The Counterpane

Angela Cockayne, Sleeping Sperm Whales: 19 sperm whales made from duvets

This morning you can find me online reading “The Counterpane,” chapter 4 of Moby-Dick. Ishmael wakes up in Queequeg’s arms, is startled to find his bedmate’s hard tomahawk between them, and is reminded of the time his step-mother caught him trying to go up the chimney.

The reading is part of the Moby-Dick Big Read, which invites 135 different readers—including Tilda Swinton, prime minister David Cameron, Chad Harbach, and Andrew Delbanco—to tackle a chapter of Herman Melville’s novel. The project is being organized by the writer Philip Hoare and the artist Angela Cockayne. Hoare is the author of The Whale, which recounts his lifelong, Melville-induced pursuit of the leviathan, and Cockayne, too, takes much inspiration from Melville’s novel (the photo above is of her work Sleeping Sperm Whales).

I feel very honored to take part. The Guardian notes that other readers include Benedict Cumberbarch, Will Self, and David Attenborough; the New York Times reports that John Waters and Stephen Fry are involved; and the Provincetown Wicked Local adds the names Fiona Shaw, Cerys Matthews, and Nathaniel Philbrick.

“Melville’s Secrets”

Frontispiece to Piranesi's Carceri, Steedman Exhibit, St. Louis Public Library

My essay “Melville’s Secrets” will be published in the September issue of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. A subscription to the journal is sent to all members of the Melville Society, so join now (you can use Paypal and do it all online), if you’d like a copy. The essay is a mild revision of the Walter Harding lecture that I gave at SUNY Geneseo in September 2010.

Melville’s Secrets: The Walter Harding Lecture, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I gave the 2010 Walter Harding lecture at SUNY Geneseo. The lecture series is named after Walter Harding, who taught for decades in Geneseo and was the preeminent twentieth-century scholar of Henry David Thoreau, and I felt it was a tremendous honor to have been asked. I talked about Melville’s secrets—in particular, about a distorted Platonic myth that I suspect may be present in Moby-Dick. “Ishmael,” I claimed, “might be considered a final, uninvited guest to Plato’s banquet, and his tale a postscript to Diotima’s.”

SUNY Geneseo has already uploaded a video of my talk (perhaps also embedded below, if I’ve coaxed the html sufficiently); a downloadable audio is forthcoming. I’m not going to post a transcript, because I’m hoping to revise the talk into a scholarly paper in the not-too-distant future. To that end, if any of you who heard the talk yesterday or who listen to it online have suggestions, corrections, or comments, please get in touch.

I had a great time at SUNY Geneseo. Many thanks to Marjorie Harding, for the gift that made the lecture series possible; it was an honor to meet the Harding family. I’m very grateful to Geneseo’s English department for their hospitality and great questions. I’m especially grateful to department chair Paul Schacht for his support and guidance, to associate professor Alice Rutkowski for a very kind introduction, and to the college president and English professor Christopher Dahl and his wife Ruth Rowse for a lovely dinner.

Did Melville invent sperm-squeezing?

Once spermaceti, the oil inside the head of a sperm whale, is extracted, it begins to congeal, and in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” the 94th chapter of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville claims that sailors used to be put to work rehomogenizing the oil by hand:

When the proper time arrived, this same sperm was carefully manipulated ere going to the try-works, of which anon.

It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty!

Melville goes on to describe an ecstatic experience that overcame his narrator while engaged in sperm squeezing; that ecstasy has attracted much commentary and speculation about its possible sexual and psychological significance. The meanings that Melville invests in the task are clearly a contribution of his own. Much of the whaling practice described in the novel, though, is non-fiction. Was sperm-squeezing?

When I reviewed Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan for the New Yorker in 2007, I concluded that it wasn’t, but the case is a tricky one, so here’s a presentation of the evidence.

Dolin himself was agnostic, and merely quoted Melville’s description of “the experience of squeezing the lumps out of congealed spermaceti” (Dolin, p. 267). A number of nineteenth-century whaling narratives do confirm that spermaceti looks, feels, and behaves as Melville describes, though prior to the publication of Moby-Dick, none that I know of describes hands-on delumping.

