Fathoms: The World in the Whale
by Rebecca Giggs
Published May, 2020
How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on Earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk.Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Within the broad category of contemporary nature writing, it is possible to identify two general tendencies. There are dedicated journalists and science writers, like George Monbiot, David Wallace-Wells and Elizabeth Kolbert, who address environmental issues in an activist spirit that can be traced back to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring (1962). But there is also a substantial and growing cohort of nature writers whose ambitions are more overtly ‘literary’ (for want of a better word) – which is merely to say, they are writers who are interested in exploring the relationship between nature and culture, and who consequently produce works that are overtly imaginative, contemplative and stylised. These tendencies are not mutually exclusive, of course. The distinction is more a question of emphasis than genre. But they suggest two necessary and complementary imperatives of environmental writing. Where the former approach strives to be consciousness-raising, the latter, one might say, strives to be consciousness-expanding.
As is the case with so much non-fiction writing these days, the books that tend to fall into the second category present themselves as generic hybrids. Writers like Robert Macfarlane, Barry Lopez, Melissa Harrison, Patrik Svensson and Philip Hoare offer their readers a blend of historical, cultural and scientific information, organised around a central theme, and wrapped in a comforting blanket of personal reflection. Hoare’s widely admired Leviathan or, The Whale (2009) suggests the basic template. It is at once a homage to his favourite book Moby-Dick, a treatise on whale biology, a history of the nineteenth-century whaling industry, a retelling of the life of Herman Melville, and an essay on the cultural significance of whales.
The binding ingredient of these books is their personalised quality, which licenses the element of unsystematic reflection and a certain high-handedness when it comes to doling out the research. They are, among other things, a species of travel writing. The underlying form is that of a subjective narrative of investigation and discovery – a personal odyssey, even if that odyssey is something as modest as a walking holiday. It is a kind of intellectual tourism, often presented in the form of actual tourism. Hoare, for example, arranges his whale-facts around descriptions of him strolling through museums, walking the streets of Nantucket and New Bedford, and going on whale-spotting expeditions. When Macfarlane and Harrison stride across the English countryside, with only a pocket edition of some minor poet and their entitling Oxbridge educations to occupy their thoughts, they are positioning themselves as posh tour-guides, who are knowledgeable enough to provide explanations of the natural phenomena and historical curiosities they encounter along the way, and cultured enough to throw in the occasional edifying literary allusion to complement the charming rustic surrounds.
These authors are essentially neo-romantics, part of a literary and philosophical tradition with its origins in Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker and Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, the nature poems of Wordsworth and John Clare, and the essays of Emerson and Thoreau. They are turning to the natural world as a perpetual source of inspiration and awe, conceptualising it as an imaginative and contemplative space. In doing so, they are aestheticising nature, seeking a harmonious union of mindscape and landscape. The rather self-conscious ideal of literariness they are seeking to emulate might be summed up in Hoare’s description of Thoreau’s Walden: ‘Axiomatic, philosophical, naïve and complex, it sometimes speaks with the voice of angels, sometimes with earthbound science.’
The corollary of all this is that their books are often characterised by an element of affectation and frank self-regard, especially in the case of Macfarlane, the Gwyn Barry of our apocalyptic times. Among the notable features of this contemporary mode of nature writing are its ostentatious use of obscure archaic and technical terms, its deliberate stylistic anachronisms (note the finicky comma in Hoare’s title, which mimics the full title of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, mercifully sparing us the semi-colon), and its frequent recourse to the kind of gooey pseudo-poetic descriptive prose that the undiscerning are inclined to mistake for literary sophistication.
Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms: The World in the Whale comes pretty much straight out of the neo-romantic school. The book’s literary pretensions are on permanent display in its ostentatious prose style; its intellectual aspirations are expressed in its regular flights of philosophical speculation. Its subject inevitably recalls Hoare’s Leviathan. Though Giggs pursues a different line of inquiry and ends up taking a more expansive view of her subject, there are any number of curious whale facts that appear in both books. Her subtitle echoes Hoare’s catchcry à la Melville – ‘Ah the world, oh the whale’ – and she can be busted pinching his rhetorical conceits. ‘Ask a child to draw a whale,’ writes Hoare, ‘and he will trace out a sperm whale, riding high on the sea.’ ‘Humpbacks,’ Giggs asserts (with characteristically rickety syntax), ‘are the cetaceans most Australians would draw, if asked, to attach to the label WHALE.’
