Ishmael, Penguin Chat, and Too Many "Whoos"
Random reflections on where we are
The amazing website, Clickhole.com, returned five days ago, months after being bought. A friend of mine reached out because he had somehow missed one of the greatest moments in the site’s history: the time that it published an article titled, The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World.
When you opened the article and began reading it, it was simply the entire text of the classic novel, Moby-Dick.
There is no question that Moby-Dick is my favorite English-language novel. I read it late in high school, and it provided a creative ‘space’ and vocabulary for an entire, demented universe of meditations on madness, obsession, nature, sin, psychology, philosophy, relationships, and storytelling, in a way I had never experienced.
I have since enjoyed many other great novels that expand the mind this way, but Ahab’s tale remains my favorite. It feels, to me, like a living world - you can jump back at any time, and the story comes to life around you again.
In 2007, the British publisher Orion infamously tried to share Ahab’s world with a distracted public by releasing an abridged version that boiled the novel down purely to the narrative about the hunt for the whale. For fans of the novel (and, no doubt, detractors, one of its key features is that the novel goes on extremely long side discussions about whaling history and lore. I have always explained it thus: it is, as a novel, not unlike trying to get an important family history recollection from an elderly relative who believes you will leave as soon as she finishes her story.
Orion’s attempt was chronicled nicely in The New Republic, in an article titled Moby-Dick in the Clickhole. The article recounts a couple of key efforts that are great and thoughtful fun, so I include them here for giggles.
Damion Searls published a response version of the book called ; or The Whale, which simply consisted of everything Orion left out. You can read his thoughts in summary here.
The Twitter handle @MobyDickatSea regularly sends out random lines from the novel in no particular order, allowing you to focus on the beauty and oddness of the language.
Beautiful and odd the language is. No less than Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the following in The Atlantic about the opening paragraph to Moby-Dick:
“This is the greatest paragraph in any work of fiction, at any point, in all of history. And not just human history, but galactic and extra-terrestrial history too.”
Here it is, just for us to all enjoy for a moment…
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
Of course, the internet supplies other ways of approaching the language, besides marveling at its beauty or its meaning. Here, we get a breakdown of the ups and downs of counting the frequency of words like ‘whale’ in the book. You can go down this rabbit hole yourself if so inclined; what matters right now is that this article mentions, among other things, Zipf’s Law, which it describes thusly:
“In 1935 and 1945, G. K. Zipf formulates a now-famous postulation, now called Zipf’s law, that within a group or corpus of documents, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in a frequency table. Thus, the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc.”
As it turns out, this law can be generalized in a lot of different ways, and this came up the other day when I noticed the following headline from our friends over at “LiveScience”…
Clickhole, of course, references internet ‘clickbait’ sites and headlines. I think the site would be proud. If ever I saw a headline that guaranteed a click, it is this.
The gist is that it is now theorized that “jackass penguins” - aka African penguins, known for their braying calls - structure their language in a manner very similar to the way we go about it.
“The researchers in the new study found that, yes, the songs of the male jackass penguin conform to both Zipf’s and Menzerath-Altmann’s laws: The shortest calls tended to be the most common, and the longest phrases were made up of the shortest syllables. This jackass study provided the first nonprimate evidence that these common linguistic patterns extend into the animal kingdom, the authors wrote, and that’s nothing to hem and haw at.”
Speaking of heming and hawing, I intend to attack a specific social ill in a future post and I will preview it here, just to see if I can raise any whales myself. If this topic is of interest to you, reach out to me and let’s discuss. I’d like your input.
At some point in my lifetime, the world of applause and cheering went completely off the rails. What you have to do these days at a performance to not get at least a partial standing ovation (when we aren’t in pandemic mode, anyway) is to achieve a higher and higher bar of awfulness.
Hell, if you watch more than ten seconds of The Voice or a similar show, there will come a moment in almost every performance when the audience leaps in with rabid applause accompanied by “whoo” cheering sounds. I would put together a clip of it, but I don’t want to see any of it ever again, so why would I bother? Watch any performance on one of these shows, and as soon as the volume, tempo, or pitch changes for the first time, the “whoo” loons will come out of the woodwork and briefly froth themselves into a symphony of manufactured joy.
This concerns me. We are rapidly running out of room, and will soon achieve “maximum going ‘whoo’ because we think we are supposed to”. Once that happens, how will everyone know they are having fun?
I imagine they won’t, to be honest. This would require a level of societal change and introspection that I doubt we are capable of, given we are seeing just how many folks are unwilling to even entertain the premise that, if a horrible virus is going around, you should take reasonable steps to not spread it.
Perhaps we should all put to sea for a while. Not that this helped some of the folks on cruise ships, etc.
Maybe we’d be better off just being whales, at least they can’t get-
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