Monday, January 11, 2016

The Sounding of Moby Dick

Having seen, over Christmastime, a small independent movie released without much ballyhoo, I turn my attention to what is the undisputed blockbuster of the season, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea.  

The film portrays the ill-fated voyage of the Essex, the travails of which inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

This tale was recounted also in Ric Burns’ documentary, Into the Deep, a history of American whaling first broadcast on PBS in 2010.  

Image from In the Heart of the Sea.

This comes as part of a more comprehensive account of the whaling industry in the U.S., and is well worth a view. 

It occurred to me, though, that only very recently did the whale change in the imagination of educated Occidentals at least, so that the routine slaughter of the sea mammals, ongoing for centuries, suddenly became intolerable, an activity requiring global prohibition. 

Having surveyed the available literature on the topic, though, my tentative hypothesis had been to link the expansion of whaling to the colonization of the world by Europeans. 

The book Leviathan, is another history of American whaling by Jay Dolin, and confirms that while whale-hunting may have extended back millennia to the Phoenicians and Greeks, a true whaling industry began only during the Middle Ages with the Basques, the people of mysterious origin who have been fighting for centuries for independence from Spain. 

A Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansky and published in 1999, expands on the Basque origins of modern whaling, showing that their pursuit of the giant sea-mammals took them throughout the Atlantic ocean long before most other European peoples even attempted long-distance seafaring. 

Kurlansky supports the argument that Basques preceded Norsemen to the New World, citing the coincidence of Basque words in Canadian native languages, as well as the disproportionate number of Basque crew-members on the explorer ships of both Columbus and Magellan. 

Whatever the truth, Basque dominance of commercial whaling was supplanted by the Dutch, imperial masters in the seventeenth century, and a century later by the British, upon whose empire the sun never set during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

During the nineteenth century, too, the U.S. became a major whaling nation, in tandem with its rise as a global naval power. 

For his part, Kurlansky explains why it is that the bottom-feeding codfish was so valued for centuries: when dried and salted, it kept from spoiling for long periods, which permitted in turn the distant voyages of the Basques and the Norse. The whale was valued because its extensive blubber produced oil for burning. 

Nantucket island, off the coast of Massachusetts, became the fabled centre of the American whaling industry in spite of its relatively sparse population, as it was closer to the original whaling grounds, and the people of barely-arable Nantucket had no other means of prosperity. 

Kurlansky notes that the Basques and other whaling peoples would eat the slaughtered creatures’ meat (with whale tongues being the most prized of the edible parts, often given as tribute to the local high clerisy). 

Dolin states, however, that the anglophones viewed whale-meat as inedible, with the carcasses of the animals left to rot onshore (or dumped back into the sea) after the precious kerosene oil and whalebone had been extracted from them.  

Into the Deep, describes how whaling expeditions became progressively far-flung as quarry near shore diminished in number. 

The daylong hunts of the eighteenth century became months and even years in length later on, but whales had to be processed for their raw materials soon after the slaughter, so as not to go to waste. 

Accordingly, whaling ships evolved into floating factories. They were thus examples of Victorian high technology, and whaling was part of a seafarer culture which gave rise to the novelty of global imperialism. 

Yet, whaling also gave force to something primal in the human male, at least. Only specialists really know or care that the proper scientific name for anatomically modern human is Homo sapiens sapiens, the successor species of Homo sapiens, who were virtually identical with the super-sapiens in terms of physical form, but whose material culture has been shown to be consistently inferior.  

Somewhere around one-hundred thousand years ago, as archaeologist Ian Morris observed, the cultural monotony which characterized sapiens’ settlements up to that time, gave way “suddenly” (over a period of centuries) to a diversity of regional styles. 

Part of this new cultural sophistication involved the hunting of mega-fauna, most of which disappeared shortly after the arrival of Homo sapiens sapiens. 

