PURSUING MOBY-DICK IN THE CLASSROOM, THE MUSEUM, BACK IN THE
CLASSROOM, AND BEYOND
LEARNING FROM BOOKS, PICTURES, STUDENTS
At the 1995 Conference of the National Association for Humanities Education in Cincinnati, I gave a talk entitled "Chasing the Loon: The Crazy Pleasures of Comparing the Arts." I explained how a student in my Literature and Music course in the late 1970s had changed the direction of my teaching--and my research--by asking if I could develop a course in Literature and Painting (Wallace, 7). At the 1997 Conference in Provo, I was able to show how my most recent course in Literature and Painting had been changed by the twelve students who chose to take it. I did so in the company of seven of those students--each of whom gave up half of his or her spring break in order to join me in making our presentation. All had been members of my 1996 Spring Semester course on Melville and the Arts. We had spent that entire semester pursuing the whale, as well as the loon. Even so, we were not quite yet done with either one.
The 1996 course had been cross-listed between English 390 and Honors 303. We had two primary texts: Moby-Dick, Herman Melville's 1851 novel, and Unpainted to the Last, Elizabeth Schultz's 1995 book on Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art. We spent the month of January reading the novel in nine installments. Students kept logs of their reading, we discussed the book in seminar style, and students responded as well to the novel as they did to each other. I sensed already that this was an unusual group.
In February we studied Schultz's book. Each student chose his or her favorite artist in preparation for an overnight trip to Northwestern University in which we would see Schultz's exhibition "Unpainted to the Last" at the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery. On the morning of February 24, successive members of the class led us through the gallery, each introducing us to his or her favorite artist and what he or she liked most about that artist's response to the novel. By the time I made my own concluding remarks shortly after noon, we had all come to know the novel, the art works, and each other more memorably than ever before.
On the way home to Kentucky that afternoon, we stopped in Chicago to see some Moby-Dick works by Frank Stella as well as sculptures by Picasso, Calder, and Dubuffet. Back in the classroom, we had two weeks before semester break. As students made formal presentations and submitted papers on their favorite Moby-Dick art work and its relation to the novel, interdisciplinary learning was already well under way. But things really began to happen after we returned from semester break.
We had six weeks left in the semester. I had planned a detailed syllabus for this period, but I decided to put it aside in order to make room for two student initiatives. One was an integrated Web site, proposed by Nate DeGroff, a computer science major. He invited the entire class to join him in creating an electronic outlet and showcase for the work we had done. This was not easy, given our collective ignorance about HTML and our considerable computer anxiety. But with a lot of time in the lab, and a lot of help from Nate and his computer mate Aaron, we all got up to speed.
Three weeks later, Nate's integrated site, Moby and the Net, was his contribution to the second student initiative: an art exhibition for which each of the twelve class members created one or more art works inspired by Melville's novel. We got some space in our Fine Arts Building during the last week of the semester and mounted an impromptu show of Moby-Dick art. Two members of the class were art majors, but most students were creating and exhibiting art for the first time. Included in the show were a body cast, a suite of photographs, a variety of paintings, a mosaic, a wall hanging, an illustrated book, a poem accompanied by a watercolor, a wire sculpture, a video, and the Web site (figure 1).
These two student initiatives were wonderful ways to end the course. They were much better than what I had planned in my syllabus, eager as I had been to go on to that material. At some point during the semester, someone began calling this "the course that never ends." And two opportunities came along for the 1997 Spring Semester that caused us to come together again for Further Studies in Melville and the Arts. One was the opportunity to travel to Utah in March to make the presentation about our class at the NAHE Convention. The other was an invitation to participate in a joint exhibition of Moby-Dick art with students of Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois, in April. Three weeks after seven students accompanied me to Utah for our NAHE presentation in Provo, all twelve students accompanied me to Illinois for the opening of our Landlocked Gam at the Rockford College Art Gallery.
We were able to reconvene during the 1997 Spring Semester because in 1996 none of the students had been seniors. In the original course we had four freshmen, three sophomores, and five juniors. One of the freshmen, Brian Cruey, transfered to New York University over the summer, but he joined up with us again for the exhibition in Rockford. We were also joined by Elizabeth Schultz and two of the Moby-Dick artists whose works we had admired in Evanston: Robert McCauley (our host in Rockford) and Robert Del Tredici.
