Think you not then that brains, like yoked cattle, should be put to this leviathan, to make him at all budge to any landsman’s imagination?
Like Joyce giving Dublin to the world with Ulysses, one might argue that with Moby-Dick Melville seeks to give the world a whale. The challenge, of course, lies in the fact that a whale does not equal the sum of its measurements, in life or death.
Ishmael discusses in much earlier chapters the way in which the measurements of living whales — in drawings and art especially — do not serve to describe a whale, for a whale is so greatly defined by the force and grace of its movement. In death, the inadequacy of measurement becomes compounded by the loss of a good amount of bulk — not only flesh, muscle, tendon, etc.; but also all parts of the whale framed by cartilage rather than bone. In short, a whale hardly seems a whale without its flukes.
Despite these reservations, I think Ishmael proceeds in giving his measurements for two reasons. Firstly, describing an eight foot rib may not communicate the full bulk of a whale, but it’s awfully impressive anyway, especially in knowing that the living whale is bigger still. Secondly, as we learn in other chapters, Ishmael knows that his readers may have viewed a whale skeleton on display in various parts of the world, and he wants them to know that the real thing is so much more impressive yet.
Thirdly, the contrast of impression from living whale to skeleton brings Ishmael to a quick series of thoughts about the frailty of death, and moreover about the magnitude of life.
Chapter 103: Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton
A yard, a yard, a yard,
Down to the smallest marble.
And all you grasping for the truth
Should honor the proof
Of greatness tapered
To the trivial and minute.
A fluke, a fluke, a fluke,
Down to an utter nothing.
The graceful tiller of the seas
Is lost to the breeze!
The spark of animation gone,
Obscuring the form.
Measure and catalogue remains,
But don’t call the sum of all a whale —
The sum will surely fail!
A life, a life, a life,
Down to the fossil record.
As all you searching for the stars
Do not look to cars.
Though each cold skeleton exploded
Out from their hearts.
(c) and (p) 2010 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 12, 2010
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea November 27, 2010