Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Physeter catodon

Back in the last century, the Whaling Museum was a little musty, a little funky, and pretty damn cool. I remember an old coot giving a gallery talk about whaling. In his fantastic accent, he referred to the young locals heading out for those long whaling voyages as “justa coupla young fellas lookin for adventcha.” The museum has since upgraded, the island being full of the new money of the Point-Five-Percenters, and that colorful old timer is nowhere to be found. They even have a new whale skeleton. In my time it was a finback, impressive enough. That now hangs in my alma mater high school. In its place, more historically relevant, is this juvenile sperm whale skeleton. The little leviathan washed ashore in the late '90s.
Henry James says somewhere that there were terrible dark things behind the great fortunes of his day. For the wealthy of the mid 19th century Far Away Island, it was the slaughter of whales. This backbreaking work was capped by the melting of blubber into oil in the cauldrons of the try-works, “burning a corpse” as Melville described it. Most prized of corpses was the sperm whale, with its massive rectangular forehead laden with spermaceti, a waxy white substance thought to help with both the whale’s buoyancy and echolocation (they dive very deeply to find their favored prey, giant squid). Originally thought to be the whale’s sperm, the stuff became much desired for industrial, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic purposes. It was found in watch oil, candles, vitamins, and much else.
In that greatest of all American novels (which so messily unites theory and praxis, industry and theology, heaven and hell, as well as slaughter, damnation, and redemption), Moby Dick, the harpooner Tashtego falls into the whale’s head as they are emptying the case, as it is called, of spermaceti. He’s rescued by Queequeg, in a kind of Caesarian birth. “Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing.” Had Tashtego drowned encased in the perfumed spermaceti, Melville continues, the only comparable way of dying would be an Ohio honey hunter who fell into a great store of honey and was so embalmed in sweetness.
If you open this image up, you can just see one of the whale’s small vestigial pelvic bones hanging from a wire back there mid tail. It and its matching twin are not connected to any other bone in the whale’s body. Work of the Incompetent Designer? Hmm, I think not…

BTW, from what I understand, there’s only one bone in the human body not connected to any other bone: the hyoid, the one the tongue is attached to.

1 comment:

apt pupil said...

That makes me feel wary, wary small.