Each of our 1997 expeditions was a welcome, unanticipated extension of all that
had evolved the year before. We enjoyed very much making our presentation in
Provo, where my students were surprised to see how receptive adult educators
were to what they had experienced. After our sequence of five-minute opening
statements, we opened up into a round-table discussion followed by questions
from the audience. For me as well as for my students, the opportunity to
engage with such an audience was an important validation of interdisciplinary,
interpersonal, and intergenerational learning.
FAST FISH, LOOSE FISH
When a student enters a college classroom on the first day, he or she can expect with a certain confidence particular boundaries to adhere to. There is typically a professor who bestows knowledge and a syllabus to be followed (usually set at an overachieving pace), as well as four walls and a semester, which keep the students secure in a net of space and time, until they are unceremoniously disgorged after fifteen weeks. When our class first began the study of "Melville and the Arts," we certainly didnít expect it to extend beyod those usual and proper boundaries. Yet most of the work, certainly the most exciting of the work for us students, took place away from the little room in Landrum Hall where the whole thing started. We knew we would be taking a class trip to Evanston to see an exhibit of artwork inspired by Melville's novel Moby-Dick, but had hardly expected the repercussions of such a trip.
This course affected each one of us in exciting and sometimes personal ways. The camaraderie of the class by the end of the semester was unlike any other class I had experienced. Perhaps it was the small size of the class, or the time we spent together at close quarters on long road trips, or the willingness to take up any offer we were given for a way to express ourselves, but we were more like a traveling band of gypsies than a college class.
I think the first question that comes to mind when you take a close look at this class is: what made it develop the way it did? Why did it expand in space and time in so many different directions? A clue to this can be found by looking back at a quote from the essay "On Liberty," a manifesto by the 19th-Century British Victorian writer John Stuart Mill, who said:
"Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained" (Mill, 1010).It was eccentricity that drove this class to new levels of experimentation and innovation. An example of this? I just gave you one. What could be more eccentric than justifying a class about Moby-Dick with a quote from a Victorian philosopher . . . justifying the classroom of the future with a literary work of the past? How about justifying the worth of a literary work of the past such as Moby-Dick by putting our own experiences of that work on an Internet Web page? How about hobnobbing with 20th-Century American artists who have their own things to express about the relevance of Moby-Dick today? How about declaring, as a group of undergraduates to a group of educators, that we can handle--and long for--a more responsive role in our own education? How about students who get so excited about the possibilities of self-expression that the professor feels obliged to toss out his syllabus, rather than let one drop of that energy go to waste?
All of this excitement and energy culminated in two projects that semester: the student show at Northern Kentucky University and an Internet Web page documenting the activities in and out of the classroom. The Web page was the brain child of Nathan DeGroff, who was the resident computer expert of our group. At the time when we were all brainstorming about our art works, Nate brought up the possibility of his putting together a little Web page that could include our art works and final papers if we were interested. After some discussion we were all really excited about it, if a little scared. Most of the class didnít think they knew anything about it. How do you write a "Web page"? How do you design it? Since Nate and I both knew the most about HTML (which is the markup language used to design a Web page), we were elected to be co-teachers, giving a crash course in HTML to the class.
This is where the class finally shed any pretense of being a normal class. Dr. Wallace didn't know anything about HTML--this was something beyond his scope. Nate then became the teacher, and I, the teacher's assistant. We spent time in the computer lab working with both the students and the professor until we had successfully worked through the technical side of the class. By the end of the semester, Dr. Wallace was as good as the rest of us at receiving and sending email, creating, protecting and saving files, performing file transfers from floppy disks to our personal accounts and, of course, working with HTML. We scanned photos into our pages, typed in our commentaries and class papers, and Dr. Wallace devoted his section to documenting the class as a whole.
