Chapters

76 The Battering Ram CHAPTER 76 THE BATTERING-RAM. Ere quitting, for the nonce, the Sperm Whale’s head, I would have you, as a sensible physiologist, simply—particularly remark its front aspect, in all its compacted collectedness. I would have you investigate it now with the sole view of forming to yourself some unexaggerated, intelligent estimate of whatever battering-ram powerbattering-ram power: The comparison of the whale's head to a battering ram comes from Henry T. Cheever, The Whale and His Captors. Ishmael argues that as "appalling" as it may seem, whales ramming and sinking ships are "true events," and the "physiology" of the whale's head establishes its "power" to do so. See Ch. 45 for Melville's use of the sensational sinking of the Essex. See also his November 7, 1851 letter to Evert Duyckinck, written a week before the American publication of Moby-Dick, that mentions news reports of a whale’s attack on the Ann Alexander; the whaler sank, but the crew was saved (NN Correspondence 208–10). may be lodged there. Here is a vital point; for you must either satisfactorily settle this matter with yourself, or for ever remain an infidel as to one of the most appalling, but not the less true events, perhaps anywhere to be found in all recorded history. You observe that in the ordinary swimming position of the Sperm Whale, the front of his head presents an almost wholly vertical plane to the water; you observe that the lower part of that front slopes considerably backwards, so as to furnish more of a retreat for the long socket which receives the boom-like lower jaw; you observe that the mouth is entirely under the head, much in the same way, indeed, as though your own mouth were entirely under your chin. Moreover you observe that the whale has no external nose; and that what nose he has—his spout hole—is on the top of his head; you observe that his eyes and ears are at the sides of his head, nearly one third of his entire length from the front. Wherefore, you must now have perceived that the front of the Sperm Whale’s head is a dead, blind walldead, blind wall: Here, Ishmael equates the whale’s head with an impenetrable blank wall. Earlier, in Ch. 36, Ahab compares Moby Dick to a prison wall that he must thrust through, and later, in Ch. 125, he echoes Ishmael directly: “The dead, blind wall butts all inquiring heads at last.” Melville also uses the wall metaphor to convey Bartleby’s “dead-wall reveries” in his 1853 story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”, without a single organ or tender prominence of any sort whatsoever. Furthermore, you are now to consider that only in the extreme, lower, backward sloping part of the front of the head, is there the slightest vestige of bone; and not till you get near twenty feet from the forehead do you come to the full cranial development. So that this whole enormous boneless mass is as one wad. Finally, though, as will soon be revealed, its contents partly comprise the most delicate oil; yet, you are now to be apprised of the nature of the substance which so impregnably invests all that apparent effeminacy. In some previous placeIn some previous place: See Ch. 67. I have described to you how the blubber wraps the body of the whale, as the rind wraps an orange. Just so with the head; but with this difference: about the head this envelope, though not so thick, is of a boneless toughness, inestimable by any man who has not handled it. The severest pointed harpoon, the sharpest lance darted by the strongest human arm, impotently rebounds from it. It is as though the forehead of the Sperm Whale were paved with horses’ hoofshorses’ hoofs: According to Mansfield and Vincent in their edition of Moby-Dick (770), Melville borrowed this and other details in this paragraph from Owen Chase, Narrative of the Whaleship Essex.. I do not think that any sensation lurks in it. Bethink yourself also of another thing. When two large, loaded Indiamen chance to crowd and crush towards each other in the docks, what do the sailors do? They do not suspend between them, at the point of coming contact, any merely hard substance, like iron or wood. No, they hold there a large, round wad of tow and cork, enveloped in the thickest and toughest of ox-hide. That bravely and uninjured takes the jam which would have snapped all their oaken handspikes and iron crow-bars. By itself this sufficiently illustrates the obvious fact I drive at. But supplementary to this, it has hypothetically occurred to me, that as ordinary fish possess what is called a swimming bladder in them, capable, at will, of distension or contraction; and as the Sperm Whale, as far as I know, has no such provision in him; considering, too, the otherwise inexplicable manner in which he now depresses