Monday, January 21, 2013

Moby-Dick and science

by Salman Hameed

A confession first. No, I have not read Moby-Dick. I really want to. In fact, this past summer it was on my reading list and I even bought a new copy, but I didn't get a chance to read it. Next summer, I promise.

But apparently, I'm not the only one. Here is a fantastic project, Moby-Dick Big Read, that brought together artists, scientists, musicians, writers, academics to read Moby-Dick. The motivation was that this is the "great unread American novel". As a result of the project, you can now listen to the whole book here.

But here is a fascinating article in last week's Nature about the way science inspired Herman Melville in writing Moby-Dick (you may need subscription to access the full article):

More than a century and a half after it was published, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick remains a key cultural bridge between human history and natural history — expressed in the vast and ominous shape of the whale. This epic novel is a laboratory of literature, created in an age before art and science became strictly demarcated. 
Melville wrote his book — which drew on his own youthful experiences on a whaling ship — as a tribute to the first period of modern whaling in the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, which he claimed to be worth US$7 million a year to the fledgling United States. At the same time, science was undergoing a sea change as the gentleman scientists and polymaths of the century's start gave way to more specialized and professionalized successors. 
Melville's attitude to, and use of, science in Moby-Dick was in line with the eclectic ethos of that period. Drawing on the work of luminaries such as William Scoresby, Thomas Beale, Georges Cuvier and Louis Agassiz, Melville used contemporary knowledge of natural history — or the lack of it — to his own ends. 
Seventeen of the book's 135 chapters focus on whale anatomy or behaviour. Titles include 'The Sperm Whale's Head — Contrasted View' and 'The Right Whale's Head — Contrasted View'; such sections lay out the whales' physical structure with a wry mixture of known facts and arch analogy. (In a witty 2011 essay, marine biologist Harold Morowitz speculates on Melville as a “cetacean gastroenterologist or proctologist”.) Melville's must also be the first, and perhaps last, work of literature to feature a chapter on zooplankton. 
In the famous Chapter 32, 'Cetology', Melville attempts to categorize species of whale as he would catalogue his library, in 'folios'. It was a playful gesture that reflected the fluid classification of cetacean species at the time.
Also, the characters embody the change in thinking:
Of course, the greatest scientific figure of the age hovers over Melville. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, eight years after Moby-Dick came out. Melville's sole mention of Darwin is a quote — from Darwin's Voyage of a Naturalist (sic) — in the extracts at the start of Moby-Dick. He had read Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (1839) in preparation for his own 1854 work, The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles — as the Galapagos were then known. Melville visited the islands in 1841, six years after Darwin's fateful landing. Darwin's recorded observation of marine iguanas as “imps of darkness” seemed to set the tone for Melville's metaphoric view of the Galapagos, which he saw as “five-and-twenty heaps of cinders ... In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist”. 
Such dark analogies are in line with a man who declared all human science to be “but a passing fable” — and yet created a fable of his own. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is a perpetually sceptical and questioning figure, a man attuned to science — a stark contrast to the vengeful Ahab and his pursuit of the whale that “dismasted” him. As the critic Eric Wilson, in his essay 'Melville, Darwin, and the Great Chain of Being', notes, a “primary subtext of Melville's novel is the passing of pre-Darwinian, anthropocentric thought, espoused by Ahab, and the inauguration of a version of Darwin's more ecological evolution, proffered by Ishmael”. 
Melville lived through that process. US Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature (1836), with its declaration of moral law at the heart of the cosmos, was the new philosophy of Melville's youth. But as biographer Andrew Delbanco points out, Melville read A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), William Dean Howells's Darwinian-inflected view of society. Moby-Dick itself has been seen as a parody of the Transcendentalists' 'back-to-nature' excesses. But Melville does more than lambast philosophy or use science as interior decoration. He achieved a marvellous synthesis of his own poetic and philosophical impulse with the increasingly science-aware ethos of his age. And he did so with a sense of black humour that transcended Transcendentalism to prove that nature — and its science — was much stranger and more wonderful than they had imagined.
Read the full article here. And in case you are interested in the evolution of whales, you can find some information here, including that of Pakicetus.


smartalek said...

I truly do not get why so many [otherwise] intelligent people get so exercised -- intimidated or horrified, even -- at the prospect of engaging Moby Dick.
There is nothing in the language, plotting, style, or issues entertained that your average high-school senior (US version -- and we are NOT known for the severity of our secondary education) couldn't handle.
The diction and sentence structure are far closer to ours than they are to, say, Shakespeare's. The themes are (to me, at least) more accessible and meaningful than those of the Brontes or Austen. And it's fun -- the 19th century's version of "Jaws," but with more convincing special effects.
You don't have to set aside a summer for it, either. An hour or less a night, and you'll be through it in no time.

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