But not always the victor...
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Commenting on the habit of contemporary scholarship to exonerate human activity for these extinctions in favour of climate change, Noah Harari observes, “The giant diprotodon appeared in Australia more than 1. 5 million years ago and successfully weathered at least ten previous ice ages. It also survived the first peak of the last ice age, around 70,000 years ago. Why, then, did it disappear 45,000 years ago? Of course, if diprotodons had been the only large animal to disappear at this time, it might have been just a fluke. But more than 90 per cent of Australia’s megafauna disappeared along with the diprotodon. The evidence is circumstantial, but it's hard to imagine that Sapiens, just by coincidence, arrived in Australia at the precise point that all these animals were dropping dead of the chills.” (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2014, p. 66) 

Harari goes on to state that “mass extinctions akin to the archetypal Australian decimation occurred again and again in the ensuing millennia — whenever people settled another part of the Outer World. In these cases Sapiens guilt is irrefutable. For example, the megafauna of New Zealand — which had weathered the alleged `climate change’ of c. 45,000 years ago without a scratch — suffered devastating blows immediately after the first humans set foot on the islands. The Maoris, New Zealand's first Sapiens colonisers, reached the islands about 800 years ago. Within a couple of centuries, the majority of the local megafauna was extinct, along with 60 per cent of all bird species. A similar fate befell the mammoth population of Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean (200 kilo metres north of the Siberian coast). Mammoths had flourished for millions of years over most of the northern hemisphere, but as Homo sapiens spread — first over Eurasia and then over North America — the mammoths retreated. By 10,000 years ago there was not a single mammoth to be found in the world, except on a few remote Arctic islands, most conspicuously Wrangel. The mammoths of Wrangel continued to prosper for a few more millennia, then suddenly disappeared about 4,000 years ago, just when the first humans reached the island.” (pp. 66-67) 

Harari also makes an interesting comparison: “when climate change causes mass extinctions, sea creatures are usually hit as hard as land dwellers. Yet there is no evidence of any significant disappearance of oceanic fauna 45,000 years ago. Human involvement can easily explain why the wave of extinction obliterated the terrestrial megafauna of Australia while sparing that of the nearby oceans. Despite its burgeoning navigational abilities, Homo sapiens was still overwhelmingly a terrestrial menace.” 

This situation continued until just a few centuries ago, when the Basques and then many other nations undertook whaling on a large scale. 

Meanwhile, the story of super-sapiens’ success was written, in great part, in the blood of terrestrial mega-fauna felled by human hands. 

The ethological conditioning inherent therein, had not primarily to do with the act of killing itself. It was more so the tracking of game that was important to evolving human (perhaps especially male-human) psychology, as the amount of time actually chasing down fauna (large or otherwise) to kill, took much longer than the fatal activity itself. 

It was how Homo sapiens sapiens were able to “read” the terrain, literally on a step by step basis (with the footprints being signs virtually abstract of relation to the creatures that created them), in pursuit of a defined goal. 

Stone-age hunting was also a communal enterprise, as well, and it could be that the early human communication that Iain McGilchrist described as “musilanguage”, obtained true grammar as the super-sapiens pursued big game. Did the success that the cerebrally-modern humans have in killing mega-fauna contribute to a certainty that the world was their’s to own? The triumph of the diminutive man over the grandiose creature is a mainstay of storytelling, from Gilgamish down to King Kong

Herman Melville’s twist on this theme, was to have the beast — a sperm whale — prevail over captain Ahab and his crew. But as if to underline the lack of resonance for human defeat at the hands of the ocean Goliath, Moby Dick was initially a flop, and contributed to Melville’s departure from novel-writing in favour of being a New York city clerk. 

The reality is that millions of sperm and other whales did indeed perish by human hands in recent centuries (whereas very few men died because of attacks by whales). As with the hydraulic civilization of China (which enshrined the village-tribe as the key social unit), the whale-hunt used advanced technology to satisfy a primal human urge, in this case to pursue mega-quarry. 

Whales survived in such abundance, and grew so massive (the blue whale is the largest animal on record) just because people did not have, until modern times, the means of hunting them very effectively. 

However, when the harpooner’s role was mechanized in the 1860s (inaugurating the “age of modern whaling”, according to Norwegian academics J.N. Tonnessen and Arne Odd Johnsen in their mammoth history of the subject, published in English in 1982), the destruction of whale-stocks became so complete that by the early twentieth century, calls came to curb the fishery so as to ensure its future viability. 

Led by Great Britain, biologists began to study the great whales as part of this conservation effort. As described by Graham Burnett in the Sounding of the Whale, nascent whale-science was more focussed on husbandry of a resource, than inspired by outrage at the vivisection of ocean mammals. 

He argues further that ocean-biologists, who accompanied whalers on their often years-long voyages, naturally came to sympathize with the industry, and thus served as an impediment to efforts prevent the slaughter of whales entirely. 

