Chapter 80: The Nut

In “The Nut,” Ishmael lampoons the pseudo-science of phrenology as working in metaphor rather than in experiment or observation. By starting with what he wants to prove and working to make his evidence fit, he exposes deficiencies in both the phrenological view and the phrenological method.

Says Ishmael, the whale’s skull composes the barest fraction of the mass of its head, implying a deficient intelligence in the phrenological view. Furthermore, depressions at the top of the skull would imply a lack of self-esteem and veneration. We know the whale to be opposite from these conclusions, though. Some sailors hold that the seat of intelligence in the whale lies in the sperm magazine rather than the brain, coming much closer to describing the whale’s character by lending a mystic quality to the whale’s sentience.

However, the best answer for Ishmael lies in the backbone — what better metaphor for the whale’s character than the firm and indomitable spine it is known to possess? Furthermore the magnitude of each vertebrae, especially nearer the skull itself, summatively compensates in mass for the diminutive skull itself. Therefore, according to Ishmael, the field of phrenology must expand its examinations of character to account for the spine as well as the skull, or it will continue to prove an inadequate science.

Chapter 80: The Nut

The phrenologist says, “You’re gonna have to wait for a while —
The skull of this whale is buried twenty feet from its smile.”

And I say, “Woe to the sailor; cheers to a stunning conceit —
So human is the notion that the head is the spiritual seat.”

And you say, “Maybe in a monster renowned more for power than guile
The ghost in the machine lives in the high Roman forehead with style.”

And I say, “With every minute, the character that’s in it must rest
Upon a mighty flagpole — the backbone’s the answer to test.”

Its vertebrae, close to the spigot
Equal the source in size, to the digit —
There resides a will, inflexible by its very design.

The phrenologist says, “You’re gonna have to wait for a while —
The skull of this whale is buried twenty feet from its smile.”

(c) and (p) 2010 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 13, 2010
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea July 12, 2011

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