Touching This Leviathan, by Peter Wayne Moe (Oregon State University Press, 166 pp., $19.95)

Midway through Touching This Leviathan—part chronicle on whale-watching, part literary criticism, part personal memoir—Seattle Pacific University writing professor Peter Wayne Moe writes that Moby Dick isn’t just a book about whaling. It is also “about reading, about writing, about a writer and his sources, about a writer learning to use the words those sources offer.”

Though more concise, more personally immediate, and more overtly theological than Melville’s classic, Touching This Leviathan matches much of that description. It is an illustration of Moe’s literary philosophies put into practice. Those philosophies include the idea that authentic originality occurs only through the discovery and re-application of something that already exists. Writers build on the work of their ancestors, using the same materials—words—that those ancestors passed down to us.

Even the arrangements of those words are not as unique as some might think. Moe reminds us that Melville began Moby Dick with a list of passages collected from various literary sources—a chapter called “Extracts”—and that he ended the book with clauses and phrasing that he “borrowed” from authors writing before him. Melville “reads like a pirate,” Moe tells us, “pillaging from wherever he can.” He quotes a scholar who wrote that Moby Dick can be considered “the original product of the assimilation of many other books.”

“Saying something new isn’t a matter of inventing ideas from scratch, but of composing those gathered,” Moe explains, introducing the Roman rhetorical term inventio—not “inventing something out of nothing but finding something that already exists . . . and putting it to use.” The logical architecture of the compositions we wrote in elementary school is the same as what we employ today, with the etymology of the word “composition” supporting Moe’s thesis. “Com” means “together,” while “position” derives from the Latin ponere, meaning “to place.” A composition is the placing together of what already exists: an arrangement.

Practicing what he preaches, Moe doesn’t shy from crediting his sources, including paleontologist Nick Pyenson, who wrote in Spying on Whales that answering big questions “requires pulling data and insights from multiple scientific disciplines.” The big questions are what Moe’s book prepares his readers to encounter.

Moe considers literary critic Richard Poirier’s writing on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden—specifically on his chapter on cultivating a bean field. “How does anyone ‘know beans’”? Poirier asks. “The answer is that you ‘know’ a thing and know that you know it only when ‘work’ begins to yield a language that puts you and something else . . . at a point of vibrant intersection.”

Touching This Leviathan makes for a valuable companion to the writing texts Moe mentions, though not in the traditional pedagogical sense, for Moe does not offer much in the way of practical advice. That’s not to say that those practical lessons aren’t important. In Moby Dick, Ishmael advises us that, though the measurements of a whale do not tell us all we want to know, we have to take them in order to have any real knowledge of a whale. But Moe didn’t write Touching This Leviathan to show us how to take measurements of the writing craft; he wrote it for the seeker—for those “thought-divers,” in Melville’s words, “that have been diving and coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.” The writer as seeker swims to the edge of knowledge’s existence, and it is there, “where knowledge fails, that possibility resides,” Moe writes.

The work necessary to achieve the “point of vibrant intersection” includes this seeking. Our lives are a record of such seeking. Moe includes journal entries from his and others’ whale-watching efforts as evidence to support his claim. His favorite part of whale watching from the shore is that he rarely sees them, which adds to their mystery and makes any sighting more spectacular.

The bird watcher Isaac Anderson wrote of the religious nature of his pursuit, something Moe understands intimately, quoting poet Kathleen Jamie: “Whale watching proceeds like a kind of theology—by glimpses, sightings . . . a pursuit for the regretful.” Anderson refers to the Psalms as a literature of pursuit, “texts born of the belief that God responds to language, can be flushed out into the open, by those humble enough, or perhaps lonely enough, to pray.” The Biblical allusions and references throughout the book reflect the genuine piety of someone in awe of the universe’s complexities. One senses throughout Touching This Leviathan Moe’s thankfulness for being allowed a place in the intricacy.