As its subtitle indicates, Fathoms is a book with universalising ambitions. It presents itself as a series of ramshackle investigations into anything and everything about whales, which it develops into an extended philosophical reflection about an encompassing set of environmental issues and humankind’s relationship to the natural world in general. Its chapters – each of which begins with a summarising list of topics, as if the book were an old-fashioned work of natural history – range across a familiar spectrum of scientific, historical and cultural subjects. Giggs considers peculiarities of whale biology and behaviour, the significance of whales in literature and mythology, and the negative consequences of pollution, ecotourism and habitat destruction. She gives an account of the rise and fall of the commercial whaling industry, and discusses the importance of opposition to that industry as a rallying cause for the burgeoning conservation movement in the 1970s and 1980s.
She also inserts herself into the narrative at regular intervals, giving the book’s musings their requisite informality. Fathoms opens with Giggs among a crowd of onlookers drawn to a West Australian beach by the spectacle of a stranded humpback, the experience of watching the massive creature being slowly crushed to death by its own weight prompting her to undertake her subsequent investigations. Elsewhere, she can be found interviewing various experts, tasting whale-meat in Japan, scrutinising a life-sized photograph of a baby sperm whale in an art gallery, and making eye-contact with a female humpback while on a whale-spotting tour off the south-east Australian coast. The autobiographical element of Fathoms extends to descriptions of her romping through the museum with her sister when they were children, playing with her stuffed animals, wandering along a beach nursing a broken heart, and going on a date. There is even a page-long description of her looking out the window one day and seeing some balloons.
The book’s ambition is encapsulated in its central concept. Giggs uses the word charisma to denote the complex fascination that whales are apt to inspire. The term has a quasi-technical as well as an everyday meaning. As Hoare notes in Leviathan, zoologists refer to whales as ‘charismatic megafauna’. The phrase alludes to the fact that whales belong in a loose category of large animals that human beings are inclined to view as extraordinary and appealing. They are animals to which we extend the kind of sympathy that we tend to withhold from, say, mosquitos or headlice. Hoare thus recognises the phrase as being somewhat ‘dismissive’. He notes that it is ‘difficult not to address whales in romantic terms’, going on to observe that ‘it is a mistake to anthropomorphize animals merely because they are big or small or cute or clever’, though it is ‘only human to do so’.
Giggs turns this perspective around. Rather than seeking to suppress the impulse to romanticise, she places it at the centre of her concerns. She returns obsessively to the question of whale charisma. She wants to grasp the elusive quiddity of whales, to understand their peculiar hold on her imagination. She is constantly asking herself intangible questions. She wonders why it should be the case that people find blue whales majestic and dolphins cute, wonders if their appeal is simply a function of their perceived intelligence, or if on a deeper level we perhaps feel an affinity because of our common ancestry as mammals. Whales are older than humans in evolutionary terms, and unusual in that they were once land animals, prompting Giggs to speculate that they stir something atavistic in us. She wonders if maybe ‘what whales convey is the endlessness of the distant past: a tide of time that subducts outside the realms of human life, and unfurls towards the bluesome distance of life’s far origins’. Whales are also credited with inspiring a sense of mystery and awe. They represent the possibility that there are still things unknown to us. ‘Stood before the humpback, this otherworldly arrival,’ Giggs writes of the dying animal in her opening chapter, ‘who among us could renounce, offhand, the probability of inscrutable and stupendous powers, active in the sea?’
On one level, then, Fathoms wants to understand everything about whales, while on another it wants to acknowledge and respect their radical unknowability. The key scene in which Giggs has her close encounter with a humpback off the south-east coast of Australia – the most effective descriptive passage in the book – brings this issue to a head. As soon as she sees a live whale in its natural habitat, she is overwhelmed by its intimidating vitality. She is suddenly able to comprehend that it has its own independent existence:
seeing the colossal humpback below, I thought: only the most witless individual would believe in a benevolent connection with real whales, with any affinity that runs outside of metaphor. This is a one-sided intimacy.
