Chapters

86 The Tail CHAPTER 86 THE TAIL. Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail. Reckoning the largest sized Sperm Whale’s tail to begin at that point of the trunk where it tapers to about the girth of a man, it comprises upon its upper surface alone, an area of at least fifty square feet. The compact round body of its root expands into two broad, firm, flat palms or flukes, gradually shoaling away to less than an inch in thickness. At the crotch or junction, these flukes slightly overlap, then sideways recede from each other like wings, leaving a wide vacancy between. In no living thing are the lines of beauty more exquisitely defined than in the crescentic borders of these flukes. At its utmost expansion in the full grown whale, the tail will considerably exceed twenty feet across. The entire member seems a dense webbed bed of welded sinews; but cut into it, and you find that three distinct strata compose it:—upper, middle, and lower. The fibres in the upper and lower layers, are long and horizontal; those of the middle one, very short, and running crosswise between the outside layers. This triunetriune: three in one, typically in reference to the Holy Trinity. structure, as much as anything else, imparts power to the tail. To the student of old Roman walls, the middle layer will furnish a curious parallel to the thin course of tiles always alternating with the stone in those wonderful relics of the antique, and which undoubtedly contribute so much to the great strength of the masonry. But as if this vast local power in the tendinous tail were not enough, the whole bulk of the leviathan is knit over with a warp and woof of muscular fibres and filaments, which passing on either side the loins and running down into the flukes, insensibly blend with them, and largely contribute to their might; so that in the tail the confluent measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point. Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it. Nor does this—its amazing strength, at all tend to cripple the graceful flexion of its motions; where infantileness of ease undulates through a Titanism of powerTitanism of power: The huge and powerful Titans of Greek mythology revolted unsuccessfully against their father, Uranus, who preceded the gods of Olympus. Here, Melville’s Titanism links strength and beauty; however, in Pierre, “Enceladus the Titan” is associated with a writer’s “appetite for God.”. On the contrary, those motions derive their most appalling beauty from it. Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic. Take away the tied tendons that all over seem bursting from the marble in the carved Herculesthe carved Hercules: Probably referring to the The Farnese Hercules in Naples, the well-known ancient statue of the muscular hero of myth leaning on his club., and its charm would be gone. As devout Eckermann lifted the linen sheet from the naked corpse of Goethethe naked corpse of Goethe: In the last entry of his Conversations with Goethe (1836–1848), Johann Peter Eckermann wrote, “The body lay naked, only wrapped in a white sheet. . . . Frederick drew aside the sheet, and I was astonished at the divine magnificence of the limbs. The breast was powerful, broad, and arched.”, he was overwhelmed with the massive chest of the man, that seemed as a Roman triumphal arch. When Angelo paintsWhen Angelo paints: Michelangelo’s robust depiction of "God the Father" in the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling were completed in 1512. Melville saw them in 1857. even God the Father in human form, mark what robustness is there. And whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled, hermaphroditical Italian picturesREVISION NARRATIVE: soft, curled, hermaphroditical Italian pictures // Ishmael takes the “flexions” of the whale’s tail to be the principal manifestation of the creature’s combined strength and “exceeding grace,” which are figured, respectively, as masculine brawn (epitomized by images of Hercules and Michelangelo’s God) and feminine “submission and endurance” (epitomized by depictions of Jesus). In this context, Melville’s reference to “hermaphroditical Italian pictures” of Jesus—Renaissance paintings he witnessed at the Louvre and London’s National Gallery during his 1849 trip to Europe—is both logical and startling. Technically, a hermaphrodite is a plant or animal with both male and female genitals. However, the word can be used to describe anything that combines both sexual features and may connote effeminacy, androgyny, and ambiguous sexuality. More generally, a hermaphrodite may simply exhibit opposing characteristics; for instance, Melville was familiar with the nautical usage of the "hermaphrodite brig," a vessel combining the sails of a brig and a schooner. However, his adjectives “soft, curled, hermaphroditical” in reference to depictions