They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains
the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.
–D. H. Lawrence, Whales Weep Not!
It seems everyone who writes about whales discovers eventually that it requires a huge swath of their life to accomplish, not least Herman Melville of course with his paragon Moby Dick.
With such gorgeous passages as these, he demonstrates his understanding that what he observes in whales is actually a metaphor for his own life:
And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.
The most spectacular exploration of the metaphorical acts of consciousness.
-Marilyn Robinson about Moby Dick
This month Norton published an intriguing and cleverly layered novel titled Dayswork, by Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel, about a woman who, with wit and insight, explores the Melvillian legacy and the cottage industry and academic sideshow that has formed around the study of Melville and his masterpiece.
I’ve never read anything quite like it; chock-full of tidbits both trivial and profound. Her repartee with her spouse throughout is based in a shared intelligence and humor as the bite-sized paragraphs speed the reader along through the many ups and downs of Melville’s life and legacy.
Five known species undergo menopause, I’ve recently learned, and four of them are whales… Studies of whale pods show that the presence of post-reproductive females increases survival rates of young whales—the so-called “grandmother effect,” I told my husband. I told him that postmenopausal whales often lead their pods on the hunt for food. So for whales, I said, menopause is actually an adaptive trait.
I didn’t know until recently that I even cared anything about Moby Dick, but Dayswork casts Melville and his work in such a light that I was enticed to read it for the first time. It lives up to its billing; it is American Shakespeare in its dramatic scope and humor, it precedes Freud and Jung in archetypal exploration, and it is musical, poetic and expansive in its language.
The book is pervaded by the spirit of play, like real jazz sounds when a master is manipulating it. The thing’s full of riffs, man.
-Ralph Ellison about Moby Dick
Dayswork also introduces us to the fascinating side stories of those devoted biographers of Melville who form a kind of multigenerational tribe, taking on a bit of Ahab’s madness themselves in their endeavors to unearth the backdrop of Melville’s genius. All the while, another whale in the room is Covid, as the protagonist and her family struggle through the confinement and refashioning of their lives due to the virus. Falling into the category of “autobiographical fiction” the overall impact of this novel is powerful and I highly recommend it.
Once I started thinking about whales, other books about whales and the profound place they hold in human awareness and literature started coming my way. From the biblical mythology of Jonah being swallowed by a whale to the newly published sci-fi novel Whalefall by Daniel Krauss, (the academy award winning co-author of The Shape of Water) the concepts of searching, the sea, struggle and redemption are invoked repeatedly, with whales playing a part in all of it.
On the recommendation of a good friend I also recently read and viewed The Whale, a stage play written by Samuel Hunter. The play premiered in 2012 and was then turned into an award winning film in 2022. Hunter uses the metaphor of a whale to depict a morbidly obese man who is desperately trying to redeem his life. Moby Dick is invoked throughout the play by the protagonist Charlie’s obsession with an essay about Moby Dick which he recites as an incantation against his pain. The author of the essay is not revealed until the end of the drama, the viewer is simply aware that it was written by a young student. The lines are quite touching in their simplicity and sincerity:
…In the course of the book, the pirate Ahab encounters many hardships. His entire life is set around trying to kill a certain whale. I think this is sad because this whale doesn’t have any emotions, and doesn’t know how bad Ahab wants to kill him. He’s just a poor big animal. And I feel bad for Ahab as well, because he thinks that his life will be better if he can kill this whale, but in reality it won’t help him at all. I was very saddened by this book, and I felt many emotions for the characters. And I felt saddest of all when I read the boring chapters that were only descriptions of whales, because I knew that the author was just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while. This book made me think about my own life…
One last recommendation is the 2023 Booker prize nominated Whale, by Korean author Cheon Myeong-Kwan. Described as: brimming with surprises and wicked humor, ‘Whale’ is an adventure-satire of epic proportions. Sound familiar?
Melville’s influence, or perhaps just the whales themselves, continue to inspire magnificent literature.
Well here it is, our lengthiest newsletter to date. Forgive me, I seem to have caught a bit of Melvillian madness myself.
Non-Fiction Whale Tales
Lynne Cox was just seventeen years old, training for a big ocean swim when she encountered a baby gray whale two hundred yards off-shore. This is her memoir of the lasting effect the experience of trying to save the young whale had on her life.
Cultural Lives of Whales & Dolphins and Sperm Whales: Social Evolution in the Ocean
Biologist, Hal Whitehead, specializes in sperm whales and has several revelatory treatises on whale cultures and societies.
For further reading check out our full list on animal intelligence.
Spying On Whales
More recently, Nick Pyenson brings a paleontological perspective to unearth secrets from the leviathan past.
This gorgeous coffee-table book details the odyssey of photographer Bryant Austin in his quest to capture life-size portraits of whales. There are 3 page-wide centerfolds giving a much better sense of the huge bulk and length as well as otherworldly detail of these astounding beasts. But they’re not ‘mere beasts’ by any means. Sperm whales have the largest brain on earth. Sadly out of print but available through our partners at biblio.com.
A revised edition of Thousand Mile Song, originally published in 2008.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs asks questions and provides meditations on what wisdom we can learn from our marine mammal cousins.