I recently finished reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a long set of disquisitions and descants on whales, whaling, and life and all that, with occasional interruptions of plot. You have surely heard of it. Most people haven’t read it, but they know it’s about a whale.

Well, actually, it’s about a whaling ship and all its seamen and its captain who is obsessed with killing a particularly aggressive albino sperm whale, which has gotten the name Moby Dick (most whales don’t get names, of course, but a few achieve a certain fame). It’s very important that it’s a sperm whale. Most other whales – baleen whales – can’t do the kind of damage an aggressive bull sperm whale can do if it has a mind to. It’s not that the other whales aren’t big; it’s not that they can’t fight back at all; it’s that they don’t have teeth per se, and so can’t bite, and they don’t have foreheads that can be used for ramming aggressively. Sperm whales have both.

So why chase after sperm whales when other, less obstreperous whales are out there? It’s all in the head. That forehead, specifically. Which has no bones in it – it’s not really what corresponds to our forehead anatomically; it’s more of a huge lump on top of the jaw. And it’s filled with spermaceti.

That’s not what you may think it is. It’s not what the earliest people to encounter it thought it was, either – finding it washed up from dead sperm whales, they believed it was the sperm of a whale. Thus the name: sperma, sperm (“seed”), and ceti, “of a whale” – Latin, of course, though the ceti comes originally from Greek. But actually spermaceti is a kind of wax, a wax that is typically in a fluid state in the whale’s head but crystallizes easily. It makes excellent candles and also has some value in cosmetics, leatherworking, lubricants, that sort of thing. Sperm whales also have blubber, to be sure, from which oil can be extracted – much needed before the age of electricity. But spermaceti was what made it worthwhile chasing after these big brutes.

So, anyway, once it was figured out which whales this “sperm” came from, they came to have the name spermaceti whales, or sperm whales for short. So now you know. But let’s work our fingers through this word spermaceti a little more.

Actually, the word has historically been worked through a fair amount and kneaded into various forms; a notable now-disused mutation is parmacety, which has also been spelled parmacete, parmacitie, parmasitie, parmacetie, parmacety, parmacity, permaceti, permacetty, parmasity, parmaceti, parmacetty, parmacitty, parmasitty, and pahmacity (thanks, OED), all of which make me think of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham, or for that matter Parma city itself. Or perhaps pharmaceutic, permanence, tenacity, and acidity – or, indeed, aceite, which is Spanish for “oil”.

Spermaceti of course has those latter echoes too; one may be tempted to think it is sperm+aceti. But of course it is not; you may as well think of it as like Superman ceti, a Superman of a whale, a real supreme cetacean. You may also think of spermatozoa, naturally, but also of per, perm, mac, mace, and things etic and emic that you may cite.

The word works your tongue and lips with a back-and-forth interplay; it also works your hand as you write it (perhaps you should use a quill pen), with numerous turns and reversals, like an ampersand but so much longer.

How much longer? Perhaps an apostrophe. No, not the punctuation mark; a digression, an aside, of which Moby-Dick has quite a few, both from the author to the reader and from characters to, well, supposedly themselves but really the reader, of course. And while the whale may be white, the prose is often purple. Salty sea-dogs discourse with their demons in page-long paragraphs of pseudo-Shakespearean omphaloskeptic peregrinations. It gets quite thick and oily, and sometimes starts to crystallize unless you knead it well.

Just like spermaceti, to be sure. Or, as Melville often calls it in the common terminology of his chronotope, simply sperm. Allow me to close with a lengthy passage from the book that will give this word more flavour – without mentioning the whole word until the very last – than any dry disquisition. It will also snag this word tasting note in many a filter, with its talk of the seamen squeezing sperm all day. But remember: he’s talking about a kind of wax that comes in tens of gallons from the whale’s head. (Oh dear. That sentence will probably snag on some filters too.) This is from chapter XCIV:

While some were occupied with this latter duty, others were employed in dragging away the larger tubs, so soon as filled with the sperm; and when the proper time arrived, this same sperm was carefully manipulated ere going to the try-works, of which anon.

