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Headline Treatment5

Louis Rogers on the body of the novel

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Moby-Dick, Wu Tsang, 2022

A shaft of light made visible by corralling motes of dust; a set of folding reading glasses; an undulating wall of book spines; yellow pages and heavy type with soft, settled serifs; piles of tomes rising like a planner’s model of a city. Moby-Dick, artist Wu Tsang’s 2022 film adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick, begins with something like an expanded riff on the quintessential opening for a book-to-film adaptation – the kind where a dusty, leather-bound volume with the book or film’s title embossed in gold is seen on a table (and perhaps a hand opens it to chapter one). These self-conscious beginnings are reassurances of seriousness – the film is not taking Austen or Dickens or whoever for granted. They might also be a kind of apology, acknowledging that what will follow has been wrested out of another form: the film genuflecting to the novel.

More surprising is to find this kind of invocation in a novel itself. Tsang’s opening scene, however, directly responds to the opening sections of Moby-Dick. Dig out your copy and the first thing you will find is a page of etymologies for “whale”, “supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School”. Actually, no; first, before the etymologies, is a note in square brackets from an already helplessly digressive narrator, reminiscing about that usher: “He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars ... it somehow reminded him of his mortality.” Then follows another set of prefatory materials: “Extracts” from all kinds of texts pertaining to whales. Again these are preceded by a portrait of the person who provided them – a “Sub-Sub-Librarian” who “appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusion to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever”. All of this before you reach what is, it turns out, so often mis-advertised as the book’s first line: “Call me Ishmael.”

These initiating rustlings of pages and wipings of dust are the first suggestions of the way the novel Moby-Dick makes itself felt as a book. That is to say: the way it draws attention to itself not just as a work of literature but as a printed, bound, handleable, physical volume. Moby-Dick is synonymous with the idea of a great big book: a brickish volume that’s a shorthand for literariness if wedged onto a character’s shelf, or a ready punchline to jokes, as in Woody Allen’s Zelig, where the title character’s compulsive self-disguising is prompted first by pretending, under social pressure, to have read the whole of Moby-Dick.

But unlike, say, a Dickens novel which originated in serialised installments or long-running public readings, Moby-Dick’s associations with sizableness originate in its pages. It is a self-conscious epic that is wildly various and digressive, and flaunts its immodest dimensions. Nominally a narrative about a whaler’s vengeful search for the white whale that once attacked him, it switches for chapters at a time into feverish academic and scientific disquisitions on whales, whaling and cetology at large. Ishmael, having introduced himself, is at first an ostentatious narrator through whose eyes and understandings (and even childhood memories) we perceive the whaling towns of New Bedford and Nantucket, and with whom we board the Pequod. But as the voyage and the book progress, his authorial presence recedes from the drama of the story and asserts itself more forcefully in the frenzied voice of the “factual” chapters. He soon becomes an anxious guide to the book itself, referring us back and forth through chapters (which are short, numerous and pithily titled), recalling whaling terms used on “a previous page”, and making explanations to a reader he seems to picture as aware of its construction – reassuring them, for example, at the start of Chapter 45, “The Affidavit”, that “so far as what there may be of a narrative in this book ... the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume.”

Moby-Dick pre-empts a reader who flicks ahead to see how many pages of this book there are, or how many of this particular chapter. With the hedging introductions to many of the “factual” chapters and the florid obsessiveness of their persistence – seven chapters in sequence, for example, about the heads of whales, considered anatomically and phrenologically – it encourages us to ask the question often raised in accounts of the novel: how much would be left of its over 625-page bulk if you cut away the “factual” sections to leave only the plot (about 421 pages by my estimation, though of course they turn out not to be so easily categorisable). 

The way Melville’s novel is mired in itself as a book poses problems to those who try to adapt it. Wu Tsang comes at an advantage, perhaps, as a multimedia artist already disposed to stretching and overlapping forms. Tsang’s Moby-Dick was first shown with a live score at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich, one of a series of adaptations of classic stories she has made with her collective Moved by the Motion in their directorship of the theatre. Produced by TBA21, it is showing at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid this year, alongside a related installation piece, Of Whales. Tsang films her version on a lushly decorated and lit sound stage that retains a strong flavour of the theatre – its reality feels staged and designed, with deep colours and deep shadows, and costumes by Telfar Clemens. This sense is heightened by the film being silent. Old-school intertitles announce chapters and relay dialogue, evoking in part the written novel but moreover the tropes of early cinema. Tsang makes us aware of the conditions of her form – the artist’s film – as Melville did with his, and like Melville she doesn’t let us forget what we are consuming.

