A Squeeze of the Hand, A Twist of the Wrist? Handling Scrimshaw at one Remove

In Chapter 94 of Herman Melville’s seminal whaling novel, Moby-Dick, ‘A Squeeze of the Hand’, the narrator ponders the rich tactile experience of whalers, engaged in working a large bath of spermaceti oil that had “cooled and crystalised” to such a degree that it had “strangely concreted in to lumps”, which the whalers were required to “squeeze back into fluid”. The narrator describes this activity as a “sweet and unctuous duty”, and, after having his “hands in it for only a few minutes”, “sat there at his ease", “cross-legged on the deck”, “under a blue tranquil sky”, whilst the ship was “under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along”, he bathed his hands “among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour”, which “richly broke to [his] fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine”. All the while, meanwhile, the narrator “snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma, - literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets”. 

Indeed, the narrator, his hands plunged into the “inexpressible sperm”, found that he felt increasingly “free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever”; and he hoped to “Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long”, and to squeeze the sperm until he “almost melted into it”, a “strange sort of insanity” coming over him, as he also found himself “unwittingly squeezing” his “co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules”. “Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget”, the narrator continued, that at last he was “continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, - Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness”. And so intensely pleasurable was the experience that he wished he could “keep squeezing that sperm for ever”, as he imagined “long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.

Whilst squeezing spermaceti and fashioning scrimshaw were not the same activity, they had much in common and Melville’s text encourages us to think similarly about the process of making a scrimshaw relief. As in Melville’s account, whalers would likely have been sat on the deck at a quiet moment, on the return journey, or at a lull in the hunt, awaiting sight of another whale. They would also be likely to be sat scrimshandering together, with the sperm whale tooth between their legs, as they worked away at whichever picture they most desired to inscribe onto the tooth. The tooth would be first smoothed out with sharkshin and finally buffed up with some kind of oil; a perhaps equally erotic scene. Scholars have not encouraged viewers to consider scrimshaw in Melville’s homoerotic terms, and visitors to museums are mostly unable to engage with scrimshaw at first hand themselves. In this section of the website, we encourage you to do the next best thing: to rotate a piece of scrimshaw virtually, and, as you do, to think about its scale, weight, texture, smell, colour and surface qualities; to choose for yourselves the most satisfying angle of view, the most pleasurable orientation of the sperm whale tooth in relation to your own body; and to think about the ethics as well as the erotics of that virtual tactile encounter, about whether having a whale’s tooth in your hand is more like holding hands with a whaler, or kissing or masturbating a whale, more like a live relation to a dead sailor or a devoted mourning to a murdered animal.