Yes, there was a real white whale! Herman Melville read about it in Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839. The article by J.R. Reynolds described the chase, capture, and killing of a violent sperm whale as "white as wool," whose haunt was near Mocha Island, off the coast of Chile.
In a May 2, 2020, essay for the New York Times, Carl Safina relates information about this real white whale, then quips: "It's unknown what led Melville to tweak Mocha to Moby. Good thing he did, and that Starbuck was the name he gave his first mate rather than his captain. Otherwise, the novel would follow Starbuck's obsession with a Mocha!" Safina's jesting aside, his essay, "Melville's Whale Was a Warning We Failed to Heed," is worth reading.
In Melville's 19th century, we slaughtered the whale almost to extinction.
Now, we fill them with plastic.
In a memorable article, "Belly of the Beast," I quote the following for its image.
"A sperm whale that recently washed up on the Spanish coast had an entire greenhouse in its belly; the flattened structure, together with the tarps, hosepipes, ropes, flowerpots, and spray canister" for the greenhouse. All from an Andalusian hydroponic business, which grows tomatoes for export to colder climes. The article's author, Amia Srinivasan, did what good writers do: they make us remember by being specific. Here is another sentence I will not forget: "When whales exhale through their blowholes, the vapor is so dense that it produces rainbows." (The New Yorker, August 24, 2020, pgs. 64-69, "What have we done to the whale?)
In Carl Safina's NY Times essay from May 2, 2020, he ends by saying: "If we are all Ishmael and Ahab, caught in our collective addiction, the whales exemplify a counterculture, a way of living weightlessly, of not draining the world that floats them." Safina quotes a naturalist, Henry Beston, who states that whales and all beings are caught in the net of life and time, as "fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
Safina concludes his final paragraph with Beston's familiar image of a net. But Safina adds two barbs. "Mesh by knotted mesh, it's a net we have woven perversely, by unweaving the web of life. Melville tried to warn us."
Next week: Melville on Tattoos