Helen Yang Proposal

Helen Yang

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

6 March 2017

Visualizing Material Motion in Moby-Dick


The interpenetration of art and travel constructs a unique challenge and framework for the depiction of materiality in Moby-Dick. Ishmael’s role as both traveler and artist is significant; as artist, he is a creator and mediator of material objects – be it the physical text, or perhaps even the tattooed inscriptions on his body. As traveler, he must be aware of the constant motions of things, as well as his own sense of displacement and constant shifting of perspective and location. Tim Ingold in his Redrawing Anthropology cogently articulates this intersection when he writes, “The builder or artisan, destined thus to follow the material, is necessarily an itinerant or wayfarer. He or she must go where the material goes, finding the grain of the world’s becoming and bending it to his or her evolving purpose.”[1]

The crux of my project is to explore, define, and experience this vision of material motion. Visual depiction of Moby-Dick is certainly not new; paintings of the white whale abound, and Rockwell Kent’s famous lithographs of the novel occupy mainstream visualization of the seascape that Melville constructs. However, the nature of much of these visual works are stationary. For example, Kent’s lithographs are created through a process of repetitive copying of an engraved image upon stone. I’m interested in pairing movement with materiality; what does it mean for the artwork to undergo transformation and motion, especially when the subjectivity of one’s own eyes are made overt? How can my project shape the way that we understand the major themes of the novel, and the idea of vision itself?

As for the logistical execution of my project: I plan to create a series of images that are significant in the novel. For example, I plan to design a Marquesan tattoo on white paper using black ink; I plan to do a watercolor painting of the scene in which Moby-Dick appears (“Shrouded in a thin drooping veil of mist, it hovered for a moment in the rainbowed air; and then fell swamping back into the deep…the waters flashed for an instant like heaps of fountains…leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round the marble trunk of the whale.”); finally, I plan to create a collage of different characters in the novel using Rockwell Kent’s depictions. I will then have a pair of kaleidoscopic glasses with which the viewer will view the works. (In the following paragraphs, I will delineate my reasoning for each object of my project)

The kaleidoscopic glasses

The kaleidoscope was invented by Sir David Brewster in 1815, and was perhaps more influential in terms of the metaphor that it offered rather than the material success of the object. Kaleidoscopic vision evokes “a sense of perpetual transformation, in contrast to the spectacular stasis and visual mastery…[and…produced] a visual effect that tested the limits of verisimilitude and reflected the existential flux of modern life…”[2] At the most obvious level, the kaleidoscope therefore introduces a sense of movement and variety, and through the medium of the variegated lens, the static image takes on motion. It is interesting to use glasses that perch on one’s face to create this sense of motion, because the viewer becomes self-aware that the image she sees is dependent on the movement of her head. That is, the interactive nature of her body and the spectacle becomes an inseparable part of the viewing experience, drawing intentional attention to the nature of subjectivity.

The sense of ‘motion’ created by the kaleidoscopic glasses aren’t just dependent on the natural movement of the eyes and head of the viewer, but also on the variegated surface of the crystal glass. The effect of the glasses is similar to those of a “bug eye,” in that they “bend light through a series of faceted lenses that create duplicates of light waves.” That is, the sense of movement is created by repetition and fragmentation, but also the eye’s synthesis of these different patterns into a unified picture. We thus have an interesting dialogue between the material medium of vision through the glasses, which tend to dismember and fragment the image, and the mental synthesizing capacities of the mind that endeavor to bring these pieces together. In other words, the act of seeing through the kaleidoscopic glasses brings the process of vision explored in Moby-Dick to the surface. For example, Moby-Dick plays on the dichotomy of “dis-membering” of vision (through the themes of the inevitable processes of consumption and cannibalism inherent in the act of ‘perception’ or ‘understanding’) and “re-membering” in attempting to sequence a coherent narrative from the fragments of one’s experiences. The act of viewing art or reading a text is one that involves the constant play-off between fractal vision and unified vision, and I hope to create this sense of disorientation through the viewing of the kaleidoscopic glasses. That is, seeing here is not one of stasis, but of constant fluctuation and movement, a ping-pong game between the body and mind, reality and imagination, materiality of the medium through which the art is being seen and the subjective mental workings of the viewer.

