Chapter 104: The Fossil Whale

Early in “The Fossil Whale” Ishmael declares: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” At first, I found this a somewhat strange sentiment for Ishmael to preach three-fourths through a novel concerned largely with minutiae — I expect Ishmael can find the grandiose in a flea no differently than in a try-pot. Looking back in the chapter at Ishmael’s promise to be “omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise” of exploring the whale in story, we can only assume that this is only a slightly clumsy metaphor for him writing about topics with a lot of smaller topics coiled inside them that are worthy of exploration, like the “gigantic involutions of [the whale’s] intestines.”

As Ishmael goes on to discuss the fossil remains of related species of whale from prehistory forward, I think it’s safe to draw another metaphor. Like whales, human themes reach back through time in slightly varied forms. In other words, every good story has been told many times over with a different set of details.

The whale, then, is not the point for Ishmael, but the human themes that the whale allowed him to explore. Like the whale, these themes look a little bit different now than they did in generations past, but as with all “large and liberal” themes, we find we find them important because in thinking about them, “we expand to their bulk.”

Chapter 104: The Fossil Whale

Big as it is, the whale is a fertile theme,
Varied and antediluvian,
The sea held a brand of Leviathan
Before time carried the Earth.

Born on the depths of a primal mist,
Nursed with the reptiles-furious,
Ruled under ice caps and equatorial freeze —
Hard to believe!

And what I’m trying to say, now,
There’s a subtle line
Between the scale of the subject
And the thoughts brought to the mind.

Reach, yet, the distance of ancient lands,
Prior to Moses in Pharaoh’s hands.
Touch ye the blood of Cetacean prehistory,
With Ahab and me!

And what I’m trying to say, now,
There’s a subtle line
Between the scale of the subject
And the thoughts brought to the mind.

(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 26, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea September 11, 2010

Published in: on October 17, 2010 at 8:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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