Below you’ll find most of the abstracts for the papers I’ve delivered (or am scheduled to deliver) at academic conferences. Email me if you want to learn more—or if you’d like to cite any of them.
Upcoming: “Jewelry and the Gothic in Robert Browning and Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
London, Can. 13–15 Nov. 2014
This paper examines Robert Browning’s metaphor of the ring at either end of The Ring and Book (1868–69)—especially in terms of that poem’s engagement with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860)—in order to trouble what it means for a text to be classified as gothic (or partly gothic, or not gothic). A strong case can be made for the gothic inheritances of both Faun and Ring. Set in Italy (Browning’s even in the right era, though Hawthorne’s has a castle), both texts depict conventionally gothic murders—one by an exploitative patriarch, the other of a shadowy monk. Their characters descend from gothic heroines, villains, and immodest women. They both explore questions of aesthetics and form. And both register the haunting anxieties and violence of modern gender. But I want to focus on their particularly gothic use of material things as containers of emotional significance and interpersonal attachment, especially when some of the people involved have been lost. Hawthorne’s novel ends with the wedding gift of a bracelet made of gems taken from Etruscan tombs. Its previous owner, the couple’s doomed friend Miriam, invents a legend for each gem, transforming the whole into a “connecting bond”—not just among separated friends, but also between past and present, death and life, imagination and the sublunary—that is “characterized by . . . sepulchral gloom” (358). Written after Browning and Hawthorne became friends, The Ring and the Book concludes with its speaker imagining the whole poem as a guardian-ring—worn to protect a wedding band—around the late Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, itself like a wedding ring “[l]inking our England to . . . Italy,” as well as widower to late wife (XII.874). Both bracelet and ring echo a trope of the classic eighteenth-century gothic novel in which heroines, according to Angela Wright, are “forced to project love and desire through works of art [and to] internalize paintings as the real representations of the objects they have lost. . . . Desire and love [in these novels are] intimately connected with loss; loss in its turn becomes irretrievably linked with objects and representation” (Gothic Studies 6.1  21–2). This trope is restricted neither to heroines nor to paintings and sculpture—think of Edmund’s disinterred ancestral jewelry in Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1777) or of the manuscript and letters in Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799). Emphasizing this aspect of the gothic in Victorian-era texts, I argue, has two important consequences. First, given it’s overlap with the ubiquity of mourning and memorialization in the nineteenth century, it greatly expands the field of partly- or potentially-gothic texts, suggesting alternate lines of genealogy and kinship among Tennyson, the Brontës, and Dickens, say, or later Wilde, Pater, and Henry James. The relative queerness of that list intimates the second consequence I hope to explore: that tracing the wide diffusion of this gothic structure of feeling reveals the more pervasive influence of the Gothic’s destabilization of sexual and gender norms.
“Incorporation, Queer Exuberance, and Moral Containment: Undine in Moby-Dick and The Marble Faun”
Washington, D.C. 25 May 2014
In the middle of The Marble Faun, Hawthorne tells a version of the story of Undine, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s 1811 novella, English translations of which were popular in America though most of the nineteenth century. But in Hawthorne’s retelling, the fairy-tale’s tragic ending results not from the knight’s emotional infidelity, but from his fall into sin. Hawthorne thus rewrites the tale to further his novel’s exploration of the “fortunate fall” from prelapsarian emotional and erotic passion into postlapsarian moral purity and grace. In this paper, I trace the influence of Undine on both The Marble Faun and Moby-Dick. I argue that Hawthorne’s rewriting of Undine mirrors his larger, ambivalent attempt to appropriate Moby-Dick’s “pagan” aesthetic and sexual exuberance and contain it within a moralistic and sexually normative framework. In Moby-Dick, the influence of Undine is more diffused, appearing mostly in the uncanny—and sometimes occult—animism of the novel’s imagery, especially regarding the ocean. This animism contributes to the project of enlivening or re-enchantment so central to Ishmael’s narration. Also central to this project are Ishmael’s campy, eroticized, encyclopedic aesthetic—with its metaphors of writing as nourishing, even cannibalistic internalization—as well as the sexual freedom he experiences in his relationship with Queequeg and in the homosocial space of the ship in general. The Marble Faun evinces Hawthorne’s attraction to all sides of that project, both in its thematic content and in what I read as references to Melville’s novel in the text. As with Undine, the plot of The Marble Faun—and its narrator’s somewhat desperate idealization of “true womanhood”—wrestles with the charm of this sexual freedom but ultimately rewrites it with a Christian, patriarchal conclusion, while the characters’ actual, triangular relationships continually suggest queerer possibilities. Similarly, I argue, Hawthorne’s fascination with ekphrasis and imitation echoes Ishmael’s incorporative poetics. The deference he has Hilda, the copier of old masters, pay to her source material—as well as his own somewhat guilty joking in the preface about “restor[ing]” to their original creators the artworks he “laid felonious hands on” by fictionalizing—demonstrate an ambivalence and discomfort absent from Ishmael enthusiastic, writerly devouring. By tracing the different use each writer makes of Undine, this paper unpacks an aspect of the complex, ambivalent relationship between these two novels. Melville adapts Fouqué’s tale to his presentation of a freedom that clearly influences Hawthorne, even as the latter attempts to confine it to a less threatening morality.
