I tried to argue here—and sort of failed to say it right—that people are born knowing the plot of Moby Dick. At least they’re born thinking they know it. If you’ve never read it you probably nonetheless think of it as familiar. You could probably say something about it at a party. You know enough about it that you see no reason to crack it open short of a teacher holding a gun to your head. It’s encoded into you.
Or something. I’m just thinking out loud.
ANYWAY, a week after the first of my five-part series on Moby Dick, I opened the new issue of The Believer to find, on page 12, something called, hilariously:
IF SAMMY DAVIS JR. HAD WRITTEN MOBY-DICK
CHAPTER I OF A CXXXV-PART SERIALIZATION
You can read the first four paragraphs here, but to get to the best paragraph in it, you have to buy the magazine. I have to quote it. I can’t help it. Hey, Believer, you don’t mind if I go ahead and quote it, do you? [Yawning silence.] Guys? [Not a sound.] OK, here goes:
I want to lay a koo-koo trip on you tonight, folks. It’s something that happened to me last time I had the great honor of shipping out to sea on one of our country’s terrific whaling vessels. Those cats do some top-notch work, and there’d be a whole mess of empty oil lamps without them, am I right? Am I right, folks? I think America’s whalers are the best in the world, who’s with me?
Then, last night before bed, I was in the mood for something funny and happened on Woody Allen’s short story “The Whore of Mensa,” which I’ve got in an anthology of New Yorker short stories. “The Whore of Mensa” is about a guy who makes joy buzzers but is an intellectual, see, only his wife has nothing to say about Proust or Yeats or anything, so he calls a madam with a degree in Comparative Lit and has her send over girls to talk to him—no sex, just talking—but he can’t let his wife know that she doesn’t turn him on in the brain region, and then the madam tries to blackmail him, telling him she’s gonna tell his wife if he doesn’t cough up ten grand, so he goes to a private investigator for help. (“They bugged the motel room,” he tells the investigator. “They got tapes of me discussing ‘The Waste Land’ and ‘Styles of Radical Will,’ and, well, really getting into some issues.”)
The the private investigator calls up the madam and says:
“I’d like to discuss Melville.”
“‘Moby Dick’ or the shorter novels?”
“What’s the difference?”
“The price. That’s all. Symbolism’s extra.”
“What’ll it run me?”
“Fifty, maybe a hundred for ‘Moby Dick.’ You want a comparative discussion—Melville and Hawthorne? That could be arranged for a hundred.”
“The dough’s fine,” I told her and gave her the number of a room at the Plaza.
I won’t ruin the rest of the story, but it’s great. (OK, I’ll give away a little more. The investigator eventually finds the headquarters for the operation. “Pale, nervous girls with black-rimmed glasses and blunt-cut hair lolled around on sofas, riffling Penguin Classics provocatively… But it wasn’t just intellectual experiences—they were peddling emotional ones, too. For fifty bucks, I learned, you could ‘relate without getting close.’ For a hundred, a girl would lend you her Bartók records, have dinner, and then let you watch while she had an anxiety attack.”)
MEANWHILE, some crazy shit has been happened in the Antarctic. The Japanese say they were doing research on whales. The Australians say they were illegally whaling.
The Australian federal police dispatched two ships to throw “smoke bombs and bottles containing a harmful chemical substance on the decks of the [Japanese] mother ship Nisshin Maru” and the smaller whaling vessel Kaiko Maru, “resulting in two injured crewmen,” according to the Japanese. According to the Australians, it was a “nontoxic obnoxious smelling substance” that “cleared the flensing deck and stopped all work of cutting up whales.” There was also an unexplained fire on board Nisshin Maru, and a collision—well, a ramming—between an Australian ship and the Kaiko Maru. Quoth the Australian captain: “The fact is that when we ram an illegal whaling ship, we proudly accept credit for our actions.”
All this conspired to end the Japanese whaling (er, “whale research”) season early.
The story written from the point of view of the Japanese is here.
The story from the point of view of Greenpeace in New Zealand—a few days later, after it had come to light that one of the Japanese crew members died—is here. (Here’s a Greenpeace spokesman addressing the Japanese: “This must be the last time your government sends you to the Southern Ocean to hunt whales and threaten the Antarctic environment. For the sake of the environment, the whales, and your crew—never again!”)
According to Greenpeace, the Japanese caught 505 minke whales and 3 endangered fin whales this season.
You want some pictures? OK. Here is what a happy fin whale looks like.
Here is what a not-as-happy fin whale looks like.
Here is Melville, in the chapter “Cetology,” on the “Fin-Back” whale (the same creature? who can say?): “The Fin-Back is not gregarious. He seems a whale-hater, as some men are man-haters.”