After Ahab

 The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century, by D Graham Burnett, University of Chicago Press, RRP£29, 824 pages

Books about whales have a tendency towards gigantism. The sheer vastness of their subject seems to challenge writers to respond in kind. This erudite and multi-hued history of mankind’s modern relationship with cetaceans is no exception: from the tip of its extensive list of illustrations to the tail of its 56-page bibliography, D Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale announces itself as firmly in the tradition of leviathan literature.

“It would be difficult to pick a set of creatures that have been subject to a more dramatic reimagining over the course of the last century,” writes Burnett, a professor of the history of science at Princeton University and an editor of the quarterly magazine Cabinet. In the early 20th century they were seen as no more sympathetic than an oil well. However, the conditions in which their oil was extracted were undeniably gruesome. Even hardened sailors grew squeamish at the sight of the whale factories whose “gargantuan conveyor belts of meat” were surrounded by a sea of blood and a surf of fat and intestines.

While some scientists had vague ideas that such slaughter was unsustainable, and possibly even immoral (wrote one, “What penalty ... would the gods in due time inflict for such sacrilege?”), so little was known about the whales themselves that regulation of the industry was impossible. It took the work of “hip-booted” scientists, working side-by-side with whalers, to discover how these creatures reproduced and what their breeding patterns were.

However, this reliance on the whaling industry led to an awful subverting of aims. In order to understand the whales, and thus conserve them, scientists needed fresh whale corpses. The whalers were more than happy to oblige. It was not until after the second world war, and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of cetaceans, that a whole new way of looking at whales came about. This was largely thanks to the fantastical character of John C Lilly, an “apostate neurophysiologist” and father to a generation of whale-huggers.

Lilly had studied the physical structures of the brain and consciousness in the 1950s. Working on the periphery of cold war mind science, he had devised the first isolation tank, in which subjects could float in sensory isolation. By the 1960s he had begun working with LSD and investigating human-dolphin communication, even injecting his cetaceous conversationalists with the drug. He became known as the whale guru, who spoke of quasi-divine sperm whales whose gigantic brains seemed to provide “a synesthetic, psychedelic, stereophonic apotheosis of intelligent life”. The idea that whales might be not only our equals but actually our peaceful betters was embraced by the zeitgeist.

Burnett has trod this ground before. In his previous book, Trying Leviathan, he charted how a 19th-century court case over whether whale oil should be taxed as fish oil became a religious and scientific battleground. Those intimidated by this book’s size might want to start there. But the heft of The Sounding of the Whale does not weigh it down, not least because Burnett takes the reader on some wonderfully strange detours, for instance the hiring of medievalists to develop a whale-marking crossbow in the early decades of the century, and a profound close reading of the 1970s punk song “Nuke the Whales”. Like one of the flensers, who carved the blubber off whales, Burnett scrambles and rappels across the living and dead bodies of his subjects with aplomb.

Yet, as in Melville’s Moby-Dick, the scale of the issues that surround the whale seem to stretch the very bounds of human knowledge. Towards the end of his book, in a show of modesty tinged with postmodern terror, Burnett declares his work “a sweeping epistemological humiliation”. Its extensive footnotes, he bemoans, should really have more footnotes, its bibliography should be expanded, its references cleaned up and increased. After more than 800 pages in which thousands of documents have been analysed, referred to and strung together into a dense but cogent analysis of man and whale, Burnett announces that the one presiding message of this book should perhaps be that “knowing things is hard”. Readers should be glad that he has made the effort.

George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers Press)

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