Waxing Lexical

I’ve just finished reading a book that I never knew I simply had to read about a subject that I had no idea I was interested in.  Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale is a strange mix: partly autobiographical, part history of whaling, partly an in-depth study of Moby Dick and its author, and partly a love letter to whales; words mixed with grainy monochrome pictures.  Yet far from being fragmented and confusing, this strange combination is utterly compelling.

Hoare flagrantly romaticises the whale, writing about these creatures with an often mystical and spiritual tone.  He tells the tale of how as man developed technology, we became more and more brutally efficient at slaughtering a creature which to this day, we have a fairly limited understand of.  He speculates on how man’s intervention has quite possibly destroyed whale culture; knowledge that was somehow passed down through generations before the whale population was so comprehensively disrupted and brought to the brink of extinction.  He traces the history of man’s encounters and those that sought to document them in fact and fiction.

The real power of this book, however, is not in the subject matter but the strength of its writing.  Book lovers will know that a book – merely words – can be more immersive than any other form of media.  Immersive doesn’t begin to describe this title.  This is truly a book to be experienced.

“It was as if I were looking into the universe.  The blue was intangible yet distinct; untouchable and all-enveloping, like the sky. I felt like an astronaut set adrift, the world falling away beneath me.  Floating in and out of focus before my eyes were a myriad of miniature planets or asteroids, some elliptical, some perfect spheres.  Set sharply against the blue, the glaucous, gelatinous micro-animals and what seemed to be fish roe moved in a firmament of their own, both within and beyond my perception.

I was moving through another dimension, suspended in salt water, held over the earth that had disappeared far below.  I could see nothing ahead.  The rich soup on which those same tiny organisms fed combined to defeat my sight, reducing lateral visibility as they drifted like dust motes caught in the sunlight.

Then, suddenly, there it was.

Ahead, taking shape out of the darkness, was an outline familiar from words and pictures and books and films but which had never seemed real; an image I might have invented out of my childhood nightmares, a recollection of something impossible.  Something so huge I could not see it, yet which now resolved itself into reality.

A sperm whale, hanging at the surface.  I was less than thirty feet away before I saw it, before its blunt head, connected by muscular flanks to its infinite, slowly swaying fukes, filled my field of vision.

…I could not believe that something so big could be so silent.  Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant, and yet not quite.  Recreated in her own dimension, in the dimension of the sea, I was taken into her otherness, my image in her head.  As the whale turned past me, I saw her eye, grey, veiled, sentient; set in her side, the centre of her consciousness.  Behind it lay only muscle, moving without effort.  The moment lasted forever, for seconds.  Both of us in our naked entirety, nothing between us but illimitable ocean.”


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