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  • Writer's pictureDenise Tolan

The Daily Dick: Day 83: Musings From a Sixth Reading of the Great Book

Chapter 79 The Prairie

“Therefore, though I am but ill qualified for a pioneer, in the application of these two semi-sciences to the whale, I will do my endeavor. I try all things; I achieve what I can. [. . .] Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every being’s face. Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can.”



There is more in this chapter than I first imagined. Let’s begin with the premise. Ishmael is going to give us his impression of the whale by using physiognomics – the study of faces. It was a popular thing to do back in his day and, as I think you can tell, Melville (via Ish,) finds it a ridiculous science.

It is too much to get into in a minor blog like this, but “Physiognomy has a long history as a method of understanding the innate qualities of human beings. As a science, physiognomy sought to link physical appearance, especially of the face, with in-born character traits, including emotional capacity and intelligence. Revived in the eighteenth century by Johann Kaspar Lavater, who sought to raise its status within the scientific community, physiognomy suffered from the biases of its practitioners, who tended to attribute positive qualities only to features associated with Europeans.”


So, ick, right?

Ish qualifies all this by saying that he is not an expert, but he’s going to give us his impressions of the whale anyway. A snipe at the ‘scientists’ themselves. Then Ish says that this science is a ‘passing fable.’ If we think we can, go ahead and read the brow of the whale. Of course, we will not be able to do so.


What I find cool about this chapter is how Melville gets in his digs about how race was discussed in his time and how we can, if we want, learn about theories that were used to marginalize others. Interesting stuff.

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