The Whale Inside

Malcolm Bull

No man is an island; unless, Donne might have added, he becomes a whale: ‘Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.’ But even if the whole feels the loss of a part, the part may not feel the loss of the whole. It is what happens to the clod or the promontory that counts, and in his earlier poem about metempsychosis, ‘The Progress of the Soul’, Donne describes the soul entering a whale so vast that it is as if ‘seas from Afric’s body had severed/And torn the hopeful promontory’s head’ (the Cape of Good Hope), allowing it to swim off into the southern ocean. The whale is not just a floating island: he is an entire world for the swallowed dolphins that swim inside his belly ‘without fear,/ And feel no sides, as if his vast womb were/ Some inland sea’.

Likened to a great officer receiving supplicants in court, Donne’s whale is a ‘tyrant’ who falls victim to the plots of little fishes, and finally a ‘slain king’ whose death goes unrevenged. In these respects he could be a precursor of Hobbes’s Leviathan – that other ‘confusion of a man and a whale’, as John Bramhall (one of Hobbes’s early critics) described it – and Hobbes, who knew Donne, may have had the poet’s image in mind. Bramhall almost certainly did, taking Donne’s account of the conspiracy of the swordfish and the thresher fish against the whale as the model for his own assault on Leviathan.

For the modern reader, the most striking passage in Donne’s poem is probably not this bizarre piece of whale-lore (the swordfish and thresher attack simultaneously, one piercing the whale from below, the other beating him down from above), but the extraordinary picture of individual freedom within the state offered by the description of dolphins sporting within the body of the whale, oblivious of their own confinement. For Hobbes, liberty was the potential for unimpeded motion, and his examples of its absence were creatures ‘imprisoned, or restrained, with walls, or chains’, and water ‘kept in by banks, or vessels’. To ‘feel no sides’ is the epitome of freedom as he defines it.

But there is obviously a difference between the freedom the whale enjoys in the ocean and that of the dolphins in their inland sea. Apart from anything else, inside the whale there are, as Orwell pointed out, ‘yards of blubber between yourself and reality’, with the result that you are quite unaffected by events outside and probably unaware of even the whale’s own movements. The whale and the dolphins may be swimming in different directions without even knowing it. What is the meaning of freedom if you are carried along in one direction while swimming as fast as you can in the other?

Hobbes’s answer was that those within the Leviathan had, through their covenant with one another, made themselves the authors of the actions of the state. It might appear from this that the liberty of subjects is co-extensive with that of the state. But Hobbes argued that you couldn’t measure the freedom of the subject by the freedom of the state; just because a commonwealth was free ‘to resist or invade other people’, it did not follow that individuals within the commonwealth had equal liberty: ‘There is written on the Turrets of the city of Lucca in great characters at this day, the word libertas; yet no man can thence inferre, that a particular man has more Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth there, than in Constantinople.’

The claim went to the heart of the republican theory of liberty, and James Harrington quickly picked up on it: ‘To say that a Lucchese hath no more liberty or immunity from the laws of Lucca than a Turk hath from those of Constantinople, and to say that a Lucchese hath no more liberty or immunity by the laws of Lucca than a Turk hath by those of Constantinople, are pretty different speeches.’ Immunity from the law is found in whatever areas of life fall outside the law’s jurisdiction or enforcement, a space that will inevitably exist whatever the government. Immunity by the law means that the law itself creates the freedom that the citizen enjoys. And in this respect, Harrington claimed, there was a decisive difference between Lucca and Constantinople: ‘The greatest Bashaw is a tenant, as well of his head as of his estate … the meanest Lucchese … is a freeholder of both … not to be controlled but by the law, and that framed by every private man to no other end … than to protect the liberty of every private man.’

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[*] Oxford, 232 pp., £18.99, February 2008, 978 0 19 953229 2.