by E. Summerson Carr and Michael Lempert, co-editors of Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life
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When Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, encounters the skeletal remains of a beached whale, he begins to make what he characterizes as “a simple, plain statement” that relays the creature’s enormity. Not even two sentences into his description, Ishmael finds that even a whale must be made big. To do so, Ishmael rattles off scalar descriptors. He starts with various quantifications of the whale, detailing its estimated length, height, and circumference, as well as its mass, both in terms of its fleshy past as well as its skeletal present.
Ishmael’s description also betrays that scaling can never be accomplished through quantification alone. He employs an array of scalar metaphors: the whale is like a Gothic cathedral, it’s as big as a village, one thousand inhabitants could fit within its frame, the whale is the Leviathan. It is only through this intricate interscalar description that Ishmael can be sure—and perhaps not even then that landsmen can properly see the awesome stuff of the seafarer’s world.