WHALES IN LITERATURE


Whales have long held a place in the literary imagination. One satirist entered this definition in his hilarious lexican:

LEVIATHAN. An enormous aquatic animal mentioned by Job, Some suppose it to have been the whale, but that distinguished ichthyologer, Dr Jordan, of Stanford University, maintains with considerable heat that it was a species of gigantic Tadpole ...

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (380 Kb). Imagine being sat on by the matamorphosed frog!

But the best-known tribute to the whale must be the book which Philip Roth described as being "to the whaling industry what the Hall of Fame and Museum was supposed to be to baseball: the ultimate and indisputable authority on the subject - repository of records, storehouse of statisticians, the Louvre of Leviathans" -He was of course writing of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick

Melville's great tome operates on many levels, political, historical and social. It is remembered by those who have never read it as a jolly good yarn but for those who have it assumes a place in their consciousness which only great works of art can. Indeed, the "Extracts" which preface the story are themselves homepages for references to a web of literary whaling.

Taken from one of the "cetology" chapters (106), this optimistic prediction is hopefully not altogether blubber!

... some philosophers of the forecastle have concluded that this positive havoc has already very seriously diminished their battalions. But though for some time past a number of these whales, not less than 13,000 have been annually slain on the nor' west coast by the Americans alone; yet there are considerations which render even this circumstance of little or not account as an opposing argument in this matter.

Natural as it is to be somewhat incredulous concerning the populousness of the more enormous creatures of the globe, yet what shall we say to Harto, the historian of Goa, when he tells us that at one hunting the King of Siam took 4,000 elephants; that in those regions elephants are numerous as droves of cattle in the temperate climes. And there seems no reason to doubt that if these elephants, which have now been hunted for thousands of years, by Semiramis, by Porus, by Hannibal, and by all the successive monarchs of the East - if they still survive there in great numbers, much more may the great whale outlast all hunting, since he has a pasture to expatiate in, which is precisely twice as large as all Asia, both Americas, Europe and Africa, New Holland, and all the Isles of the sea combined.

Moreover: we are to consider, that from the presumed great longevity of whales, their probably attaining the age of a century and more, therefore at any one period of time, several distinct adult generations may be contemporary. And what this is, we may soon gain some idea of, by imagining all the grave-yards, cemeteries, and family vaults of creation yielding up the live bodies of all the men, women, and children who were alive seventy-five years ago; and adding this countless host to the present human population of the globe.

Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah's flood he despised Noah's Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.

Read about the Greenpeace ship with a whale of a name Moby Dick.

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Andrew Graham asd00@cc.keele.ac.uk