“Fandom as Theory in Eve Sedgwick, Wayne Koestenbaum, and D. A. Miller”
Susquehanna University. Harrisburg, PA. 3–6 April 2014
This paper was my contribution to the roundable I co-chaired with my dear friend Meridith Kruse, “Wet Theory: Creative Writing as Affective Lever in Feminist and Queer Theory.” Here’s the abstract for the roundtable as a whole:
Over the past two decades, feminist and queer critics have increasingly integrated forthright expressions of their own affective investments into their writing. This forthrightness has inspired a wealth of deviations from the norms of formal, scholarly discourse but little consideration has been given to how these experiments have contributed to theoretical knowledge. In an attempt to address this oversight, this roundtable seeks papers that explore how moments of “creative writing” in feminist and queer criticism—fictionalized dialogues, fannish effusions, speculative scenarios, multi-media/formal experiments, and personal narratives—function as methods for engaging affective experience and developing theoretical insight. We are interested in how moments of creative writing can not only provide an alternative to dry academic prose but also spark alternative forms of knowledge. We are also interested in papers that investigate the complex range of reader-responses that such moments of affect-laden creative writing can produce. As Eve Sedgwick writes in Tendencies (1993), critics who not only take pleasure in their work but “openly display it” frequently provoke strong reactions in their audience including “violent repudiations” and can activate a “circuit of contagion, fun, voyeurism, envy, participation, and stimulation” (19). What feelings are stirred up among readers of experimental criticism – and how do such emotions impact the reception of such work? Do scholars sacrifice necessary professional distance by admitting their lack of emotional neutrality? What is the relationship of this type of creative writing to the legacy of second-wave feminism’s focus on “the personal is political”? What are the theoretical insights that have been gained by using creative writing as an affective lever in feminist and queer criticism? This roundtable seeks papers that explore such questions in relation to feminist and queer criticism to address the lack of reflection about the impact of this important experimental work.
“The Ethics and Erotics of Collecting in Melville, Benjamin, and Barthes”
New York University. New York, NY. 20–23 March 2014
Around the time of “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his journal: “To command nature herself to stand still in the name of faded images—this is the black magic of sentimentality. But to utter a call that will freeze it anew is the gift of poets.” This paper explores how he and two other avid, needy collectors endeavored to strike a balance between the desire to possess stable, reliable objects and concomitant threat of deadening sentimentality. I argue that Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, plays out Melanie-Kleinian dynamics of alimentary, incorporative, cannibalistic desires for nourishment in his descriptions and enactments of collecting not only material things and bodies, but also enlivening facts and ideas through both writing them and tattooing them onto his flesh. Ishmael is faced with three fears: that consumption is violence (both in the Kleinian, psychoanalytic sense and the commodity capitalist one), that possessing something renders it inert and unenlivening, and that satisfying ownership or internalization is impossible. In response, he develops what might be called a pornography of collecting: a campy, excessive, unserious archive of fantasies and phantasmatic relations. Barthes, similarly, is trouble by both the ethics and the possibility of a sufficiently nourishing collection. Throughout his work, I argue, he attempts a similarly campy, erotized archivalism. But in The Neutral, he develops an orientation toward his desired good objects that redefines their freedom from both conventional definition and possession as precisely what maintains their lively availability to nurture Barthes.