of Jesus adopt the word’s more daring connotation of epicene, indicating the sexual ambiguity of youthful beauty. Melville’s sexualizing of Jesus in this way may have prompted his British editor to expurgate “hermaphroditical” from the British edition. Another possibility is that Melville self-sanitized by removing the word as a distraction from the transcendent nature of strength conjoined with beauty in the tail’s “subtle elasticity.” To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin., in which his idea has been most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings. Such is the subtle elasticity of the organ I treat of, that whether wielded in sport, or in earnest, or in anger, whatever be the mood it be in, its flexions are invariably marked by exceeding grace. Therein no fairy’s arm can transcend it. Five great motions are peculiar to it. First, when used as a fin for progression; Second, when used as a mace in battle; Third, in sweeping; Fourth, in lobtailing; Fifth, in peaking flukes. First: Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan’s tail acts in a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures. It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority. To the whale, his tail is the sole means of propulsion. Scroll-wise coiled forwards beneath the body, and then rapidly sprung backwards, it is this which gives that singular darting, leaping motion to the monster when furiously swimming. His side-fins only serve to steer by. Second: It is a little significant, that while one sperm whale only fights another sperm whale with his head and jaw, nevertheless, in his conflicts with man, he chiefly and contemptuously uses his tail. In striking at a boat, he swiftly curves away his flukes from it, and the blow is only inflicted by the recoil. If it be made in the unobstructed air, especially if it descend to its mark, the stroke is then simply irresistible. No ribs of man or boat can withstand it. Your only salvation lies in eluding it; but if it comes sideways through the opposing waterREVISION NARRATIVE: opposing water // In Ishmael’s description, water is a substance that diminishes the impact of the whale’s tail. But in the British edition, “water” is pluralized, implying “seas” and adding a poetic or biblical tone to the phrase. An editor is not likely to have made the change to “waters.” Melville may have wanted the biblical resonance and changed the word even though the context does not call for it; alternatively, it may be a printer’s error. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin., then partly owing to the light buoyancy of the whale-boat, and the elasticity of its materials, a cracked rib or a dashed plank or two, a sort of stitch in the side, is generally the most serious result. These submerged side blows are so often received in the fishery, that they are accounted mere child’s play. Some one strips off a frock, and the hole is stopped. Third: I cannot demonstrate it, but it seems to me, that in the whale the sense of touch is concentrated in the tail; for in this respect there is a delicacy in it only equalled by the daintiness of the elephant’s trunk. This delicacy is chiefly evinced in the action of sweeping, when in maidenly gentleness the whale with a certain soft slowness moves his immense flukes from side to side upon the surface of the sea; and if he feel but a sailor’s whisker, woe to that sailor, whiskers and all. What tenderness there is in that preliminary touch! Had this tail any prehensileprehensile: able to grasp. power, I should straightway bethink me of Darmonodes’ elephantDarmonodes’ elephant: Versions of this story of a loving elephant presenting nosegays (bouquets) to women and caressing their zones (waists) appear in several classical sources such as Plutarch (46-119 CE) and Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), both of whom are quoted in “Extracts,” and Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). The name Darmonodes may be either Melville’s error or invention. that so frequented the flower-market, and with low salutations presented nosegays to damsels, and then caressed their zones. On more accounts than one, a pity it is that the whale does not possess this prehensile virtue in his tail; for I have heard of yet another elephant, that when wounded in the fight, curved round his trunk and extracted the dart. Fourth: Stealing unawares upon the whale in the fancied security of the middle of solitary seasREVISION NARRATIVE: the middle of solitary seas // The British version reads “the middle of the solitary seas.” The insertion of “the” alters meaning significantly, for the phrase “solitary seas” in the American version indicates any sea that happens on occasion to be solitary; whereas “the solitary seas” indicates that all seas are solitary. Melville probably made the addition. