Hey, Melville! I take issue with your Cetology.

11 Apr

OK everyone, back up.  Way back to Chapter 32.   You remember – it’s the chapter where Melville decides to throw out the whole classification system invented by Carolus (Carl) Linnaeus.  Back in biology class we all learned the classification system he invented, starting with KPCOFGS.  (Yes, that’s Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, or whatever mnemonic device you used to remember the order such as King Phillip Came Over For Good Supper.)   Now, I know he wasn’t perfect (after all, who really wants to remember long scientific “genus species” names in Latin???), but I’d say he is pretty near genius, considering most of what he proposed almost 300 years ago still holds true today.   There is a reason he is called the “Father of Taxonomy.”

Apparently Melville wasn’t convinced.   He decides that whales are not really mammals, but instead fish (that spout and have a horizontal tale).   Following this rather audacious comment, he proceeds to produce a very LONG chapter with three “folios” of whale-fish with multiple “chapters” each.   Melville?   What about live birth?  What about nursing?  What about body hair?  Warm-blooded?  Sorry.  I’m with Linnaeus.  I realize you know almost everything possible there is to know about whales (and thanks to this TOME, I now know more than I ever wanted to know about them), but this is one area in which you should have stuck with the experts.

And while I’m ranting, here’s another area where you and I disagree, Melville.   Polar bears.  Yep, polar bears. An object of terror?  Ghastly?  Staggering courage?   Intolerable hideousness?  A brute?  (Descriptions from Chapter 42)   I happen to like them.  I happen to think they are beautiful, majestic and powerful.   Yes, I wouldn’t want to cozy up to one, but neither would I want to cozy up to a black or grizzly bear.   So there.


Posted by on April 11, 2012 in Moby-Dick



6 responses to “Hey, Melville! I take issue with your Cetology.

  1. Adriana @ Classical Quest

    April 11, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    He also knew nothing about echolocation. I guess that discovery wasn’t made until long after Melville’s time though.

  2. Tonia

    April 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    Lol! I laughed when I read that chapter. I kept thinking to myself- this book would be soooo much shorter if he would stop with these bunny trails and just tell the story. But I suppose he wanted to do more than just “tell a story”.

  3. Jeannette

    April 11, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    I heartily agree, Tonia. “Bunny trails” are everywhere. In fact, I think one of my other bloggers is going to post something about The Essential Moby Dick, letting everyone know which chapters are really important to the plot. Somehow, I think there will not be all that many.

    It sometimes amazes me, Adriana, how much science he DOES manage to know despite the lack of technology back then. You are right, though. No echolocation.

  4. Christine

    April 13, 2012 at 6:54 am

    Go, J, go! Hit him again! You’ve got him backed into a corner now!
    That’s what I was thinking to myself as I read your post.

  5. Jody

    April 13, 2012 at 9:03 am

    I’ve not read WEM and I’ve not been following this blog (but I just might have to once in a while), but I’ve been trying to get through Moby Dick again off and on for the last 2 years! I first read it during a busy semester in college, and I remember falling asleep several times and waking up in a different chapter! But this time, I’m enjoying the whole thing–even the bunny trails. What’s different? I think because I’m older and because I don’t have much time to read a bunch at a time my perspective is different. What I think is fun this time is I’m noticing the humor in the whole novel. Melville seems to be poking fun at the seriousness of his whole book–with all the bunny trails and all. He’s poking fun at Ishmael, of all the characters, and most of all at the self-importance of such an endeavor. It seems like he’s trying to fit in like every genre of writing–including this classification chapter which I find very tongue-in-cheek.

    Now if I can just find the book, I might have to pick it up again for the first time in several months. . .

  6. Adriana @ Classical Quest

    April 13, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Here’s some more fuel for your fire, though it doesn’t fall under “Cetology”:

    “Against all mortal tribulations, Stubb’s tobacco smoke might have operated as a sort of disinfecting agent.”


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