The Rare Virtue of Interior Spaciousness; or, Bigger on the Inside

Amy Reading Click to

Amy Reading is a writer based in Ithaca, NY. She received a PhD in American Studies from Yale University in 2007. She is the author of The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con. She is currently working on a literary biography called Katharine S. White Edits the New Yorker, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“It is pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles,” Ishmael says, and I will have to take his word for it, not having a strip of sperm whale cuticle to test out the matter for myself. He is referring to the “infinitely thin” and transparent layer that encases the whale from fluke to forehead and that, once peeled and dried and broken into shards, functions for him as a bookmark, and even “exerts a magnifying influence” upon the words of the whale books that he reads. I have my doubts about the magnifying power of desiccated whale dermis.

I have read this passage over and over. It appears in Chapter 68 of Moby-Dick, “The Blanket,” and when I read it, I am looking not through whale skin but through Ishmael himself. He is my lens, and he has just blithely admitted to his distorting power. He, for the breadth of this chapter, is reading not his whale books, but the whale itself, specifically the marks that crisscross the captured whale, the lines scored upon its body by its encounters in the sea with rocks and corals, other animals, other whales, other harpooners.

Ishmael’s imagination is excited by these marks, these “hieroglyphics” and “mysterious cyphers,” and by this point in the story we have come to expect what his mind will do with them. The “mystic-marked whale remains indecipherable” but nonetheless charged with energy. The markings testify to contact, to an embodied history, even if they remain that which Ahab chiefly hates, an “inscrutable thing.” Ishmael, on the other hand, is roused by the mystery, driven to ecstatic flights of fancy.

Each time I read this chapter, I expect to find the word “palimpsest,” but with its European origin in domesticated animals and medieval manuscripts, that word is, rather significantly, one of the things that does not come to Ishmael’s mind. Instead, he likens the marks to Indian characters chiseled on the banks of the Upper Mississippi, and rocks on the New England coast that have been grazed by icebergs. His sperm whale is, somehow, American and ancient all at once.

I wish I could tap Ishmael on the shoulder as he bends over his magnifying skin and tell him what I learned just the other day, that there are bowhead whales currently swimming off Alaska’s Arctic waters who were alive when he was. We know this, because the Eskimo who are still allowed to hunt for subsistence have caught whales with nineteenth-century harpoon points lodged in their flesh. It is not hard to hear Ishmael’s reveries on this matter.

Can anyone question that the sperm whale is Ishamel’s? If the whale ship is his Yale College and his Harvard, his textbook is the whale itself. It is my firm contention here that Ishmael, before and after he is a merchant sailor and a whaler and the writer of the voyage of the Pequod, is a reader. Magnified or distorted, whatever I read in Moby-Dick I read doubled through Ishmael, who is constituted wholly by the cognitive act of reading the whale. This, for me, is what accounts for the spectral nature of his presence in the novel. He is not actually there, just like I am not actually in my chair when I read Moby-Dick. He is the projection of a reading mind within the pages of an adventure tale. Intensely alive and yet absent in so many ways.

We have already spoken of what effect the inscrutability of the whale’s markings has on Ishmael. We must needs speak at much greater length about the fact that, even before you can read the whale, the very skin of the whale forms for Ishmael a “not unvexed subject.” Not unvexed at all. One might go so far as to say “vexed.” Because as it turns out, “experienced whalemen afloat, and learned naturalists ashore” cannot even say for certain what whale skin is.

We are in strange territory in “The Blanket.” We must dive down below the glassine layer on the surface of whale, which cannot possibly count as its skin, being “thinner and more tender than the skin of a new-born child.” It is Ishmael’s contention that the true skin is the blubber, the yellowish-white fat between ten and twenty inches in thickness. On what basis does Ishmael make his case? Well, in part because the markings that he reads so keenly are seen through the thin outer layer. The writing is within.

But here my doubts surface again. Are there really controversies among naturalists as to what constitutes something so basic and palpable as a whale’s skin? What are the poles of the controversy and whose opinion does Ishmael counter?

Melville’s favorite cetological source during the ardent eighteen months in which he composed Moby-Dick was Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale from 1839.

We know it was his favorite, because he underlined and check-marked and annotated it more exhaustively than any other book in his library. And we know about all those xxs and circles in the margins because they have recently been painstakingly revived by a dedicated corps of scholars after a century of erasure. Melville’s copy of Beale’s book was sold from his estate after his death, and it passed through a number of hands, at least one of which was a librarian, who surely must have been the one to obliterate his pencil marks. The book was stickered for a library collection and then sometime later sold again, at which point its stickers were stripped. Finally in the 1930s someone bothered to read Melville’s inked signature on the half-title page, and it only took thirty more years for the book to end up at Harvard’s Houghton Library. In this decade, under the penetrating gaze of cameras and Photoshop, the traces of Melville’s hand have once again surfaced. To put a very fine point on it, we know what Melville knew because a team of sub-sub librarians have read the palimpsests, deciphered the hieroglyphs, accurately detected the true skin of the book that was once under Melville’s scrutiny.