So what could Dr. Wallace do now that his role as both teacher and leader had been displaced? The fact is, no such displacement occurred. His role (and ours) had not been usurped, but rather transformed. Dr. Wallace was still the captain of the ship, you might say, he would make suggestions that would steer us one direction or another, but the final arbiters of the class were now the students. We were co-conspirators in the educational process. He became the narrator for a book we seemed never to tire of writing. If he seemed to us an Ahab at the beginning of the class, by the end we were calling him Ishmael.
That was really the most exciting time for all of us, with the realization that
we were working together as a group, perhaps for the first time in any of our
academic careers. This did interesting things to the classroom structure,
breaking down the hierarchy of the class, so that the teacher was no longer at
the top. And of course, since Dr. Wallace in many ways became a student himself
by the end, we all had a pretty equal say in how the course developed and took
shape. It is that type of true interrelationship between the professor and his
students, and between the students themselves that gives a class the most
their education can offer.
THE INTERDISCIPLINARY CLASSROOM
Have you ever taught a class with two different subjects with students from a variety of backgrounds? Talk about an interdisciplinary classroom. To convey a little more about our fabulous Moby crew, Iím going to tell you (1) who we are, (2) what we did, and (3) why this class worked.
Who We Are
What We Did
Not only were our perspectives in class based on our majors, but also our art work seemed to follow a similar pattern. The three English majors painted paintings representing scenes from the novel. The film major took a series of photographs. The accounting major kept a record of the classís endeavors by making a video. The computer science major laid the groundwork for our Web page. The applied cultural studies major made a glass mosaic with various sized interlocking pieces. The psychology major made a wire sculpture of a human head which you could see through. The biology major made a wall hanging with sticks, feathers, and other things from the earth. The two art majors did a body cast, a painting, and a mixed-media piece. The undeclared student (who was formerly a music major) composed a musical piece and a book of drawings.
The variety of works the class made illustrated the amount of diversity among us. Each individual work reflected the studentís personality and academic experience. Perhaps this means that our majors say more about us than many people realize.
Why This Class Worked
This class was a great success because it gave us an opportunity to experience different perspectives from each of the different majors in our class and gave us an opportunity to do something that most of us had never done before. The interdisciplinary approach enabled us to discuss or debate Melvilleís chock-full-of-everything novel from every point of view imaginable. By studying two subjects at once from a variety of perspectives and discussing them freely, we were able to have this enjoyable and intellectually stimulating arena for self-expression work for us.
Here are some quotes from the students in the class about the interdisciplinary classroom. Kristen said, "To understand art history, I must have knowledge about history, philosophy, and politics. So taking this class and studying art through a literature perspective helped me to develop a better understanding of what the artists were trying to represent." Gina said, "Melville was a really odd character and it was obviously reflected in what happened in this course," and Bill said, "And I always thought literature was boring."
Coming from a liberal arts college, I realize the importance of getting a
broad background from numerous disciplines. Isn't that the point of college--
to learn as much as we can from a variety of perspectives, to get a more
well-rounded education so we donít become muddle-headed in our way of thinking?
This concept should be incorporated directly into the classroom, and that is
why this class was such a success.
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES IN THE CLASSROOM
A writer must write for his readers. A speaker must present for his audience. These two concepts are elementary for an educator, for what sense would it make to lecture on the significance of quantum physics to a kindergarten class? Besides enhancing the pictures of subatomic particles with the powers of Crayola, the kindergarten class would benefit little. Iím confident that those in attendance at the National Association for Ichthyology hung on every fish story of the presenter. However, not every audience is a uniform congregation of like-minded individuals. Consider the audience of your average professor. While the speech she prepared on the evils of misrepresenting the intentions of medieval literature in contemporary society may have been absolutely compelling to those at the Medieval Society, chances are those in the classroom are going to have a different perspective. But why?
The varieties of perspective are as numerous as the individuals in a classroom. To compound this situation, individual students represent different educational backgrounds. While the English majors in the class may appreciate the medieval information, chances are the biology and sociology majors will be critiquing the presentation for proof of evolution and relevant demographics of the population. It occurred to me while sitting in my Honors 303 class, which is composed of a variety of majors, that each student probably had a different interpretation of the material that was being presented.
