Hunting the Whale


Arts & Culture


Currently on display in halls of the American Museum of Natural History are the complete skeletal remains of two sperm whales, a male and a female. They are the centerpieces of a much-advertised exhibit on whales that opened in March and will remain on view until January of next year.

I don’t know precisely what I hoped to encounter when I visited the exhibit earlier this month, but I knew it had something to do with Moby-Dick. I came with the high and ill-defined expectations of a pilgrimage, harboring vague notions that I might eye a peeking corner of the mystery embodied by Melville’s White Whale; I thought, deep in some inarticulate recess of my mind, that I might have the chance to live a dozen pages out of one of the best books I’ve ever read. I hoped I might come to better know it. I thought that I might see the whale. 

The two sperm whale skeletons are suspended by metal wire from the ceiling of the museum’s fourth floor exhibition space. The male is slightly over fifty-eight feet long, the female much smaller. Seeing them was a shock; reduced to their bare frames they might as well be entirely different animals, so little do they answer to the sperm whale in its skin. They hang in undulating poses over a dais of shiny black plastic, appearing like a pair of monstrous wraiths cresting the surface of forsaken waters. Melville provides a warning of this physical dissonance in Moby-Dick—“For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape.”—but that is poor preparation for just how alienating these skeletons can be. There is an unsettling ambiguity in their aspect, like the meeting of bird and snake. While pictures of the whale alive show a creature of curves, sleek fins, and a protuberant forehead, under the roof of the American Museum of Natural History and bereft of their flesh, these whales are assemblies of acute angles. Their peeked skulls, barbed with teeth, taper at the jaws to sharp beaks; looking up at the spiked vertebrae, you see a cutting ridge running along the spine that resolves itself decisively into the pointed tip of the tail. They are almost entirely devoid of the galumphing roundness that makes the living whale seem monumental, endearing, curiously childlike.

More surprising than their shape is their size. Reviewing the exhibit for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein was struck by their “immensity” and “commanding power.” He spoke of the show’s more diminutive attractions cowering in the “shadow of the chambers and curves of whalebone filling the high-ceilinged gallery.” “They loom,” he said, “over the video kiosks, wall panels and specimens, as if daring anything to come close.” That was not my experience at all. The exhibit has many attractions: video animations dramatizing the evolutionary history of whales; scrimshaw and ancient harpoons; Maori art and ambergris; an old ledger recording the events of a whaling voyage and an open copy of Moby-Dick, both under glass; a life-sized model of a Blue Whale’s heart, in and around which children climb like scavengers over deep-sea carrion. There is no want of diversion. Still, in the midst of all this edifying activity, I couldn’t help but think that the two sperm whale skeletons—even that belonging to the male, supposedly longer than a school bus—looked small.

There is an axiom about meeting one’s heroes that seems to apply here. Only this was worse. This was like returning once again to a favorite novel only to find that either it, or you, had changed, and now it was no longer good, and maybe, most terrifying of all, that it had never been good, or that it was all lies. I understand that my disappointment is unfair, vulgar even, and I place no blame on the museum or its curators for my failure to touch the sublime while perusing the contents of their exhibit. Like so many others I turn to Melville with much the same enthusiasm and heresy with which I thumb the pages of the Old Testament. I crack its thick heft for wisdom and for solace. Reading Moby-Dick I feel as though I’ve finally gotten to the quick of something, that my feet have at long last found the bottom. My disappointment may have been unjust, but it was real: I was finally in the presence of Melville’s great subject and it seemed to have nothing to do with his book.