Humans, being verbal animals, cannot perceive the world without language, for this is how we name and identify what is “seen and experienced.” Our ability to name is what allows for stories, and for some of our stories to become mythic. “We project our myths on names,” writer Ander Monson says, and a name becomes “shorthand for a story.” One’s life adds to the history of one’s name. This thinking is again consistent with how we are not only not free of the past but are indebted to it—and obligated to the future, where the stories of our lives are the history of that future.

Philip Hoare writes in The Whale that “humans cannot know whales, or begin to know whales, until we know what to call them.” The Sperm Whale got its name because whalers once thought the milky white material in its forehead was the whale’s sperm. We could identify separate species of whales but were not yet identifying individuals. Today, researchers identify individual whales by their unique coloring, by splotches and patches, by scars and accumulation of barnacles, or by mottling on their flukes. With this level of recognition, and the naming that follows, we can know whales as individuals and make observations that allow us to create stories of their lives—possibly from birth but certainly through childhood, puberty, adulthood, aging, and death.

Moe has memorized the Book of Jonah and repeats it to himself regularly. The Psalms use the metaphor of drowning to describe times of trouble, and the story of Jonah incorporates this metaphor as well. “There is not a single line in Jonah’s Prayer he could call his own . . . not a single line that does not find itself in the Psalms.” But, Moe adds, “To say Jonah steals from the Psalms is to expect a writer to say something that’s never been said before, and to believe it’s a fault to do otherwise.” Jonah is not just quoting the Psalms. He is composing, “arranging the sentences into something new. . . . Something entirely his own even as it is taken from others.”

Moe asks why the story of Jonah has so captivated our culture. Twelve pages of Touching This Leviathan detail Jonah and whale allusions in literature. What is the story’s allure? At a literal level, we intermittently come across stories of people “swallowed” by a whale, whether they live to tell of the experience or not. But to be in the belly of the beast describes a state of psychological commitment, and an actual swallowing “is hardly . . . [the] focal point.” We have a yearning, Moe discovers, that we are afraid of yet drawn to fulfill, “to be within.”

This is where whaling and writing swim together. The uncertainty of entering the depths is the frightful effort by which one takes the words that have come before us and makes them our own. It is how we learn to reside with what came before us. “In learning how to inhabit these inherited sentences,” Moe writes, “one must learn to bide time within the belly of the whale.” The belly is where one sacrifices oneself. It is the tomb in which one dies as well as the womb from which one is born again. From death comes life. “That’s the question, isn’t it?” Moe asks.” [H]ow to inhabit inherited words?” Like Jonah, Moe asks for strength: “For if I can learn to inhabit those inherited sentences, dwell inside these words I do not get to choose, maybe even incarnate them somehow—perhaps then I might learn to bide my time within the belly of the whale.”

Life and death are literal for writers, too, not just metaphorical. Fertility and decay are paramount as Moe describes the gruesome details of flensing (the removing of soft tissue and fluids) a whale washed upon the beach. The plan was to exhibit the whale’s skeleton at his university, and this work taught Moe more about the whale than he “ever could have imagined.”

The Marine Science and Technology Center’s Rus Higley directs Moe and his crew in the operation. Taking some pleasure in watching Moe and his assistants in the grisly work, Higley asks, “How do you like that, English professor? A lot different than your books, huh?”

Needing to bury the whale for six months so the earth could leach the pungent oil draining from the whale’s bones—a substance so durable that decomposition is the only way for one’s hands to be cleaned, as no amount of washing has proved effective—Moe shares with us the intimacy that comes from being physically engaged in a burial, from digging the grave to covering the corpse.

Equally intimate is Moe’s description of the frustrating and at times embarrassing effort he and his wife shared in their attempt to conceive a child. Infertility issues make a vivid personal contrast to the biological and intellectual fecundity of cetological matters. As the whale is dismembered, Moe’s wife gives birth to a son; birth, for the author, is as mysterious as death.

Moe ends his meditation by quoting nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s acknowledgement that in writing he has “followed in the footsteps of many predecessors in terms of writing as well as of walking,” and in doing so he “does not leave . . . a clean register.” Readers of Touching This Leviathan will be thankful for the path Moe has left for them to follow.

Photo: Missing35mm/iStock


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next