I also hope to further explore the process of vision by making the glass-wearing an option, or a “step” in the act of viewing. There will be multiple options of viewing. The first could be that as the viewer approaches my project with the images displayed, they will have the chance to at least briefly glance at the images through “normal” vision. They will be able to recognize what they are – “Oh, this is an illustration of a tattoo.” Ideally, the images will be complex enough that the entirety of the picture doesn’t become obvious. That is, they may not notice details about the tattoo – that there is a hidden turtle within the network of designs, for example. After their brief glance, they will be able to put on the glasses and experience a sense of disorientation or alienation – what seemed to be an intricate design is now scattered, fragmented, repeated. On the other hand, perhaps the viewer will choose to put on the glasses and first and try to guess what the image is. Whatever they choose to do, the point is to experience the kaleidoscopic vision – one in which science, (the “physics” of optics) art, and magic (not in the strict sense of the word, but a feeling of disorientation and confusion that is “magical” in the sense that it is not strictly “real”) intersect, and the way in which their mind attempts to create “a magical union of parts.”[3] In other words, the viewing through the kaleidoscopic glasses – not just the act of seeing, but the viewer’s own agency of when and how to utilize these glasses – further emphasizes the way in which the mind functions in vision – the way in which “the mind resists meaninglessness, invent stories to explain haphazard incidents…”[4] (Because there are three images for viewing, the viewer may choose to vary their experience)

Watercolor, Ink, Lithographs

If the kaleidoscopic glasses offer a form of disruptive, “magical,” phantasmagoric vision that subvert the grounded vision of reality, then I hope that the three artworks that I will have displayed will bring the viewer’s focus to the physicality of craftsmanship. That is, if the kaleidoscopic glasses bring attention to the act of seeing by the viewer, then the juxtaposition of three different styles of image-making should bring attention to craftsmanship.

To use ink to illustrate a tattoo design is perhaps an obvious one; there is a direct correlation between the inscribing and inking of the skin and the inking of the page. I am also thinking about the performance of color in the three images; while the tattoo image and the collage of Rockwell Kent’s lithographs will be black and white, the painting of Moby-Dick’s appearance will be in color. I will be looking at an existing body of literature on color, perception, and art – for example, I plan to look at Melville’s engagement with Goethe’s Theory of Colour, as well as Goethe’s contemporary German Romantic thinkers (Novalis, Schlegel, etc), and how Melville (as well as his contemporaries such as Hawthorne and Emerson) “digested” and incorporated such thoughts.


One common thread of criticism for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was that it was too amorphous. In a review published in the London Spectator in October 1851, it was said that the novel was “phantasmal,” neither capturing the essence of nature or art, serving to “repel the reader instead of attracting him.”[5] In a similar vein, Evert Duyckinck gently criticized the fact that it was “quite impossible” to define Moby-Dick into any specific genre, as it seemed to blur into the realms of both “romantic fictions” and “statements of absolute fact.” It seems as though Melville’s contemporary readers weren’t misreading the text per se, but rather didn’t appreciate it for its transmutative quality, for Moby-Dick is certainly an amorphous text. The state of constant transformation, movement, blurring of boundaries, and deviance are at the heart of both Ishmael’s introspective narrative, Ahab’s revenge, and the whale itself. That is, we never really get a clear, direct look at anything: if Moby-Dick is about sight, then it is more specifically about an averted, constantly shifting vision. For example, Ishmael’s vision is a wandering gaze, both in the sense that he molds objects and experiences according to his subjectivity (as in the “Try-Works” chapter when he sees his shipmates in the ghastly redness of the flames, seeing shapes “capering half in smoke and half in fire, these at least began kindred visions in my soul…”), and that he is prone to distraction (in the same “Try-Works” chapter he almost sets the ship on a course to destruction because he’s so distracted by the flames, and as in the “Mast-Head” chapter when he contemplates on the depth of the water instead of looking out for whales). The whale also defies clear boundaries. As Aileen Callahan writes, “Visualizing the whale…is like visualizing the sea, his element. He is present but elusive, massive yet dissolving figureless into passing motion, weighted yet suspended by a fierce buoyancy.”[6]  The anxiety yet irresistible fascination with vision is at the heart of Moby-Dick, and I hope to capture this with my project. By focusing on the material medium of sight – the kaleidoscopic glasses and the physical presence of art – I hope to tap into Ishmael’s musing, “Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air.”

