Herman Melville, Science Writer

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dipping into a project called “Moby Dick Big Read.” Plymouth University in England is posting a reading of Moby Dick, one chapter a day. The readers are a mix of writers, artists, and actors, including Tilda Swinton.  They are also posting the chapters on SoundCloud, which makes them very easy to embed. Here is one of my personal favorites, Chapter 32, “Cetology.”

When I was an English major in college, I read Moby Dick under the guidance of English professors and literary critics. They only paid attention to a fraction of the book–the fraction that followed Ishmael on his adventures with Captain Ahab. This was the part of the book that they could easily compare to other great novels, the part they could use for their vague critiques of imperialism, the part–in other words–that you could read without having to bother much with learning about the particulars of the world beyond people: about ships, about oceans, and, most of all, about whales. How many teachers, assigning Moby Dick to their students, have told them on the sly that they could skip over great slabs of the book? How many students have missed the fine passages of “Cetology”?

I’ve read Moby Dick several times since graduating college and becoming a science writer. I look back now at the way I was taught the book, and I can see it was a disaster, foisted upon me by people who either didn’t understand science or were hostile to it, or both. Of course the historical particulars of the book matter. It’s a book, in part, about globalization–the first worldwide energy network. But the biology of the book is essential to its whole point. Just as Ahab becomes obsessed with Moby Dick, the scientific mind of the nineteenth century became mad with whales.

“Cetology” reminds the reader that Melville came before Darwin. Ishmael tries to make sense of the diversity of whales, and he can only rely on the work of naturalists who lacked a theory of evolution to make sense of the mammalian features on what looked like fish. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a writer looking for some absurd feature of the natural world that could serve as a wall against which Western science could bang its head.

The people I know who don’t like the “whale stuff” in Moby Dick probably hate this chapter. It seems to do nothing but grind the Ahab-centered story line to a halt. (No movie version of Moby Dick has put “Cetology” on film.) But do you really think that a writer like Melville would just randomly wedge a chapter like “Cetology” into a novel for no reason–not to mention the dozens of other chapters just like it? Or perhaps it would be worth trying to find out what Melville had in mind, even if you might have to do a bit of outside reading about Carl Linnaeus or Richard Owen? It would be quite something if students could be co-taught Moby Dick by English professors and biologists.

“Cetology” is organized, explicitly, as a catalog, but don’t let the systematic divisions of its catalog put you off. This is science writing of the highest order, before there was science writing. Listen to the words he uses to describe each species. If you go whale watching some day and are lucky enough to spot a fin whale raising its sundial-like dorsal fin above the water, chances are you will utter to yourself, “gnomon.”