Althouse | category: whales



a blog by Ann Althouse

"They’re surprisingly flexible animals, and they twist and turn and their flukes get entangled. The lobster lines can then tighten..."

"... around their caudal peduncle – the tail stock – causing it to necrotise... a horrible slow death...."

Says Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan," quoted in "Save whales or eat lobster? The battle reaches the White House/Fishing gear used by Maine lobstermen is killing right whales. Will boosting a $1bn industry trump protecting an endangered species?" (The Guardian)(The White House served lobster at a recent state dinner).

In his effort to stir up an appreciation for whales that outstrips our taste for lobster, Hoare stresses their "very long sessions of foreplay of three or four hours." 

Males possess the biggest testes of any animal on the planet, and the mating often involves several males and a single female – a “socially active group” in scientific terms. “You see them rolling around in shallow water in a very sensual way, stroking each other with their flippers. There are a lot of animals involved, and it’s clearly erotic. They seem so caught up in the moment.”

When you think about how far you would go sacrificing your own interests for the sake of saving an animal from suffering and needless death, how much are you counting their sexual performance? What counts more — the size of their testicles, the amount of time devoted to insuring that the female has an orgasm, or the extent to which they seem to be having what the humans call "fun"?

"Plum-pudding is the term bestowed upon certain fragmentary parts of the whale's flesh, here and there adhering to the blanket of blubber..."

"... and often participating to a considerable degree in its unctuousness. It is a most refreshing, convivial, beautiful object to behold. As its name imports, it is of an exceedingly rich, mottled tint, with a bestreaked snowy and golden ground, dotted with spots of the deepest crimson and purple. It is plums of rubies, in pictures of citron. Spite of reason, it is hard to keep yourself from eating it. I confess, that once I stole behind the foremast to try it. It tasted something as I should conceive a royal cutlet from the thigh of Louis le Gros might have tasted, supposing him to have been killed the first day after the venison season, and that particular venison season contemporary with an unusually fine vintage of the vineyards of Champagne."

Just a fragment of "Moby Dick," pulled up this morning as part of a real-world conversation that I am too discreet to recount.

A royal cutlet from the thigh of Louis le Gros — that killed me.

"But I’m also getting more obsessive about human beings over huge swaths of time. Part of that came out of being on the Isle of Skye..."

"... during the serious U.K. lockdown. On Skye, if there’s a rock somewhere, it’s probably because somebody put it there. I realized that the rock that I was using to keep the lid on my dustbin was a stone that had been dragged around. People have been in this place for thousands and thousands of years, and in this bay I’m living in, they’ve left behind rocks!"

Said Neil Gaiman, quoted in "Neil Gaiman Knows What Happens When You Dream" (NYT).

Realizing that about the rocks makes you take the long view. Which is that the human race is mostly people just trying to live their lives, and that bad [expletive] is going to happen. That then moves you into other territory. Which is what? The territory of Rudyard Kipling, a very unfashionable writer. 

The British writer, born in 1865 and perhaps best remembered for “The Jungle Book,” has been criticized for, among other things, espousing racism and colonialism. An incredibly good writer, not always somebody I agree with, but thank God I’m allowed to read him. 

He wrote a poem called “Natural Theology,” which begins, “I ate my fill of a whale that died/And stranded after a month at sea/There is a pain in my inside/Why have the Gods afflicted me?” Then a verse goes, “My privy and well drain into each other/After the custom of Christendie …/Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother/Why has the Lord afflicted me?” And after several more verses, it goes, “We had a kettle, we let it leak/Our not repairing it made it worse/We haven’t had any tea for a week …/The bottom is out of the universe!” 

That poem is Kipling going, We blame the gods — the stories — for the [expletive] that we do, and we don’t always understand it. I would love to think that we are living in a world in which the story of progress, as in the original “Star Trek” series, is always upwards and onwards, and even if there will be mad times, eventually we get to the bridge of the Enterprise where all the problems of Earth have been sorted out. But I don’t know that we ever will. We are humans, and we do collective insanity really well.

Here's the whole poem, "Natural Theology":


I ate my fill of a whale that died
And stranded after a month at sea. . . .
There is a pain in my inside.
Why have the Gods afflicted me?
Ow! I am purged till I am a wraith!
Wow! I am sick till I cannot see!
What is the sense of Religion and Faith :
Look how the Gods have afflicted me!


How can the skin of rat or mouse hold
Anything more than a harmless flea?. . .
The burning plague has taken my household.
Why have my Gods afflicted me?
All my kith and kin are deceased,
Though they were as good as good could be,
I will out and batter the family priest,
Because my Gods have afflicted me!


My privy and well drain into each other
After the custom of Christendie. . . .
Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother.
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
The Saints are helpless for all I offer--
So are the clergy I used to fee.
Henceforward I keep my cash in my coffer,
Because the Lord has afflicted me.


