The following is my commentary on Frank Stella and Rockwell Kent's rendering of "The Spirit-Spout" chapter of Moby-Dick intertwixed with my impressions of the chapter and book.
Permission for Rockwell Kent's "The Spirit-Spout" could not be obtained. Unfortunately, they did not want it "going out on the Internet". i was disheartened to learn that they did not want it to be seen here because it is a fine piece and i would like people to be able to see the image that i refer to here. for now, please see pg. 50, fig 2.18 of schultz's book unpainted to the last.
the tone and setting of "The Spirit-Spout" chapter in Moby-Dick is, like "The Mast-Head" chapter, very peaceful and serene. This is in marked contrast to chapters like "The Try-Works" and "The Candles", and this alternating of peacefulness with mayhem is one of the many methods Melville uses to create this book of many hues. The opening of the second paragraph of "The Spirit Spout" is a great example of Melville's skillful use of language to conjure and convey a mood, and to spark a visualization in the reader of the setting. It is more than just the alliteration on the "s" sound that sets the tone (in just two sentences the "s" sound occurs 30 times), it is his choice of words and the way he strings them together that sets the scene. It is close to how I pictured the scene and mood when I read it. Herewith: "it was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea." (Melville, pg. 199) (When this passage is read aloud, the effect is increased).
Rockwell Kent captures this scene very well in his "Spirit-Spout" illustration for the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick (Schultz, fig 2.18). I have spent a good amount of time at the ocean - both during the daytime and nighttime - and the realism of this "moonlight night" piece is impressive. his use of fine lines is very skillful in depicting the lighting, shading and the overall mood of the full moon at night, on the ocean. the ocean seems calm and the whole scene portrays a sense of quietude and meditativeness. there is the feeling that the ocean is lazily bobbing and rolling at about the same pace as waves break on the beach. and this, incidentally, is pretty much the ideal pace for a breathing rate while one is meditating.
and, it seems fitting here, that one of the quotes from moby-dick that robert del tredici chose to use and illustrate (schultz, fig. 8.44): "Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever" (melville, pg. 13) could be applied here, because there is someone - probably ishmael - perched at the front edge of the pequod in what mainly looks like a meditative/contemplative manner. he could be staring at the water but, in keeping with the mood and setting, he is more likely just "meditating" and communing with nature, and drifting rather than thinking.
As commentary on the making of this image, it is a 2-dimensional representation of a realistic 3-dimensional scene. But there are also the 4th and 5th dimensions as well - Time and Space. One way of looking at the time dimension here, and this scientific thought runs counter to the languid mood here, is that it takes about a second-and-a-half for the reflected light from the moon to reach the Earth (at least we think we know this - one of the things I commented on, in our running log for this course, is how scientists of Melville's day, and ours, think they know things, but then - how can anybody really "know" anything?). (But this is a philosophical digression).
So then, if we were on the deck of this ship looking at the moon we would be looking at the appearance of the moon as it was a second-and-a-half in the past. This line of reasoning is usually used in regards to the stars - which Melville talks about. And also, none are seen in this scene, which would befit a moonlit night such as this - and when we talk about time in regards to looking at the light from stars, in most of them we are looking at how they were thousands and millions of years in the past.
This can be compared with what, I think, Melville is saying about Nature, and the cosmos, and how humans fit into it, or more so how, by some of the anti-Nature things that have been done, how we don't fit into it. We are still just another animal here, and other animals that have been here for far longer, arguably, have more of a right to be here than we do, and to be left alone.
Then we have the Spirit Spout itself in the distance. Some of the crew think that it is Moby Dick's spout, but it really doesn't matter if it is or isn't, because throughout the book Melville alludes to the spiritualness of the whale, and indeed all whales and all the "creatures" of nature. even though this is a realistic representation of this scene, because there is so much symbolism in this book, this "spout" could be symbolic of all Nature. It has been here for so much longer and it is here and now. And the anchor-end pointing to the spout could be symbolic of the head of a harpoon going into where a whale would be, so - therefore symbolic of these men killing these whales for profit instead of survival.
