Heads and Tails

(chapters 69–86), etching

Opposites and analogies

In the top left, we see the cross-section of the head of a baleen whale; left centre, in the background, we have a whaler who points at the tail of a sperm whale. The head and the tail are a metaphor for the spiritual and the earthly, as represented by the god of the heavens Nuth and Osiris, seen top centre. The etching shows several dualities, such as the opposition between Locke and Kant (represented by Reuvers as a playing card), described as whale-heads, hoisted along both sides of the whale ship and keeping it awkwardly balanced. In the bottom right, we see a skull that laughs at a phrenologist because he understands nothing of the skull of a sperm whale. In the bottom left, the carnal union of two catamites.

The Monkey-rope

The monkey-rope connects Ishmael on the deck of The Pequod with Queequeg, who balances on the head of the bobbing carcase of a sperm whale to insert the blubber-hook with which the whale’s blubber is stripped like an orange. Occasionally, Queequeg loses his footing on the vehemently rocking and rolling beast, and then, dangling between the whale and the ship, is pulled up again by Ishmael. Ishmael almost slides overboard himself on the slippery deck. The rope must never be cut. If one goes, the other one has to go along. Never before has his fate been so strongly connected with someone else’s. Similarly, we see the Siamese twin, at the top right of the etching

The Virgin

When The Pequod encounters the whale ship Die Jungfrau (The Virgin) from Bremen, Melville contemplates melancholically how, although they once were the largest whaling nations of the world, nowadays, you rarely encounter a ship with the flag of a Dutch or German whaling company. At the top of the etching, we can see the flags of the whaling companies; and in the centre, a picture of the Virgin with a unicorn – a mediaeval phantasy creature.
In a discourse about the subtle motion of the tail of the whale, Melville refers to the secret signs and symbols of the Freemasons. To the left of the Virgin, a masonic image with the ground-plan for a ritual. Underneath it, we see Gabriel and his hermetic name. Gabriel is a religious maniacal crew-member of the ship, The Jeroboam, who considers himself to be the deliverer of the islands of the seas and the vicar-general of all Oceanica.

The stone arrowhead

Often, arrowheads and pieces of harpoons were found in the blubber of a whale. The healed tissue surrounding these objects suggests that they have probably been there for quite some time. When Ishmael finds a stone arrowhead, he wonders how old this specific whale must have been. The arrowhead might have belonged to a prehistoric Indian, long before America was discovered.

The Sphynx

The proud, worked-up Ahab compares the decapitated head of a whale, hoisted by cables against the ship’s side, with the Sphynx in the desert and admonishes it to speak: ‘Speak, thou vast and venerable head […] Thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!’ Reuvers depicts this scene with Oedipus and the Sphynx on an antique Greek plate.

A chain of shrunken skulls

At the bottom right, the heads refer to Melville’s observation that the skull of a sperm whale resembles a human skull from behind. ‘It is a German delusion that the vertebrae of the spinal cord of a sperm whale are in fact immature skulls,’ Melville wrote in December, 1851. To the right, we have the skeleton of a sperm whale. In the background, we see a sperm whale hoisted on deck.