In “Stubb and Flask kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him,” Ahab orders the killing of a right whale in order to hang its severed head from the Pequod opposite a sperm whale’s severed head. The arrangement will supposedly charm the boat from being capsized. In the next chapter, “The Sperm Whale’s Head — Contrasted View,” Ishmael uses the opportunity to undertake some “practical cetology” in comparing the heads of the two species.
In Moby-Dick we almost always find ourselves talking about something in the subtext. In this case, a comparison of two whales’ heads becomes a comparison of a sperm whale head and a human head, and from there we embark on a short, abstracted discussion of consciousness and human nature. As Ishmael discusses human physiology, it becomes clear he’s really talking about human nature. A human can only focus on one thing at a time, and that one object of focus is whatever happens to be right in front of his or her face at any given moment. So we’re left with another interesting contrast. As Ishmael spends a great deal of time examining in minute detail the objects on either side of his head, observing and classifying the as yet unfathomable creatures, the rest of the crew chop up the heads as per usual, for profit, not a thought or a curiosity thrown to the somehow peripheral interest of the animal itself.*
All the above floats in the forefront of my mind as I read the last page of the chapter, a synecdoche perhaps of greater human nature. We often think of Moby-Dick as being about Ahab’s monomania, but here we see another kind of monomania –men extracting every last cent from a recently killed animal. The ripping, tearing, sawing, teeth-pulling — the rapacious stripping of commodity from life, with a dollar sign attached to every piece of once-living flesh. It’s easier just to point a finger at Ahab, and maybe that’s the rub. “Why then do you try to ‘enlarge’ your mind? Subtilize it.”
*After initially finishing this post, I was left with an overwhelming sense of “so what?” and so I asked my wife to talk through the chapter with me. This is her observation. She is very smart.
Chapter 74: The Sperm Whale’s Head — Contrasted View
A one track mind,
Baby’s got a one track mind.
A killer’s eyes
Keep ’em on a narrow line.
A purposeful mind
Because a purposeful physiology.
The eyes define
The front of a man, don’t you see?
You’re always right,
Never seeing side to side.
You got big eyes,
Still you never see both sides.
Enlarging your mind
But what you really need is subtlety,
Conflating a dual view
Don’t you realize
Your half-blind maliciousness?
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 21, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea October 18, 2008