Sunday, October 31, 2010
Reading the Classics with Paul- Moby-Dick- Part 7
The chief bypath of this week's reading was a survey of whales in art history. More specifically, Ishmael spends several chapters comparing the appearance of whales in famous paintings and then stating that the paintings do not capture the appearance of whales as they appear in consensus reality to sailors a-hunting them. Rather an archaic, Philistine's view of art if he were really suggesting that art need "look like stuff looks," but I'm sure the point he was driving at was to lead people away from fantastic representations toward a more accurate mind's eye view, especially as we're about to get to some whale killing in our story. Let's take a moment and appreciate a novel instance of relevance in transitions from informational chapters to narrative.
Ah. Sweet relevance.
The painting above is Pêche de la Baleine by Ambrose Louis Garneray. Garneray was a contemporary of Melville's although it's doubtful they ever crossed paths. The painting above is what Ishmael finally arrives at as a good representational example of whaling in art. Note the "stripping" of the other whale in the background by the ship.
So much of this book would have demanded a tremendous amount of research (or apathy) from the reader in days before the advent of Google Image Search. Having the ability to readily see the images he's referring to proved quite helpful to me this time and far more engaging. Still, this was a bit of an exception to the text which, at this point in our reading, seems to be entirely side-trails. I'm not sure the chapter about whaling lines was necessary. I'm also not sure the chapter about the squid was necessary, although that one at least had the feature of idiosyncrasy to shake the reader awake.
Here is an example that Ishmael sites as a bad example, although more in step with the bulk of whales in paintings (albeit this one is an illustration rather than a painting. One imagines mainly from the artistic problem of depicting something that dwells beneath the surface of the ocean.) It's William Hogarth's depiction of Perseus and the whale:
Just for the sake of fun, compare with modern illustrator Tony Millionaire's whale:
The whale in art, as far as my own quick overview has revealed, seems to be more of a source to communicate unbridled, natural power beyond the means or comprehension of humankind. Which is rather in keeping with what Melville seems to be trying with this book. Again, his time spent poo-pooing whales in art history here seemed to me more a means to direct the mind's eye in viewing the coming chapter of whale hunting with a modicum of realism. I found it to be a successful technique, although, again, only with the benefit of the visual examples to which he refers.
We then have a chapter about the line used in whaling, a chapter where a giant squid shows up and spooks the easily spooked crew. Then we finally get a good, full description of a successful whale hunt. Stubb bags himself a whale through the efforts of his subordinates. I guess the commanding officer gets the distinction of the successful whale hunt just for showing up.
I don't have a lot to add at this point. Merrily we roll along. Something's bound to happen sooner or later.
In the coming week, we shall read through Chapter LXXIII which, in my text, takes us up to page 306.