To illustrate my point, I noticed comments by certain individuals in the classroom that hinted at their educational background. I noticed that the art majors had "artsy" things to say, the computer science major spouted the need for a web page, and the sociology major felt the need to ascertain what effect the Mormon faith might have on crime rates, socio-economic status, and general demographics of Salt Lake City in Utah (our destination for the National Association for Humanities Education conference). Interestingly, I noticed that the psychology major (myself) had just been analyzing each individual.
It is important to understand that each student is going to bring with them the educational tools and experience that were acquired in their respective fields. To facilitate this understanding, I kept track of the influences my own educational background had on my interpretation of my "Moby Dick" class. The following might give professors an idea of what psychology majors are daydreaming about while in the classroom.
One of the newest additions to the world of psychology is Industrial/Organizational psychology. This branch of psychology is primarily used in the business community to understand the mechanics of effective management and productive employees. One concept in this area explains that a management that encourages input from the employees makes employees happier, perhaps by allowing the employees to feel a sense of control over the company. Having learned this, I found myself in class one day drawing parallels between our class and an effective business. Perhaps our class (employees) was so productive because the management (our professor, Dr. Wallace) encouraged our input about the course (the business). By feeling that we had some control over the outcome, we put more of ourselves into the process.
An additional perspective I brought to the classroom was my understanding of motivation. Through my psychological eyes, I saw the motivation of individuals fuel their success. But where did this motivation come from? As I sat in the class and looked around the room, two theories came to mind. The first was by the well-known humanist Abraham Maslow. Maslow is most famous for his "hierarchy of needs." His theory explains that humans' needs are constructed like a pyramid so that the most basic needs, such as food and shelter, form the base. Once these needs are met, the individual pursues more abstract needs such as companionship and success. Eventually, the individual reaches the top of the pyramid, or "self-actualization." Self-actualization is accomplished by achieving those things that would make a personís life complete: a healthy family, to publish a book, be number one lecturer in the world, etc. Once again, as I looked around the room, I scratched my head and thought about what each person was striving for. Self-Actualization?
An additional motivation theory that takes the opposite approach was proposed by Alfred Adler, who coined the term "inferiority complex". Instead of striving to self-actualize, Adler felt that people were fleeing from their insecurities, or that which made them feel inferior. Once again, a glance around the room made me wonder what Adler lurked inside of everyone.
Naturally, a discussion about psychology wouldnít be complete without mentioning Freud. While many of his theories are obsolete and out-dated, his theories are still useful as a sort of psychological entertainment. Freud is most famous for his theories concerning women and "penis envy." Of course, Freud would have felt that the women in the class were drawn to the phallic nature of the focus of our class: Moby Dick. It wwouldn't be fair to dele into the subconscious of women while neglecting to mention Freudís theories about men. Most notably, Freud proposed a rationalization to explain menís need to create. He observed that men were often creating -- through architecture, art, mechanics, etc. Freud felt that men were envious of womenís ability to conceive and create life. This "womb envy," as Freud called it, instilled in men the need to create, perhaps to compensate for their inability to create life itself.
These are brief examples of what psychological knowledge I brought to the
class. If ever I did daydream (hardly ever) in class, I found my thoughts
turning to my psychologically shaped perspective of the world. Naturally,
each student will bring his or her educational background into the classroom.
This education helps shape their thoughts and perspectives so they begin to
appreciate different aspects of the world, including a professorís lecture.
But, of course, I want my readers to understand that this class was more than
just a conglomeration of diverse majors. We were, in fact, a bunch of
inferior employees, struggling to self-actualize, because the men wanted
wombs, and the women wanted penises.
CREATIVITY and COLLABORATION
When one thinks of the art-making process images may come to mind of the painter and palette, the sculptor and chisel, or perhaps the photographer and the darkroom. But what about 12 students sitting around a table, pens and notebooks in hand? While this may create a new picture, when looking at the history of art collaboration it is not a new concept.