In Incidents of a Whaling Voyage (1841), for example, Francis Allyn Olmsted writes:

The case [the head of the whale] is surrounded by a thick wall of a white, gristly substance, termed by the whalers “white horse;” the cavity is lined with a yellowish fat, and is filled with oil of a very superior quality, which, when warm, is perfectly limpid, but concretes in beautiful white masses, if allowed to become cold, or as it drips upon the water. (p. 65)

Olmsted goes on to say that “The head oil and fat are immediately committed to the try-pots”—cauldrons where the fat is purified by high heat. He makes no mention of physical manipulation.

According to William Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), head oil wasn’t passed through try-pots before it was stored: “The head-matter congeals when it is cold; it is put into casks in its crude state, and refined on shore at the conclusion of the voyage” (vol. 2, pp. 534-35). In Whaling and Fishing, published in 1856, Charles Nordhoff also describes storing case oil immediately, without boiling it first in try-pots:

Meantime the case was opened; a man being placed in the large opening, the pure and beautifully white spermacetti was bailed out with a bucket constructed for that purpose. It is quite fluid when first taken out, but quickly congeals on exposure to air. It is at once placed in new casks, which are duly marked “case.” (p. 127)

Since I haven’t found any accounts before Melville that refer to sperm squeezing and since the episode in the novel is overlaid with such personal psychological significance, it seems possible that Melville invented the practice, which doesn’t on the face of it make much sense. If sperm oil congeals as it cools, then presumably it melts again when heated, so the try-works would render squeezing unnecessary. On the other hand, if the spermaceti is to be stored in barrels without heat purification, squeezing would be in vain, because the lumps would inevitably form again while the oil waited inside the barrels; whalers often spent years at sea. Melville does sometimes invent. In the very next chapter, “The Cassock,” he writes that before the tougher blubber of the whale is sliced up for the try-pots, the slicer dresses himself in the skin of the whale’s penis. As Howard P. Vincent observed in In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, “the whaling sources give no indication, physiological or otherwise, of the facts of Melville’s chapter” and so “one must assume that it came from memory or from an imagination profoundly Rabelaisian.” Probably the latter.

But there’s at least one piece of evidence vindicating Melville. In Nimrod of the Sea (1874), in a passage that I was first directed to by Wilson Heflin’s Herman Melville’s Whaling Years, William M. Davis does describe sperm squeezing:

On being withdrawn [from the head of whale], the bucket is filled with transparent spermaceti, mixed with the soft, silky integuments, and possessing the odor of the new-drawn milk of our home dairies. With our hands blistered yesterday by the oar, and all on fire to-day by the harsh friction of the handspike, it was luxurious to wade deep in the try-pots filled with this odorous unguent, in order to squeeze and strain out the fibres, which, if allowed to remain, would char with the heat, and darken the oil. No king of earth, even Solomon in all his glory, could command such a bath. I almost fell in love with the touch of my own poor legs, as I stroked the precious ointment from the skin.

One reason to hesitate in accepting this evidence is the date. Since Nimrod began writing his book in 1872, there’s a possibility of contamination—in other words, there’s a possibility that he read Melville’s novel and later remembered Melville’s account as an experience of his own. (For a contemporary example, consider Tony Blair, whose account of meeting with the queen incorporates dialogue from Stephen Frears’s movie The Queen, which Blair claims not to have seen.) It argues against contamination that Davis’s account differs somewhat from Melville’s. The purpose of squeezing, Davis writes in the passage above, wasn’t to redissolve lumps but to remove fibers that would darken the oil—a more plausible explanation than Melville’s, though it suggests that if the task was real, Melville failed to understand the point of it and probably didn’t do a very good job. Davis’s reference to Solomon’s bath reminds me of Melville’s reference to Constantine’s, though—hinting at contamination. Maybe Davis did unconsciously turn Melville’s fictional description into a memory of his own and just as unconsciously revised it, to make it more rational. Also worrisome: Try-pots had to reach a very high temperature, and they stayed at that temperature for days while a whale was being processed, so I’m a little skeptical of Davis’s account of wading into the try-pots, which implies significant delay in heating them. Also, even a small amount of moisture in the try-pots was dangerous, because it caused the oil to sputter. Olmsted says the whalers went to great lengths to keep moisture out, making it unlikely that sailors, who perspire, would have been asked to wade into the fluid.

Despite my reservations, I’m inclined for the interim to accept Davis’s testimony and believe that sperm-squeezing was an activity that real whalers engaged in, as well as fictional ones. But I wish there were more evidence on either side. A plea for crowd-sourcing: If anyone knows of another reference to sperm squeezing—especially one published before 1851—I’d love to hear about it.