“How vain and foolish, then, thought I,” Ishmael says, “for timid untraveled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton… No. Only in the heart of the quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly found out.” There is some consolation. But if the skeleton is only a dead cipher, how to explain Melville’s own rapturous descriptions of those skeletons which Ishmael knows so intimately? The larger of the two whale skeletons on display at the American Museum of Natural History belonged to a whale Melville would have called, “of moderate size,” referring to the skeleton kept to this day in Yorkshire, England, at Burton Constable, which is actually one foot longer than the big one here in New York. (Chapters 102 through 104 deal explicitly with the skeleton of the whale.) As a result of nearly two centuries of industrial slaughter, sperm whales today are smaller than they were when Melville put to sea; they no longer grow much past seventy feet. Melville claims that in the early nineteenth century you could find sperm whales as long as eighty feet, and Ishmael has supposedly heard tell of some measuring near ninety. But even this more diminutive example in England, which Melville probably never saw, sounds gigantic in his description, promising us that for threepence we might pay to “hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivaled view from his forehead.” For no amount could you accomplish either with this humble pair in the galleries above 79th Street and Central Park West.

It might seem petty to dwell on size. I suppose a whale is a whale whether it is fifty feet long or five. We have a litany of excuses that might redeem these skeletons and this novel: the skeletons now on display are not especially large examples of the species; the skeletons are by no means commensurate with the living animal; Melville’s whale is a metaphor. All true. But still, shouldn’t there have been something overwhelming here? Size is one of the most important devices Melville employs in Moby-Dick. It is an excellent metaphor with which to depict humanity’s modest stature in a vast and hostile universe. The whale must be large because we must stand in awe of it, “From his mighty bulk the whale affords a most congenial theme whereon to enlarge, amplify, and generally expatiate… To produce a mighty book,” Melville informs us, “you must choose a mighty theme.” The exhibition’s official title makes that same argument in its five words, associating enormity with mystery: “Whales: Giants of the Deep.” I don’t think that my desire to see the whale in person was foolish. Seeing the whale is Melville’s project too, an act he depicts as significant specifically because of the size of the sperm whale.

Practically everyone else associated with the whale fishery only ever saw their quarry in fragments, either obscured beneath unsettled ocean waves or cut to pieces on deck. Melville wants to show us the whale because it is only in a book that we might hope to really see it, to “paint to you as well as one can without canvas, something like the true form of the whale,” as a whaleman might view it. “[T]he great Leviathan,” he tells us, “is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last,” and while one might manage to approach an accurate visual depiction of its shape, “there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like.” In life, actually confronted with the whale in space, its boundaries are too uncertain. In part, it is the mystery of the whale’s true extent that makes it seem enormous. The entire whale cannot be taken in with a single sweep of the eyes, not even a whale of moderate size, not when it’s alive. Because its borders are vague one perceives the potential of an infinite organism extending out indefinitely in space. While these bizarre skeletons may not in fact loom or cast dwarfing shadows, the borders of the real whale, the living creature to which they once belonged, remain unknown. We still might catch an intimation of the infinite in what is absent.

The purpose of the exhibit is to reveal the whale, to cast in broad strokes its empirical secrets, to better know it. But attending this exhibit with Moby-Dick as your guidebook, you are immediately confronted with a seemingly irresolvable contradiction: how can you know something you cannot see? A literary confrontation with the whale seems at first wholly incommensurable with a scientific examination of it, but in Melville’s own descriptive exercise there is a possible solution. He dissects the whale for us with words, disassembling it chapter by chapter, piece by piece. He sticks in the knife at “The Sperm Whale’s Head—Contrasted View” chapter 74, and cuts all the way down to “The Tail,” chapter 86. Then he digs deeper, excavating over the course of a hundred pages the whale’s physical and philosophical particulars, descending all the way to the “unconditional skeleton.” He shows us the whale in our imagination as it could not be seen when we stand in its presence. If ever there were an embodiment of nature as a force, this is it: an encompassing entity, everywhere on display but too ubiquitous to see as a singularity. Mysterious even in the flesh, trussed in chains and hanging from the bow of the Pequod, the shape of nature eludes perception. Melville’s lengthy descriptions, in all their specificity and at times exasperating precision, are a way to present something truly mammoth. He must carefully obliterate the whale in order to understand it in its entirety. Only by pulling the whale apart can he know it. Even then, the sperm whale can only exist for us as an abstraction residing in thought. Broken into manageable, observable parts—parts which themselves can never again be physically reunited—we know it as it exists in life. This scene, the butchering of the whale, is in fact an epistemological model of knowledge through destruction. What we would know must remain obscure until it is broken, and only by breaking it and remaking it in the mind can we know it as it exists beyond ourselves. Understanding it means destroying it, and once we know it, it no longer exists.

