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  • Writer's pictureDenise Tolan

The Daily Dick: Day 31: Musings From a Sixth Reading of the Great Book

Chapter 32: Day 31: Cetology

“I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty. I shall not pretend to a minute anatomical description of the various species, or—in this place at least—to much of any description. My object here is simply to project the draught of a systematization of cetology. I am the architect, not the builder.” 




Here we are, the Chapter that everyone hates – “Cetology.” It is an odd part of Moby-Dick for sure. Suddenly Ishmael, brand new to whaling, is going to categorize all whales? And, let’s face it, he is wrong sometimes. What this does to further his narrative duties has always been unclear to me. If I take anything from it, it’s to be a bit wary of Ishmael’s abilities to know his limits. But mostly, I confess I usually skim this part of the book. Gasp!

There are passages I love. Like the one above. At least Ish promises the reader nothing. He admits (or perhaps we have pure Melville here) that the content might be out of his depth. But isn’t that being a human? We will make mistakes, try and fail, parry and thrust at the wind sometimes?

There are a few areas in Moby-Dick where Melville/Ishmael warns us against believing anything to be complete. Being an architect means being the creator. Melville is a creator. A builder is the one who has the skills to understand how a creator or a creation works. Perhaps that is our job then?

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