Chapter 32: Cetology

Moby-Dick readers often complain about “Cetology,” a relatively long chapter (13 pages) in which Ishmael attempts a scientific classification of whales. I, and I would bet most true Moby-Dick aficionados, really love the chapter both as a learning experience and a thought process. Underneath Ishmael’s descriptions of whales, “Cetology” gives us a shining moment of non-narrative storytelling that speaks to race, rank, and class.

Ishmael sets the tone of “Cetology” by telling us that “though of real knowledge [about whales] there be little, yet of books there are a plenty.” Rather than adding to the blather, Ishmael attempts a new kind of classification, admitting it will not be complete and accurate, but nevertheless wanting to establish a proper method. Though noble in intent, Ishmael makes a fatal error in allowing his science to follow, rather than inform, popular belief. For example, based on his discussions with whalemen, Ishmael decides that whales are fish despite their having lungs, warm blood, and a horizontal tail like other aquatic or amphibious mammals. He also uses popular names for each whale even when noting that the names aren’t specific or descriptive. Most strangely, Ishmael decides to classify whales based on their size, which seems too broad and superficial for science.

In explaining his choice to classify based on size, Ishmael says that all other classifiable features are shared by whales that have nothing else in common. Furthermore, if you really get down to the inner workings of each whale, “you will not find distinctions a fiftieth part as available to the systematizer as those external ones already enumerated.”

In one sense, “Cetology” speaks to me as a critique of the concept of race. Cliche though it may be, we’re all the same inside, and classifying humans according to skin tone is no less arbitrary than classifying whales by size. When Ishmael says that the Right Whale is mistakenly considered the largest whale because of “the long priority of its claims,” I can’t help but think about the world’s minority white population claiming dominance throughout history. In another sense, “Cetology” perfectly contributes to Ishmael’s discussions of class and rank in the several chapters preceding and following it. In “Cetology,” Ishmael furthers his ongoing story of the human need to rank and classify itself, and the false science that is often used in the service of base prejudice.

Ch 32: Cetology

You decide,
And science will accommodate!
You decide,
And science will allow,
For your base impressions
To rule their calculated epiphanies.
Spread it on the breeze,
And deep into the seas.

We’re the same inside,
But you can’t oppress a man,
So they must
Be of beast —
Well they live like beasts.

You decide!
For your base impressions
To rule their calculated epiphanies.
Spread it on the breeze,
And deep into the seas.

Let the science ride;
Be as simple as you can!
Darker skin: different race,
Harder work, submissive face,
Speak eugenically!

You decide,
And science will accommodate!
You decide,
And science will allow
For your base impressions
To rule their calculated epiphanies.
Spread it on the breeze,
And deep into the seas.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 9, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea February 9, 2009

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. awesome music Patrick


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