Earlier this year, I proclaimed my ambitions to re-read (perhaps more accurately, read) Moby Dick this summer, having done a rather poor job of tackling this novel as a high school student. I am now a hundred pages from the end.
What had inspired my own personal pursuit of the Great White Whale was my involvement through Project nml with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the artistic director of The Mixed Magic Theater based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Ricardo has been working to get young people more engaged in Melville’s classic story by encouraging them to rewrite it in a more contemporary setting. The result was Moby Dick: Then and Now, a remarkable stage performance which our team (especially Deb Liu) has been documenting. This fall, we will be working to create a teacher’s guide for Moby Dick based on the idea of learning through remixing.
In anticipation of work this fall with Wyn Kelly, my colleague from the MIT Literature Section and a leading Melville expert, I returned to the scene of the crime — reading the novel in the battered Bantam classics edition that I had failed to complete in high school. I must say that reading Moby Dick through the lens of remix culture has taught me a new way to experience this remarkable and idiosyncratic work: rather than cursing the various digressions from the core adventure saga, I have found myself reading them with renewed attention.
Moby Dick, I am discovering, absorbs all of the genres of writing and speaking of its own times, sucking up stories and cultures, juxtaposing them with each other in fresh and unanticipated ways. The abrupt shifts in language, the desire to record every detail of life on board the ship, to catalog every piece of equipment, to dissect the whale from skin to bones, to trace stories across every possible mode of representation and to question all existing accounts of the Whale, these all become part of the work’s encyclopedic drive.
Somewhere around page 400, I came to another realization. We might see Melville as adopting a range of interpretive strategies and modes of reading which would be recognizable to contemporary fan culture. What if we looked at Melville as a fan of whales and whaling lore. After all, only a true fan would be so obsessed with every detail and would chase the damned “fish” all around the planet the way Melville does.
Here is one of the many passages in the book where Melville examines the story of Jonah:
One old Sag-Harbor whaleman’s chief reason for questioning the Hebrew story was this:- He had one of those quaint old-fashioned Bibles, embellished with curious, unscientific plates; one of which represented Jonah’s whale with two spouts in his head- a peculiarity only true with respect to a species of the Leviathan (the Right Whale, and the varieties of that order), concerning which the fishermen have this saying, “A penny roll would choke him”; his swallow is so very small. But, to this, Bishop Jebb’s anticipative answer is ready. It is not necessary, hints the Bishop, that we consider Jonah as tombed in the whale’s belly, but as temporarily lodged in some part of his mouth. And this seems reasonable enough in the good Bishop. For truly, the Right Whale’s mouth would accommodate a couple of whist-tables, and comfortably seat all the players. Possibly, too, Jonah might have ensconced himself in a hollow tooth; but, on second thoughts, the Right Whale is toothless
.– Moby Dick, Chapter 83
In this case, he is describing a process of speculation through which his fellow whaling fans — the old sag-Harbor whalesman and Bishop Jebb — try to make sense of contradictions in the source text, extending beyond the information given in order to try to reconcile what they know of whales in the real world with what the story tells them about Jonah’s encounter with the Leviathan. Any one who has been in fandom for very long recognizes this conversation — you take an element which doesn’t quite work and rather than discarding it, you keep speculating around it trying to figure out under what circumstances it might make sense. Fans often describe such creative work as “repairing the damage” created by a distracted artist who didn’t think through all of the implications of their own story and such speculation clearly leads step by step towards a whole scale rewriting of the narrative to better satisfy the fan’s own fantasies and interests. What emerges is a kind of proto-fan fiction.
What if we imagined Jonah inside the Whale’s mouth rather than fully swallowed — maybe even inside his tooth? Ah, but we’ve already figured out that the Leviathan must have been a Right Whale, and not wanting to discard all of that earlier fannish labor, we want to preserve that theory and so we have to discard this new layer of speculation.
In this case, the speculations also constitute a form of nitpicking. As I’ve discussed nitpicking here in the past, it involves a fan reading the text in relation to another body of knowledge. The example I used a while back was a site where doctors and medical students “nitpicked” House. Such nitpicking comes through most vividly when Melville takes on previous representations of the whale. Here, we see Melville boldly assert his superior knowledge and his desire to “set the record straight,” both motives I recognize from myself and other contemporary fans:
I shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas, something like the true form of the whale as he actually appears to the eye of the whaleman when in his own absolute body the whale is moored alongside the whaleship so that he can be fairly stepped upon there. It may be worth while, therefore, previously to advert to those curious imaginary portraits of him which even down to the present day confidently challenge the faith of the landsman. It is time to set the world right in this matter, by proving such pictures of the whale all wrong.
— Moby Dick, Chapter 55
But, before he can do so, he must clear away previous representations, in this case, focus on the anatomical inaccuracies created by artists who have had no direct experience of the living beast:
These manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars. Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations. And, not to speak of the highly presumable difference of contour between a young suckling whale and a full-grown Platonian Leviathan; yet, even in the case of one of those young sucking whales hoisted to a ship’s deck, such is then the outlandish, eel-like, limbered, varying shape of him, that his precise expression the devil himself could not catch.
— Moby Dick, Chapter 55
I am reminded of a recurring feature on Sequential Tart, a long-standing webzine by and for female comics fans, which regularly posts and critiques unlikely depictions of the female body in various superhero comics. Here, for example, is an excerpt from one tutorial on “Bizarre Breasts”:
Bizarre proportions are nothing new to comics; be it the desire to cater to the cheesecake crowd or simply the preference of the artist, distorted anatomy has become commonplace. The fact that “professional” artists may utilize distortions in published works is a bit disappointing, but frankly, if they’ve gotten the job the odds are they aren’t going to feel the need to change their style. That’s fine, the world needs laughter. However, what does bother me is the possibility — hell, the reality — that amateur artists are copying this exaggerated anatomy and making these mistakes their own. So, in hopes of reaching those for whom this advice may actually have some impact, I have utilized my meager knowledge of anatomy and admittedly unpolished art skills to bring the world a brief tutorial on one of the comic artists’ greatest challenges: the breast.