“Tyranny, Nourishment, and Gothic Re-enchantment in Caleb Williams and Moby-Dick”
Vancouver, WA. 10–12 Oct. 2013
Diana Long Hoeveler’s 2010 Gothic Riffs describes the Gothic as an ambivalent, self-contradictory response to secularization. “Because [modern Western] culture could not turn away from God,” she writes, “it chose to be haunted by his uncanny avatars: . . . corrupt monks, incestuous fathers,” etc. (xv). This paper examines two such avatars from novels that, if not strictly gothic, are profoundly influenced by and engaged with the genre: Falkland, from William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), and Ahab, from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). Through these characters, both novels critique political and social tyranny, but moreover they explore how tyranny can be so attractive to the tyrannized. In each case, this attraction has to do with the possibility of re-enchantment in the face of a potentially desolate and un-nourishing world. Far from condemning the desire for such re-enchantment, however, the two novels are extremely sympathetic to this wish, which they depict as having both erotic and infantile, alimentary aspects. Both novels, in fact, depict attempts, if not to satisfy this desire, then at least to develop emotionally sustaining practices in relation to it.
In Caleb Williams, Godwin uses the character of Falkland, on the one hand, to expose and critique the internalization of emotional structures that uphold class hierarchy. Caleb describes Falkland—his older, aristocratic patron—as godlike and sublime. Caleb so imbibes the reverence Falkland’s class status is supposed to inspire that he cannot bring himself to say anything that might harm the older man, even to save himself from the persecution that dominates the novel’s second half. On the other hand, Caleb has a added motive for protecting Falkland: he wants their sadomasochistic relationship to continue. His sense of Falkland’s potentially nourishing metaphorical treasures, and of his own connection to them, enlivens the world around him, making it seem rich with potentially available wonder. This attenuated and destructive satisfaction of preserving their persecutory relationship is all that is available to him, however, in part because of the rigid enforcement of class barriers, and in part because of the turn of the nineteenth century’s phobic prohibitions on male-male intimacy.
In Moby-Dick, Ahab replicates both Falkland’s and Caleb’s positions. To the crew, he is, like Falkland, godlike and sublime. Part of his charisma as a demagogue derives from the way he articulates his desire to pursue the whale as a quest to strike though the imprisoning “pasteboard mask” of reality and discover whether there is a supernatural intelligence behind it. If so, as he suspects, then penetrating the whale will force God, the absent and abandoning father, to recognize him and acknowledge their kinship. On the other hand, he feels persecuted by God, believing the loss of his leg to have been a form of divine emasculation. As with Caleb, this paranoia keeps his sense of the enchantment of the world alive. Ishmael to some extent sympathizes with Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick, though he interprets it as a desire to destroy the symbol of how likely it is that the universe is meaningless, decaying, and dead. Through Ishmael’s campy, self-nourishing, encyclopedic collections of whaling facts and lore, as well as his flamboyant, queer sexuality and his marriage to a male, pagan “cannibal,” Moby-Dick—in contrast to Caleb Williams—presents techniques of re-enchantment that evade the tyranny of nineteenth-century Western race, class, and gender mores.
“The Neutral as Reparative Reading: Roland Barthes with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick”
The Graduate Center, CUNY. 25 April, 2013
In this paper I seek to trace fruitful connections between Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of reparative reading and Roland Barthes’s concept of the Neutral. Each serves the same dual functions: first, as a phenomenology or thick description of affective experience, of how things feel, and secondly, as an ethical project—that is, as Barthes says, as “a guide to life,” a question of how to behave on which “depends the vital thing we used to call happiness: which makes it a specifically ethical problem” (105-6). Each is, I argue, deeply engaged in congruent projects of understanding and expressing the ways in which people—particularly queer people, or different people, or people for whom the heterosexist culture of late-capitalism does not offer sustenance—assemble and preserve meaningful objects (in the psychoanalytic sense of something one relates to) that, as Sedgwick writes, can be “available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in return” (128). Barthes’s desire for the Neutral as a means of evading or outplaying the requirement that everything mean something—and, moreover, mean one thing defined by its opposition to one other thing—I argue, is motivated by his desire to preserve his attachment to things that he values. As he explains in his introductory lecture, his “desire for the Neutral” changed after the death of his mother, adding to his understanding of the Neutral a protest against the simultaneous existences of love and death: “The Neutral is this irreducible No; a No so to speak suspended in front of the hardenings of both faith and certitude” (13). The stakes of this understanding, for both thinkers, are the availability of techniques for surviving and resisting a hostile culture, techniques that may generate more nurturing alternatives.
