds of bone; no huge lower lip; and scarcely
anything of a tongue. Again, the Right Whale has two external
spout-holes, the Sperm Whale only one.
Look your last now, on
these venerable hooded heads, while they yet lie together; for one will
soon sink, unrecorded, in the sea; the other will not be very long in
Can you catch the expression of the Sperm Whale's
there? It is the same he died with, only some of the longer wrinkles in
the forehead seem now faded away. I think his broad brow to be full of a
prairie-like placidity, born of a speculative indifference as to death.
But mark the other head's expression. See that amazing lower lip,
pressed by accident against the vessel's side, so as firmly to embrace
the jaw. Does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical
resolution facing death? This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic;
the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his
Right Whale versus Sperm Whale. I especially enjoy the final passages in this chapter, where Melville notes that the Right Whale has the expression of a Stoic, while the Sperm Whale is a follower of Plato. I don't think that he's truly investing either whale with philosophical schools of thought. No, I think he's using the terms more generally. The Right Whale's face, to Melville, seems devoid of strong emotion. The Sperm Whale, on the other hand, is invested with stronger feeling, reaching toward some higher good, so to speak.
I know. That's pretty heavy stuff after a long day, but it sort of touches upon my frame of mind this evening. Yesterday, I was forced to confront the fact that my 17-year-old daughter is not that interested in hanging out with her family as much anymore. Last night, at the community fireworks, she spent the night wandering around with her boyfriend and a pack of their friends. I only saw her from a distance, passing by, ignoring us.
I know this is normal teenage behavior. My daughter is trying to establish herself as a person, independent of me or her mother. Gone are the days when she was content to sit on a blanket with us, listen to my jokes, and light sparklers. She was having fun, enjoying her freedom.
The problem came at dusk, when the fireworks started flying. I wanted my daughter to come back to us to watch the show. She was with her friends, having a good time. I got angry. Texted her that she needed to come back immediately or she wouldn't be able to go anywhere with her friends for a long time. She came storming back to our blanket, flung herself on the ground, with her back to me. We both watched the fireworks, but I don't think either of us enjoyed them.
In retrospect, I now realize that I was being unreasonable. She was doing what every every child has to do at some time: pull away from her parents. However, in the heat of the moment, I wasn't able to be Stoic or Platonic in my thought process. I was just pissed and maybe a little sad. I don't think there's been a single Independence Day where she hasn't watched the fireworks with me.
Well, here I sit a day later. The anger is gone. What I am left with this evening is a lot of sadness. It's irrational for me to feel like this. However, in some way, I feel like I lost a little part of my daughter last night. I got a taste of her future--high school graduation, college, jobs, relationships. All of the stuff that doesn't really include me a whole lot. I didn't like it.
So, excuse me this evening if I'm a little blue. I will be better tomorrow, once I get more distance and perspective from yesterday. I think that, like Melville, I'm playing a comparison game: my little, ponytailed girl versus my almost adult daughter.
Saint Marty is thankful tonight to be a part of his daughter's life.