It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty! no wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favorite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener! such a delicious mollifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralize.

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma, – literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.

3 responses to “spermaceti

  1. What a lovely evocation of the days I spent far far from the madding crowd reading “Moby Dick”. I wrote something about it too, which you might like (or not).
    Sometime around the year 1780, a Frenchman named Aimé Argand invented a new sort of lamp. Far brighter than candles, and more reliable, it was the lamp of choice for anyone who could afford one, and, though Argand himself never saw any of the profits — his partner managed to steal both the patent and the money — these lamps came to illuminate shops and houses around the world. Now the demand for oil to fuel these lamps was insatiable, and the only oil that would work was taken from the head and body of the sperm whale. And so, since there was money in it — millions and millions of present-day dollars from every voyage — boats set off to catch whales. Rugged wooden sailing ships, with a full three masted rigging bui otherwise not much different from the dhows that plied the seas in the days of the Arabian Nights, or perhaps the Pharaohs. Four years worth of food and provisions they carried, for the ships might be gone four years out of sight of land. And what breed of men were these, who would sign on to such a voyage, and leave family, hearth and town for four years of being swept and tossed and blown who knows where on a rugged, unvarying ocean that, since the days of Caliph and Pharaoh had changed not at all?
    Shortly after 1850, everything changed. Kerosene lamps blazed, whale oil was unneeded. Steamboats and iron ships blithely cruised the waters. But, just before that happened, Herman Melville wrote a book about that vanished world. Now I don’t know if people talk about the “Great American Novel” anymore, but a couple of decades back, it was every scribbler’s secret dream to write it. More than a few people who should know say that the Greatest of all these Great American Novels is Moby Dick. Great it may be, and it’s certainly American — what other nation would field such enterprising cruises in search of a commodity that could be sold for profit? – but I’m not sure it’s really a novel at all. In its secret soul it’s more of an opera; or (as a few of its chapters are written) a play — and if it is a play it’s a sweeping Shakespearian drama; or more likely a symphony, a strange uplifting blend of Beethoven and Wagner and the ocean wind.
    There’s less character development than one would expect — the question of just why these men decided to spend their years suspended on a wooden platform between infinite sky and a watery grave is, though often asked, never answered, and maybe it never could be answered any more than you could answer why the wind blows — and there’s pretty much no realistic dialogue at all. Oh the speeches of Ahab are lovely, and indeed they rival and perhaps surpass Shakespeare at his finest, but you can’t imagine a real seaman uttering them. But of course these men aren’t real seamen, anymore than the sighing of the wind, or notes in a symphony, or a flaming nova reaching its inexorable conclusion.
    There’s not much action either, though what there is is grand and bloody and majestic, as the sea and the whale rise up and claim their due, and when that happens, the writing becomes lean and sinewy, as fast and efficient as a lightning bolt. But fully nine-tenths of the book has no action at all. It is composed of long and elegant and surprising and often nonsensical essays on just about everything concerning whales except what you might want to know. There is nothing about the Argand lamp, it is mentioned only in passing how long a whale is, but there are chapters and chapters on why the whale is a fish and not a mammal, why the color white is sinister, how Jonah’s whale could have moved so quickly between Jaffa and Iraq, etc etc etc. But, strangely enough, the effect of all of this is not to bore or baffle but, like a long crossing across a savage and monotonous landscape, ultimately to inspire awe and wonder, a sense of limitless magical possibility, of, to use the first word in the book, “loomings”, of vast and majestic forces, of motions, shufflings, grindings, sweepings, energy of the universe flickering like St Elmo’s fire on the masthead, all this cornucopia of wonder that can’t be seen from land. It’s as if Melville is walking through a wild rambling museum or curiosities and saying “Look at this! Look at this! Ain’t it grand?”

    Brian Schwartz

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