Tsang focuses on a series of chapters that are awkwardly diluted or straightforwardly cut in other adaptions. There is first “The Counterpane”, where, having been forced to share a bed in New Bedford with Queequeg, a “cannibal”, Ishmael wakes with “Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner”; they become fast friends and later, following a ritual enacted by Queequeg, “married”. Tsang and her cast stage this scene with joy and playfulness that take seriously the strange and miraculous sudden efflorescence of affection between strangers. Promotional texts and press have described Tsang’s film as a queer reading of Melville, though such claims shouldn’t forget the queerness – in every sense of that word – of Melville’s novel. Equally of interest to Tsang is the Pequod’s crew as a cast of oddballs from all over the world, like an index of humanity, and the intense physical world and relationship they share. In this respect, it sometimes recalls Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, an adaptation of Melville’s final novel Billy Budd transplanted to a French Foreign Legion section in Djibouti.

Brought to the film’s centre is “A Squeeze of the Hand”, in which the crew squeeze out the crystallised spermaceti from a sperm whale’s head back into smooth liquid. Ishmael finds himself “unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for gentle globules”, and, swept up in it all, implores the reader: “Come; let us squeeze hands all round, nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.” Also significantly played out, on another immersive though pleasingly stage-like stage, is “The Try-Works”, in which the crew work to process a whale into its products. Here we see the influence of C.L.R. James’s reading of Moby-Dick as a “floating factory” in Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953).

Perhaps most of all, Tsang is entranced by “The Castaway”. In this chapter the cabin boy, Pip, is thrown overboard and when rescued, is discovered to have been unalterably changed by the experience: “The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.” In a moment typical of the later part of the novel, in which we are party to scenes and thoughts our nominal narrator Ishmael could have no access to, we hear of the visions Pip had: of “wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes ... the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom.” This moment also forms the basis of the related work Of Whales, which uses video game technology to spontaneously generate an ethereal, overwhelming seascape. This celestial-subaquatic imagery visualises the shared consciousness and universal, cross-species communion that emerges as central to Tsang’s – notably optimistic, even utopian – rendering of Moby-Dick.

Mobydick Book CHRISTIES
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First American edition of Moby-Dick, courtsey Christie’s

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Fred Moten in Moby-Dick, Wu Tsang, 2022

The story of the Pequod is framed in this film by the book-strewn world conjured at its opening. Poet Fred Moten takes the role of the Sub-Sub-Librarian, and it is his voice that intones over the otherwise silent film, alongside Caroline Shaw and Andrew Yee’s score. Pieces of Moten’s own poems, written in response to Melville, are in the mix, sometimes overlaying interspersed poetic-documentary sections built from archive footage. In Tsang’s rendition, it is Pip who emerges after the final sinking of the Pequod, rather than Ishmael, though we are not sure where exactly. He finds a pair of folding reading glasses and a leather-bound book titled Moby-Dick. He is destined, it seems, to become our Sub-Sub Librarian, whose rumbling voice opened the film: “To write, you gotta take a God’s-eye view ... The thing about this book is it’s open-ended. A work in progress, long drawn out.”

Tsang’s adaptation is tantalising, poetic and specific in its engagements but full of its own openings and possibilities. It goes after Melville’s vast, unruly novel and finds many glinting points of inspiration and intersection, but doesn’t manage – or indeed try – to haul in the whole thing. Like other adaptations, many of which have been ill-fated, it illuminates the original text by the ways it tries to land it.

In 2021, Amazon’s Audible produced a 15-part, full-cast podcast adaptation written by “member favourite” Marty Ross. It is offered free to all subscribers as one of the platform’s lusciously produced adaptions of classic books. Aiming to extract simply an ultra-listenable piece of IP, it drops all the book’s baroque trappings and adds a much more conventional framing device, opening on a ship that encounters a man floating on a coffin, hauls him aboard, and hears his story. (The confronting strangeness of the book’s intimate entreaty to “Call me Ishmael” is reconstituted as an unconvincingly coy response to the ship’s captain asking his name.) After Ishmael begins to recount his journey, we fade into unnarrated drama. Ishmael is a happy-go-lucky protagonist who bounds through the opening scenes on dry land sounding like no one so much as Remy from Pixar’s Ratatouille (when Queequeg wraps his arms around him at the Spouter Inn: “Oh, that’s not really necessary-EEE!”). He then, awkwardly, fades away as the story demands less and less of him. The factual whale chapters are cut altogether, while the dialogue-heavy onboard scenes, many of which Melville sets out in playscript form in the book, are relished. Most of all, the podcast comes into atmospheric focus whenever Ahab, played by David Morrissey, growls out a soliloquy.