Websterís defines collaborate as "to work together, especially in art or literature," and create is defined as "to bring something into existence." Peter Paul Rubens, the great seventeenth-century Flemish master, worked with painter Frans Snyders to create some of the greatest paintings known in the world today. Snyders, who painted animals and landscape elements, worked with Rubens, a master of the flesh, to create harmonious picture grounds. Or take the Palace of Versailles--created by a conglomeration of architects, artists, and artisans. From the magnificent gardens to the interior tapestries, it is a stunning visual pleasure. One can also look at collaborations done between Andy Warhol and Haitian painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s. Their paintings were a merging of two very different styles and techniques, and perhaps more importantly, ideas.
The history of art and literature is about ideas--new ones, old ones, and those on the cutting edge. So when students in "Melville and the Arts" sat down with their notebooks and pens, many great ideas started to emerge: a new structure for the class, new projects to work on such as an integrated Web page, and art projects for a final show. In working together, imaginations were sparked and ideas emerged.
I have been an art major for the past four years so I have familiarity with materials and techniques, but in working with non-majors it was great to see a fresh approach to things. Students incorporated mixed media in their art, merged visual art with poetry, and created works on video. Our computer experts were there as we ventured into the lab to create our web pages, showing us how to put our ideas into tangible forms with the push of a few buttons. I was able to help another student find the grout for her mosaic and figure out how to work with glass. It was by working together that our creativity could be channeled and worked in various dimensions.
My fellow students also inspired me in my work. When one is surrounded by enthusiasm and creative ideas, you want to make work, which can often be the hardest part. Even when inspirational ideas abound, there can be difficulty in executing them. Often it can be a problem of resources, skill, or simply exhaustion. When others are dedicated, it pulls you over the humps and gives some incentive.
It is only natural in working with a group of people, whether they are students, business professionals, or educators, that various strengths and abilities emerge. By putting these talents together wonderful things can start to happen. In Moby-Dick, this happened one morning as Ishmael and his crewmates were sitting on the deck of the Pequod:
"Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborersí hand in it,mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally . . . ." (Melville, 348).
IMAGES FROM THE PAGE
Before this class took off and began evolving the way it did something pulled us together. Melville's Moby-Dick evoked a response from us all. Each person became caught up in the story and found that it sparked something inside. It drew us together and let us interact with constructive discussion.
This strong reaction to the book is shown by the art works in our show. Ideas and subjects were made solid and could be shown to others. This was a great leap for many. To create art is an endeavor most people in our class had never attempted. Yet our inspiration from the book allowed each to overcome and create.
One of the best examples of this dedication to the project is Brian Cruey's photo I Find Myself Involuntarily Pausing Before Coffin Warehouses (figure 2). He actually found a real coffin warehouse where they looked at him funny for wanting to take a picture. Not only that, he had to take 218 exposures to get the right one. This shows a huge commitment.
His inspiration is taken directly from the beginning pages of Moby-Dick:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Melville, 12)Creating art is to take your own perception of the story and translate it into physical reality. Brian has taken an image from the page and translated his view into a work of art.
Another example of this translation from literature to art is Aaron Zlatkin's Spouter-Inn Painting: Revealed (figure 3). The subject of the painting is not only inspired by the novel but it is an actual object described by Melville:
On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly be-smoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose (Melville, 20).Aaron has taken what he has seen from the fictional description and has recreated it on canvas. No one else will have seen the painting quite like Aaron till now. It is a true marriage of literature, art, and imagination.
This next piece is my own and is titled The Marriage of Ishmael and Queequeg (figure 4). My own inspiration came from the relationship between the narrator and the harpooner. This relationship was very unusual in that you do not usually think of same-sex marriages on whaling cruises. All of the ritual and implications of this relationship are very modern, however. One example is our cultureís current concern with the legality of gay marriages.
Yet, even as inspired as I was by this theme, I found it horribly difficult to give up the idea that art was the realm of artists only. It had always seemed that you needed some special talent or insight that most people never get. I had made things before, but they were functional and useful. I didn't realize immediately that art was not only paintings and sculptures and all the other usual forms. It was a breakthrough to discover that I could create something that felt real to me, even if it served no other purpose than to hang on a wall. I didn't even have to worry about it being too roughly used since care would be taken in the hanging and storage.