I don’t want to push the parallels here too far but it seems to me that they are both fascinated with showing the absurd and inaccurate representation of anatomy which comes from artists who don’t really understand the first thing about the subjects they are trying to depict.
Cataloging and Collecting
Melville, like modern day fans, refuses to restrict himself to a single text or even a single mode of representation. As he explains, “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” (Chapter 82) And indeed, some of the most productive modes of fan interpretation involve rampant interdisciplinarity and free association, creating unexpected juxtapositions of texts, tracing real and imagined allusions to other works, or simply doing the kind of “connect the dots” activity that is expected of readers of transmedia stories. Melville reads everything he can get his hands on — ancient books, religious texts, paintings, scrimshaw, currency, tavern signs, even the stars in the sky, as he tries to find every available reference to his object of fascination. He exhibits here the fan’s fascination with cataloging and collecting:
The more I dive into this matter of whaling, and push my researches up to the very spring-head of it so much the more am I impressed with its great honorableness and antiquity; and especially when I find so many great demi-gods and heroes, prophets of all sorts, who one way or other have shed distinction upon it, I am transported with the reflection that I myself belong, though but subordinately, to so emblazoned a fraternity.
— Moby Dick, Chapter 82
I particularly like that last bit about becoming part of a “fraternity” of others who share his passions and knowledge for this touches about as well as anything I’ve read on the social bonds which link fan communities together. Doesn’t this sound like someone trying to pimp his fandom?
Appropriation and Transformation
So far, I have shown Melville to be in many ways a classic fan boy — trying to master a complex body of knowledge and show off to his fellow fans by nitpicking less satisfying works. Nothing we’ve described so far would be out of place on a contemporary discussion list — although this last passage suggests that he sees his fandom in terms of his relationships with other fans and not just as a personal quest towards knowledge. Yet, there are brief passages in these sections of the novel that he may also be more openly rewriting classic stories to better satisfy his own fancies and that act of rewriting pushes him closer to contemporary fanfic practices. Consider, for example, how Melville manhandles the canon in his retelling of the story of St. George and the Dragon:
Akin to the adventure of Perseus and Andromeda- indeed, by some supposed to be indirectly derived from it- is that famous story of St. George and the Dragon; which dragon I maintain to have been a whale; for in many old chronicles whales and dragons are strangely jumbled together, and often stand for each other. “Thou art as a lion of the waters, and as a dragon of the sea,” said Ezekiel; hereby, plainly meaning a whale; in truth, some versions of the Bible use that word itself. Besides, it would much subtract from the glory of the exploit had St. George but encountered a crawling reptile of the land, instead of doing battle with the great monster of the deep. Any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a St. George, a Coffin, have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale.
Let not the modern paintings of this scene mislead us; for though the creature encountered by that valiant whaleman of old is vaguely represented of a griffin-like shape, and though the battle is depicted on land and the saint on horseback, yet considering the great ignorance of those times, when the true form of the whale was unknown to artists; and considering that as in Perseus’ case, St. George’s whale might have crawled up out of the sea on the beach; and considering that the animal ridden by St. George might have been only a large seal, or sea-horse; bearing all this in mind, it will not appear altogether incompatible with the sacred legend and the ancientest draughts of the scene, to hold this so-called dragon no other than the great Leviathan himself. In fact, placed before the strict and piercing truth, this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name; who being planted before the ark of Israel, his horse’s head and both the palms of his hands fell off from him, and only the stump or fishy part of him remained. Thus, then, one of our own noble stamp, even a whaleman, is the tutelary guardian of England; and by good rights, we harpooneers of Nantucket should be enrolled in the most noble order of St. George. And therefore, let not the knights of that honorable company (none of whom, I venture to say, have ever had to do with a whale like their great patron), let them never eye a Nantucketer with disdain, since even in our woollen frocks and tarred trowers we are much better entitled to St. George’s decoration than they.
— Moby Dick, Chapter 82
Fans might describe what Melville does here with St. George as a kind of Alternate Universe story: what if St. George had been a sea-faring rather than land-loving man? Indeed, we can see him here as involved in a struggle with another fan community over which one of them “correctly” captures what is interesting about this character and his adventures. Why should we not be surprised that Melville was involved in a battle with another “ship”! 🙂
But like many later fans, Melville also struggles with how much fidelity the fan writer owes to the original. The author discusses the ways that multiple whalers approaching the same creature determine who can assert ownership over it, declaring some whales to be “fast-fish,” that is, already harpooned and bound by a particular ship, and others to be “loose-fish,” that is, free of any binds or constraints and thus subject to being grabbed by whichever ship approaches them first. Melville, then, extends this metaphor to talk about the work of the imagination: “What are you, reader, but a Loose-fish and a Fast-fish, too?” (Chapter 89) In other words, Melville is exploring to what degree we get hooked into a story and thus get captured by its authors and to what degree our imagination remains unmoored, capable of taking the story where-ever we want it to go. In a sense, that’s exactly what fans are trying to make sense of when they debate how much they need to follow canon and to what degree they can construct their own fanon.
Read in this way, we can see Moby Dick, often described as the Great American Novel, as a piece of fan fiction which grows out of Melville’s fascination for the whale and his mastery over whaling lore. Drawing on a range of stories, responding to competing representations, Melville constructs his own original fiction, which he asserts better captures what fascinates him about man’s eternal struggle against the natural order.
Melville was one of us. Pretty cool, huh?