With every new chapter of Howard Vincent’s scholarly critique of Moby-Dick, I become more in awe of Herman Melville‘s masterpiece. In the chapter “The Cetological Center”, Vincent suggests a philosophical argument in Melville’s description of Right whales and Sperm whales.
As Ahab and Fedallah are examining their recent captures of a Right Whale, hanging on the larboard, and a Sperm Whale, starboard, Melville observes:”So, when on one side you hoist in Locke’s head , you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant’s…”
Vincent suggests this interpretation of Melville’s was founded on the nationalistic bent of Locke’s social contract on which our country was founded. So, why the Right Whale? Is it because he is more social of the two? How is he more utilitarian than the Sperm Whale?
He then suggests that the Sperm Whale is from Kant’s more individualistic, chronometrical concept; as he is more apt to travel alone. How is the Sperm Whale an idealist? How is the grotesque symbol of severed whale heads hanging on an old whaleship bring to mind the philosophers of old? As Queequeg claims, “float light and right”.
[This image was taken from Beale’s National History. As Melville did not have the luxury of photographs, he referenced these images for his whaling story.]
In the sub-titled chapter “Craniological and Spinal Considerations Touching Whales”, Melville writes eight sections on just the cranial features of the Right Whales and Sperm Whales. His unique metaphysical theme is mixed with physical facts, humor, satire, anatomy, zoology, whaling lore and the Platonic concept of the “One”. Who does that? How does a writer get away with a 1,000 plus page tome of the conquest of a cetacean? According to Vincent, it is all related to Ahab’s search for the White Whale.
In addition to Locke and Kant, Melville also shows the Platonian theme in the Right Whales and Sperm Whales. According to Merton Sealts, Melville read much of ancient philosophy and showed an association in his work many times to Plato. Melville writes, “This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian…”.
Vincent concludes this argument with the suggestion that all the way through Moby-Dick, the Sperm Whale, as Platonic, may have been the symbol of the Absolute, or the All. Melville states that,”Mankind should not know all; he needs the protection of an illusion.”
As I reflected on Vincent’s argument, I looked back on my recent experience of whale watching off the coast of Cape Cod. For the four hour voyage, we never knew when, where or if these whales would surface. This was part of the magic: the surprise, the anticipation of what was to come. One minute you are staring at an expanse of calm ocean waters, transfixed to the horizon hoping to catch that first peripheral glance of the whale surfacing to catch his breath. Then in an instant, these mammoth behemoths burst skyward, their massive bodies propelling out of the water. And then we were right back to the illusion; not knowing . We saw several different species of whales that day: Sperm, Right, and Humpback. No White, unfortunately as they have become quite rare. As I watched these whales surface in their playful manner, I never imagined them as different philosophers, as Melville did. I only focused on the pleasure they brought me.
I love this idea that God’s creation has more purpose than just for our pleasure. I love that every different species of whale is as distinct as we are.
Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com).