Chapter 56: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes

One museum in Paris, l’Orangerie, features four enormous (full wall) Monet paintings of water lilies. Up close, these paintings are beautiful and interesting in their color and composition, but from across the room, each painting takes on a whole new aspect of life and movement. This is Impressionism, and it’s beginning around the same time Melville published Moby-Dick.

Chapter 56, “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes,” recognizes that “the French are the lads for painting action,” and as such, can more accurately capture the image of a whale than other formal art.

Since Melville and the early Impressionists were contemporaries, and since Ishmael shouts out to French painters (though of an earlier era) in Chapter 56, I took a moment to think about Moby-Dick as an Impressionist painting. Melville wrote each chapter beautifully in its own right. I for one am fascinated by the minutiae of whaling life, of stories of the sea, of snippets and glimpses of each character in daily life. But these are just splotches, which taken in full bring a whole different level of life and movement.

I don’t know if Melville wrote Moby-Dick as a reaction to early Impressionism, or as a parallel reaction to whatever the Impressionists reacted to, or neither of the above, but I think it’s an interesting thought either way. Melville surely recognized the novel as imperfect, and perhaps with Moby-Dick strove simply to create a “less erroneous” picture of the world than those that came before, and that suddenly seems an awfully noble enterprise.

Chapter 56: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes

Poetry in motion!
Poetry in motion!
So chop away
At their flanks, come on!

Poetry in motion!
Poetry in motion!
The war identity
Captured in every painting,
Good and True.

You’ll never have a picture
Without the reckoning force,
The justice of the scriptures,
Of nature’s course!

Humans live in the action!
Humans live in the action!
Construct a narrative
Through adversaries, oh!

Humans live in the action!
Humans live in the action!
Emotions conquering
Our studied observations
For the Truth.

You’ll never have a picture
Without the reckoning force,
The justice of the scriptures,
Of nature’s course!

Poetry in motion!
Poetry in motion!
So chop away
At their flanks, come on!

Poetry in motion!
Poetry in motion!
The war identity
Captured in every painting,
Good and True.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 21, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea May 9, 2009

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