School of Whales

A third of the way through Moby-Dick, Herman Melville has a pretty good story going. A couple of guys, of dubious sexuality, are stepping onto a boat with a crazy captain, for what appears to be a long, long time hunting for whales. To the sea, to adventures unknown! Push off my friends! It may be that the gulfs will wash us down! It may be that we touch the Happy Isles and see the great Achilles whom we knew!

Or it may be that we remain fully anchored for 13 pages while Ishmael, who has suddenly morphed from mariner to marine biologist, classifies every whale species that has ever roamed the seas in a chapter called “Cetology.”

“It is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts of which are to follow.” He said “almost indispensable,” right? Meaning we really could probably follow the story just fine even we dropped Cetology 101? Besides, what makes Ishmael Mr. Know-It-All Whale Expert?

He isn’t, he says, as if anticipating the question. “As no better man advances to take this matter in hand, I hereupon offer my own poor endeavors. What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this leviathan!” In other words, you are stuck with me, a poor, poor substitute teacher. I beg you to forgive me and to please withhold your firing of spitballs.

Oh, if only Ishmael truly believed himself an unworthy teacher; the Classic Slacker could take the day off and throw frisbees. Instead, Ishmael decides it’s okay to impersonate a Ph.D. After all, he has, in his mind at least, equivalent relevant experience. “But I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans; I have had to do with whales with these visible hands; I am in earnest; and I will try.”

That sound you hear is the Classics Slacker searching for a sharp knife with which to gut herself. But then she remembers her promise to her readers: to read the classics—even the grimmest of the grim sections—so they don’t have to. Oh, but reading Moby-Dick—specifically the upcoming “Cetology” chapter—it is a ponderous task! To lay hands upon the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of this book; it is a fearful thing.

But the Classics Slacker forges ahead for you, dear reader. Please accept her poor offering—an abridged version of Ishmael’s scientific lecture on whales in the next post (“I'll Take Whales for $100, Alex”). It will be faulty, she realizes. The Classics Slacker is but a human and for this reason infallibly faulty. Oh, how she despairs my uselessness. Oh, this whole enterprise is but a draught—“nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”

(Feel free to send cash or checks made out to The Classics Slacker.)