Wednesday, March 28, 2018

March 28: Sperm Whale Now Reigneth, Manuscript Process, Good Friends Who Are Good Readers

Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored harborless immensities. Ere that come to pass; ere the Pequod's weedy hull rolls side by side with the barnacled hulls of the leviathan; at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow.

It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you. Yet is it no easy task. The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed. Listen to what the best and latest authorities have laid down.

"No branch of Zoology is so much involved as that which is entitled Cetology," says Captain Scoresby, A.D. 1820.

"It is not my intention, were it in my power, to enter into the inquiry as to the true method of dividing the cetacea into groups and families.... Utter confusion exists among the historians of this animal" (sperm whale), says Surgeon Beale, A.D. 1839.

"Unfitness to pursue our research in the unfathomable waters." "Impenetrable veil covering our knowledge of the cetacea." "A field strewn with thorns." "All these incomplete indications but serve to torture us naturalists."

Thus speak of the whale, the great Cuvier, and John Hunter, and Lesson, those lights of zoology and anatomy. Nevertheless, though of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty; and so in some small degree, with cetology, or the science of whales. Many are the men, small and great, old and new, landsmen and seamen, who have at large or in little, written of the whale. Run over a few:- The Authors of the Bible; Aristotle; Pliny; Aldrovandi; Sir Thomas Browne; Gesner; Ray; Linnaeus; Rondeletius; Willoughby; Green; Artedi; Sibbald; Brisson; Marten; Lacepede; Bonneterre; Desmarest; Baron Cuvier; Frederick Cuvier; John Hunter; Owen; Scoresby; Beale; Bennett; J. Ross Browne; the Author of Miriam Coffin; Olmstead; and the Rev. T. Cheever. But to what ultimate generalizing purpose all these have written, the above cited extracts will show.

Of the names in this list of whale authors only those following Owen ever saw living whales; and but one of them was a real professional harpooneer and whaleman. I mean Captain Scoresby. On the separate subject of the Greenland or right-whale, he is the best existing authority. But Scoresby knew nothing and says nothing of the great sperm whale, compared with which the Greenland whale is almost unworthy mentioning. And here be it said, that the Greenland whale is an usurper upon the throne of the seas. He is not even by any means the largest of the whales. Yet, owing to the long priority of his claims, and the profound ignorance which till some seventy years back, invested the then fabulous or utterly unknown sperm-whale, and which ignorance to this present day still reigns in all but some few scientific retreats and whale-ports; this usurpation has been every way complete. Reference to nearly all the leviathanic allusions in the great poets of past days, will satisfy you that the Greenland whale, without one rival, was to them the monarch of the seas. But the time has at last come for a new proclamation. This is Charing Cross; hear ye! good people all,- the Greenland whale is deposed,- the great sperm whale now reigneth!

About a third of the way into the novel, Melville pauses to provide a chapter titled "Cetology"--the science of whales.  Keep in mind that the science that he includes is pushing 200 years of age.  It is by no means current.  Also keep in mind that Melville is trying to tell a story and anything that he chooses to include is slave to that narrative.  Thus, "the great sperm whale reigneth" as the lord of the seas.  Large and majestic and terrifying.

I am currently revising a manuscript of essays that I have compiled.  I have a good friend reading the book and giving me feedback.  He's a person whose eyes and ears I trust.  Thankfully, he isn't finding a whole lot wrong with what I've written.  I have worked and reworked most of the essays many times over several years.  Most of my usual readers and editors have read and reread these things several times.  In short, they are sick of them.  That's why I asked another good friend, with fresh eyes, to read them over for me and offer advice.

In some ways, this point in the manuscript process is my favorite.  I find out what is seaworthy and what is taking on water.  I love patching the holes of the leaky boats.  (I know, I know.  I'm pushing this sailing metaphor way too far.)  Today, my friend pointed out quite a few leaks in one of the essays.  And tonight, I plan to sit down and give it a look.  I need to save this piece.  It's one of my favorites.  However, I'm not quite sure what it needs.  Perhaps an entire section on the science of whales?

Let me use a Melville-inspired metaphor:  I am confident that I can save this beached whale.  At the moment it's rolling in the surf on the shore, collecting sand and gazing forlornly at the stars and ocean with great watery eyes.  It needs to be slowly dragged back into the waves where it can float and find its flukes and fins again.

I am learning to admire something about Moby-Dick that I hadn't before.  I am really jazzing on Melville's experimentation, how he will interrupt the entire novel to wax eloquent for a few pages on the sperm whale.  He breaks the rules in order to create something completely new.  He is doing postmodernism before the word "postmodernism" existed.  That is amazing to me.

Melville sort of gives me permission to try something new.  Something different.  Weird, maybe.  That's the kind of stuff that excites me as a reader and writer.  That's what I'm going to do tonight as I go back to revise my little beached boat.  I'm going to follow Toni Morrison's advice:  "If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

Tonight, I'm going to revise that essay into something I would want to read.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for good friends who are good readers.

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