“Comic Strips as Pedagogy and Literary Criticism: Using Webcomics to Teach Long-Nineteenth-Century Literature”
Northern Illinois University. Dekalb, IL. 22 Mar. 2013
This paper explores comic strips that adapt literary works or comment on writers. I argue that such works can serve as helpful tools for teaching literature. Webcomics—a “nerdy” medium—take literature and education as their subjects surprisingly frequently, and many share a fascination with Victorian and Edwardian sources. The wit and insight of some of these comics, I argue, make them ideal for use in the classroom. More importantly, the concise and straightforward format of a three- or six-panel comic strip provides an ideal point of entry into discussions of form and rhetoric both in the literary texts the comics adapt and students’ own formal writing about these texts. Further, through trans-media adaptation and satire, these comics illuminate the critical possibilities of ambivalence, guiding students toward techniques to understand and communicate complicated affective states.
This paper discusses two examples in-depth to explore the pedagogical possibilities web comics provide. The first is a three-strip guest comic Rebecca Clements drew for Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant! in 2010 that draws attention to the class and gender politics of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Through satirizing clichéd humor about women’s bodies and appetites, Clements highlights the brutal economic inequality underlying the central relationships in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. In another of the three strips, Clements queers the whole Pygmalion narrative, suggesting that Henry Higgins’s real dream is to produce not the woman he wants to marry, but the woman he wants to be. Both strips reveal aspects of their sources students may not have picked up on. Both thereby may provoke generative changes in perspective and focus. Most crucially, the gentle and affectionate tone that Clements, like Beaton, takes in her satire models an affective stance toward literature at once critical and celebratory. Some students seem to have a hard time reaching this balance on their own, though they are clearly dissatisfied with they see as an all-or-nothing choice between suspicious discrediting and canon-worship. This sort of humor implicitly demonstrates how pleasure and critique can in fact go together.
My second example is an installment on Emily Dickinson in Tom Gould’s 2003 series “The Writer at Work.” I use this comic every semester when I teach Dickinson’s poem “Our lives are Swiss,” which expresses a complex desire both to escape a confined, hemmed-in life and to be protected from the terrifying newness of adventure. Students find it much easier to grasp this ambivalence after reading the comic, which shows Dickinson becoming increasingly annoyed at an importunate visitor knocking at her door—until he finally goes away, leaving her to stare blankly out the window. Discussing the poem’s and the comic’s different methods for conveying feelings and information provides a lesson in reading both visual and verbal media closely. The comic’s wordless last panel communicates Dickinson’s ambivalence towards solitude, whereas Dickinson’s line “The Alps neglect their curtains” adds rich connotations of domestic interiors—either cozily warm or ponderously stifling—as well as of nodding jailors or neglectful parents. Juxtaposing comic and poem clarifies for students the formal and rhetorical techniques of each.
I end my paper by discussing a pedagogical exercise I’ve employed in my own teaching: assigning students to draw their own comics that adapt or comment on the assigned texts. When I ask students to compare and contrast the comics they draw and the formal essays they write, they come up with striking insights on the rhetorical similarities and differences between thoughtful entertainment and argumentation—especially between punch line and thesis statement. Thinking across media, I conclude, encourages self-conscious engagement with both the strategies and the pleasures of critical and analytic thinking and writing.
“Shame, Identification, and Fandom in Morrissey’s ‘Disability-Chic Movement’”
The Graduate Center, CUNY. New York, NY. 23 Mar. 2012
Part of Morrissey’s iconic wardrobe during his four years as singer and lyricist for the subculture-defining 1980s British indie-rock band The Smiths was a large, outdated hearing aid. He featured it prominently during photo-shoots and television performances to complement his no-frills glasses from the National Health Service, his blouses from “plus-size” women’s clothing shops, and the bunches of daffodils and gladioli sticking out of his back pants-pocket. His cultish fans adopted many of these affectations, including the hearing aid. It was, he told an interviewer, “part of the disability-chic movement that I created” (Keeps).
The genesis of this accessory is unclear. This paper explores several of Morrissey’s more and less serious explanations in relation to his performance of other stigmatized traits and identities—bookish, nerdy, anachronistic, Aestheticist, queer (which he is), working-class, poor (which he was), and a fat woman (which he is not). I argue that by aestheticizing and eroticizing markers of shame, Morrissey uses what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls its “experimental, creative, performative force” to perform reparative emotional work on himself and his fans and encourages identification and a recognition of intersectionality among the salon des refuses that comprises his fan-base.