I run eight hundred hens to the acre
They die by dozens mysteriously. . . .
I am more than doubtful concerning my Maker,
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
What a return for all my endeavour--
Not to mention the L. S. D!*
I am an atheist now and for ever,
Because this God has afflicted me!


Money spent on an Army or Fleet
Is homicidal lunacy. . . .
My son has been killed in the Mons retreat,
Why is the Lord afflicting me?
Why are murder, pillage and arson
And rape allowed by the Deity?
I will write to the Times, deriding our parson
Because my God has afflicted me.


We had a kettle: we let it leak:
Our not repairing it made it worse.
We haven't had any tea for a week. . .
The bottom is out of the Universe!


This was none of the good Lord's pleasure,
For the Spirit He breathed in Man is free;
But what comes after is measure for measure,
And not a God that afflicteth thee.
As was the sowing so the reaping
Is now and evermore shall be.
Thou art delivered to thine own keeping. 

  Only Thyself hath afflicted thee!


*I got tripped up on "Not to mention the L. S. D!" But this helped:

L. S. D.: the abbreviation for the Latin Libræ solidi denarii ‘Pounds, shillings and pence

Very like a whale.


Nice. Irrelevantly, that got me thinking of the cloud-gazing in "Hamlet":
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel? 
Polonius: By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed. 
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel. 
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel. 
Hamlet: Or like a whale? 
Polonius: Very like a whale.

Yonder dialogue is almost in the shape of an activist talking to a wokester....

Fisherman in Yemen haul in a dead sperm whale and discover, inside it, ambergris worth $1.5 million.


On the topic of ambergris, there is this from Herman Melville's "Moby Dick":

Now this ambergris is a very curious substance, and so important as an article of commerce, that in 1791 a certain Nantucket-born Captain Coffin was examined at the bar of the English House of Commons on that subject. For at that time, and indeed until a comparatively late day, the precise origin of ambergris remained, like amber itself, a problem to the learned. Though the word ambergris is but the French compound for grey amber, yet the two substances are quite distinct. For amber, though at times found on the sea-coast, is also dug up in some far inland soils, whereas ambergris is never found except upon the sea. Besides, amber is a hard, transparent, brittle, odorless substance, used for mouth-pieces to pipes, for beads and ornaments; but ambergris is soft, waxy, and so highly fragrant and spicy, that it is largely used in perfumery, in pastiles, precious candles, hair-powders, and pomatum. The Turks use it in cooking, and also carry it to Mecca, for the same purpose that frankincense is carried to St. Peter's in Rome. Some wine merchants drop a few grains into claret, to flavor it.

Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is. By some, ambergris is supposed to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the dyspepsia in the whale. How to cure such a dyspepsia it were hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of Brandreth's pills, and then running out of harm's way, as laborers do in blasting rocks.

I have forgotten to say that there were found in this ambergris, certain hard, round, bony plates, which at first Stubb thought might be sailors' trousers buttons; but it afterwards turned out that they were nothing, more than pieces of small squid bones embalmed in that manner. Now that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing? Bethink thee of that saying of St. Paul in Corinthians, about corruption and incorruption; how that we are sown in dishonor, but raised in glory. And likewise call to mind that saying of Paracelsus about what it is that maketh the best musk. Also forget not the strange fact that of all things of ill-savor, Cologne-water, in its rudimental manufacturing stages, is the worst.

But what, you may ask, are Brandreth's pills? Wikipedia answers: 

Brandreth was a pioneer in using the then-infant technique of mass advertising in building brand awareness to create a mass market for his product.

The first syllable of his name was "brand" and he was a pioneer in "branding." Is this that "implicit egotism" I've heard about — you know, like the way a guy named Dennis becomes a dentist? Yes, I could digress for a chapter, a la Melville in "Moby Dick," but let's barrel on and find out about the pills.

Brandreth created and published a wide variety of advertising material for his pills, including a 224-page tome entitled The Doctrine of Purgation, Curiosities from Ancient and Modern Literature, from Hippocrates and Other Medical Writers.

It's a purgative, which is why, if you give boatloads of the stuff to a whale, you must make a quick getaway like a laborer blasting rocks.

His advertising copy had a distinctly literary flavor which found favor with the public. Brandreth widely distributed his books and pamphlets throughout the country as well as taking copious advertising space in newspapers. Eventually his pills became one of the best selling patent medicines in the United States. "…A congressional committee in 1849 reported that Brandreth was the nation's largest proprietary advertiser… Between 1862 and 1863 Brandreth's average annual gross income surpassed $600,000…" For fifty years Brandreth's name was a household word in the United States.

