Friday, April 23, 2010


By Philip Hoare

ECCO, 27.99, 464 pages, illustrated


”Ah the world, oh the whale!” Like Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” “The Whale,” Philip Hoare’s strange and wonderful new book, is an anatomy - an exploded encyclopedia of all things cetacean. The whale is for Mr. Hoare, more even than he was for Melville, the totem of totems, the holy of holies, a living source of consolation. “In their rising breath and dying fall all the power and poignancy of life seemed wrapped,” Mr. Hoare writes of being surrounded by a pod of feeding humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine.

Recalling the sound of the whales’ exhalations and inhalations, their diving and surfacing, the crack of their powerful tails on the sea, he writes, “that sound, which I can replay in my head even as I write, is also oddly consoling, a reminder of our common ground, a reassurance that everything will be alright, even if it will not. Perhaps whales will teach me how to live.” The whale taught Jonah his duty and delivered him to it; why not Philip Hoare and his readers?

Before you have submerged yourself in Mr. Hoare’s book, this sense of the philosophy of the whale, the whale as guide to the good life, might seem to contain more than a tincture of madness - but it is a persuasive, instructive, poignant madness, not Ahab’s satanic monomania. Mr. Hoare’s reverent obsession with the whale, and his sense that these intelligent, sensitive creatures, hunted by man to the brink of extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries (hunted still by the Japanese, Norwegians and Icelanders), can teach us to know ourselves and how to live is borne out in his book.

The whale, as it turns out, has permeated every aspect of human life for the past several centuries: from the soles of shoes in Soviet Russia, made from whale hide; to the coronation oil used to anoint English monarchs, made from ambergris, the whale’s most expensive product (also recently confirmed to be a form of the animal’s feces); to the moon, where American astronauts arrived in rockets whose mechanisms were lubricated with spermaceti oil, unique in its ability to perform in extreme temperatures.

As Mr. Hoare will teach you, we have spread the whale on toast, rouged our cheeks with him, licked him out of sugar cones, strung our tennis rackets with his guts, grown roses, built houses, cinched our waists, and fattened our cattle with the whale. He has fed us, clothed us, given us light, made us slimmer and rosier, taken us to outer space. He has even helped us fight our wars, identifying mines in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program (though we repay him with brain hemorrhages inflicted by military sonar).

And as, for centuries, our material world was built on the backs of whales, so the whale in his unfathomable size and shape has entranced the human imagination since ancient days. Both the instrument of Jonah and Nineveh’s salvation, as well as reminiscent of the beast of Revelation, the whale has served man just as well in making myths as in making margarine. Among the myths of the whale, Melville’s “Moby Dick” is foremost in “The Whale” (also “Moby Dick’s” original publication title and still its subtitle).

Mr. Hoare’s book feels organically and spiritually related to Melville’s great book - not just because it is about whales, nor because it contains a miscellany’s worth of quotations from “Moby Dick,” nor yet because some of “The Whale’s” best passages are sensitive, graceful considerations of Melville’s troubled life, his relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne and his most famous work. The deep source of the books’ spiritual kinship lies in the literary form they share: the anatomy.

As Melville read Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” while he was writing “Moby Dick,” so Mr. Hoare was reading “Moby Dick” as he wrote “The Whale.” He also might have been reading W.G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler” or Sir Thomas Browne’s “Urn Burial.” All of these books share a loose structure and a wild diversity of inclusions linked by a shared theme (whales, melancholy, fishing, plague, burial rituals, destruction and decline).

All have an encyclopedia cast - but all, too, feel like encyclopedias whose articles have been cut apart and pasted back together in an associative, mystical order. Mr. Hoare’s book incorporates history, literary criticism, pieces of memoir and travel narrative, scientific considerations of the whale, the accounts of naturalists, scientists and former whalers, biographical sketches of famous whale men, excerpts from great and obscure writers about whales, his own photographs and many beautiful drawings, engravings and paintings of the whale dating from the Renaissance through the 20th century.

To read such a curious and rare book as Mr. Hoare’s cetacean anatomy is to see the world anew - to understand that the whale is, indeed, a key to all mythologies. Mr. Hoare will teach you about the whale (his marvelous body, his dialects, his disposition) but he also will teach you about humankind: our species’ ingenuity, bravery and ambition - and, for all that, how little we know about the world we have mastered and what strange cruelties our ingenuity devises.

Mr. Hoare also has an uncanny knack for ferreting out incredible morsels of whale lore that may well convince you that an obsession with whales is no mere eccentric enthusiasm. Mr. Hoare may be a “whalehead,” but that’s not because he’s a crank; it’s because whales really are everywhere. Former President John F. Kennedy is buried with the ivory tooth of a sperm whale lying with him. The tooth had been etched with the presidential seal and would have been an addition to his scrimshaw collection from his wife, but he died before she could give it to him.

The popular electronica artist Moby (Richard Melville Hall) is a great-grandnephew of Melville himself, and chose his DJ name in honor of his relative. The ubiquitous Starbucks takes its name from the Pequod’s first mate. Queen Elizabeth I’s preferred scepter was a narwhale’s horn. This is an entrancing book - by turns memoir, history and many other things besides. It is nonfiction at its very best, and it will leave you feeling, as Mr. Hoare often does: “Ah the world! Oh the whale!”

Emily Colette Wilkinson, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., was the 2008 winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewer’s Contest.

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