his head altogether beneath the surface, and anon swims with it high elevated out of the water; considering the unobstructed elasticity of its envelop; considering the unique interior of his head; it has hypothetically occurred to meit has hypothetically occurred to me: In pondering the whale’s exterior “elasticity” and “honey-combed” interior, Ishmael hypothesizes that it somehow uses “outer air” and regulates “atmospheric” pressure to submerge and elevate its massive head. Throughout Moby-Dick, Melville calls air “girlish,” “enchanted,” “rosy,” “gentle,” “pure,” and “soft” as well as “unbodied” and “transparent.” Similarly, of all the “elements,” air, in this chapter, is called “impalpable,” but here (and nowhere else in the novel) it is also called “destructive,” that is, corrosive. In short, Ishmael marvels at how the whale can convert mere air into an “irresistible” might., I say, that those mystical lung-celled honeycombs there may possibly have some hitherto unknown and unsuspected connexion with the outer air, so as to be susceptible to atmospheric distension and contraction. If this be so, fancy the irresistibleness of that might, to which the most impalpable and destructive of all elements contributes. Now, mark. Unerringly impelling this dead, impregnable, uninjurable wall, and this most buoyant thing within; there swims behind it all a mass of tremendous life, only to be adequately estimated as piled wood is—by the cord; and all obedient to one volition, as the smallest insect. So that when I shall hereafter detail to you all the specialities and concentrations of potency everywhere lurking in this expansive monster; when I shall show you some of his more inconsiderablemore inconsiderable braining feats: Trivial head buttings, but since “mighty” is the intended meaning, “more” is a likely error for “not.” braining feats; I trust you will have renounced all ignorant incredulity, and be ready to abide by this; that though the Sperm Whale stove a passage through the Isthmus of DarienIsthmus of Darien: Now known as the Isthmus of Panama. The feat imagined for the whale was accomplished by the 40-mile long Panama Canal, completed in 1914., and mixed the Atlantic with the Pacific, you would not elevate one hair of your eye-brow. For unless you own the whaleown the whale: acknowledge the whale’s greatness., you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth. But clear Truth is a thing for salamander giantssalamander giants: Melville had read Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Vulgar Errors), which debunks the false notion that salamanders could live in fire, but here he puts the folk belief to use. This unusual phrase echoes other allusions to giants or titans, such as to Daggoo’s sublimity (Ch. 34), the biblical Anak (Ch. 59), the whale’s “Titanism of power,” and Goethe’s massive chest (Ch. 86); it suggests that in order to encounter truth, one must be a giant in spirit and strength, able to endure fire without being consumed. only to encounter; how small the chances for the provincials then? What befel the weakling youth lifting the dread goddess’s veil at LaisWhat befell the weakling youth lifting the dread goddess’s veil at Lais: The correct place name is Egypt’s “Sais.” According to Greco-Roman adaptations, the veiled Egyptian creation goddess Isis represents nature and all knowing. For 18th and 19th-century philosophes and poets, the veil suggests the inscrutability of Truth and a warning against attempting to attain all knowledge by lifting the veil, or in Ahab’s words, “strik[ing] through the mask.” German poet Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) depicts the consequences of such violation in his 1795 poem, “Das verschleierte Bild zu Sais,” translated by Edward Bulwer Lytton as “The Veiled Image at Sais” and included in his 1844 English edition of The Poems and Ballads of Schiller, a copy of which Melville bought in 1849. In the poem, a “youth” seeks out the legendary veiled statue of Isis at Sais, secretly lifts the veil, and is found senseless the next morning: “what did there befall / His lips reveal’d not.” Both the American and British editions of Moby-Dick print “Lais,” but the NN editors emend the place name to “Sais,” arguing that the error is the likely result of a misreading of Melville’s handwriting, in which upper-case L’s and S’s look alike. However, it is also possible that Melville inadvertently inscribed “Lais,” confusing the location of the veiled statue of Truth (“Sais”) with the famous Athenian courtesan, “Lais, fairest of her kind,” whom Melville would later compare to the sculpted architecture of the Acropolis, in his late poem “The Parthenon.” In light of the meaningful confusions discussed here, Longman and MEL retain “Lais.”?