Indeed, the Brandreth pills were so well known they received mention in Edgar Allan Poe's satirical story "Some Words with a Mummy" Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick, and P. T. Barnum's book The Humbugs of the World.... 

From "Some Words with a Mummy"

... the Doctor, approaching the Mummy with great dignity, desired it to say candidly, upon its honor as a gentleman, if the Egyptians had comprehended, at any period, the manufacture of either Ponnonner's lozenges or Brandreth's pills.

We looked, with profound anxiety, for an answer -- but in vain. It was not forthcoming. The Egyptian blushed and hung down his head. Never was triumph more consummate; never was defeat borne with so ill a grace. Indeed, I could not endure the spectacle of the poor Mummy's mortification. I reached my hat, bowed to him stiffly, and took leave....

And here's P.T. Barnum's chapter on Brandreth's pills. Excerpt: 

Column upon column of advertisements appeared in the newspapers, in the shape of learned and scientific pathological dissertations, the very reading of which would tempt a poor mortal to rush for a box of Brandreth’s Pills; so evident was it (according to the advertisement) that nobody ever had or ever would have “pure blood,” until from one to a dozen boxes of the pills had been taken as “purifiers.” The ingenuity displayed in concocting these advertisements was superb, and was probably hardly equaled by that required to concoct the pills…. No pain, ache, twinge, or other sensation, good, bad, or indifferent, ever experienced by a member of the human family, but was a most irrefragable evidence of the impurity of the blood; and it would have been blasphemy to have denied the “self-evident” theory, that “all diseases arise from impurity or imperfect circulation of the blood, and that by purgation with Brandreth’s Pills all disease may be cured.”


ADDED: All that about Brandreth's Pills, but what of Melville's reference to St. Paul? 

Bethink thee of that saying of St. Paul in Corinthians, about corruption and incorruption; how that we are sown in dishonor, but raised in glory.

Here we are: 1 Corinthian's 15:

But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body... It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.... 
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

"'chunk" and 'chunks' two posts down. Lot of chunk-ing this morning. How often has that word appeared in your posts over the years?"

TML writes in the comments to a post that begins with the Trump quote "So they take over a big chunk of a city called Seattle."

The other post is about a city that "voted to name a park for a 1970 explosion that rained chunks of rotting whale flesh on curious bystanders."

So how often has "chunk" come up over the 16 years of this blog? Oh, maybe 50 or 100, but the most interesting thing is that one time, back in 2015, it came up twice in one day and I made it the word of the day:
"Chunk" is the word of the day here... for no other reason than that it's come up on its own twice: "invented something called the 'Cha-Chunker'" and "pegs in their hubs that can 'take chunks out of' the granite ledge." It's a funny word, isn't it? One thinks of "blowing chunks" or the "Goonies" boy Chunk or — if you're really old — "What a chunk o' chocolate":

The word "chunk" somehow devolved from "chuck" — the squarish cut of meat — and "chuck," like "cluck," is the English speaker's reproduction of the sound a chicken makes.

"Chunk" is a notably American word. Here are some of the quotes collected by the (unlinkable) OED:
1856   E. K. Kane Arctic Explor. II. i. 15   A chunk of frozen walrus-beef....
1833   J. Hall Legends of West 50   If a man got into a chunk of a fight with his neighbour, a lawyer would clear him for half a dozen muskrat skins....
a1860   New York in Slices, Theatre (Bartl.),   Now and then a small chunk of sentiment or patriotism or philanthropy is thrown in....
1894   Congress. Rec. 13 July 7445/1   Just one moment, my friend. You are a lawyer... Yes, a chunk of a lawyer.
1907   Chicago Tribune 8 May 7 (advt.)    It's really ridiculous the way we've knocked chunks off these Spring overcoat prices.
1923   P. G. Wodehouse Inimitable Jeeves xiii. 148   Eustace and I both spotted that he had dropped a chunk of at least half a dozen pages out of his sermon-case as he was walking up to the pulpit.
1957   T. S. Eliot On Poetry & Poets 49   Crabbe is a poet who has to be read in large chunks, if at all.
As for other uses of "chunk," there's Trump on June 12, 2020, also going on about Seattle: "They took over a city, a city, a big city, Seattle, a chunk of it. A big chunk."

And I myself used the word only yesterday: "We — some of us — prefer the multicolored distractions of illusionism on the flat surface of the embedded video on Twitter as protesters drag down another stately chunk of metal."

This is also me, on July 5, 2018: "You know, out there in New York, California, and Massachusetts, they may think of the Midwest as a big undifferentiated chunk of flyover country, but to those of us who live here, our state (and even our region within the state) is quite specific."

In 2017, I wrote: "The corpse of Salvador Dali was exhumed to cut out some body parts to test to determine whether he was the father of a woman who's seeking a chunk of his estate." You can see that I used "chunk" there to create a poetic connection between the estate and the fleshly corpse.

