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  • Writer's pictureDenise Tolan

The Daily Dick: Day 66: Musings From a Sixth Reading of the Great Book

Chapter 55: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales


“For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan..”




Whew – after the length and depth of the previous chapter, this bit of whimsy was much needed!

Basically, this chapter is all about how artists can never accurately depict pictures of whales. And Ishmael has receipts! He tells of Italian painters who missed the mark and the ancient Egyptians who painted whales as dolphins and even the modern day sign painters who are painting with too broad a brush and too much blue paint.


What is Ishmael’s point? Well, I think it’s that it's difficult to capture an essence in a picture. We’ve been told over and over what Moby-Dick means. How do you paint that? How can you capture a philosophical thought, a fear, a nightmare, an adventure? Can we ever see God? Our idea of God? Of course not. And because whales are something different to Ish, a picture will never be able to capture what a whale is.


Science is one thing. We can see a picture of a whale’s skeleton, skin, style, but can it tell us anything about the smell, the feel, the way the whale looks as it comes looming out of the ocean dragging old harpoons and gunning for us? Nope. So, Ish says, if you really want to see a whale, go to sea. Fun chapter!

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