Chapter 70: The Sphynx.
It should not have been omitted that previous to completely stripping
the body of the leviathan, he was beheaded. Now, the beheading of the
Sperm Whale is a scientific anatomical feat, upon which experienced
whale surgeons very much pride themselves: and not without reason.
Consider that the whale has nothing that can properly be called a neck;
on the contrary, where his head and body seem to join, there, in that
very place, is the thickest part of him. Remember, also, that the
surgeon must operate from above, some eight or ten feet intervening
between him and his subject, and that subject almost hidden in a
discoloured, rolling, and oftentimes tumultuous and bursting sea. Bear
in mind, too, that under these untoward circumstances he has to cut many
feet deep in the flesh; and in that subterraneous manner, without so
much as getting one single peep into the ever-contracting gash thus
made, he must skilfully steer clear of all adjacent, interdicted parts,
and exactly divide the spine at a critical point hard by its insertion
into the skull. Do you not marvel, then, at Stubb's boast, that he
demanded but ten minutes to behead a sperm whale?
When first severed, the head is dropped astern and held there by a cable
till the body is stripped. That done, if it belong to a small whale
it is hoisted on deck to be deliberately disposed of. But, with a full
grown leviathan this is impossible; for the sperm whale's head embraces
nearly one third of his entire bulk, and completely to suspend such a
burden as that, even by the immense tackles of a whaler, this were as
vain a thing as to attempt weighing a Dutch barn in jewellers' scales.
The Pequod's whale being decapitated and the body stripped, the head was
hoisted against the ship's side--about half way out of the sea, so that
it might yet in great part be buoyed up by its native element. And there
with the strained craft steeply leaning over to it, by reason of the
enormous downward drag from the lower mast-head, and every yard-arm
on that side projecting like a crane over the waves; there, that
blood-dripping head hung to the Pequod's waist like the giant
Holofernes's from the girdle of Judith.
When this last task was accomplished it was noon, and the seamen went
below to their dinner. Silence reigned over the before tumultuous but
now deserted deck. An intense copper calm, like a universal yellow
lotus, was more and more unfolding its noiseless measureless leaves upon
A short space elapsed, and up into this noiselessness came Ahab alone
from his cabin. Taking a few turns on the quarter-deck, he paused to
gaze over the side, then slowly getting into the main-chains he
took Stubb's long spade--still remaining there after the whale's
Decapitation--and striking it into the lower part of the half-suspended
mass, placed its other end crutch-wise under one arm, and so stood
leaning over with eyes attentively fixed on this head.
It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so
intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx's in the desert. "Speak, thou vast
and venerable head," muttered Ahab, "which, though ungarnished with a
beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head,
and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast
dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has
moved amid this world's foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies
rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this
frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there,
in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast
been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor's side,
where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou
saw'st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart
to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when
heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw'st the murdered mate when tossed
by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper
midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on
unharmed--while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that
would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O
head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of
Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!"
"Sail ho!" cried a triumphant voice from the main-mast-head.
"Aye? Well, now, that's cheering," cried Ahab, suddenly erecting
himself, while whole thunder-clouds swept aside from his brow.
"That lively cry upon this deadly calm might almost convert a better
"Three points on the starboard bow, sir, and bringing down her breeze to
"Better and better, man. Would now St. Paul would come along that way,
and to my breezelessness bring his breeze! O Nature, and O soul of man!
how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest
atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind."