Sunday, March 20, 2016

Moby Dick Ch. 74: The Sperm-Whale’s Head—Contrasted View

The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.

At this point in the story, there are two decapitated whale heads hanging over opposite sides of the Pequod—a Sperm Whale head and a Right Whale head.  Ishmael takes this opportunity to do some practical cetology, by describing and contrasting the whales’ heads.  His first observation is that “there is a certain mathematical symmetry in the Sperm Whale’s which the Right Whale’s sadly lacks.”  Ishmael seems generally more impressed with the Sperm Whale.

Then he examines the eyes of the two whales, and finds them surprisingly similar—very tiny and (unlike humans) placed on either side of their gigantic heads.  Ishmael marvels at how different a whale’s perception must be, compared to a human’s: “The whale, therefore, must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side; while all between must be profound nothingness to him…Is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine to distinct prospects?…If he can, then it is as marvelous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid.”

Likewise, Ishmael marvels at how tiny, almost invisible, are the whales’ ears.  “Is it not curious,” he thinks, “that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s?”  Ultimately, the jaws of the whales are removed by the sailors and the teeth extracted, to be carved into all manner of objects and sculptures by the sailors.

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