I really enjoyed the experience of creating art. My "marriage" theme has
continued into this yearís creative project. This time I am even usingthat
mystery of mysteries, photography. I never would have broken my
self-expectations without this class. Others agree with me when I say that we
have accomplished more in this class than some others do in their entire
college careers. We have found the true meaning of a college education. We
have all exceeded our expectations and seen that classes do not have to be
made up of faceless masses and dry material. We have found that education and
expansion need not be limited by our own perceptions, curriculum, or fields.
RENDERING, IN ART, THE PHILOSOPHICAL AND METAPHYSICAL ASPECTS OF MOBY-DICK
The novel Moby-Dick is a fitting one to associate with the theme of this Conference. Melvilleís novel is very much attuned to addressing "Perception of Time, Perceptions of Being." I will focus on the challenges of rendering, in art, the personal perceptions that the novel produces. Elizabeth Schultz addresses these challenges in her book Unpainted to the Last: "Throughout Moby-Dick, Melville demonstrates that complete perception or total understanding is neither desirable or possible" (Schultz, 10).
When I read a book, and I assume it is this way for most of us, I picture the descriptive scenes in my mind. The more philosophical elements produce less of a solid image but a perception still registers. In this course, we read the powerful novel Moby-Dick and wrote about parts of the book that produced reactions in us.
Beyond this, we were also to produce some form of art in response to the book. I knew I was going to produce a painting so the first decision was what scene, or scenes or elements from the book, to represent. Then, how did I want to represent such a scene or element? This meant choosing between a representational style for the picture in my mindís eye, or an abstract style, or a combination of these.
There is a difficulty in the decision of how to render an image. That difficulty is the challenge of objectifying and subjectifying the many philosophical and metaphysical aspects of the book. This difficulty comes about because, even in narrative passages, Melville seems to always be weaving in extra-philosophical commentary and perspective on our collective human and beyond-human experience.
Our trip to Northwesternís Block Gallery, to see Elizabeth Schultz'ís show, showed us diverse ways that professional artists have chosen to represent aspects of the book. They ranged from representational illustrations to abstract paintings and sculptures to combinations thereof. In Unpainted to the Last, Schultz also writes of the "challenge Moby-Dick presents to the classical criteria for poetry and painting." Like Dr. Heffernan, in his keynote address for this conference, she quotes Gotthold Lessingís Laocoon (1766). She acknowledges Lessingís idea that "whereas poetry (and all written works) evokes progress in time, painting (and all visual works) evokes stasis in space." But she goes on to say that in Moby-Dick "time and space appear rendered with such fluidity that these categories become permeable" (Schultz, 5).
I decided to create a representational painting of a scene that is interesting from a narrative viewpoint and one in which I tried to convey more than stasis in space. I wanted to make a painting because, in the time that the novel was written, paintings were the predominant form of expression for people to represent their perceptions of being, and of life. The image that I chose to paint for our Rockford Moby-Dick art show was one of many vivid ones I had in mind of scenes that held metaphysicality and meaning above and beyond the mere scene being described.
The scene is from the chapter "A Bower in the Arsacides" and what gets related, via Ishmael, is the story about how, long ago, "a great Sperm Whale . . . had been found dead and stranded" after having been washed up in a storm onto an island. "When the vast body had at last been stripped of its fathom-deep enfoldings . . . the skeleton was . . . transported up the Pupella glen, where a grand temple of lordly palms now sheltered it." There, "in the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguished aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapory spout." Over time, this skeleton became overgrown with "shrubs, and ferns, and grasses." It was "all woven over with . . . vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure," while "the industrious earth beneath was as a weaverís loom . . . weaving he unwearied verdure" (Melville, 374-5).
Melville shows us a "weaver-god" whose work actually produces a "humming." He shows us an altar and chapel and an island whose priests speak of this "cunning weaver" as their god (374). This recalls the image of Moby Dick as "not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time)" (158). Even though the remains of this whale are not Moby Dick they are symbolic and have achieved immortality here by being deified.
The interwoven skeleton of the whale raises some questions about the Perception of Time, and of Being. How long has this "temple" been here? How long will it exist? Is it a being? Ishmael leaves us with an image in which "Life folded Death; Death trellised Life" (Melville, 375).