Back in 2014, I had the occasion to parody Bob Dylan:
Well, that wigged art blonde
With his wheel in the gorge
And Turtle, that friend of theirs
With his checks all forged
And his cheeks in a chunk
With his cheese that says "ouch"
They’re all gonna be there
On that 82-million-dollar couch
In October 2008, I said: "The most honest admission in the book, to my ear, was the confession that he spent a huge chunk of his formative years watching TV sitcoms with his (white) grandfather." I had just read Obama's "Dreams From My Father."

And speaking of "From My Father," I have something from my "Records From My Father" series. I said: "Unfortunately, this record, my 5th choice for this Records From My Father series, has a chunk taken out of it, and so I can't listen to Count Basie's 'One O'Clock Jump' or Dinah Shore singing 'Buttons and Bows.'"


What were all the other things? Mostly "chunk" appeared in quotes. The chunks tend to be of food, of time, of land or rock, and of money. I was pleased to see that in these years, I'd never once used (or even quoted) the trite phrase "chunk of change."

Brandishing a narwhal tusk to fight the London Bridge terrorist.

The terrorist was armed with a knife, and the narwhal tusk was 5 feet long, I'm reading in "Narwhal tusk and fire extinguisher used to tackle London Bridge attacker/Members of the public, including a convicted murderer, bring terrorist to the ground" (The Guardian).
Scotland Yard is investigating how 28-year-old Usman Khan was able to launch the attack in London Bridge, despite being known to the authorities and fitted with an electronic tag to monitor his movements. He was allowed out a year ago after serving time for his part in a plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange.

In footage that has since emerged, Khan is sprayed with a fire extinguisher, while another man tries to suppress the assailant with a narwhal tusk – a long pointed tooth from a type of whale – lunging at him. It is believed the item was pulled from the wall of Fishmongers’ Hall, a grade II-listed building on London Bridge, by a Polish chef called Lucasz....
ADDED: I'm re-reading "Moby-Dick," so let me give you the chapter on the narwhal:
Narwhale, that is, Nostril whale.— Another instance of a curiously named whale, so named I suppose from his peculiar horn being originally mistaken for a peaked nose. The creature is some sixteen feet in length, while its horn averages five feet, though some exceed ten, and even attain to fifteen feet. Strictly speaking, this horn is but a lengthened tusk, growing out from the jaw in a line a little depressed from the horizontal. But it is only found on the sinister side, which has an ill effect, giving its owner something analogous to the aspect of a clumsy left-handed man. What precise purpose this ivory horn or lance answers, it would be hard to say. It does not seem to be used like the blade of the sword-fish and bill-fish; though some sailors tell me that the Narwhale employs it for a rake in turning over the bottom of the sea for food. Charley Coffin said it was used for an ice-piercer; for the Narwhale, rising to the surface of the Polar Sea, and finding it sheeted with ice, thrusts his horn up, and so breaks through. But you cannot prove either of these surmises to be correct. My own opinion is, that however this one-sided horn may really be used by the Narwhale—however that may be—it would certainly be very convenient to him for a folder in reading pamphlets. The Narwhale I have heard called the Tusked whale, the Horned whale, and the Unicorn whale. He is certainly a curious example of the Unicornism to be found in almost every kingdom of animated nature.

From certain cloistered old authors I have gathered that this same sea-unicorn's horn was in ancient days regarded as the great antidote against poison, and as such, preparations of it brought immense prices. It was also distilled to a volatile salts for fainting ladies the same way that the horns of the male deer are manufactured into hartshorn. Originally it was in itself accounted an object of great curiosity. Black Letter tells me that Sir Martin Frobisher on his return from that voyage, when Queen Bess did gallantly wave her jewelled hand to him from a window of Greenwich Palace, as his bold ship sailed down the Thames; "when Sir Martin returned from that voyage," saith Black Letter, "on bended knees he presented to her highness a prodigious long horn of the Narwhale, which for a long period after hung in the castle at Windsor." An Irish author avers that the Earl of Leicester, on bended knees, did likewise present to her highness another horn, pertaining to a land beast of the unicorn nature.

The Narwhale has a very picturesque, leopard-like look, being of a milk-white ground color, dotted with round and oblong spots of black. His oil is very superior, clear and fine; but there is little of it, and he is seldom hunted. He is mostly found in the circumpolar seas.
Brandishing a narwhal tusk to fight the London Bridge terrorist.
Fisherman in Yemen haul in a dead sperm whale and discover, inside it, ambergris worth $1.5 million."'chunk" and 'chunks' two posts down. Lot of chunk-ing this morning. How often has that word appeared in your posts over the years?""We should celebrate our mistakes" says one resident of Florence, Oregon...

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