This tension is evident throughout Fathoms. It is present in the book’s language and implicated in its overarching thesis, which is that whales might prompt us to rethink the crucial issues of how we conceptualise and interact with the natural world. Fathoms proposes that to examine the history of human encounters with whales in the modern era is to come face-to-face with the environmentally destructive legacy of modernity itself. As Giggs points out, whaling played a significant role in the rise of industrialisation and consumerism. Until it was wound back in the 1980s, it was a globalised extractive industry driven by the capitalist imperative to exploit natural resources to exhaustion, without consideration for long-term environmental consequences.
Much of the factual information in Fathoms emphasises the devastating effect of human intrusions into the lives of whales, and by extension into the lives of other animals. The despoiling presence of our species now extends to the farthest reaches of the Earth. Rubbish has been found in Arctic ice and at the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches. Microplastics and toxic chemicals have insinuated themselves into the food chain. Even sound, Giggs notes, has become a pollutant, as the noise from busy shipping lanes is now known to have a disturbing effect on marine ecosystems. Our intimate relationship with whales may be one-sided, but it is certainly tangible. Fathoms records that poisons are now detectable in whales on a cellular level. It confronts us with the bizarre case of a sperm whale that was found to have a stomach full of junk, including the contents of an entire greenhouse – a perfect piece of readymade symbolism.
All of this is deplorable and horrifying. What makes Fathoms a curious work, when viewed from the perspective of its environmentalism, is that even as it is acknowledging the disgrace of these tangible realities, it is preoccupied with nature as an abstraction in a way that remains stubbornly anthropocentric. It argues that the preservation of wild spaces is important, not simply for the sake of the animals who live in them, or for the pragmatic reason that human beings are ultimately as dependent on the health and sustainability of the planet’s fragile ecosystems as any other living creature, but for the sake of our psychological wellbeing. It argues for ‘the preservation of wonderment … the preservation of the wild as an imaginative space’. The anxiety that runs through the book is that ‘when there are no places unfathomed by technology, when wilderness is excoriated in its entirety, something inherent in our humanness is also lost. We kill off the animal in ourselves, the part that belongs to the wildlife.’
The fear that there is something dehumanising about modernity is as old as modernity itself. Writers have been worrying about the alienating effects of industrialisation and environmental depredation at very least since Blake noticed those dark satanic mills. One of the features that defines Fathoms is that it clearly belongs in this tradition of thought, but develops its arguments with little acknowledgement of its intellectual antecedents. ‘Based on my experience of whale watching,’ writes Giggs,
I now hold this to be a true statement: certain stand-out ‘big things’ … naturally distort the attention of the psyche. Being too large to be possessed by the human eye up close, in a glance, where we encounter these big things, they overawe us, and loosen something electrical, or maybe adrenal, to circulate through the nervous system, long before the intellect awakens to it.
Well, yes. Burke made much the same point in 1757. For a book that presents itself as a philosophical inquiry and not simply a work of natural history, Fathoms is notable for its cultivated air of philosophical naïvety. Its extensive list of sources is heavy on natural history, light on the kinds of literary and philosophical works that might have provided its imaginative explorations with a clear conceptual framework. Its preferred approach, reflected in its impressionistic prose, is to proceed intuitively. This is fine as far as it goes, but it contributes to the sense that there is something under-examined about the paradoxes of its anthropocentric perspective. The occasional impression that the book is unaware of the provenance of its ideas is less significant than the fact that it ends up being a little flaky around the edges. At its most ambitious, Fathoms gestures vaguely towards ‘supra-natural forces’ and thoughts that are ‘exterior to the self’. The latter idea is offered as a bit of cod-Freudian mysticism that leads into a passage of pure speculation, in which Giggs proposes that since the sea is a conventional symbol of the human unconscious, it stands to reason that a whale’s unconscious must have the form of a desert. This is little more than an exercise in the most unsupportable whimsy. Later in the book, there is a section that explains how some whales are sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic fields, a form of perception that – as is thought to be the case with migratory birds – appears to aid their navigation. Giggs notes that the ‘geomagnetic mountains’ that form beneath the ocean can suddenly disappear when those magnetic fields shift, which in turn leads her to wonder: ‘Did the incredulous whales then ask the same of themselves and each other: Why have our gods decided now to desert us?’ I’m going to go out on a limb and say the answer to that question is ‘no’.
