Sunday, March 20, 2016

Moby Dick Ch. 75: The Right 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.

In this chapter, Ishmael examines the Right Whale’s decapitated head, and finds that it looks different depending on the angle at which you view it.  From one point-of-view, it looks like a giant shoe; from another, a bass viola; and from yet another, a giant oak.  One of the central concerns of the novel Moby Dick is perception—how it is colored and affected by point-of-view and prejudice.  This chapter seems to be hi-lighting this problem, as well as humans’ tendency to anthropomorphize nature; that is, to falsely attribute human qualities to non-human things, like whales.  In a humorous closing section to the chapter, Ishmael does some anthropomorphizing.  He speculates on the different whales’ philosophical outlooks, based on their facial expressions:

“I think his (the Sperm Whale’s) broad brow to be full of a prairie-like placidity born of a speculative indifference as to death.  But mark the other (the Right Whale’s) 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 in 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 latter years.”  This is funny because whales cannot read books of human philosophy.

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