One common theory understands the hearing aid as an homage to Johnnie Ray, the queer, alcoholic British crooner of the 1950s known in the tabloids as “the nabob of sob” and “the prince of wails,” just as Morrissey is sometimes called “the pope of mope.” A Smiths’ employee convinced a medical supply depository to lend him the non-functioning display model by dropping Ray’s name (Goddard 100-1). In the same way Morrissey used flowers to link himself with Oscar Wilde, this affectation allowed Morrissey to act out some of the complex projective and introjective identifications that comprise his relationships with the objects of his fandom. It allowed him to display his sense of himself as wounded and defective without having to name any too-specific defect or wound. Similarly, by identifying himself with this icon or divo, he could project intolerable parts of himself into him, where, borrowing the divo’s aura and resources, they might be (a) transvalued from shaming to elevating, and (b) in the safety of the divo’s fabulousness lavished with loving, reparative concern.
In 1984, the year Morrissey’s hearing-aid really took off, he said in an interview that it was a gesture of solidarity with a hearing-impaired fan who had told him of her depression in a letter. “I thought it would be a nice gesture … to show the fan that deafness shouldn’t be some sort of stigma that you try to hide. Basically, I was trying to give her a bit of confidence in herself” (qtd in Bret 52). Morrissey explicitly reversed the direction of fandom here, feeling himself called by his own fans to invite their own reparative identification with him. In turn, he helped confirm for himself that he, too, possessed the fabulousness of a divo.
In the same year he more flippantly told an interviewer who had asked about his ear-piece, “I’m afraid it was the old prop, the old hearing aid implement to gain audience sympathy, if such a thing is possible” (Van Poznack). Here, the hearing aid as embodiment of his wounded, needy demand for love dangerously skirts misappropriation of the identity of people with disabilities, a charge also leveled at his 1990 solo recording “November Spawned a Monster.” Without trying to settle the question, I oppose to this criticism the aggression with which this song confronts its listeners with the reality of its speaker’s—a girl in a wheelchair with unspecified ailments—physical difference and of her loathing of the “pity, sympathy, and people discussing me” it provokes.
Also potentially vulnerable to this criticism is perhaps Morrissey’s most flippant but most significant explanation of the hearing aid, quoted in part above: “It was purely sexual, part of the disability-chic movement I created.” What this explanation gets at is how, by aestheticizing and eroticizing markers of difference and shame, Morrissey promotes recognition of intersectionality among his fans—misfits, queers, young chicano Californians, what used to be called “sensitivos”—but more than that, sponsors a subculture, a salon des refusés, whose members identify with and adopt the stigmas of their compatriots and broadcast aggressively both the brute fact of their presence and the aesthetics and erotics of their transvaluation.
“Camp Encyclopedias and Reparative Imaginings in Moby-Dick”
Imagining A New Century, the first annual conference of C19: The Society of 19th Century Americanists
Pennsylvania State University. University Park, PA. 22 May 2010
“Joseph Cornell, Reparative Reading, and the Cinema of Attractions.”
The Graduate Center, CUNY. New York, NY. 4 Mar. 2010
As Tom Gunning writes of what he calls “the cinema of attractions,” the short non-narrative films of the turn on the last century, “The aesthetic of attraction addresses the audience directly. … The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfillment,” all of which occurs in “a generally brief dose of scopic pleasure” (121).
In this paper I argue that Joseph Cornell’s experimental films from 1936 and 1940 actively suppress, distort, and cut up the narratives of the found footage from which he composed them and transform this footage into repeated, elongated, and suddenly truncated moments of cinematic attraction. These moments engage the viewer directly, not just to excite curiosity and desire, but also specifically to transmit a particular sort of delight in the affective richness of these moments he has isolated and reassembled into an archive of his enjoyment.
A generative approach to Cornell’s films, I argue, is therefore what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick terms “reparative reading”—attention paid to love, need, and difference as motivators of creativity. “The desire of a reparative impulse,” Sedgwick writes, “is additive and accretive. It’s fear, a realistic one, is the that culture surrounding it is inadequate or inimical to its nurture; it wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self” (149). The cut-up moments of attraction Cornell rearranges his found footage to create—especially in their emphases on food, celebrity, entertainment, seduction, and fun—enact this assemblage and project the results to an audience that is invited to enjoy the resources he savors and displays in these rich doses of scopic pleasure.
“Reparative Practices and the Exemption from Meaning in Sedgwick and Barthes”
The Graduate Center, CUNY. New York, NY. 26 Feb. 2010
Abstract to come.