Audible does away with the formal strangenesses of the book, and with them, it seems, all kinds of finer registers. The tense and loving camaraderie of the Pequod’s crew is replaced by functional buccaneering. If Tsang leans into the queer aspects of the narrative, the Audible version is anxiously unqueer – Queequeg and Ishmael’s “marriage” is reduced solely to a running joke revolving around Ishmael’s embarrassment at its misapprehension by others, and noisily heterosexual lines, in a voice entirely alien to Melville’s crew, are added – such as, from the second mate Stubb to a harpooner, “stick it in nice and deep boys, you know, how the ladies like it!”

If Audible does away entirely with the bookishness of Moby-Dick, the 2015 box office bomb In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard, takes the opposite approach. In fact an adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book about the sinking of a real whaling ship in 1820, it moves crabwise towards Melville’s notoriously unfilmable novel by telling the story that is said to have inspired it. Melville appears as a character, played by Ben Whishaw, and his ambitions as a writer – willing to pay through the nose for Brendan Gleeson’s first-hand account – are all part of the drama. The film seems to engage as lightly as possible, even gingerly, with Moby-Dick, while trying to capitalise on its cultural status: the poster for the film announces, a bit verbosely, “Based on the incredible true story that inspired MOBY-DICK”.

Notably, however, Howard’s film does not shy away from depicting the monstrous whale at the centre of its story. It is a CGI spectacular defined by weak horizon lines and an eerily weightless object world. The dominating, unpersuasive graphics earned the film some criticism – but that response may have been due, in part, to the deflating effect of the narrative decision that necessitated the CGI to begin with. By choosing to depict a gigantic whale crushing a ship, the film literalises the spell of Moby-Dick to bathetic effect. An imagined giant whale – phantasmagorical, terrible, crucially unknowable – can never be outdone by a rendered and visible one. We can see the size of it, however outlandishly large; we can see the way it moves underwater; we can see just how white it is (in this film, sort of patchy, like a malting plane tree).

When Moby-Dick is finally seen in Melville’s novel – not before page 607, in my copy – he is still in that appearance an obscure, blinding-bright, basically baffling vision, perceived moreover in the spray raised by his breaching, which “intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale”. Any adaptation must deal with the question of how to depict him. In this respect, Audible’s podcast finds a strength, able to evoke the whale through suspenseful reminiscences, not-wholly-reliable reports, innumerable calls of “Thar she blows!”, and, eventually, cacophonous sound effects. Tsang, meanwhile, had oddly fitting issues with the prop whale she was going to use to film, leaving her with just one haunting shot of a small mineral eye among a frame-filling mass of grey hide.

That these adaptations have to pursue their whales is a reflection of the way Melville’s novel itself is not just about the hunt for a whale but is engaged directly in such a hunt. In its digressive chapters it approaches the whale as a subject, a theme, an animal, a symbol, a source of meat and oil and perfume and ivory. All this is in the vain hope of resolving it finally – of escaping the terrifying blankness recounted in “The Whiteness of the Whale”: “an abhorrent mildness ... that by its indefiniteness shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation”.

This is a book preoccupied with symbols and meanings – and the possibility of their absence. It depicts a world that seems devoid of signification – one that could be taken for a “vast practical joke” – and yet replete with it. Clouds of sea ravens could be ominous or just a random aberrance. When Queequeg becomes convinced he is dying and sets about morbidly building his own coffin, he might be symbolising events into happening. Then, suddenly, his conviction passes, and he discards the coffin, and what was a charged, ominous symbol becomes a wooden box (it will become something else, too, in due course).

The whale is the vast, blank symbol at the heart of it all: does Moby-Dick stand for death or God or Nature or – most awful – nothing at all? The power of metaphor is what propels and haunts this novel: how one thing can stand for another, and how that standing could be both terribly true and terribly meaningless. Moby-Dick the novel and Moby-Dick the whale are two corpulent things that share the same name, as well as a certain notorious unassailability. Just as the book tries to capture the whale through a wide variety of guises and approaches, it becomes more whale-like in its variety, its vastness, its sea-slicked slipperiness. For prospective adaptors, the novel is another intractable creature to be pursued and hopefully processed, as whales are in Pequod’s tryworks.

In Chapter 36, “The Quarter-Deck”, Captain Ahab nails a piece of Spanish gold to the Pequod’s mast, promising it to the first person to sight Moby-Dick. This bribe secures his triumph over Starbuck, the first mate, who would rather the crew got on with the conventional whaling they were hired for. The coin is a marker of the greed, materialism and individual gains that drive the novel, as well as an ominous hanging harbinger of the fated appearance of the whale. Over the course of the 99 ensuing chapters, it becomes, we are told, the “ship’s navel”.

