PD Smith

Leviathan or, The Whale

Times Literary Supplement, July 10, 2009, p 24

Leviathan or, The Whale, by Philip Hoare (Fourth Estate), 453pp. £18.99. ISBN: 978-0-000-723013-6 (hardback); 978-0007230143 (pbk)

Review by P.D. Smith

Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick (1851) is Philip Hoare’s guiding star in this beautifully written celebration of cetaceans, a word that comes from the Greek word ketos, sea monster. He glosses Melville’s fiction as a meditation on “man, whale, life, death”. Hoare’s book, like Moby-Dick, is on one level a rich source of information about these ancient mammals, from natural history to their role in our lives and myths. But Leviathan is also a deeply personal narrative that weaves together travelogue, memoir and literary history.

LeviathanIn Moby-Dick, Ishmael’s “splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world” and he seeks the solace of the sea. Disillusioned with city life, Hoare, who admits that he has “always been afraid of deep water”, also turns to the ocean – “the last true wilderness” – as an antidote to London, for the “place that had represented all my youthful aspirations now felt like a viral infection”. He follows in Ishmael’s wake, travelling from New York down to Cape Cod and New Bedford – aka the Whaling City, where he visits Father Mapple’s chapel – and then on to Nantucket. In the sea off Cape Cod, Hoare watches the whales: “I envied them the fact that they were always swimming; that they were always free”, and later visits Melville’s grave on “a bare Bronx hill”, where the writer lies next to his two sons who preceded him into the grave.

Even today, in the age of particle colliders and space exploration, we know precious little about some of the planet’s oldest inhabitants; as Hoare says, “cetaceans remain unfathomable.” The sperm whale is perhaps the most mysterious: according to Ishmael, “above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life”. Hoare begins his trawl through the lore of the cetaceans with this “seminal whale: the whale before all others, the emperor of whales, his imperial cetacean majesty”. The world’s largest predator has ruled the oceans for millennia and yet we have only begun to probe its secrets in the last 200 years, since the beginning of modern whaling. To Ishmael and his fellow whalers it was a frightening and dangerous beast. But for Hoare it is a victim: “from a fearful foe it has become a placid, gentle giant of the seas”. This “blunt blunderbuss of an animal” – Linnaeus named it Physeter macrocephalus, big-headed blower – roams the deep waters of every ocean, growing up to 65 feet long and hoovering up food like a giant vacuum cleaner at a rate of 300-700 squid a day. Today, about 360,000 remain, a quarter of the population that existed before the invention of the iron harpoon.

The sperm whale has the largest brain of any animal – almost three times the weight of our own. It can solve problems, display joy and grief, and has a very complex social structure and culture. Wounded females have been known to be borne up to the surface on the shoulders of their fellow whales. They are very tactile animals and love to touch each other: “their skin is incredibly sensitive, and the pressure of a human finger can send their entire body quivering”. They mate belly to belly, or as Ishmael says, more hominum. They suckle their calves for at least two years. “The milk is very sweet and rich,” notes Ishmael; “it has been tasted by man; it might do well with strawberries.” When attacked by killer whales, sperm whales gather together for protection, a behaviour called “heaving to” by whalers who ruthlessly exploited it, killing entire schools of whales which refused to dive. The young whales would hang around the ships for hours after their parents had been killed.

This is the true nature of Captain Ahab’s “murderous monster”. In Hoare’s narrative the monster is not the whale, but man. The industrial scale of man’s exploitation of the whale is astonishing. By 1833, 70,000 people were employed in whaling in Nantucket alone. New Bedford became the richest city in America on the blood, or rather the oil, of the whale. What Hoare terms this “filthy business”, run mostly by Quakers, exported a million gallons of whale oil annually to Europe. The twenty-foot head of the sperm whale was valued for the oil – spermaceti – it contained: a fuel that didn’t freeze for street lights and as a lubricant for the mechanisms of watches. By the 1740s London was the best-lit city in the world with 5000 lamps burning whale oil. According to Hoare, in a sense “the modern world was built upon the whale”:

“Even now, space agencies in Europe and America still use whale oil for roving vehicles on the moon and Mars; and as you read this, the Hubble space telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti, seeing 6 billion years into the past, while the Voyager probe spins into infinity playing the song of the humpback to greet any friendly aliens – who may well wonder at our treatment of the species with which we share our planet.”

By the 1950s and 60s, whale oil was used in everything from brake fluid for cars to lipstick, ink and children’s crayons. It is the whale’s misfortune to be a “manufactory” of various substances useful to man. Virtually every part of the whale’s body was valuable, even its faeces. Ambergris, highly prized by perfumers for its ability to capture and intensify fragrances is actually “whale shit”. As Hoare points out – dispelling one of Ishmael’s many fallacies – the British sovereign is anointed with a mixture containing ambergris during the coronation ceremony. Apparently, Queen Victoria hated it.

In the days before explosive-tipped harpoons, the ingenuity of men was pitted against the sheer might of the whales. Strong men fainted when they faced the Leviathan for the first time from their flimsy cedar-wood whaleboats. The kill itself was brutal and bloody – repeatedly stabbing the 60-ton animal until its lung was punctured. Then its spout became a red fountain of blood and the cry went up “There’s fire in the chimney!” In the modern era, the slaughter was on an industrial scale. One of the men who worked on Britain’s last whaling ships tells Hoare the open-air abattoir was “an inferno”: “if the whales had been able to scream…no one would have been able to bear their work”. The pregnant whales took as long as five hours to die. Such ships could kill and process 3,000 whales on a single voyage.

Ishmael saw the Leviathan as a “portentous and mysterious monster”. But for Hoare whales are “animals before the Fall, innocent of sin”. They embody the connectedness to nature that we have lost in our headlong rush to exploit the environment. At the end of the book, Hoare leaves history, science and literature behind and approaches his subject in its own element. He swims alongside the whales he has dreamed about all his life. “Noiselessly, for minutes that seemed like hours, we swam together, eye to eye, fin to fin, fluke to fluke.” For Hoare it is an epiphany, an experience he hopes “will teach me how to live”, just as the traumatic experience of his mother’s illness and death while writing the book has taught him “how to die”. As “scrawny human and muscled whale” float side by side in water three miles deep, Hoare finally realises that he “wasn’t afraid any more.”

[NB. This may differ slightly from the published review.]