Killian Beeler, Contributing Writer
“Oh, the rare old Whale, mid storm and gale
In his ocean home will be
A giant in might, where might is right
And King of the boundless sea.”
The “Extracts” section of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” quoted above, illustrates the fascination with and prominence of whales, sea monsters and the Leviathan throughout human history. From Understanding the Bible lectures on the influence of the Ancient Near East’s mythology of chaotic waters and sea monsters on the Old Testament, to the actual reading of “Moby-Dick” in Lit Trad IV, a University of Dallas student can see for himself the archetype that the whale represents throughout Western civilization and our Core. This article is a celebration of that whale as well as the Core book and class in which one most encounters it.
As I began writing this article, my roommate came in and asked what I was doing. I told him that I was writing an article about whales, and he responded, “Oh, I love whales!” When I asked him why, he said, “Ever since Lit Trad IV, reading “Moby-Dick,” I’ve just found them to be fascinating. They are just so big.” I excitedly answered: “That’s what my article is all about! The awesomeness of whales and Lit Trad IV.”
The reasoning behind my roommate’s fascination with whales – that “they are just so big” – might seem to be just a vague, underdeveloped explanation, but it might also be the best way to describe it. Although the Leviathan of my study is not the same Leviathan that Isaiah describes as a “crooked serpent” and “dragon in the sea” that “the Lord with his … strong sword, shall punish,” but instead the ordinary whale, it still shares a chaotic magnificence with its mythical counterpart. This magnificence can be boiled down (no spermaceti-processing pun intended) to the whale’s sheer size. It is “just so big,” and this massiveness can lead to quite a lot of destruction, but more importantly, it leads man to see something greater and more powerful than himself in the natural universe – something unknown.
Some men, like Ahab in “Moby-Dick,” might only see an inherent injustice in the cosmos (one that must be conquered) when encountering the massiveness of the beast. Others, such as Ishmael, might just see meaningless chaos. Personally, I think Pip gets it right when he is thrown into the sea by the whale and “carried down alive to wondrous depths … [where] Wisdom revealed his hoarded heaps. … He [Pip] saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it.” By having the terrifying power of the beast inflicted upon him, Pip is able to see God, the creator, at the center of the universe. Witnessing his own limitations in enduring such ferocious power allows Pip to understand his proper place in the cosmos: not as conqueror of the great Leviathan, but as a witness and participant in the wonders of God’s creation.
Looking at whales in a less intellectual way, I think they are just plain cool! Take, for instance, the blue whale. Its heart is as big as a small car! Its larger blood vessels are big enough that we could crawl through them. To me, that is just plain awesome. Could you imagine being in a small boat as a blue whale came to the surface, and seeing its whale eyes on the sides of its massive body? It would be such a terrifying and beautiful experience. Another example is the narwhal, one of the most interesting animals out there. For years I thought it was some mythical North Pole unicorn whale made up for kids’ movies like “Elf.” It wasn’t until I was reading the cetology chapter of “Moby-Dick” in high school that I had any knowledge of its actual existence. After immediate research, I found to my great delight that the funny-looking unicorn whale (one of its teeth grows into a sharp straight tusk) did, in fact, exist. What interesting and beautiful creatures the seas produce!
Even if you don’t have to take Lit Trad IV, for the benefts of a solid UD education, I would encourage you to either take or audit Lit Trad IV with Father Maguire. At worst, even if you don’t come to love whales, “Moby-Dick” or the Core, you will still get several laughs, good life lessons and a lot of worthwhile entertainment from a wise, funny man. But I do think there is a chance to get much, much more from the class. As alumnus and classics major Bill Farris (‘10) once told me, “[the late great] Dr. Curtsinger’s Lit Trad IV class was by far my favorite Core class and “Moby-Dick” my favorite book. I don’t understand, all these people come here for the ‘UD experience’ and then they skip the most essential class to that experience.” If you can help it, don’t let that “essential” opportunity pass you by!