And there it is in Chapter One: a checkmark in the margin right next to Beale’s statement that the sperm whale’s skin is “frequently marked on the sides by linear impression, appearing as if rubbed against some angular body.” Turn the page and Melville has flicked another mark next to the staunch declaration that the blubber is the cutis vera of the whale.

But if we are curious enough to flip to Chapter Eight of Beale’s work, we find that he takes up the matter at greater length, as indeed he must, for there are not two layers to the sperm whale as Ishmael might have you believe, but three: the cuticle or rete mucosum, the cutis, and the blubber. The middle stratum is villous, pliable, and ridged. Beale suddenly introduces italics to his prose, and all indications are that he is heading into treacherous waters, for this middle layer “seems to the termination of the cellular membrane of the body more closely united, having smaller interstices, and becoming more compact.” If I am not mistaken, he is suggesting with no little urgency that the cutis is where we find the gossamer outer sheath giving way to interiority. And yes, there it is: “the whole has more the appearance of one uniform substance.” But on the very next page Beale has returned to his earlier tenet on blubber. Again, Melville placed a mark.

Could Beale be equivocating where Ishmael does not? He does not explicitly refer to dissension on the matter, but he does attribute his opinion to Professor Jacob of Dublin, in what now reads to my eye like a dodge. To Professor Arthur Jacob, then, a doctor of Anatomy and Physiology in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

When a bottlenose whale was stranded on the beaches of Killiney a few miles from Dublin, he seized upon the animal for dissection, and later he measured a six-weeks-dead whale that had been found floating some distance from Innisturk. His papers in the Dublin Philosophical Journal are, I see, well-known among learned naturalists, and his opinion, though backed only by Professors Hamilton, Pallas, and Giescecki, is distinctive enough that all feel compelled to mention it. Jacob strenuously argues that the blubber is the “true reticulated skin” of the whale, and he uses one of the very same criteria by which Ishmael also nominates the blubber: the impossibility of raising any other integral layer from the body.

So Ishmael was right—the controversy does rage, and he, Jacob, and Beale are the renegades. I find that my feelings are mixed and that part of me wanted to discover that the dispute was Ishmael’s literary device, that we are reading not a whale but a book that swims in the ocean. The other part me of dearly wants to know more about this whale.

The consensus view can be found in Melville’s other foundational source for the cetological chapters of Moby-Dick, William Scoresby, Jr.’s An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale Fishery of 1820. What does Mr. Scoresby—explorer, scientist, son of a whaleboat captain, tamer of polar bears, inspiration for the character of Lee Scoresby in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials—say on the matter, on behalf of Professors Ray, Tyson, Pennant, Hunter, and Cuvier, among others?

Scoresby’s stance is striking for the lack of anxiety which surrounds it. Furthermore, Charles Darwin, whose copy of Scoresby’s book I am reading, found nothing within these pages worth underlining or commenting on. Quite simply, the true skin of the whale is neither cuticle nor blubber. It is a layer between the two, “which is white and tough” and a great delicacy to the Eskimo, who crowd around whaleships just returned from the hunt to snag pieces and feed them to their babies. The strips with bits of blubber still attached are especially prized, and I sense Scoresby mentions this not so that you will know how properly to eat whale skin the next time it is offered, but to rebut the view that nothing but cuticle and blubber can be peeled from the whale.

Scoresby also just casually tosses off mention of a fourth layer to this seemingly infinite matter. Above the true skin but below the cuticle lies the rete mucosum, generally about three-fourths of an inch thick in the adult sperm whale.

It is enough to make the non-cetologist despair. Beale too mentioned the rete mucosum. Can this really be so difficult? I feel submerged within the layers. Can we not ride on an Eskimo whaleship and watch as the blanket is peeled to enumerate the strata? But no, my only recourse is a pencil, and I flip through my notes on Scoresby and Beale and draw whale skin cross-sections in the margins to ascertain that Beale’s rete mucosum is different than Scoresby’s. The two cannot be reconciled.

The rete mucosum, for Scoresby, deserves nothing more than a brief mention, though it is a layer unto itself. Beale, on the other hand, equates it with the cuticle, which we set aside at the very outset. It is Beale who encourages me to pick it back up, with this staggering assertion: “It is the cuticle which gives the colour to the animal; and in parts that are dark, I think I have seen a dirty coloured substance washed away in the separation of the cuticle from the cutis.”

