09 January 2021
We’re now on day two of our series devoted to exploring Moby-Dick in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s annual Moby-Dick Marathon. This will be streamed live from 11.30am EST today (16.30 GMT). You can either watch this below, or by visiting the 2021 Moby-Dick Marathon official page.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon is a 24-hour, cover-to-cover reading of Herman Melville’s iconic American novel. Editorial Nascimento and the British Library are proud to explore the impact and complex literary meanings of the novel while tuning in to the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon
In the collaborative spirit of the marathon, we’ll be handing over today and tomorrow’s blogs to other people to tell you about their experiences of reading what is now recognised as a literary classic (although this wasn’t always the case, as we will learn…). We hope you enjoy today’s blog and return tomorrow to find out even more about the book that just keeps giving.
Q: Hello! Please introduce yourself.
Hello, I’m Martina Pfeiler. I am a university scholar, teaching American literature and culture in Germany. I am currently working on the publication of Ahab in Love. The Creative Reception of Moby-Dick Popular Culture and have published articles on teaching Moby-Dick in Leviathan. A Journal of Melville Studies and, forthcoming, in the new Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville (2021).
Foto credit: Franziska Peters
Christopher: I'm Christopher Ohge. I work as Lecturer in Digital Approaches to Literature, University of London School of Advanced Study; also I serve as Associate Director of the Melville Electronic Library.
Hi, I'm Morgane Lirette. I'm a book and paper conservator in the BLCC. Not only do I love repairing the complex mechanical objects we call books, but I am also an avid reader! When I'm not reading books about books (you think I'm joking) I still tend to stick to non-fiction, but every now and again I get the urge for a good story.
I’m Edward Sugden, I am a Senior Lecturer in American Literature at King’s College London. I am currently writing a trade biography of Moby-Dick which tracks its various movements around the world from its birth to the present day. I am also the author of Emergent Worlds which explores how American fiction 'remembers' histories that failed to come into being.
Right, onto the book! When did you first read Moby-Dick?
Scott: I first read it as a fresher in University, I suspect more to make myself more appealing and literate to girls than any genuine interest. So while posing ostentatiously in a corner of the library, I surprised myself by making some headway on it, though I did struggle with it, probably as I approached it on less than noble intentions.
Martina: I first read Moby-Dick as an ERASMUS exchange student at Roehampton University in November 1999. I bought the cheap Bantam Books edition by Charles Child Walcutt at the university bookstore, took it home with me and stayed up all night. I was struck by Melville’s poetic language as much as Ishmael and Queequeg’s intimate friendship, the narrator’s humor and universal mind-set.
Morgane: Like many Americans (I’m from South Louisiana) I first read Moby-Dick in high school. I remember finding the story hard to handle. I think a bit of me was just sick of being assigned reading from the same perspective (male and white, namely... how many Hemingway novels can you fit on a high school syllabus? The answer: about 5 too many!). But I also found the whaling descriptions and the racism upsetting to such an extent that any other merits of the book or writing were lost on me.
Ed: It would have been in the summer of 2006 in the Penguin Classics edition. As an appropriately precocious young lad I decided to read it and Ulysses one after the other. I’m not sure how I managed it, given there was a World Cup that year.
I struggled, in retrospect, to extract the conceptual elements of it, was stuck at the level of “theme,” but was energised by its beauty and lyricism. The first quote that stuck was “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God”.
Christopher: I have hazy memories of reading the plot-driven sections in high school. I first read it carefully in my second year of university, using the Norton Anthology of American Literature. I have carried that anthology with me as I moved from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area to London.
At the time I was a philosophy student, and taking early modern philosophy and existentialism courses. I then read Moby-Dick in a survey of American literature and thought, now this is good philosophy! We’ve got Descartian vortices [see the end of Chapter 35], Humean scepticism [Ishmael], Rousseauean noble savages [Queequeg], and Nietzschean supermen [Ahab]! I was young, and I was hooked (and I still read Melville as a philosophical writer). Melville created something unique in American literature––it contains Whitmanian multitudes, multiple genres and worldviews, constraining them all within the crowded space of a ship at sea filled with a global coterie of working class whale hunters. Harrison Hayford was the first to point out the ‘prisoner motif’ in the novel, suggesting that the drama in the narrative parallels how we make compelling narratives when we are trapped both physically and spiritually––what results is great art, but also something troubling about the nature of the mind.
On the basis of my enthusiasm, American literature professor Steven Olsen-Smith invited me to intern for his digital project Melville’s Marginalia Online. I still contribute to that project. Little did I know at the time that that internship would set the stage for my career.
What does Moby-Dick make you think about?
Scott: It makes me think of home. I wear a whalebone pendant made from the tooth of parāoa, the Sperm whale. It is a repository of my travels around the world, journeying afar as the whales do, a misconstrued oversimplification of the phrase ‘Ko ahau te tohorā, te tohorā ko ahau’ (I am the whale, and the whale is me). It also reminds me of the importance of Maori ideals of kaitiakitanga, the sustainable way we live with the natural world and the environment, and how we need to be far more conscious of our own actions and their affects.
