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.

More evidence of sperm-squeezing

Looking again at “A Squeeze of the Hand,” Melville’s chapter about the practice of squeezing spermaceti, I noticed that Melville adds a telling bit of linguistic detail. Among the names that he gives for sperm whale detritus is slobgollion, “an appellation original with the whalemen.” He defines it as “an ineffably oozy, stringy affair, most frequently found in the tubs of sperm, after a prolonged squeezing, and subsequent decanting. I hold it to be the wondrously thin, ruptured membrances of the case, coalescing.”

It occurred to me that if sperm-squeezing was a real practice, then slobgollion must have been a real word, as well as an unusual one—and that with Google it’s now very easy to gather information about unusual words. A quick consultation with the OED proved inconclusive—though I did win a round of OED bingo—that is, when I looked up slobgollion, I found no more than the Melville passage I was trying to verify. Somewhat more helpfully, William Clark Russell’s 1883 Sailor’s Dictionary defines the word as a “whaleman’s term for an oozy, stringy substance found in sperm oil.” Clark Russell’s dictionary is so much later than Melville’s, though, that it’s possible he was just borrowing from Melville.

A more intriguing find was a report by Robert Clarke, “Open Boat Whaling in the Azores: The History and Present Methods of a Relic Industry,” Discovery Reports Issued by the National Institute of Oceanography, vol. 26 (1954): 283-356. Clarke visited the Azores in the summer of 1949 to study the natives’ continued practice of open-boat whaling. “The methods employed,” Clarke writes, “are a survival of that old-time whaling generally believed to have quite vanished from the seas, . . . learned from American whalers in the nineteenth century” and including not only the chase but also “the ‘cutting in’ of the whales and . . . the ‘trying out’ of their blubber in iron pots on the shore.”

Describing a heat purification system for oil and blubber at Negrito, on the isle of Terceira, Clarke writes:

The try-house stands nearby on somewhat higher ground, before a cemented space where two stone blubber tanks are excavated. Within the try-house there is a battery of four pots which are used for blubber only. The spermaceti from the case and junk is boiled out separately in an adjoining open-air try-works whose two pots are made not from cast iron but from riveted sheets of wrought iron. Spermaceti needs a lower temperature for trying out than blubber, and I have been told, rather obscurely, that this explains the use of sheet iron pots. At several Azores stations the case and junk are tried out indiscriminately with the blubber, so that the cooked spermaceti or ‘head oil’ is not kept separate. But where this separation is carried out, I understand that it is still customary, as in the whaleship days, to ‘squeeze sperm’ before putting the head matter into the pots. Squeezing sperm means plunging the hands into a tub of the semi-liquid spermaceti and there squeezing them together, so as to remove ‘slobgollion’, the fine strings and tatters of membrane which are suspended in the spermaceti and which would tend to char in the pots and somewhat affect the quality of the head oil.

So was sperm-squeezing real? I’m still not sure. The very word slobgollion, not being Portuguese, is probably one that Clarke brought with him to the Azores, borrowed from his reading of Melville. Also, the telltale phrase “I understand” seems to indicate that Clarke did not witness the practice himself. Still, he was told by someone he trusted that it did take place. Note that Clarke’s understanding of the purpose of sperm squeezing is not Melville’s but the one William M. Davis gave in Nimrod of the Sea (1874).

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.

The meaning of whales

This morning, Mathieu P. left the following comment to my post on Melville's poem "Monody":

I am currently reading Melville's Moby Dick. Although I enjoy the book, I fail to understand fully the meaning of the chapter devoted to whaling, such as the one about cetology or the one about whalemen eating whale meat. There are enough comments about religion or cannibals to make me think that these chapter should be taken with a pinch of salt. I do not however understand to which degree exactly they should be taken and what their precise aim is. I would welcome any pointers or explanations. I may add that my only clue about American literature is Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden, which I read eagerly (my English professor of my undergrad years praised that book).

I thought I'd try to answer publicly, not because I have the answer, but because by coincidence I've been thinking about this very question, among others, for a lecture that I've been invited to give at SUNY Geneseo's English department in honor of the Thoreau scholar Walter Harding. (The lecture is scheduled to take place at 4pm on September 23 on the SUNY Geneseo campus.)