I squint in vain for a checkmark in the margin next to Beale’s revelation. How is it possible that Melville abstained from marking this passage? I truly cannot believe it. How does the rete mucosum not arrest Ishmael’s fantasies of spelunking into the whale’s skin? How does it not disorder his entire story of the whale with no color? The rete mucosum suddenly seems like Ishmael’s blind spot, that which should have troubled his mind to the point of fervent philosophizing. That which gives the whale its color, that which can leak its color into the sea upon a certain provocation, that which whales share with humans, at least according to the nineteenth-century medical journals that I am now consulting, having set aside the natural history books in my state of pure shock.

John Bell in his Anatomy and Physiology of the Human Body of 1834 contains some eerily familiar passages. Bell confidently identifies the true skin of the human, which is the cutis, above which sits three laminae: the cuticle, the rete mucosum and the vascular membrane. The rete mucosum is “the seat of colour in the skin,” and in brown-skinned people it is darker on the bottom than the top of this stratum, proof that its pigment is independent of the sun.

Was this the consensus view? I find a copy of Bransby Blake Cooper’s Lectures on Anatomy of 1830 which, a watermark on each page tells me, has been digitized by Google. I am startled to see a hand in the margins holding down some of the pages, a hand belonging to a black woman, a sub-sub-librarian with pink nail polish and two silver rings. Yes, the cutis is the true skin, Cooper says almost impatiently, but the human dermis has only three layers in total: a cuticle, cutis, and a rete mucosum attached firmly to the surface of the cutis. In dark-skinned people but not light-skinned ones, this structure is so thick in portions “as very much to resemble the rete mucosum of the cetacei.”

I do not have words for the sensation that comes over me as I read these words. How do you describe the palpability of absence, the near certainty that someone has retracted himself into invisibility right in front of you? I have as few words to describe this sensation as I do the act of reading itself. Ishmael, the one whose face I can never see because I peer from behind it, is outlined by the antique words of Professors Beale, Jacob, Scoresby, Bell, and Cooper. He is right there, in what he knows and what I have just felt rise into my mind.

“The Blanket” ends with an exhortation. No matter the true skin of the whale; the entire “fathom-deep enfoldings” contain a clear moral: “herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!” And I have always thought that Moby-Dick is the record of a man doing just that, by turning himself into a book, for what else has those inner dimensions?

Yet what a curious conclusion to draw about a chapter which is, after all, about skin. About surface and envelope, membrane and casing. The visible. The colored.

Ishmael’s quest to become the whale takes him through its very belly, a Jonah on the beach. After noting that he has “chiefly dwelt upon the marvels of his outer aspect,” Ishmael admits that it is now time to “unbutton him still further” and present the whale “in his ultimatum.” He recalls the time when he attained the “rare knowledge” of the Sperm Whale’s insides by clambering through a skeleton, preserved intact on the island of Tranque in the Arsacides. With a ball of twine and a bough for a measuring-rod, he “wandered, eddied long amid his many winding, shaded colonnades and arbors.” Finally he resurfaced on the beach with his measurements—which he then proceeded to tattoo on his right arm. He tells us, “I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing.” Depth has once again been inscribed on the casing.

Ishmael goes into the whale and emerges with an abrasion from the contact. If he is like the whale, he is even more like the one in Moby-Dick who is already modeled after the whale.

I am speaking of Queequeg, the dark-skinned human with a rete mucosum as thick as the cetacei, the tattooed human whose markings Ishmael cannot decipher, though he knows that they are nothing less than “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume.”

Though Queequeg cannot read—not even his own body, as Ishmael learns to his surprise—he can interpret the signs that say he will die, and so he builds a coffin which he then carves with “all manner of grotesque figures and drawings” as if “to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body.” This manuscript so painstakingly copied from the scribe himself becomes, of course, Ishmael’s life preserver.

Ishmael is saved by the unread book of Queequeg, buoyed by its hollowness, its interior spaciousness, but we must note, we must never let out of our sight that Ishmael says of the harpooner, “For whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books.” And he does not try. He does not try, and he does not even call our attention to his deliberate refusal to read the book of Queequeg. Unless of course it is Queequeg who is the subject of the poem on Ishmael’s body, the blank page—the blind spot, kept opaque even to himself.

Ishmael blooms inside my head, finally, by what he chooses not to say, by the unfathomable expanse of everything between his words that he has somehow made immanent to me. Truly, I only wanted to know if the vexed subject of the whale’s true skin was a literary device or not, but only begin to think like Ishmael, and you find yourself writing, like him, “a little treatise on Eternity.” If I’ve got it right, it goes something like this: we should be like the whale, which is to say, like a book, which is to say, like Ishmael, which is to say, like Queequeg.