And then we have "Ishmael" in the peaceful, meditational solitude on the deck. he is not looking at the moon or the spirit spout but looking within - which really means without - at everything, because if we are all part of the whole one-ness, then he can't help but feel some sadness at the feeling and that the evil and "unwaning woe" (Melville, pg. 326) that is to be visited on these fellow beings is not "right", because they are part of us - we are all in this thing together.
of the many artists, that our class studied, that have created artworks in response to moby-dick i also concentrated on the way frank stella chose to represent "The Spirit-Spout" (Schultz, fig 7.10). He has created multiple-versioned, multiple-sized, 3-dimensional, abstract sculptures to convey the feeling of the Spirit-Spout. Our class saw a "1X" version of "The Spirit-Spout" at elizabeth schultz's unpainted to the last show of moby-dick related art at northwestern university (evanston, il) that is slightly different than the one in the schultz book. in addition to the prominence of the wave motif over the front of this piece, the bottom "half" of this wave shape looks like a whale's tail. it also has a sheen that looks like water on the parts of a whale that would be out of the water. this could also be seen as a representation of the whale's spout itself.
and the circle behind this could be a representation of the moon, so the shimmering could be from being "lit up by the moon" so as to look "celestial" (melville, pg. 199). this is interesting to me because when i first looked at this piece, i thought the front/"wave" part looked like an angel - so that would fit the celestial theme. Melville mentions whales' ghosts and this could also be the spirit of the whale. The spirit is 'draped" over the moon (a spirit can be bigger than the moon). and, in this same line, if the circle represents the sphere of the moon, it is dark (in this version anyway) because the moon itself is dark and needs illumination to be seen. we need "enlightenment" to "see" things (to be aware of things) beyond the constructs of what "they" want you to see - and think.
The sphere being dark in this version brings up the question of what statement an artist intends to make with each piece he/she creates. The more abstract a piece is, the more open to interpretation it is. With the circle being dark and rough in one version, and being smooth and having color and designs on it in another version, I wonder if Stella intended to have this be symbolic for different things and if it changes the "meaning" for these parts of the piece. I know that some artists (especially in cultures that live more in tune with nature) that work with carving and wood have said about a piece of wood, etc. that they are about to start working with - that the "work to be realized/the soon-to-be resultant image/the finished piece" is there - within - waiting to be "discovered" by the "artist". It has been mentioned that Stella didn't name some of his pieces until after they were done. So, that question is open to interpretation as well if we don't have the "answer" directly from him.
The structures in the back - and extending on the bottom - of the piece have a wood-like and more "man-made" quality as opposed to the more "natural" shapes in the front. This wood-looking part seems to me to represent the ship in its intimate and complex relationship with the water and ocean. The cone shape could also be Ahab's looking glass, and his view to what should be a beauteous element of the whale is being blocked by a dark and brooding hulk, which is his own ignorance and closed-mindedness.
In one view of art, Victor Shklovsky, a Russian, introduced the theory of defamiliarization in a 1917 essay called 'Art as Technique'. In it he states that "art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. the technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar', to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and the length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important." (Webster, pg. 37). This is one way that abstract art could be looked at. I like the part about aesthetic perception being prolonged. The more I look at this, and other, pieces by Stella the more they are appealing to me, and the more I am affected by their power and message(s).
I agree with Shklovsky's views in the main, but I do, however, have some disagreement with two linked elements of what Shklovsky is saying. When he says that "The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known" I agree with the part about imparting the sensation of things as they are perceived, but I also think it is important to have a sensation of what it is that inspired the artwork to be made - the "subject". Similarly, when he says that "Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important" I agree about experiencing the artfulness of an object, but I also think that "the object" is very important. The source subject is certainly linked with the resultant creation.
So, we have Melville - who was very skilled at weaving words to represent images in our minds. When we read a book we have our own visualizations of the different scenes depicted. And we have Kent - who was skilled at rendering realistic versions of these visualizations. And then we have Stella - who is skilled at making abstract, interpretive representations of these visualizations. In regards to the pieces he has created, a greater level of connection is achieved when actually being able to see a 3-dimensional Stella - live - compared with its 2-dimensional representation in a book.
In regards to Moby-Dick and this class, I feel glad, lucky, privileged, and enlightened to have read this truly great book now, and even more importantly, to have been able to participate in this class. Our instructor, Dr. Robert Wallace, was an awesome facilitator of, and for, this fantastic and enriching experience. And the students appreciation, level of involvement, and enthusiasm was rewarding. I am looking forward to some future, related "projects" with Dr. Wallace and this class.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.
Schultz, Elizabeth. Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century Art.
Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995.
Webster, Roger. Studying Literary Theory, An Introduction.
London: Edward Arnold, 1990.
I painted this in one evening, after much worrying that my limited artistic ability would not be able to fully and accurately portray the image that was in my mind's eye. But I came somewhat close and "it's the thought that counts".