Book Review Musings

Leviathan or, The Whale by Philip Hoare

Photo on 10-08-2015 at 20.18 #3

Whales. What are they? Who are they? And why did humans stop killing them just before their extinction was finally almost complete?

They are titans of the sea. They are monsters of the deep. They are myth, legend, animal, vegetable, mineral. They are a source of objects of great financial value, and they are – now, alive – sources of great financial value in themselves, thanks to that slickest, crispest and easiest-to-grab type of dollar of all: the tourist dollar.

This tome about whales has been my long summer read.

Ah, the Summer.

Other people are off, relaxing: reading trashy fiction or trite (auto) biographies on trite, trashy, beaches, out in the sun. I, instead, have been working like a sweaty ox and, in the stolen moments of free time I’ve managed to wangle in dark rooms outside of sunlight*, read a large and beautiful non-fiction book about whales.

Leviathan or, The Whale is a perfect book for anyone who doesn’t want to waste time reading about people. This text, all about whales as animals, whales as objects of value, whaling as an industry, whales as a long-term fascination for the author and, over and above all else, Moby Dick, does of course feature much detail about individual people, but it focuses far more on the lives of the many animals torn apart in the name of industry in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Whaling still goes on now, you all know it, but it’s them Japanese, izzn it, not us Westerners. For reference, whaling was very big in Europe up until the 60s/70s, with much whale meat being caught, processed and sold in the UK specifically as a response to the many dead cows of the Second World War. Whale stock was plenty, and comparatively cheap. The same product was hoisted on Japan by America at the same time, and rather than moving back to traditional foods as soon as possible, the Japanese developed a taste for whale meat and continued to want it and crave it as time went on. Whale meat is to the Japanese what oral sex is to the British – a dark and unshakeable consequence of the second world war.

Philip Hoare – for that is the writer of the book I’m barely writing about – has been interested in whales forever. Well, not forever (because he does not date from the beginning of all), but for a long time. He was born in Southampton (a harbour city on the South coast of England) in the middle of the 20th century, while whale-hunting was still being carried out from ports like those of his own city. Whale oil was used in the manufacture of margarine pretty much until they stopped being commercially hunted.

Wait: what I’m doing here is trying to replicate the style, the structure, of the text. Hoare leaps about, from personal anecdote about the whales he sees, the former whale fisheries he visits, the whale-related museums that he wanders around – he leaps from these anecdotes (in many ways Leviathan is quite a personal text) to long descriptions of whale physiognomy, and then to stat and fact-led historical essays. Somehow, this makes for far more engaging a text than one would expect, particularly if you’re using this garbled blog post as an example of the style.*****

Hoare engages with his travel writing, he engages with his factual reenactments of whaling trips, his literary criticism of Moby Dick and with his somewhat shocking enumeration of just how fully enmeshed in the modern world the products of whales were. Ambergris – which is some kind of weird (still mysterious) excremental by-product whales ooze out of their anuses – is still a valuable commodity and still used in the production of perfumes. All the other whale products – specifically the oil, the spermaceti etc – is useless now, made obsolete by the normalisation of fossil fuels and the electricity they produce. Some indigenous tribes in the far north, some wildlings, still do hunt whales, but these crazy cats use the whole animal: the skin, the oil, the meat, the bones, the everything – only confused uber-moralists could see this as intrinsically wrong, right? In the world we live in, only Japan and Norway (the latter a fact forgotten by many [racist] people) commercially hunt whales, and they hunt them only for meat. Meat is the driving factor here – not heat, not light, not building supplies, not perfume, not material for clothing or decoration – meat.

Something which I think we can all agree on is the fact that the consumption of any meat – from whale down to chicken – is a sign of an entrenched inability to recognise organisms other than the self as alive and conscious.

There is no difference between the consumption of other humans and the consumption of pigs, dogs, whales. Each act is personal profiteering from the physical pain of another. I’m not saying that it’s bad to eat meat. I’m just saying that if one does, one should never complain about the death of any animal for any reason ever. Likewise people who wear leather shoes/have leather car seats/wear leather clothes:

Whaling is something that was – and is – incredibly violent. But we are shown, over here in the liberal West, images of people from the deep north clubbing whales to death, we are shown helicopter-shot footage of Japanese factory ships being scuppered (damage of personal property – vandalism) by these Greenpeace and too-hot-for-Greenpeace uber-environmental-terrorists Sea Shepherd******, and this others (verb) the people who are doing the killing. “OOOH, they’re Norway people driven mad by alcohol, the lack of sunlight and all the fucking children asking about Santa Claus” or “OOOH, they’re Japan people driven mad by years of cultural development different from our own and all the fucking children asking about Pikachu.” It seems odd that, here in Europe, whaling and a propensity to suicide seem to be associated together. The harshness of the Northern soul, the hubris of Ahab. Whaling is a prideful act – it is man fighting against nature and, in the 19th century, the odds were actually pretty even. When technology changed and man could win every time – Hoare writes of the invention of the grenade-tipped harpoon in the 1950s – the appeal died. Only those countries full of men driven mad by pride continued to seek solace in the blood of the whale. The broken, depressed, depressive and weird: Norway and Japan, countries different to us.

