“How it is I know not; but there is not place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other, and some couples often lie and chat over old times till early morning. Thus, then, in our heart’s honeymoon, lay I and Queegueg— a cozy, loving couple.” Ishmael, recollecting his first night spent with his future shipmate in the Spouter Inn, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
In San Francisco, my wife and I share a bed in the Royal Pacific Motor Inn. I love this Hotel, the decor is decidedly turned down, fabulous Asian fifties. The staff is wonderful and the rooms are clean, and the beds are firm. The location is on Broadway and Columbus, a half a block from City Lights Books. The street-side rooms are noisy but that is a small price to pay for free parking and a reasonable room rate. My dreams are filled with sirens and drama, and wonderful aromas of coffee and cooked vegetables.
Jan and I snuggle in the king bed on our balcony street-side room and she shares her anxieties with me. The last few nights she talks about Sperm whales, specifically the big males, and whether they are “affiliating” or not.
Here is the deal. Remember yesterday when I described the big snout and the sound the sperm whales could generate? Well, turns out it is very loud. So, this makes a difference in behavior as well. Here is how, in a very small nutshell. Sperm whales have a very, very big yard to play in, essentially the whole ocean they find themselves in. In the Pacific, the females and the calves hang out, mostly, around the equator and the big males range around way up north… maybe as far up as the arctic. Why? Not really sure, but probably because it is safer for the calves, the warmer water for birthing is good, and fewer predators (Orca whales mostly) is good. Also maybe something about the warm water is good for the lactating females. Did I just make that up? Maybe… I just did. Anyway… calves and females like warm waters. They feed down there on fish and squid but not as many as the BIG males in the more productive northern waters. (Remember the whole thing about oxygen yesterday? Northern waters have less salt and more oxygen, generally so, more stuff to eat) In the whaling literature these big males are often cited as being “lone bachelors” , they are thought not to affiliate with one another because they are not seen together.
But here is where the big noise and the water comes in. These whales can dive down to three thousand feet, or more and remember they make LOUD noises. (the loudest of any animal on earth) and in the water there are three things that effect how far sound can travel: temperature, pressure and salinity. Think of it this way pressure kind of squishes a sound wave flat and it can travel a long long way in the deep ocean if it doesn’t bump into salt molecules, and the cold water the molecules are sloooow so the sound waves cut through easily. How does this effect behavior? Easy, these big males are “affiliating” or communicating with each other up to forty miles apart (at least) even if they seem alone, they are together.
So again, in the real world, how would you know, or why would it matter. Remember yesterday again, I said they have the biggest brain? Well, it turns out they are clever, they have learned to take black cod off fisherman’s commercial fishing lines. They have learned the sound of the engines as the fishermen “back hall” the gear to bring the fish up on to the boat and strip it off the line. Not only that, they can recognize the boat and wait by the gear for the next set. As I said, clever, plus, they teach this to their cohorts as more and more whales come north. By using satellite tags Jan and her pals have recorded several big males working together and traveling together, putting a lie… as it were .. to the whole myth of the lone male ranging by himself through the northern oceans. This is a change in the literature. In the world of science its a big deal. Hence the anxiety in the bed of the Royal Pacific Motor Inn about the talk to be given in San Francisco on Wednesday.
Male stereotypes are pervasive in all cultures. It was supposed, in his lifetime, because he had six children and a devoted wife (though not so devoted towards the end) that Herman Melville was a staunch heterosexual withan exotic if, not classically inspired admiration of the male form. It is in his novel Redburn that Melville gives the scholars of queer literature the most evidence that he must have surely been a repressed homosexual. I have not read this book so I can not judge, but apparently the characters go on a wild binge of debauchery which includes undeniable homosexual characteristics. Of course Melville’s Billy Budd was Beautiful and a symbol of innocence like the love object in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, but in all his writings the only love scene where two men actually touch was the (above) scene where Ishmael and Queegue wake up in the Spouter Inn.
What Herman Melville did or didn’t do with his penis doesn’t particularly interest me, the fact that he yearned interests me, the fact when he shipped out on the whaling ship for that year and a half and his two years in the south Pacific he came back changed. This is interesting. He was transformed by nature, and all the rest of his life he tried to make contact with another like soul. His books were never really read as deeply as he wanted in his lifetime. He wanted Nathaniel Hawthorn to be his soulmate, he dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne’s genius and when the well established American author wrote to a note of appreciation to the relative newcomer, Melville wrote back: “I feel the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this inline fraternity of feeling.”
No pressure though.
This intensity made Melville seem like a loner, the “Custom’s agent” of literature, but it is said he came to terms with who he was by the end of his life. If he wasn’t understood, it was their loss, but in the end he wasn’t alone, we were just a long way off. His voice was loud enough, it was strong enough. His yearning voice found an ear.