Meanwhile, Burnett writes, the mechanical harpoon furthered the ambitions of Western colonialism, as the British took full possession of south Atlantic and Pacific islands over which they had long claimed sovereignty, but that had heretofore remain unsettled for lack of means to support them. 

Thus the paradox that global, ship-borne imperialism, though an ultramodern project, revitalized the old hunter-gatherer way of life as a factor in human experience. 

Whaling was just one, if a more conspicuous, part of this. For the first months, years, and even decades after their settlement of the Americas, Britons and Europeans had to make their way wholly or greatly by hunting. The North American continent was substantially explored by hunters of beaver pelts, the trappers who helped establish the white-man’s sovereignty over New France and the American west (so important was this fur trade in the north, that Canada is often personified as a beaver). 

Once hunted, and now adored, by the millions.
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The settlement by ancient Asians of what became the Americas, was accompanied by the mass die-off of mega-fauna centuries later, following the pattern established when the super-sapiens set foot anywhere for the first time. 

European settlement of the hemisphere precipitated another die-off of animal species here through over-hunting (the most conspicuous mass slaughter occurring to the bison).  
Some would assert that American Indians were similarly hunted like animals, and in the far west at least consisted of the largest number of victims of homicidal violence (according to Page Stegner). 

Nevertheless, the frontiersman was an enduring figure of American folklore, the very epitome of the “rugged individualist” whose independence was based on the ability to “shoot his next meal.” 

Hunting remained a very popular means of recreation throughout the rural United States, until very recent times. Importantly, the hunting trip served in many families as a form of male initiation into adulthood — again, a very ancient practice of key intergenerational training flourished again amongst New-World settlers. 

Old-World peasants, on the other hand, faced outright prohibition or severe restrictions upon their hunting rights: their overlords reserved the right to hunt the game throughout all their lands, regardless of tenancy. Practically the first droit du seigneur that migrants to the Americas claimed for the common man, was unrestricted freedom to hunt. 

Colonization of the Western hemisphere was, as Lewis Mumford observed, substantially a reversion to the primitive, or “paleo-technical”, phase of humankind. 

As imperialism spread to Africa and Asia during the nineteenth century, the “great white hunter” became another mythical hero in Western society, pursuing exotic big-game in the tropical bush. Of many such expeditions into “darkest Africa”, one of the more famed was undertaken by Teddy Roosevelt, the most openly and vociferously imperialist of all U.S. presidents. Upon leaving office, T.R. led a safari which netted over six-hundred wild beasts. 

Returning in conclusion to the whale hunt, it seems clear that the scientific knowledge acquired through conservation efforts, encouraged people to conceive of whales as beautiful creatures to be preserved, not resources to be exploited. 

But the “save the whales” sentiment was part of a more fundamental change in psychology which took hold among educated Westerners at least, from the 1960s. 

Before that, Occidentals looked upon engineered technology as the crown of creation. But since then, and probably as a consequence of engineering being made so normal as to be unremarkable, middle-class professionals in the West began to cherish the natural economy over artificial things, and especially its conspicuous mega-fauna such as elephants, tigers, and whales. 

The Greenpeace organization, which in the early ‘70s pioneered “guerilla” efforts to prevent the slaughter of whales (such as activists in boats placing themselves between harpooners and the whales), by the 1980s were employing more sophisticated methods of persuasion. 

At that time, the group launched television ads which featured semi-abstract, animated images of great whales moving through the oceans. A deep-voiced, authoritative narrator (whom I remember to be the Canadian actor Don Francks, though I have been unable to find this spot on YouTube or anywhere else) described them as “nature’s works of art.” 

That would be him.
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These placid scenes then dissolved into images of harpoons and whaling boats, with which the narrator says something to the effect: “...but mankind is trying to destroy the last of these works of art”, concluding with a plea to “help Greenpeace preserve them.” 

In the Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist describes how the right brain hemisphere is responsive to living things, while the left-lobe reacts to inanimate matter. 

But, he goes on, certain inanimate objects, such as musical instruments, are perceived by the brain as though they are living. 

After the postwar especially, certain forms of engineering must have been perceived as animate: in particular, mass-media such as the hi-fi stereo, radio and television. 

These technologies helped effect a reversal in Western psychology, especially and paradoxically on the educated, it would seem. Constant exposure to holistic sound and imagery through mass-media, evoked sensitivity to living things as opposed to the mechanical. This was the cultural ground upon which revulsion not only toward whaling, but any sort of sport or big-game hunting, overwhelmed the prestige previously enjoyed by hunters.

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