So again, back to the challenge of how to represent scenes such as this. How
do you portray this metaphysicality? It would seem that the best way would be
to combine representationality with abstractionism. This is the kind of
challenge faced by someone producing art in response to this great book. But
I think this challenge adds to the interest and excitement of this fulfilling
THE CHAOS of CREATIVITY
The creative process begins when one connects something from the outside world to something inside oneís head. For example in Moby-Dick one could connect Ahabís dark obsession or Stubbís thrill of the hunt with an ent or emotion from oneís own past experience. The connections, once established, then act as tunnels to the secret inner ooze of our beings. What wriggles its way up from the dank hollows of our mind can be either eerie and frightening or charming and entertaining, soberingly serious or frivolously funny. But whatever notion or insight crawls forth to the light of consciousness, generally it is somewhat important to us at some level. It is our spawn, our seed, our child, and it is a reflection of at least one aspect of our being.
How do we coax these little inner imps to make their way from the deepest sleepy fissures of our mind to the surface of wakefulness? This I canít tell you. Creativity has its own agenda, to be sure, and we certainly canít expect to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet. For me creativity often seeps up slowly, and often needs a bit of nurturing and prodding before the finished product makes its way from my head to my hands and then on to a medium of some sort. Sometimes, creativity erupts in great globby chunks of sentiment, needing only to be translated into expression. When we are lucky and our cosmic muses smile down upon us, creativity flows smoothly and evenly, so that we end up becoming mere scribes to our deeper, truer selves. We act as secretaries to our souls, making manifest what is dictated to us.
Once we get a critter of creation into our consciousness, we need to treat it as an honored guest. We must be attentive to where our whim wants to wander, lest it make its sad way back to where it came from. These embryos of creation are each unique. Some are so strong and so dominant that even though we may want to send them back to their room, so to speak, they will not leave us alone; indeed, they may even find a way to taint our every action and thought with their touch. Others are weaker, more reluctant. If we want to express these ideas we must be careful, for they are like tiny kittens: if we handle them too much we will most likely kill them, but if we leave them to fend for themselves they could just as easily die of neglect. For these whims we need to create a nurturing environment within our own heads. A creative greenhouse, if you will.
It seems there are any number of ways to provide a safe haven for our guests. Simply writing them down, however rudimentary, surely provides some sense of stability for them. For once we have written the first thought down, we may find that soon its friends want to join it in being written out. These ideas then would have a much better chance of coalescing into a larger whole than if simply left swimming in the soup of our minds. And if we find that as they branch out certain parts become cancerous, detracting from the creative accomplishment as a whole, we can neatly trim them off, as though we were tending a bonsai tree.
Another way to nurture our little beasties is to let them sit in the front seat with us as we drive through life. Take them to movies and parties, have them read what you read, let them frolic with the creative impulses of your friends. Our ideas will surely appreciate it, and more likely than not they will grow as they come into contact with the ideas of others, bonding to them, making bigger, stronger ideas. Thus if we plant our seed in the fertile ground of a complex world and watch it attentively, we will probably see it grow strong and bear fruit.
And so, while we may not be quite sure when our creative inspirations are
going to drop by, we can certainly always welcome them into our life,
considering them, at least, before we banish them back to the dark realm. And
if we treat them with the respect they deserve, we will often benefit from
them, be it in drawing a picture, sharing a laugh with a friend, composing an
entertaining melody, or simply in seeing things from a slightly different
perspective than we would have without our creation critters
Landlocked Gam: Moby-Dick Art by Students at Rockford College, Northern Kentucky University, and Guest Artists: Vali Myers, Frank Stella, Robert Del Tredici. Rockford College Art Gallery, Rockford, Illinois, April 7-25, l997.
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Moby and the Net, Integrated Web Site (http://www.nku.edu/~moby).
Schultz, Elizabeth. "Unpainted to the Last": Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995.
"Unpainted to the Last": Moby-Dick and American Art, 1930-1990. Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University, Evanston Illinois, January 12 - March 3, 1996.
Wallace, Robert K. "Chasing the Loon: The Crazy Pleasures of Comparing the
Arts." Interdisciplinary Humanities 13 (March 1995): 3-17.
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