The Futurity of the Whale, “Moby-Dick Big Read”

Thanks to Dr Philip Hoare for providing this blog post about Moby-Dick Big Read. He is artist-in-residence at the Marine Institute, Plymouth University, UK and author of The Whale (Ecco), winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Posted today, Chapter 30, The Pipe, as read by David Cameron. Download all the chapters or listen online.

This project is a great kick-start for our own Moby Dick Marathon. Mark November 12 on your calendar, it is “Reader Call-In Day”. Send an email to mdmarathon (at) whalingmuseum.org or call (508) 717-6851 to request a reading slot.

Moby-Dick, published in 1851, is acknowledged as the greatest American novel.   A century and a half later, art and science still has to catch up with it.  Herman Melville prophesied an age in which man’s abuse of nature would lead to problems for both human and cetaceans.  That intense sense of contemporary relevance – the delayed-effect impact of the book – prompted Angela Cockayne and I, as curators of the Moby-Dick Big Read for Peninsula Arts, Plymouth University, UK, to create an online rendition of the book.  Above all, we were inspired by the world famous New Bedford Whaling Museum’s marathon reading of the book.

Our readers include Tilda Swinton, Sir David Attenborough, Stephen Fry, Simon Callow, John Waters, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nathaniel Philbrick, Chad Hardbach, Caleb Crain, Andrew Delbanco and Mary Oliver.  But as well as these celebrated names, we invited readings from the general public in the democratic spirit of the project – from schoolchildren to fishermen.  And rather than have a blank web page whilst listening to these chapters, we expanded the project to include images from international contemporary artists such as Anish Kapoor, Mark Wallinger, George Shaw, Dexter Dallwood, Gavin Turk, Zaha Hadid, Susan Hiller, Dorothy Cross and Antony Gormley, many of whom have created new works specifically for the project.

I like to think Herman Melville would have approved of this British exposition of his extraordinary work.  After all, the novel was partly conceived during Melville’s visit to London in 1849.  He stayed in rooms on Craven St, next to  Charing Crossstation – the house is now marked by a blue plaque.  And for reasons of copyright (which did not then exist in the US), his book, entitled The Whale, was also first published in Britain by Richard Bentley, in a deluxe, three-volume edition for the carriage trade.

Craven Street, London

Famously, the book did not fare well on its transition across the Atlantic.  The American first edition never sold out and Melville died in 1891, his genius unacknowledged.  Here too we British may lay claim to reviving Moby-Dick’s reputation.  In the 1920s, writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, W.H.Auden and E.M.Forster acclaimed Moby-Dick as a modernist work before modernism was invented.

How amazed Melville would be to find out far his work has lodged in our modern culture, both high and low.  Moby-Dick remains firmly in the zeitgeist.  Kraken-tattooed and buff science-fiction writer, China Mieville’s latest book, Railsea, riffs on the subject, while director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) is working on a movie version of Moby-Dick set in outer space.  And every high street has reminder of Melville’s masterpiece named after Captain Ahab’s first mate – Starbuck.  There, sipping your latte, you may check another, aural reference: pop star Moby, real name Richard Melville Hall, is named after the book written by his great-great uncle, Herman.  Word is that Moby-Dick is Barack Obama’s favourite book; also Morgan Freeman’s; and Woody Allen confesses to being a recent convert.

And the reverberations of Melville’s text continue, not least in the way it raised questions of imperialism, fundamentalism, morality and faith.  When it was published, shortly before the American Civil War, it was a coded comment on the internecine conflict over slavery (most especially via the indirect inspiration of Frederick Douglass, whom Melville may, or may not, have met in New Bedford’s streets).  More recently, it was cited by Edward Said in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when the writer compared the ‘war on terror’ as an impossible pursuit, like the captain’s demonic hunt for the White Whale.  Nor could you ignore its relevance today.  Witness this quote from Chapter One, ‘Loomings’:

Grand contested Election for the Presidency of the United States

WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL

BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.

I’m delighted to join the New Bedford Whaling Museum – global home of the back-story to Melville’s extraordinary work – in bringing Moby-Dick into the digital age.  After all, Melville’s book, with its unedited, digressive and allusive prose, resembles nothing so much as a modern blog.  The famous ‘Extracts’ that precede his main text have the air of a Victorian search engine.  And if he were writing his book today, I don’t think Herman would have ever finished it: he’d be forever googling ‘Whale’.

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