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin., you find him unbentunbent: relaxed; untied (naut.). from the vast corpulence of his dignity, and kitten-like, he plays on the ocean as if it were a hearth. But still you see his power in his play. The broad palms of his tail are flirted high into the air; then smiting the surface, the thunderous concussion resounds for miles. You would almost thinkREVISION NARRATIVE: You would almost think // The British edition deletes “almost” to give the more certain “You would think.” The deletion creates an exact parallelism with the following clause and is probably Melville’s revision. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin. a great gun had been discharged; and if you noticed the light wreath of vapor from the spiracle at his other extremity, you would think that that was the smoke from the touch-holetouch-hole: hole in a cannon through which gunpowder is ignited.. Fifth: As in the ordinary floating posture of the leviathan the flukes lie considerably below the level of his back, they are then completely out of sight beneath the surface; but when he is about to plunge into the deeps, his entire flukes with at least thirty feet of his body are tossed erect in the air, and so remain vibrating a moment, till they downwards shoot out of view. Excepting the sublime breach—somewhere else to be describedsomewhere else to be described: see Ch. 134.—this peaking of the whale’s flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature. Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heavenREVISION NARRATIVE: the highest heaven // In the British edition, “heaven” is pluralized. Throughout Moby-Dick, Melville uses “heaven” five times more often than “heavens,” reserving the plural (except in the commonplace “good heavens”) for such expressions as “the seven-storied heavens,” “the fabled heavens,” “the high heavens,” “the starry heavens,” “the ineffable heavens,” and “the frozen heavens,” each preceded with “the,” and each evoking a mythic potential. In keeping with that pattern, Melville no doubt added an "s" to create the plural “the highest heavens.” To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin.. So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell. But in gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are inwhat mood you are in: In trying to grasp the meaning of the tail, Ishmael recalls a recurring dream of Satan thrusting out of the sea that parallels the whale’s breaching, but interpreting the satanic dream depends upon “what mood you are in”: demonic or angelic. The Dantean mood draws upon Dante’s Inferno, with its gigantic, winged Satan frozen to the waist in the ninth circle of Hell. Melville’s image of “majestic” and “colossal” Satan rising “from the flame Baltic of Hell” is surely more Dantesque than Miltonic, but its meaning is obscure; perhaps it suggests that Hell’s flames resemble the turbulent waves of a cold and stormy Baltic Sea. Melville’s angelic mood derives from the book of Isaiah (6.2–3), in which the prophet sees a vision of seraphim, the highest order of angels: “each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels. Standing at the mast-head of my shipREVISION NARRATIVE: Standing at the mast-head of my ship // The phrase “of my ship” is odd for a number of reasons. It is superfluous unless Ishmael wants to distinguish this mast-head from that of another ship, but what ship might that be other than the Pequod? Elsewhere (particularly in Ch. 54, “The Town-Ho’s Story”), Ishmael alludes to sailing on various cruises after the sinking of the Pequod and before he writes the present narrative. With this in mind, “of my ship” might lead readers to think that Ishmael is referring to an event occurring on some other vessel on which he sailed, or even mislead them to think he owned a ship. In any event, the British edition removes these considerations by removing the phrase, probably at Melville’s request. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin. during a sunrise that crimsoned sky and sea, I once saw a large herd of whales in the east, all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld, even in Persia, the home of the fire worshippers. As Ptolemy PhilopaterPtolemy Philopater . . . King Juba: Respectively, a third-century BCE king of Egypt whose name means “loving father,” and a North African king of the first century BCE. Melville’s closely-followed source was Plutarch’s The Philosophy Commonly Called the Morals (Mansfield and Vincent, 786). testified of the African elephant, I then testified of the whale, pronouncing him the most devout of all beings. For according to King Juba, the military elephants of antiquity often hailed the morning with their trunks uplifted in the profoundest silence. The chance comparison in this chapter, between the whale and the elephant, so far as some aspects of the tail of the one and the trunk of the other are concerned, should not tend to place those two opposite organs on an equality, much less the creatures to which they respectively belong. For as the mightiest elephant is but a terrier to Leviathan, so, compared with Leviathan’s tail, his trunk is but the stalk of a lily. The most direful blow from the elephant’s trunk were as the playful tap of a fan, compared with the measureless crush and crash of the sperm whale’s ponderous flukes, which in repeated instances have one after the other hurled entire boats with all their oars and crews into the air, very much as an Indian juggler tosses his balls.