“Persecution and Nourishment in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams”
The Graduate Center, CUNY. New York, NY. 26 Feb. 2010
Ever since Alex Gold’s pivotal 1977 essay “It’s Only Love,” the pervasive homoerotics of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams have been read as inextricable from its paranoid tone and its focus on class warfare. Several critics—Gold included—understand the novel’s protagonist as suffering from “by the book” paranoia as Freud explained it: as the product of repressed homosexuality. Even those recent critics who read Godwin’s later novels as more favorable to loving relations between men still treat the homoeroticism of his first novel as at best a weapon against the feminization supposedly inherent in homoerotic attraction or in class oppression. In my paper I challenge this negative interpretation of homoerotic attachment in Caleb Williams. Drawing on the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s object-relations theory, I argue that it is more accurate and productive to read Caleb’s attachment to his desired persecutor, Mr. Falkland, as a masochistic assemblage and preservation of Falkland as a sustaining “good object.”
“Morrissey Will Repair Me, and I Will Repair Morrissey”
Wrightsville Beach, NC. 31 Oct. 2009
In this paper I argue that the audience relations the alt-rock singer Morrissey cultivates in his music and persona make available utopian spaces in which fans can revel in simultaneous fantasies of sustaining merger with Morrissey and, especially in live performances, with one another. Though a temporary and phantasmatic utopia, this intersubjective space provides, through its multiplication of the vectors of identification, need, and nourishment, a fluid enactment of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (aleha haschalom), drawing on Melanie Klein, calls “reparative reading” or “reparative practices.” More, in its multi-directional intersubjectivity, this space allows its participants to dissolve the boundaries of such binaries as inside/outside, male/female, straight/gay, self/other, past/present, and performer/audience. At their best, I argue, these moments offer an instantiation of Roland Barthes’s idea of “the Neutral.” Morrissey fandom and Morrissey performances therefore can constitute a transformative utopian praxis, introducing people to the possibilities and joys of queer, reparative, and “neutral” intersubjective (and transient) communities.
“What’s Underwater in Moby-Dick? (Actually, This Paper Is Mostly about Masturbation)”
The Graduate Center, CUNY. New York, NY. 7 Nov. 2008
I want to explore two contrasting responses to the inscrutability of what is underneath or within in Melville’s Moby-Dick—Ahab’s violent, destructive penetrative response, and Ishmael’s eroticization of illegible surfaces and campy, playful undermining of legible ones, both of which point to important aspects of the desires and dangers of collecting and of camp. The description of this conference’s topic writes, “What lies beneath the surface? Wherein lies the significance of this metaphor?” What lies beneath the surface in Moby-Dick is something unknowable, attractive, and deadly. I mean to examine both what makes it the fascination with undergrounds so terrifying and destructive in this novel, and the privileging and eroticizing of the surface with which the narrator Ishmael counters Ahab’s desire to penetrate into various undergrounds, interiors, and beyonds.
For Ahab, Moby Dick represents the world’s—or God’s or the gods’—purposeful withholding from him of its (his, their) meaning and intentions, a withholding Ahab experiences as parental rejection and aggression. Ahab wants to penetrate Moby Dick, sexually and violently, not only to revenge his amputation, but also to “strike through the mask” and to force whatever he finds there to acknowledge him as its son (140). While the one whaler to fall inside a sperm-filled whale’s head escapes drowning only the “great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg” (272), Ahab’s pursuit of his desire isolates him and destroys everyone but Ishmael. It also isolates Ahab from any of the meaning human contact offered to him throughout the book, contact generally offered in the form not of penetration but of the grazing of skin, as when he balances his stump on the carpenter’s foreleg to explain the experience of his mutilation.
Ishmael, too, hates the inscrutability of the world/whale, but he responds to it with ironic and erotic game play around inscrutable surfaces. He marries Queequeg, whose entire body is tattooed with mystical secrets written in a language even Queequeg cannot read. He privileges an erotics of masturbation, which Melville hints at everywhere but makes eminently clear in the mutual-masturbation orgy/utopia/paradise of the chapter “A Squeeze of the Hand” (322-23). He compiles his campy, sarcastic encyclopedia of whaling history and lore, none of which he credits, but all of which—like the “queer” usher and the sub-sub-librarian who begin the novel, or like Walter Benjamin’s collector—he loves (7).
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes camp as a process of investing loved objects with enough resources to sustain oneself in return (149). Melville adds here the danger of being overwhelmed or annihilated by the attempt to penetrate the metaphoric interior of these objects. He offers by contrast the pleasure of relating only to their surfaces.