This is everywhere a novel preoccupied with bodily analogies and images. Most conspicuously there is Captain Ahab’s lost leg, replaced with a whale’s tooth. There is a potent suggestion of castration here, and in the impotent fury it causes, although it’s not simply the case that Ahab wants revenge on a whale that ate his leg; the eaten leg also seems to symbolise a more general, metaphysical hatred. The other side of these thwarted limbs are the ecstatically communing appendages of “A Squeeze of the Hand”. With these fixations, the novel starts to assume a murky corporeality itself. Digressive or outgrowing chapters feel limb-like – especially those called “Leg and Arm” or “Ahab’s Leg”. And if the doubloon is the ship’s navel, it is equally, simultaneously, the novel’s navel: its steady core, a residual marker of its generative event, located in a low, centralising spot in the book’s first third.

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In The Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard, 2015

Like an answer to or inversion of this navel, in its last moments Moby-Dick reveals a blowhole. When the Pequod is finally dragged down by Moby-Dick, Ishmael floats alone in the sea and finds himself drawn towards the “closing vortex” caused by the sinking, “ever contracting towards the button-like blank bubble at the axis of that slowly turning circle”. Then, “the black bubble upward burst; and now ... rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea”. This last great emission is what saves Ishmael, and so permits the novel. Much earlier, in a footnote, it is the blowhole that is deemed the defining feature of a whale (thus excluding dugongs from consideration). With this breaching the novel completes its opaque but insistent anatomy, and moreover reveals its body to be whalelike. If these suggestions and inferences sound more and more like the feverish readings of the whale-dazzled narrator, that too would seem to add to the tally of evidence that book and whale are somehow one and the same.

In the sinking of the Pequod we see the climax of the novel’s interest in the vital bodily acts of ingestion and expulsion. Its particular oral fixation is an obsession with swallowing and being swallowed. From the earliest invocation of the biblical Jonah in the “extracts”, the unique threat extended by the whale is that of disappearing inside it: “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” In Nantucket, this dizzying prospect is evoked or foreshadowed as Ishmael and Queequeg constantly walk through whale jawbones arranged as arches or doorways.

Reciprocally, the novel’s characters are intent upon swallowing the whale, as detailed in the chapter “The Whale as a Dish”, which enumerates dishes such as whale tongue, whale brain and barbecued porpoise. Most prevalently there is consuming its many products, including whale oil, blubber and ambergris. These kinds of consumption also hope to digest or metabolise the whale as a subject or phenomenon – to finally understand its overwhelming whole. Stubb, tucking into a plate of whale beside a burning whale-oil lamp, is memorably pictured as eating the whale “by his own light”. This unsettled image suggests that even in consumption the whale resists destruction or resolution. No death, or consumption, or reconstitution can do the job: as is observed in “The Funeral”, “while in life the great whale’s body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to a world”.

With its mouth, navel and blowhole, its digressive outgrowths, its murky core and its far-reaching limbs, its pervasive anxieties with physical loss and physical consumption, Moby-Dick dramatises not just our impulse to symbolise and metaphorise the world but our inclination to do this physically: to understand our psychoses and fears through our own bodies and the physical world. Impotence is envisioned as a severed leg; loss as a missing tooth; eating as knowing; a squeeze of the hand as transcendent communion; the awful blank unknowability of the world as a white whale.

It follows that the adaptations that resonate best with Melville, which find some purchase on his unruly world, don’t in fact obsess over words but work with the physical. Claire Denis’s rendition of Billy Budd in film is told by bodies. Its drama of jealousy and desire within the army unit plays out in wordless military drills repeated to the point of becoming pure visual rhythm, in lingering shots of shadows and sun abstracted on bodies that begin to suggest a dazzled eye behind them. The film ends – unforgettably – with a dance scene in a Djibouti nightclub that expresses a slew of blurred emotions – discipline, freedom, frustration, violence, ecstasy – somewhere way beyond language.

Tsang, for her part, highlights an idiom of physicality and gesture with her film’s silence, focussing on tensions of support, pressure, and exertion between bodies and rigging on board her stagelike Pequod as they labour together, huddle together, and speak the world wordlessly into being. Both Tsang and Denis use the particular capacities of film to think about the anxieties and blisses of the body. In Melville’s novel, these are surreally, miraculously invoked in the thing itself. As that continually dusting Late Consumptive Usher found, the very bookishness of a book could be enough to remind you of your own mortality: of the great white space at the end of the harpoon-line, the blank button at the centre of the circle. ◉

Of Whales is a solo exhibition by Wu Tsang, staged by TBA21 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary at Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza Madrid.