The overreach is representative of the book as a whole. In its pursuit of wonderment, Fathoms develops imaginative conceits, which invariably circle back to a self-centring humanism. This is a sentence-level, and even a word-level issue, as much as it is an issue of conceptualisation. The quality that most conspicuously identifies Fathoms as neo-romantic is its mannered prose style. It is a book that wants to be admired for its extensive vocabulary, its descriptive prowess, its startling metaphors, its elegant turns of phrase. It arrives generously blurbed as a ‘poem’ and a ‘hymn’ that is ‘beautifully written’ in ‘inventive prose’, and the early critical responses seem largely to have fallen into line with this assessment. It is, however, none of these things, unless one takes ‘inventive’ as a euphemistic acknowledgement that Fathoms is a book to give a grammarian the howling fantods.
Given that the book’s style is – for reasons I will come to in a moment – an intrinsic part of its imaginative project, it is no small matter that Fathoms should contain such a dizzying array of malapropisms, solecisms, pleonasms and mixed metaphors. The more you read Giggs’ baroque stylings, the more it becomes apparent that, on a fundamental level, she simply isn’t paying attention. She is constantly using words in a figurative sense – verbs, in particular – without considering that, even if you are using a word as a metaphor, its literal meaning is still the measure of its precision and thus its rhetorical effectiveness. For a writer, this is a bit like covering your eyes with your hands and thinking it makes you invisible. I mean, it is an unforgettable image, but did Giggs really want to suggest that revenue from the whaling industry ‘sent houses, churches, and marketplaces rocketing out of the ground’?
Even when you are writing with a condor’s quill and a crater for an inkstand, you still need to be conscious that (for example) a blue whale might be said to vocalise, but it definitely does not ‘verbalise’; that stocks are not something you ‘reap’; that you can’t superimpose ‘under’ something; that a lance is already a weapon, so you don’t need to ‘weaponise’ it; that you can neither ‘pocket’ nor ‘observe’ a ‘cacophony’; that ‘author’ is probably not the most appropriate verb to describe the destructive behaviour of some escaped pigs; that ‘vestiges’ are already remnants, so you don’t need to specify that they ‘remain’; that ‘redacted’ means censored, which is not really what is happening when wild animals lose their natural habitats and are forced to retreat into ‘inaccessible hotspots’; that ‘bowdlerised’ also means censored, the word deriving specifically from the actions of one Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 published a ‘family’ edition of Shakespeare that omitted all the bawdy bits, which makes it a less than precise word to describe the wind dispersing the vapour from a spouting whale; that you can’t really ‘shore up’ a taproot; that an animal, not being a piece of equipment, does not ‘equip’ a menagerie; that you can’t ‘equip’ an appetite either; that a turning point does not have a ‘fulcrum’; that you can prise something apart, but you can’t ‘ply apart’ anything, plying having the general effect of binding things together; and that ‘ill-considered’ does not mean unconsidered or ill-favoured, but poorly thought through.
The issue here is larger than the occasional talking whale or flying building. There is an underlying philosophical rationale for the book’s extravagant prose. Fathoms presents itself as a sensorium – a study in synaesthesia. Its style is in fact a collision between two modes of expression, representing distinct ways of understanding the world. There is the intoxicated, subjective, extravagantly metaphorical mode in which Giggs conveys her thoughts and impressions. And there is the sober, objectifying mode of scientific and scholarly writing – which, of course, comes with its own elaborate technical lexicons and formal tics. Fathoms moves between the two, sometimes holding them apart, sometimes seeking to combine them. Ultimately, it wants to reconcile them. The derangement of the senses that is often apparent in Giggs’ mixed metaphors might be interpreted as an implicit argument for a kind of conceptual synaesthesia – one that is capable of disrupting old habits of thought, opening the way to new insights and more expansive ways of understanding. In this way, the book strives to be simultaneously consciousness-raising and consciousness-expanding. In practice, however, Fathoms never quite realises this ambition, in no small part because it is so often unclear whether the author is using a metaphor or the metaphor is using her.
There is, for example, a substantial section of Fathoms given over to a consideration of whale songs. Now, the word ‘song’ requires careful handling, since it implies an expressive purpose and thus has anthropomorphic connotations. It is a naturalised metaphor, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that it is a metaphor and only a metaphor. Some whale species produce patterned sounds, which are known to change over time, and which may well be a form of communication, but strictly speaking whales do not ‘sing’ any more than they can be said to talk.