This epistemology of devastation is more than a literary conceit. We still find it in certain odd corners of the natural sciences. The profligate unpacking of cadavers by medical students in gross anatomy, for example. Or the smashing of atoms in giant particle colliders, their minute explosions spilling out the secrets of the universe. This violent way of knowing the natural world—destroying it to deprive it of its mystery—is, coincidentally, also the epistemological model of the American Museum of Natural History. It is of a bygone time. At the turn of the century even a field as avant-garde as psychology subscribed to it. In a speech at Clarke University in September 1909, the same conference that witnessed Sigmund Freud’s only American address, E. B. Titchener, the founder of the Experimentalist school of psychology, asked: “What is psychology ‘for’?”:

If the object of the psychologist is to know mind, to understand mind, then it seems to me—in view of the overwhelming complexity of mind in the concrete—that his only course is to pull mind to pieces, and to scrutinize the fragments as minutely as possible and from all points of view. His results, in synthetic reconstruction, give him the same sort of intelligent grip upon the living body.

The museum is a validation of this violent mode of discovery. Strolling the halls like a Flaneur of the apocalypse, we find examples of this edifying destruction in the museum’s many gorgeous dioramas, replete with taxidermied animals, each posed in a pantomime of action. The museum’s first permanent exhibition included only one species of animal. The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, still open since its unveiling in 1896, six years after the U.S. Census reported that the frontier was finally and forever closed, remains a memorial to conquest. Here is another way to know something through its destruction. The museum itself is an exhibit of a long gone animal, a moment in human history kidnapped from its own time and spirited into the present, preserved in an alien world behind glass and brick, a thing fit now only for entertaining the very young and the ironical.

A similar problem complicates the whale exhibit. Most of its displays are bilingual, presented in both in Maori and English. Maori art and culture are featured prominently in the show, and the material was curated by Rhonda Palu of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which loaned the sperm whale skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History. No doubt the exhibit devotes so much of the show to Maori culture in good faith, but in its enthusiasm it has the potential to impress upon visitors the exact opposite of the message it intends. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael takes a tour of the sperm whale skeleton in which he too requires native guides. In his case, it is King Tranquo and an entourage of priests from Tranque in the Arsacides, known today as Malaita in the Solomon Islands, almost a thousand miles away from New Zealand. Ishmael asks to take the measure of King Tranquo’s whale skeleton, which the people of Tranque venerate as a religious object. When they refuse—“Dar’st thou measure this out god!”—Ishmael outsmarts them, provokes a fight within the group, and in the ensuing melee quickly concludes his own admeasurements.

At the museum we find a different encounter. We are almost given the impression that the Maori have not simply a different kind of knowledge of whales, but a closer knowledge, as if somehow we need the Maori language to get closer to the whale. The museum reprises Moby-Dick’s more human chapters: like Ishmael, we require the invocation of an exotic human intermediary to understand the whale skeleton. In light of the museum’s permanent exhibits on Native Americans, this invocation of native knowledge of the natural world remains disconcertingly vague, as if both the whale and the people who worship it are more natural than the precise and empirical Ishmael. 

Leaving the whale exhibit, wandering the many showrooms of the museum’s other halls and their representations of animals and people, all the while milling among school field trips and enthusiastic children, you catch a faint whiff of obscenity which is only somewhat allayed by the kitsch of it all. It seems strange that a museum so steeped in death should have become a place devoted primarily to the amusement—and education—of children, and it is only by feigning a childlike innocence that an adult visitor can enjoy it. Again, the sperm whale and its skeleton present the apt metaphor. “Thus,” Melville tells us, describing the tail of the enormous Leviathan, an animal that has doomed ships and killed men, “we see how that the spine of even the hugest of living things tapers off at last into simple child’s play.”

Jason Z. Resnikoff lives in New York City. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in history at Columbia University.