What I hope to talk about at Geneseo is the problem of esoteric knowledge in Melville's work—that is, the sense that the reader has that Melville's work has a secret meaning, and that among the pleasures and duties of reading him is the pursuit of his secret. It isn't at all obvious that a work of art should have a secret meaning, and I think most successful works of art don't. It's hard enough to communicate when one is taking care to be honest and forthcoming. Jane Austen's novels don't seem to have secrets; not even a book as heavy with symbolism as the Great Gatsby does. Infinite Jest, on the other hand, seems to me to be hiding something—to be begging for exegesis—especially toward the end, when it turns compressed and the allusions to Hamlet start to accumulate. Books that provoke in the reader a sense of secret knowledge almost never, of course, make a claim to such knowledge explicitly, so deciding which books fall into the category is tricky and somewhat subjective.

There are more books in the world than anyone has time to read. Why should a reader think it worth his while to ferret out the meaning of a writer who is withholding it? Moreover, why should a reader believe that a withheld meaning is true? When people believe that someone has access to secret truths, it's generally because they think of the person as a prophet, a guru, or even an incarnated god. Why should a novelist have such access? Or to put the question another way: How does a novelist go about convincing readers that he has such access?

This is all a little far afield from Mathieu P.'s particular question, the short answer to which is that there is no consensus about what whaling signifies in Moby-Dick. Two books that suggest answers are Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael and C. L. R. James's Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, both of which lay more emphasis on political and economic meanings than is common in academic analyses. I hope in my lecture that I will be able to articulate some of my own hunches about the secrets in Moby-Dick, which always sound half-mad even to myself when I try to put them into words. My method will be to compare them to the half-submerged ideas that appear in Mardi and Clarel, two works of Melville's that are less successful but also try to lure the reader into the pursuit of hidden meanings. A whale is an intelligent mammal that doesn't kill, doesn't have to work, and needn't have second thoughts about its sexual nature. Though apparently simple, when that definition works its way through Melville's strangely intertwined ideas about gender, incarnation, sexuality, immortality, and capitalism, the reader ends up in a strange place. I read Byron's Cain this week, and it occurred to me that Melville's whales share a great deal with the beings that existed in the world before Adam, shown to Cain by Lucifer during a visit to Hades:

Cain. What are these mighty phantoms which I see
Floating around me?—They wear not the form
Of the Intelligences I have seen
Round our regretted and unentered Eden;
Nor wear the form of man as I have viewed it
In Adam's and in Abel's, and in mine,
Nor in my sister-bride's, nor in my children's:
And yet they have an aspect, which, though not
Of men nor angels, looks like something, which,
If not the last, rose higher than the first,
Haughty, and high, and beautiful, and full
Of seeming strength, but of inexplicable
Shape; for I never saw such. They bear not
The wing of Seraph, nor the face of man,
Nor form of mightiest brute, nor aught that is
Now breathing; mighty yet and beautiful
As the most beautiful and mighty which
Live, and yet so unlike them, that I scarce
Can call them living.

In Byron's play, the pre-Adamites are not the same as whales, which do however make an appearance a few pages later, when Lucifer, on the same tour of Hades, shows Cain an ocean, a thing Cain has never seen before:

Cain. 'Tis like another world; a liquid sun—
And those inordinate creatures sporting o'er
Its shining surface?

Lucifer. Are its inhabitants,
The past Leviathans.

Crowd-sourcing a lost Melville-related index

Extracts, the Melville Society’s newsletter from 1969 to 2005, is freely available online, including an index to a few dozen of the issues (number 49 to 72). Once upon a time, there also existed online an index to all the issues of Extracts. I seem to remember that this index was hosted on the site of someone not officially associated with the Melville Society. I also remember that when cross-referenced with the page images of the newsletter itself, it was very useful for tracking down odd bits of information about Melville not readily found elsewhere. But Google can’t tell me where this index is anymore, if indeed it still exists. Does anyone know?