Chapter 79: The Prairie

Therefore, though I am but ill qualified for a pioneer, in the application of these two semi-sciences to the whale, I will do my endeavor. I try all things; I achieve what I can.

In “The Prairie,” Ishmael explores the ways in which man has denied spirituality in the pursuit of science. Early in the chapter, Ishmael’s reference to two psuedo-sciences — Phrenology (the study of shapes in the skull as indicative of underlying characteristics of the mind), and Physiognomy (the study of the face as indicative of underlying character or personality) — recall the pseudo-science of an earlier chapter. In “Cetology,” Ishmael uses the common opinions of men to override reason and influence his classifications of whales as fish. By contrast in “The Prairie,” Ishmael uses reason to twist these modern refusals of the spiritual into evidence of the same. Enter the whale’s forehead.

If in man an expansive brow (like Shakespeare’s) suggests genius, then in the whale we must see genius of a magnitude past comprehension, and what points to god more than that which we cannot comprehend? In beholding a whale’s brow “you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than beholding any other object in living nature.” In short, science points us away from god and toward the body, and the body points us right back to god.

Chapter 79: The Prairie

Now read the face,
See everything placed —
Rest assured,
Once inured
No doubt you will meet
Nobility steeped
In each corner, all around.

From prairie there rose
No sign of a nose,
But it’s fine,
We don’t mind.
It’s simple and sleek,
And no one can tweak —
Even kings can’t boast the same.

And oh, take note!
And oh, it’s plain!
And oh, the world bespoke
In his visage just the same.

Now look at the brow,
Could heaven allow
Such a mind
Laid behind?
It’s not that he writes
Or speaks to our plights,
It’s the genius of his life.

(c) and (p) 2010 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 28, 2010
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea February 12, 2011

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