Ed: What I like about Moby-Dick is that, when I read about it, I think about nothing else other than itself: it’s a rare book that is absolutely self-sustaining on its own terms, particularly because its reach is ambitious and generous enough to contain almost everything worth knowing. It feels more real than reality. Perhaps, these days, total immersion in a text is nigh on impossible, but I get close to something like that in the key passages of Moby-Dick, where the sheer density of the prose provides an imaginative ecosystem where I can reside, the words my oxygen, albeit temporarily.
Martina: Moby-Dick makes me think about the function of literature, its specificity, and about imaginative freedom of expression. The book is a gigantic vessel filled with words from the Bible, Shakespeare, maritime folklore, Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, etc. It also makes me think of globalization, Native American genocide, U.S. politics, whiteness and masculinity, the irresponsible role of human leadership on this planet.
Who is your favourite character?
Ed: Pip, after he falls into the water. He’s the most philosophically profound of the lot, a Tom o’ Bedlam of the oceans and I’m not sure anyone has caught up to his insights as of yet (though there is an interesting take on him by the African American artist Ellen Gallagher whose “Bird in Hand” gets closest to capturing his oneiric and historical energy.)
Morgane: I was rooting for Moby the whole way through.
Scott: Can I say Moby Dick? The first time I really liked the character of Starbuck, but the second time round it was all Ahab. Villains always get the best lines don’t they! I’m not the first or last to draw comparisons of Milton’s Lucifer to Melville’s Ahab, and I love (if am also appalled by) his relentlessness, a kind of internal fire that reminded me slightly of Tolkien’s Fëanor. Even the scars on his body fascinate me.
Oddly, I didn’t connect with Queequeg, despite the real-life connections to Te Pēhi Kupe. In fact I was horrified by his casual selling of Toi Moko, the tattooed heads of Māori, which did happen at that time; nonetheless, his character is superbly written, and comes across as one of the best, most selfless.
Martina: Ishmael. He probes the meaning of life and the meaning of the fictional representation of life. It is only through a collision of both worlds that he survives and is able to pass on his epic narrative. But: Queequeg is much cooler and wiser than Ishmael.
What is your favourite passage and why?
Morgane: I think the passages I’d most want to go back to would be natural science-y ones, because that sort of “non-fiction in fiction” idea really appeals to the reader I’ve become. I love the history of science and technology, and Moby-Dick is the by-product of a fantastic era in those histories. This is the post-Enlightenment era which gives us Darwin, the Industrial Revolution and, I think, the birth of science communication in real terms. I've been known to link anything and everything to papermaking and printing, and here I see another delicious opportunity to do so. Could Melville have ever written Moby-Dick without access to Darwin and his contemporaries? I doubt so, and those texts were only widely accessible due to mechanised, industrial papermaking and printing.
The books from that era can be real headaches for us conservators due to cheap materials and manufacture, but their cheapness itself helped disseminate scientific and technological information, literature and news of the day on an unprecedented scale. I'd like to think that Melville had this shift in collective conscious in mind when planning the novel. I can imagine myself enjoying those snapshots back in time from a history of science/technology point of view. As much as it would be interesting to see how far we've come in our understanding of the natural world, I'm sure the passages would equally illuminate how limited our current understanding is still. Which I suppose is one novel's themes, right?
Christopher: “The Whiteness of the Whale,” “The Quarter-Deck,” and “The Doubloon” chapters are still my favourites. “The Whiteness of the Whale” is a work of philosophical wonderment, whereas the other chapters are simply entertaining, with Ahab taking up all the oxygen, like Milton’s Satan. How can you beat the rhapsodic, gnomic brilliance of the conclusion to “The Whiteness of the Whale”? Generations of scholars continue to unpack and debate the significance of these intuitions.
Martina: I particularly enjoy all chapters set in New Bedford, especially Ch. 3 “The Spouter-Inn” and Ch. 10 “A Bosom Friend”. Ishmael and Queequeg’s encounter is great learning lesson against cultural prejudices. Only by confronting these stereotypes and overcoming them with great sense of humor, can human friendship evolve into its most affectionate form, regardless of one’s gender, ethnic, social, and religious context. Ishmael nails it when he says: “What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself--the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
Scott: It’s a tough one, but I would say chapter 61: “Stubbs Kills a Whale.” This is because it’s the first real action sequence in the book. The vividness of the hunt really places you there, oar in hand, rowing madly towards this giant of the oceans, and the sadness of its death.
Ed: I’ve got a long-standing love of the “loom of time” passage from “The Mat-Maker”—rather like when Pip gets submerged in the water, it’s one of those moments where you can see Melville at the very edges, and perhaps beyond, of the expressible. I also love the metaphor of the oyster Ishmael uses: he suggests our perception might be as limited as that of the oyster who little imagines that there can be anything beyond the viscous water it finds itself in.
Obsession: good or bad? Discuss.