List of Possible Sources

Bryant, John, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, and Timothy Marr. Ungraspable Phantom: Essays on Moby-Dick. Kent State University Press, 2006.

Burwick, Frederick. The Damnation of Newton: Goethe’s Color Theory and Romantic Perception. De Gruyter, 1986.

Callahan, Aileen. “Eye To Eye: Painting White Whale: Moby Dick I.” Leviathan 5, no. 1 (May 29, 2013): 52–57.

Freeburg, Christopher. Melville and the Idea of Blackness: Race and Imperialism in Nineteenth Century America. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Garber, Megan. “‘It Repels the Reader’: Tech Glitches Led Moby-Dick’s First Critics to Pan It.” The Atlantic, November 15, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/it-repels-the-reader-tech-glitches-led-i-moby-dick-i-s-first-critics-to-pan-it/281499/.

Giesenkirchen, Michaela. “‘Still Half Blending with the Blue of the Sea’: Goethe’s Theory of Colors in Moby-Dick.” Leviathan 7, no. 1 (March 1, 2005): 3–18. doi:10.1111/j.1750-1849.2005.tb00095.x.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Goethe on Art. Edited by John Gage. London: Scolar Press, 1980.

———. Goethe’s Color Theory. Arranged and Edited by Rupprecht Matthaei, 1971.

Gray, Noel. “Critique and a Science for the Sake of Art: Fractals and the Visual Arts.” Leonardo 24, no. 3 (1991): 317–20. doi:10.2307/1575574.

Groth, Helen. “Kaleidoscopic Vision and Literary Invention in an ‘Age of Things’: David Brewster, Don Juan and ‘A Lady’s Kaleidoscope.’” ELH 74, no. 1 (March 6, 2007): 217–37. doi:10.1353/elh.2007.0005.

Ingold, Tim. Redrawing Anthropology: Materials, Movements, Lines. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011.

Janson, H.W. 16 Studies. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1974.

Otter, Samuel. Melville’s Anatomies. 1st edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Sanborn, Geoffrey. The Sign of the Cannibal: Melville and the Making of a Postcolonial Reader. Duke University Press, 1998.

Thompson, Carl. The Suffering Traveller and the Romantic Imagination. Oxford : New York: OUP Oxford, 2007.

Thwaites, Sarah. “‘Mirror with a Memory’: Theories of Light and Preternatural Negatives in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.” ResearchGate. Accessed March 6, 2017. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272531865_’Mirror_with_a_memory’_Theories_of_light_and_preternatural_negatives_in_Herman_Melville’s_Moby-Dick.

Warner, Marina. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-First Century. Y First printing edition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.


[1] Tim Ingold, Redrawing Anthropology: Materials, Movements, Lines (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011), 4.


[2] Helen Groth, “Kaleidoscopic Vision and Literary Invention in an ‘Age of Things’: David Brewster, Don Juan and ‘A Lady’s Kaleidoscope,’” ELH 74, no. 1 (March 6, 2007): 217, doi:10.1353/elh.2007.0005.


[3] Ibid., 222.

[4] Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-First Century, y First printing edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 106.

[5] The quote: “This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilized life, and rhapsody run mad…. The rhapsody belongs to wordmongering where ideas are the staple; where it takes the shape of narrative or dramatic fiction, it is phantasmal—an attempted description of what is impossible in nature and without probability in art; it repels the reader instead of attracting him.” Cited in Megan Garber, “‘It Repels the Reader’: Tech Glitches Led Moby-Dick’s First Critics to Pan It,” The Atlantic, November 15, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/it-repels-the-reader-tech-glitches-led-i-moby-dick-i-s-first-critics-to-pan-it/281499/.


[6] Aileen Callahan, “Eye To Eye: Painting White Whale: Moby Dick I,” Leviathan 5, no. 1 (May 29, 2013): 52.

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