Epidermal Epistemology aboard the Pequod

Melissa McCarthy, 2021. Cover illustration: Colin Mier

Ishmael is interested in skin. Queequeg’s skin, certainly, as his crewmate and bosom-companion is tattooed all over with ‘a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth’, written out on him by a prophet from his home island. This labyrinth of ink also includes one ‘queer round figure’ which, carefully copied by Queequeg, stands as the signature on his contract as both men sign up for a voyage on the whaling-ship Pequod. He’s got his name on himself.

And Ishmael is interested in the skin of the whale; he has a whole chapter on this. Not just any chapter, but the dead central—the sixty-eighth, out of 135‚chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, first published in 1851. The copy I’m working from is the Oxford World’s Classics small (10 x 16 x 3 cm) hardback version, of 1985. You can see here in the photograph the book boards, with their harpoon-triangular pattern, and the paper dust jacket, and, peeling off from that, some sort of protective plastic laminate which once coated the paper. Could it be waterproofing, for when I’m reading the book at sea? I hadn’t known it was there until I began working on this piece.

So, middle of the nineteenth century, middle of the book, middle of the Indian Ocean, is where Ishmael, the personable narrator of Moby Dick locates his chapter ‘The Blanket’, with its central question of, ‘what and where is the skin of the whale?’

His query and concern are rooted in the surely excessive thickness of the whale’s blubber: can a substance that is (in places) more than a foot deep really be called skin? Yes, he decides: if it’s covering the body, it’s got to be the skin. And then, as is the MO of the book, Ishmael detours from his adventure story—he and the crew are just in the middle of stripping the skin off a whale they’ve caught‚in order to discuss his learning, and to use one aspect of the whale to illustrate a moral point. (In this case, it’s the injunction that one should preserve independence of both temperament and temperature. Keep your cool, he advocates.)

Ishmael is a great one for these types of circumlocution and digression, using the body of the whale as a pretext for considering all sorts of other questions about the state of the world. The whale is a pre-text in another sense, too: it prompts writing, it precedes and is the cause of a huge corpus of literature. Ishmael is an unrivalled scholar in this field, and chapter one only sets sail after both an ‘Etymology’ and a selection of ‘Extracts’ on the subject of the whale.

Half his knowledge comes from textual sources such as these extracts, but much of what he knows is gained from his own experience of catching, killing, dissecting the great fish. He’s an expert, that is, based on two distinct sources: both the book and the body. Contrasting as these two fields of knowledge might appear, Ishmael firmly links them by his explanation that, ‘I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS),’ and he thereby unleashes a rampaging metaphor about the size-based parallels between the whale and the printed book (in ‘Cetology’, chapter 32). It’s a joke that the reader is in on, too; we all know that Moby Dick is a whale of a book, which we have to get stuck in to, to appreciate.

We have the text and the flesh as two forms of knowledge, and Ishmael uses this folio-quarto metaphor to link the two fields. But his reading of the whale is also non-metaphorical, distinctly corporeal: its skin is covered in graphic markings which have meanings that we can decode, and this is what ‘The Blanket’ chapter investigates. Ishmael’s thoughts on the skin-writing are, much like blubber, rather dense. But we can squeeze, distill out the meaning.

The skin of the Sperm Whale, he says, is ‘all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings.’ These form the background to further markings, which are ‘hieroglyphical’, like ‘those mysterious cyphers on the walls of pyramids’. They’re also like a print he saw of ‘old Indian characters chiseled on the famous hieroglyphic palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi.’ And, fighting often causes these marks on the flanks to be effaced by ‘numerous rude scratches, altogether of an irregular, random aspect’, which look like the scrapes caused by icebergs against rocks, as described by the famous geologist Agassiz.

It’s a lot of allusion for Ishmael to read off one whale’s skin. The whale’s natural surface resembles two human technologies, one used in the reproductions of high art, the other in writing, among various cultures. Even its fight scars are as described in academic papers.

And beyond these notations and marks, there’s a further layer of epidermal literacy. The whale has, in addition, a sort of skin of the skin, an enveloping layer of ‘an infinitely thin, transparent substance, somewhat resembling the thinnest shreds of isinglass, only it is almost as flexible and soft as satin’. On drying, this layer contracts and hardens, but remains transparent, and has the strange effect, fancies Ishmael, of magnifying any text that he looks at through it; ‘it is pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles, as you may say, he considers.

He’s reading a book about whales through a whale-skin magnifying glass! It’s a brilliant configuration of body, optics, and reading. There are whales, covered in markings that allude to other art forms, and these whales feature in books, which are read through a whale-skin magnifier, in the hands of a reader (Ishmael), who describes this in a book (Moby Dick), of which the copy belonging to me (as reader) has another isinglass-like layer around it, and there’s the photo of my book in your book (you, oh reader) in your hands here… It’s like realigning and extending the telescope, with alternating sections and lenses of whale—text—whale, all adjusted, set to the right configuration, to help us see.

This is great, but confusing; we risk getting sucked into a mise-en-abîme of fleshly text, spiraling into relativity. Which is, not by chance, the fate of the whaling ship the Pequod: it ends up sucked down, ‘all round and round in one vortex’, so that everything—whale, captain, ship and all—is consumed by the sea. The only things that escape this whirlpool of whale-destruction are Ishmael, the narrator of our book, and one other thing: a box belonging to Queequeg which was made as his coffin. He had wanted to float away in it after death, as far as the milky way. But on deciding against expiring just then, Queequeg repurposed the coffin into a sea-chest, and decorated it, observes Ishmael, by carving onto it copies, extracts, and selections of the tattoo texts that had been marked onto his own skin.

So this is what survives the inspiraling disaster: one scholar and one wooden box, with writing on it. And this is the lesson I’d take from reading Melville. That at the heart of the action, in the very middle of things—time, text, geography, the ocean—a close-contact consideration of skin, page, and writing is what will help us survive. Markings are substitutable, various; they can be moved from one surface to another, from one location and context to a very different one. But we have to look at them carefully, bringing different reservoirs of knowledge to the task. We experiment with lining up the components in different relative positions. Then the image clicks into focus, the line flies through the foamy air, the point sinks in.


A Trew Draught of the Whale as he was seen at Blackwall Dock, published by John Drapentier, c. 1690. © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.



References: all from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; read the book to find them.