Scott: Oh definitely bad. A captain has a responsibility to his men and his ship. Ahab not only loses his ship, but brings death to not only himself but the entire crew of the Pequod, save for Ishmael, even the morally strong figure of Starbuck does not survive. And furthermore, it’s pointless, as Righteous Vengeance, in the form of taniwha Moby Dick survives. I felt that in the relentless pursuing of Moby Dick, even after the first encounter and the death (and subsequent horrifying visualisation of Fedallah dragged behind the whale) they were clearly outmatched from the start, is symbolic of the worst characteristics in humanity, obsession mixed with arrogance.
Martina: Depends. If it is self-harming or harming others, then it is evidently bad. However, some spark, some drive, some passion, mixed with a healthy mode of obsession can turn out as a game-changer in one’s relationship with oneself and society, if not the universe. We are complex human beings with little access to our own motivations.
Did Moby-Dick change how you think about oceans and the natural world?
Christopher: I did not initially read much into the ecological implications of the book, but over time it has become clearer to me that Melville, like Thoreau, was a forceful critic of rapacious capitalism, particularly in its forms of slavery and environmental degradation. The work of Richard J. King (Ahab's Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick, 2020) in particular offers helpful tools for thinking about the natural world in Melville, which he calls ‘blue ecocriticism’.
Morgane:I think what stood out to me most theme-wise as a teenager and still stays with me today is the idea of human hubris in the face of the awesome natural world. Growing up on the Gulf Coast, the water was never far from my mind. Hurricanes are an annual threat, I was witnessing land loss first-hand due to the man-made strangulation of the Mississippi River and still today if you push a surface-level bit of sand with your toes in Grande Isle, Louisiana you’ll be met with black, oil-stained sand from the BP oil spill in 2010. I feel super protective over our natural heritage no doubt because of my lived and inherited experiences, and perhaps Moby-Dick could have played a role in developing that part of my personality. I’ve never really thought about it, but how could it have not?
Scott: It did! I even attempted to join Sea Shepherd, the Anti-Whaling group. Sadly they did not reply to my email. I can’t imagine how helpful I would have been! I always interpreted Moby Dick as a Taniwha, a manifestation of a protective guardian, or Kaitiaki, a punishment for the destructive overexploitation of the children of Tangaroa. The Whale has always been seen as chiefly by my people, and should one beach and pass, it is a gift from Tangaroa, to be respected, and buried with karakia, or prayer. Needless to say I much enjoyed the destruction of the Pequod, and of the crew. But I also enjoyed Melville’s vivid descriptions of both ship-board life and sailing on the oceans. Both Melville and Patrick O’Brian have much to blame for my overly-romanticised notions of the sea.
Martina: Oh, yes! Moby-Dick reads like a 19th century slaughterhouse with a mad captain on top of it! It is deeply philosophical in its outlook on the archaic trope of man against nature, in addition to making the competitive forces of capitalism visible in the character of Starbuck and the various whaling ships that the Pequod encounters on its voyage. The threat of the extinction of whales is looming over the book.
Ed: On the first reading, I think it opened up a metaphorical language for speaking about oceans and nature for me. As a would-be poet—don’t ask—then I, of course, was no stranger to somewhat tortuous similes about oceans and the like, but Moby-Dick offered me something more substantive.
Since then one reading that has grown in prominence in my mind is that the book is not really an American epic, as such, but rather an epic about the tragic conflict between humans and nature under the regime of extractive capitalism. There’s an argument to be made that it’s the fictional equivalent to Marx’s Capital in this regard. It’s about how humans destroy the very things they depend on for life. That’s the tragic conflict, the irresolvable contradiction at the heart of it.
Finally, have you ever seen a whale?
Scott: Yes! But only for a second. I was walking along the shorefront in Kaikoura, in New Zealand, busily engaged in my own internal dialogue, when I saw out of the corner of my eye, something vast leap out of the sea. It was so quick that by the time I fixed my eye upon the area, I only saw a glimpse of the flukes splashing down. So just a glimpse, but enough to crow about for some time.
Morgane: Only in captivity - which always left me very sad. However, I’ve been fortunate to see plenty of other wild cetaceans like porpoises and dolphins off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ed: I imagine I saw poor old Shamu, or a distant descendent, when I visited SeaWorld as a child…
Christopher: Yes, during a whale watch in Massachusetts Bay while I was studying in Boston. I was so sea-sick I could barely appreciate them; I had to mainline ginger chews for several hours to overcome my nausea. That gave me some perspective on the difficulty of the enterprise Melville described. I would not have lasted as long!
Martina: Yes. Around three years ago, I finally decided to take a whale watching tour off the coast of São Miguel on the Azores. Our crew spotted some whales spouting in the distance. We could barely see them but could hear them breathing air through their lungs. They looked so well adapted to the ocean, intermingling with it, and they seemed to ask us what in the world we were doing there on our ship. When I asked the captain why he named his ship Moby Dick. He said: “Oh, because everyone knows Moby Dick!” And he is right. Moby-Dick is "not only ubiquitous, but immortal", but they are best left alone.
Join us again tomorrow as we continue exploring Moby-Dick through various editions over the years, from the very first printing to digital iterations that you can explore from home.
Produced by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and presented by Editorial Nascimento in association with the British Library.
Written and compiled by Katerina Webb-Bourne, and Francisca Fuentes Rettig.