Whaling was once international, was once huge, was once Westernised and major and big. Now, the real money for whales comes from whale tourism, and Hoare ends his book with a first hand encounter, underwater, with a school of sperm whales in two-mile deep seas off the Azores, in the mid-Atlantic. There, whaling didn’t end until 1986*******, but now there is huge money to be made by sailing middle-aged white men like Hoare out into the ocean to watch the animals play.

That is more peaceful, kinder, and more relaxed. But it is living as a spectator and watching, rather than interacting with, nature. Maybe all the whalers of history wanted what Hoare craved too – this connection with a life, an animal, a world apart from humanity. To fight to the death with a leviathan, a monster, 20 times the size of you, with only sharpened little sticks in your hands – there is romance to that. Fuck the critics, Moby Dick is a compelling tragedy because whaling has a dangerous, exciting and relateable allure. We can all become Ahab, bent on revenge on something more powerful than ourselves. We can all destroy ourselves chasing an unachievable goal: and the whalers of Japan, in their continued hunting, damage their country’s reputation. Whales are beautiful, charming, impressive and huge. But they can also be deadly, and they can also cause pain.

Hoare’s book discusses the history of the animal, and the history of the numerous industries that rose around it. He considers the ethics of contemporary whale tourism, weighed against the damage of the past, and praises conservation but also emphasises the fact that whaling stopped as soon as the US and Europe figured out how to access cheap oil from other sources, and only then did it become demonised in the eyes of the masses.

It’s an interesting read, and made me feel great awe for whales, a real wish to (at some point in my life, probably when I’m middle-aged) go somewhere and see them swim, but I also felt a great nostalgic pain for the fact that I will never get to be dragged under the waves, like Ahab, fighting a demon fish the size of a god.

A great read, especially if you’re interested in whales. Then again, I’m very interested in whales, so maybe it’s actually shit.


*Even though I don’t have hair to suit my personality any more, a pale pallor is still an important part of looking aloof, bookish** and disconnected, which I definitely still am.

** Which*** I suppose I’m probably not any more. This book took me over ten days to read. That’s appalling. Illiterate people can read quicker than that. Comparatively illiterate people.

*** Can I put a footnote to a footnote within a footnote? Can anyone work out what it is that’s causing me to ask so many rhetorical questions? Like the song of the dying whale, all must go unanswered.****

**** Or must they???

***** Don’t. I’m underselling it. Too tired, too out of practice. I’m old, tired, spent, busted, rusted-

****** As odd as it may seem, I once met Paul Watson, the captain/CEO (lol) of Sea Shepherd. He was a big man, robust, with a very smutty, misogynistic and middle-aged sense of humour. He told a LOT of “blonde jokes”. Exactly what I’d expect from a sailor, but nothing like what I’d hope for from someone who sets himself out as a defender of the weak. Bawdy jokes. Deck humour. We were in a chain wine bar in the shadow of Canary Wharf. This actually happened.

******* A date I remember! The problem with reading a book this fact-filled over two weeks is that many of the facts go. A book a day, that is the rate of reading I should aim for.

4 comments on “Leviathan or, The Whale by Philip Hoare

  1. I fucking love whales (despite being a Norwegian driven mad by alcohol and lack of sun) and I want to read the book. Is having read Moby Dick a prerequisite for enjoying it, you think?


    • possibly. Moby Dick was a key text for Hoare in his personal development as both a writer and a whale enthusiast, and though there are (for want of a better, less unfashionable, word) “spoilers”, Moby Dick is such a phenomenal, involving and complex novel that knowing how it ends (which many people do anyway) probably wouldn’t diminish its power all that much. I read it a couple of years ago, there’s probably a review somewhere on this site.


  2. I’ve noticed this book before but haven’t got round to reading it. I actually preferred the non-fiction elements in ‘Moby Dick’ over the fiction so I should like ‘Leviathan’.


  3. Pingback: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West – Triumph of the Now

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