* The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. In an extensive herd, so remarkable, occa- ____________________________________________________ * [Melville's Note] Though all comparison in the way of general bulk between the whale and the elephant is preposterous, inasmuch as in that particular the elephant stands in much the same respect to the whale that a dog does to the elephant; nevertheless, there are not wanting some points of curious similitude; among these is the spout. It is well known that the elephant will often draw up water or dust in his trunk, and then elevating it, jet it forth in a stream. __________________________________________ sionally, are these mystic gestures, that I have heard hunters who have declared them akin to Free-Mason signs and symbolsFree-Mason signs and symbols: Gestures and objects with secret meanings in the Masonic fraternal orders. See Hennig Cohen, “Melville’s Masonic Secrets,” Melville Society Extracts 108.; that the whale, indeed, by these methods intelligently conversed with the world. Nor are there wanting other motions of the whale in his general body, full of strangeness, and unaccountable to his most experienced assailant. Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deepREVISION NARRATIVE: I but go skin deep // The British edition revises this sentence to “I go but skin deep.” Although the change may be a printer’s inversion, the repositioning of “but” (meaning “only”) creates subtle changes in tone and meaning, suggesting an authorial intervention. In the American edition, “I but go skin deep” puts limits on Ishmael’s metaphoric act of understanding: he doesn’t “dive” or “reach”; he only “goes.” In the British edition’s “I go but skin deep,” the adverb placement more clearly states the limit of how far Ishmael can go, but only so far. As elsewhere, Melville may have made this subtle grammatical revision himself. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin.; I know him not, and never willREVISION NARRATIVE: and never will // The British edition alteration of “will” to “shall” may have been editorial. In formal English grammar (primarily in England), the word “shall” is reserved for future tense or the conditional; and “will” is reserved for statements of the intention to do something. Thus, we have the difference between “Tomorrow I shall go whaling” (future) or “if I go whaling, I shall surely die” (conditional) and “Regardless of what you say, I will go whaling” (intention). Melville uses the auxiliary verb “will” 315 times and “shall” 92 times in Moby-Dick; however, a cursory study indicates no consistent reliance on the traditional English rule. Nevertheless, the revision from “never will” to “never shall” demonstrates an effective use of the grammatical distinction. Ishmael cannot know the whale, and this is not a matter of what he intends or wishes: the whale is unknowable, now and forever. Thus, even if Ishmael tries to know him, he never shall. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin.. But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no faceREVISION NARRATIVE: Biblical Joking // In Exodus 33.13, Moses says to God, “shew me now thy way, that I may know thee,” but God responds that no one can see his glory or face without perishing. God arranges to meet Moses at a rock where he will cover Moses’ eyes and then “take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen” (33.23). In the final two sentences of Ch. 86, Melville accurately quotes the King James Version of the Bible as he humorously compares the whale’s tail to God’s “back parts.” The punch line to Melville’s joke is that unlike Moses, Ishmael cannot even “make out his back parts,” much less his face. Melville has already said as much in the preceding sentence, but in using the Bible comically here, he raises the intellectual stakes by implying that Ishmael cannot make sense of even what God allows us to know. The two sentences were removed from the British edition, probably by an editor, but Melville, who in writing Typee learned early on to curb his humor, might have thought better of this biblical joke, and made the cut himself. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin..