kristen a. sekowski's home page


in reading herman melville's novel moby-dick, there were particular images that were striking to me and that i paid attention to in my logs. these were images of water, images of white, and visual descriptions-or paintings used as text. what follows are log excerpts, and an essay written about paul jenkins, a painter associated with the abstract expressionists.
"BUT THAT SAME IMAGE, WE OURSELVES SEE IN ALL RIVERS AND OCEANS. IT IS THE IMAGE OF THE UNGRASPABLE PHANTOM OF LIFE; AND THIS IS THE KEY TO ALL." (Melville p.14, Loomings)
This is an interesting statement. We are drawn to water. We are formed and developed in water. We are born coming out of water. Do we perhaps yearn to go back to this? We need water to survive. It is always needed, wanted, seen. Rivers, water...Sea, water imagery. It symbolizes purification and redemption, fertitlity, growth, and the unconscious. The river is a transitional phase in the life cycle. All rivers eventually flow into the sea. The sea an archetype for the mother of all life, and spiritual mystery. It is timelessness and eternity. It is in everyone.

I find this comment interesting--"But look! Here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder waterhouses will not suffice." This, Ismael's perspective of the crowds that gather at the shores. Living inland is not enough. One must see the water. He says it unifies people. It is the one thing that they have in common. It is the sea that seems to call to Ishmael. It is what draws him to his fate.

Following are various thoughts about the novel from my log entries. They are from different chapters, and follow in chronological order.

The chapters that bring the story into the water show a major transition. "Ship and boat diverged; the cold damp night breeze blew between; a screaming gull flew overhead; the two hulls widely rolled. We gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic." Their journey has begun. It is interesting that the cheers were "heavy-hearted".


NKU Home Page--Help--Comments--OAC--Disclaimer--(26-MAR-1996)

i find the images of "white" and the descriptions interesting. Yes, White is a beautiful color in many ways, yet horrific in others. The first thing that comes to mind is a bloated corpse. I can imagine the whale being that color. Or bratwurst, that sickening whitish gray color. These are the first things that come to mind (along with pale skin) when I think of white. Not a silky wedding dress or pearls. The fact that, "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me" was the most fearful aspect of the whale to Ishmael does not seem at all strange to me.

In chapter 44 at the end they talk of Ahab's "creature" whose whole being has consumed him. "A vulture fed upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates." How true it is that we create our own monsters and demons. It eats away at us, we do feel this need, drive to destroy these things, but maybe we are just destroying ourselves. We inflict our own pain. Ahab seems to be doing this. It eats away at him. He can think of nothing else.

From chapter 55 on I began to realize that perhaps all of the visual references to painting or visual arts are paralleled to the writing. Meaning - maybe Melville's intention was for the book to be like a very involved painting. This dawned on me with the line, "I shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas..." and goes on to talk about the whale. So basically the pages are his canvas. The words are the paint. It makes it more interesting to evoke visual images with words, also it would explain the fascination artists seem to have with the story of Moby Dick. I find "Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales:" a very interesting chapter. In this section by explaining the various types of whales it creates a certain visual image, when on the whole, but also points to the fact that the whale is "unpainted to the last" Not one live whale could be truly visually documented (at least correctly). I particularly like the comment regarding Fredrick Cuvier's pictures in a "Natural History of Whales." Saying that his, "Sperm Whale is not a Sperm Whale, but a squash." i think i laughed for a few minutes about that one. i can appreciate the value that really drawing from life can have - it is the truest rendering. it is amazing the difference that copying and life drawing have. i wonder how many "squash's" I have drawn. It is a scary thought!

The end of this section gets much more interesting. There are also more visual references I am noticing (ex. Albert Durer - in reference to skirmshander articles). The last paragraph in "Brit" is interesting that Ishmael again makes reference to the reader and asks them again to consider the significance of water (sea) and relate them to the land and sea. "...A strange analogy to something in yourself." Also at the end of "The Line" he parallels human life to being "enveloped in whale lines" death can come at any moment - swiftly. Often danger is closer than we may think. I guess one can only realize this if they are put into a situation where it is purely visible, (like on a whale boat.) Does Ishmael see the danger on a whole, or is it little incidents like that draw him closer to this realization?

Chapter 63 "The Crotch" was an important chapter to me personally because it gave me a little more insight into the actual process and harpooning procedures. It also brought to light what I have been interpreting all along, that this book was intended almost as a painting. In "all these particulars are faithfully narrated here, as they will not fail to elucidate several most importune, however intricate passages, In scenes hereafter to be painted," the painting that has been forming is actually beginning to emerge.

Chapter 68 "The Blanket" is another chapter that relates and references visual arts, "finest Italian line engravings", "Hieroglyphic palisades", "the great dome of St. Peter's." The reader again can relate visually the skin of a whale to what they can assess in an abstract way. The skin is also an important sensory image, you can almost feel the texture, if not the warmth. It is interesting that something that you picture as being cold, slick, hard is such an insulating phenomenon. Ishmael's use for it, to mark places in "whalebooks", is almost funny, as he tells us, "it is pleasant to read about whale through their own spectacles, as you may say." It puts an interesting perception on various people's interpretations of things, the layers we look through, how we might view ourselves on a page, or in another form of analysis. It is also interesting that the skin is so delicate - like silk, it is written. It is thin yet appears thick. It is almost an illusion to the eye. The references to the "blanket" and "counter-pane" are also interesting because it refers to a previous chapter in the beginning, it makes one wonder about the significance of the blanket that was used earlier, and the relation as a whole.

"The Tail" has been one of my favorite chapters so far as descriptions regarding whales have occurred. There is no other phrase that better puts it than "I celebrate the tail." While other chapters have given vivid biological descriptions, I felt that this got more into the meanings of things. It talks of the grace and strength of the tail, and relates strength to magic which I think is interesting. (and "no fairy's arm can transcend it.") Visual references again come to play--Ackermann lifting the linen sheet of Goethe, a "Roman triumphal arch," and Michelangelo's God painted in human form. I think that in this chapter the reader sees the whale totally, as a creature like nothing else. It brings another aspect to the novel. Ishmael's "pronouncing him the most devout of all beings" As he had seen them swim towards the sun almost as if giving a performance or "concert" for another being. a complete harmonization occurring.

Another line that I find worth mentioning is in "The Grand Armada": "...withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men" in reference to the whales pounding in the water. I think of the whole reason for the voyage. To get back at a whale. Average men are risking their lives for revenge. This is very surfacy, but when you look at the basis of all of this, it is true, and this is madness. Ahab is almost like a mad-man. I believe that there is more to his quest than what is of the surface, but in general his voyage is for purely revenge purposes. The whale is the enemy, but it is just a natural creature, Ahab is not just a natural creature, Ahab is not in his natural environment and this is overpowering. Human nature is an interesting thing. Perhaps Ahab's purposes are in a way - natural. Maybe he is not mad, but when looking at the comparisons it is difficult to believe this.

"Queequeg in His Coffin" and "The Candles". The coffin seems to be an intricately detailed piece of wood, but for some reason it must serve a greater purpose than that - for Queequeg and the others. I just thought it an odd request that was so easily complied with. It is obviously important to Queequeg to spend all of his spare time carving out his crazy drawing. In the chapter it was said that it was the tattooing of a "departed prophet and seen of his island, who by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his book a complete theory of the heavens and earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth..." So Queequeg was "a riddle to unfold." It is almost as if he is covered with intricate maps. Maps are an interesting concept in a way, sometimes they are needed and then sometimes not. In a way everyone kind of creates their own map as they go along. Perhaps unwillingly marking various destinations or crating new passages. Maybe some people never need maps, they already know where they are going. I kind of think of Queequeg in this way, he never really needed to read the map or the theories. It could just be for the benefit of the others, or in this particular incident for Ishmael. Ishmael seemed intent on reading Queequeg.

Ishmael has only spoken of the great power and strength of the whales, as if they were, or are, divine creatures. Nature throughout this novel has always been the dominating force. The men were but little specks on this massive body of water. Human nature can never really overcome nature. It is powerful beyond any expectation or reality we could possibly imagine. Maybe the sinking of the Pequod was inevitable. All of the crew were playing the game as a team so to speak, they would go down in the end too when losing the battle. The fact that Ishmael survived by using Queequeg's coffin is really striking. In "The Monkey Rope" it was described how if one man went down, so did the other, but in this ending it is not the case. Queequeg in the end pushes Ishmael up. Maybe the only way Ishmael could tell the story was to be the lone survivor. He is back again where he started, waiting for another ride floating in this powerful sea.

I decided to look at the novel in a visual sense, considering this course is entitled "Melville and the Arts". I wanted to see the influence that visual art had in and on the novel. I think that this is a dominant thread throughout the book. It starts with the opening line. Ishmael is engaging the reader, actually inviting them to see something that he is telling. It is as if the reader has gone beyond the reading of something into a more visual aspect. I think that this adds another dimension to the novel. Besides visual arts that are described or mentioned in the book, Melville by his use of imagery and descriptions paints pictures alongside these. It is obvious to me (and to others) that art had a tremendous impact on Melville's life, and that he must have seen the importance of it. I think that writer and artists alike absorb so many things, but Melville has a way of really putting these images into words. They are like his painting. Because art has always been very important to me, I really wanted to look at the book in this way. I think that this book is excellent, and very inspiring. The number of artists and works that have been produced in relation to the book show that this is true. I think that Melville was making a very intricate and profound statement about nature and human nature and this can appeal to many of our deepest thoughts. The level of humor and seriousness varies, and this makes the novel enjoyable. It is also a lot like life is, sometimes serious but one has to laugh. This is an important rhythm that is set up. Also the literary devices and structural devices that were used are unique. It is as if he pulled from every source imaginable and put it together and actually make it work. It is a compelling piece and I can see why it fascinates many.

Following is an essay on an artwork titled "Hommage a Melville" by painter paul jenkins, and the piece itself as seen at the mary and leigh block gallery at northwestern university.

hommage a melville

many twentieth century american artists have attempted to explore and define issues and topics related to herman melville's moby-dick. for personal understanding or for intellectual pursuit these artists have done a vast array of work in various media. paul jenkins, an abstract expressionist, has brought to canvas the essence of the white whale.

in chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale," Ishmael sees the white as the symbol for all that is good and evil. It is "not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors" (Melville 169). For Ishmael "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me." He then goes on to describe the mariner's experience of whitened waters, "the shrouded phantom of the whitened waters is as horrible to him as a ghost" (melville 168). he has described the beautiful and horrific things relating to the color white and still wonders, "why it appeals with such power to the soul...it is at once the symbol of spiritual things." It is also "the intensifying agent in the things the most appalling to mankind" (Melville 169).

For Jenkins white is something of substance. In Unpainted to the Last, Schultz states that "the phantom of the painting alludes to all that is unknown in the natural and psychic world," and "a sensation of the enigma which you see one minute and not the next" (p.180). for jenkins, this whale that is difficult to understand is explored in painting. by attempting to capture form and movement, jenkins has given paint and water a name. he has illustrated an image that slips in and out of the recesses of one's memory.

jenkin's "Hommage a Melville" has a haunting dream-like quality. It is almost as if it were a snapshot or a frozen memory. While there is movement, it is also at a standstill. The upright vertical form of the whale is an interesting compositional device. It plays with the viewer's perception of the image. Because the image is abstracted, the form can become many images in the viewer's eye. From what level would the image be seen? The form vibrates back and forth yet remains submerged under layers.

The perception of the whale in Jenkins' painting from the viewer's eye is related to the bird's eye view at the end of the novel. It creates an interesting parallel between the viewer and the birds. "Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep side; then all collapsed" (p.469). The birds have seen the terrible fate of those aboard the Pequod.

In Chapter 68, "The Blanket," the nature and visible surface of the whale is explored. Ishmael speaks of an "infinitely thin, transparent substance, somewhat resembling the thinnest shreds of insinglass"(p.259). He also speaks of surface marks on the whale that help him to be read. All of these marks, variations, and textures are like that of the white form in Jenkins' painting. The textures and lines give the viewer of this piece something to read as well. The image evolves from the layers of paint and water much like the soft thin layered surface of the whale.

The light traces of red paint on the spouter hole also raise the question of the viewer's perception of the whale as victim or aggressor. For Captain Ahab and his men the whale was a monster. For Ishmael it "as yet remains unsaid" (melville 163). what exactly was the whale? was it victimized by human nature? for everyone the whale begins to take on a different meaning.

for paul jenkins, moby dick represents the search for the american myth. his interest in myth and archetypes can be traced back to a journal entry in which he looks at jung's idea of the soul. "There are vast areas of the unexplored being which are never asleep but in many of us are lying dormant, pushed downward like the white ice beneath the surface of an iceberg, a level of being which is submerged beneath the water...in the darker regions out of sight, but nevertheless there" (Elsen 78). In "Hommage a Melville" Jenkins has transformed light to reflect what is beneath the surface. It is with light and luminosity that the true nature of the soul is revealed. Through painting Jenkins attempts to bring light up from the depths of things. It is with light that his forms are acheived and his images read.

In using paint to conjure up an image from below, Jenkins, like Ishamael in the novel, brings the viewer to another level of contemplation. In chapter 58, "Brit," Ishmael asks the reader to compare the self to the land and sea. He asks, "and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land so in the soul of man lies one insular Tahiti" (Melville 236). Jenkins is looking at his inner nature and the dual nature within all humans.

To Jenkins what is important is that which "lies underneath that will bring to the painting unseen enhancement of warmth, mystery, and meaning" (p 80). By using various non-traditional techniques and substances he has explored the methods of painting and the message he wants to get across. In "Hommage a Melville" his use of tempera creates a liquid effect. This use of medium is a good example of how an artist can use paint and texture to convey ideas. The sweeping water, colors, and whites show water and the object beneath it. It is "the presence of something more than the actual familiarity of it. It is Ahab and the pursiut of his unconscious. The whale is the overall abundant unconscious" (p 81). Jenkins' expression in paint articulates his interpretation of the significance of the great white whale.

By using visual art Paul Jenkins has brought the form and enigmatic idea of Moby Dick to life. Like Melville's layering of words with images, Jenkin's too creates a strikingly complex visual image using paint as a medium to express his intense appreciation for Melville's novel.

Works Cited

Elsen, Albert. Paul Jenkins. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1973.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1967.

Schultz, Elizabeth A. Unpainted to the Last: MOBY-DICK and Twentieth-Century American Art. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995.

Work shown was on view at the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery at Northwestern University.