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Hypocrites of the Sea

May 14, 2011

There’s nothing I hate more than whaling. It’s painful and disgusting and anti-Marxist and stinky and unnecessary. And yet I seem to be drawn to all sorts of whaling paraphernalia.

It all started with Moby Dick. That book is awesome. I love the first chapters that describe Ishmael’s new romance with Queequeg, cuddling with tattoos in hotel rooms on their first night together. And it only goes up from there. Yes, it’s a slow, tedious climb, but it’s one of those books that you can only really appreciate after you’ve read it the first time. Struggle through those long chapters describing the leviathan’s blow hole and the white of Moby Dick’s skin and you’ll finally realize just how invested and wrapped up in the prose you’ve gotten. Everything around you starts to beg to be described in the detail Melville devotes of the the whale.

Because it’s one of those books that you have more fun thinking about than actually reading, it makes sense that the aftermath of Moby Dick is obsession-inducing.

First, there’s this guy. Matt Kish has devoted the last two years to creating a drawing for every page of Melville’s novel. He uses found paper (which is cool) to explore all sorts of themes from the novel that may get lost in a less thorough analysis. My favorite pieces he does are tribal style ink drawings of The Whale by itself. Like this one:

Check out his blog and the book that he’s releasing soon.

Moby Dick led me to The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare, which I thought would be more about whales and whale behavior but was mostly about the history of whaling in the U.S. and U.K. At first I was disappointed that the book was so violent, rather than the peaceful, slow whale world I envision. But it turns out the history of whaling is really interesting and really relevant.

Take Sarah Vowell’s new history of Hawaiin colonization, Unfamiliar Fishes. Whaling is what led many American sailors to Hawaii as a nice stop-over point to get plate lunch and hookers. Which, along with white missionaries, contributed a whole lot to Polynesian culture as we know it.

Plus, I found out about scrimshaw. To keep sailors entertained, they would distribute whale teeth and some other bones to engrave.

I know, I know. Those teeth belong in the whale’s mouth. It’s really disgusting that humans, with their superior technology, were preying on giant sea cows. But look how cool those are!

Also, some of the most beautiful paintings of the 17th/18th century are horrible displays of whaling bloodshed.

I can’t figure out what it is about whaling that is so interesting and appealing (visually) to me. Perhaps it is the mixture of something so regal and beautiful (the whale itself) with the crude, presumptuous, arrogant sailors and their harpoons. Maybe it’s the same reason I love horror films so much. The things I find most repellent are the things that I want to figure out, conquer.

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One comment

  1. Eagan and I have a set of postcards from Matt Kish’s “Moby-Dick in Pictures”! He does such great stuff. I loved mixed media art.

    Also, in another coincidence, my parents have a scrimshaw piece. I don’t know how it came into their possession — I would guess they got it back in the day when they used to go antique hunting and go to estate sales (which, in New England, were pretty awesome). They even used to fish out old bottles in lakes. My parents were awesome. Then they had kids and that was all ruined. ‘You’re the reason we can’t have nice things…’



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