Giggs observes that when recordings of whale songs became popular in the 1970s, they were interpreted as haunting and mournful, largely because the conservation movement had made people aware that many of the largest whale species were in real danger of being hunted to extinction. She points out, quite rightly, that this interpretation was a projection. Whale songs are, in fact, poorly understood phenomena. No one really knows what they mean. Yet having sounded this appropriate note of caution, Giggs then develops her own riff about humpbacks borrowing and adapting melodic patterns from each other, describing these evolving sounds as ‘samples’, ‘jingles’ and ‘pop songs’. She indulges in her own version of anthropomorphism, seemingly for the sake of an extended metaphor. Rather than downplaying the misleading implications, she exaggerates them.
At such moments, Giggs’ affected style works against her own thesis, neither contributing to our understanding of whales, nor respecting their essential otherness. The tendency to aestheticise the factual information she wants to convey ends up muddying her thought. Her flamboyantly imprecise metaphors become a form of gratuitous ornamentation: linguistic indulgences that succeed in drawing attention only to themselves. Towards the end of Fathoms, to take one final example, there is a section in which Giggs turns her attention to the various parasites that live in and on the bodies of the larger species of whales – barnacles, intestinal worms, remora fish, sea lice. She evokes their biological connection with a characteristic flourish:
Their driving instinct was not for freedom. Parasites truckled to dependency, to conjunction and symbiosis in bodily niches where no other organism deigned to inhere, and only bacteria and microscopic life otherwise bloomed.
Since the whale louse lacks the ability to grasp the metaphysical concept of ‘freedom’ or to behave obsequiously, one could be forgiven for suspecting that this description has more to do with the author looking for an occasion to use the word ‘truckled’ than arriving at a clear understanding of the relationship between parasite and host. The suspicion that poetic licence is overriding factual considerations would seem to be confirmed by the fact that bacteria are organisms, so the second sentence contradicts itself. These are not pedantic points. The element of authorial projection on display in this short quotation comes to define the entire discussion of whale parasites. Giggs spends several pages wrestling with the problem that, basically, she finds them repellent. ‘At the heart of big life,’ she shudders, ‘this twist of death-y-ness.’
The passage exemplifies a kind of performative thinking that is endemic to Fathoms. As Giggs acknowledges, only a witless individual would believe in an affinity with whales that is anything other than metaphorical. One of the implications of this insight is that Fathoms is an extended exercise in phrase-making that enacts the failure of its extravagant style to gain any real purchase on its subject. The whales always escape, as they must. In this sense, Fathoms is a book that repudiates itself, a book in which the author confronts a problem created by the arbitrary and imprecise nature of her own metaphors, in order to arrive at a moralising conclusion that runs counter to her obsession – namely, that we desperately need to stop romanticising nature. At the culmination of her discussion of parasites, Giggs comes to realise that a whale’s body is
an incubator, a zoo. It housed many different ways of being alive, which might have been somewhat magical, if it weren’t also so spooky. If we could learn from the parasites that everything is not quite itself, and that it never was – that there is deathliness and irascible vigour, and plurality and plunder, pushing and pulsing within each creature – then we might undo the charms of charisma and expand the boundaries of our care.
Leaving to one side the questionable terms ‘magical’ and ‘spooky’, the broad point Giggs is making here is perfectly valid. It is true enough that in the midst of life we are in death-y-ness. The idea that a whale is an ecosystem in itself, that it can be viewed as a synecdoche for the interdependency of life on Earth, can and should prompt us to think about the importance of that interdependency and about our responsibilities. Fathoms is ultimately quite right to insist that facing the atrocious environmental problems we have created for ourselves, and which have implications for every other living thing on the planet, will require us to use our imaginations. One of the difficulties we confront is that the scale of the unfolding catastrophe is so large that the imagination fails at the very thought of it. How can we conceive of the reality of mass extinctions and collapsing ecosystems in a way that makes them seem real and immediate, and not simply a terrifying set of statistics? The kind of imaginative thinking that would seem to be necessary will certainly require us to get over ourselves, stop interpreting the world exclusively on our own terms. As Fathoms demonstrates, this is easier said than done. But we don’t really have a choice any more. The creatures with whom we share the planet don’t need or want our approval or our sympathy. They don’t owe us anything. But boy do we owe them.