Jennifer Scappettone, Assistant Professor, English, Creative Writing, and the College
“Pull, pull, my fine hearts-alive; pull, my children; pull, my little ones . . . . Why don’t you break your backbones, my boys? . . . Three cheers, men—all hearts alive! Easy, easy; don’t be in a hurry—don’t be in a hurry. Why don’t you snap your oars, you rascals? Bite something, you dogs! So, so, so, then;—softly, softly! . . . The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; you are all asleep. Snop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull . . . . every mother’s son of ye draw his knife, and pull with the blade between his teeth. That’s it—that’s it. Now ye do something; that looks like it, my steel-bits. Start her—start her, my silver-spoons! Start her, marling-spikes!”1
Every mother’s son on the whaleboat is thus summoned “drawlingly and soothingly” by the second mate mid-assault: maternal croons give way to patriarchal reprimands mutating into a succession of fatherly taunts. Such is the candor of domestic affections among the pied Pequod crew. Between Melville’s Ishmael and Queequeg, Starbuck and Ahab, Stubb and his marling-spikes spring weddings and acts of nurture triggered by idleness and duress: improvised family bonds on the high seas. Melville’s narrator underscores that a great part of the whaling enterprise is devoted to “housekeeping.”2 Guy Ben-Ner has taken him quite literally.
This video’s translation of virile pelagic adventure into an apartment playground for a father’s daughter may have been casual;3 but as a strategy for adaptation, it emerges as far from arbitrary. It is just and precisely an inversion of the circumstances of Melville’s work, wherein a phenomenal proximity of estranged species of men breeds unexpected attachments, “cosy, loving pair[s]” and calls eventually to “let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”4 In Ben-Ner’s video as in vaudeville, overdetermining family frames loosen to occasion pranks akin to those among schoolboys or seamen; over the course of such play, home and abroadness cross. With daughter Elia inside, the kitchen sink becomes a rowdy inn bar before its incorporation into this Pequod’s shipdeck and, ultimately, an ocean throat to swallow the artist (now playing Ahab) whole; workaday clothespins become the means of a Pacific Islander’s exoticized scarification; a little girl’s shampooed hair is molded more or less into the terrible form of a shark’s fin. Meanwhile, Ahab’s daunting prosthesis suffers domestication, even as it assumes art-historical weight, being rendered a (Dali-like) drawer-chest, then a drinking-glass, a ladle. Subdivisions of the outdoors are recruited inward to re-represent the outside: a sprinkler slipped under a blue area rug must be what’s mimicking the sperm whale’s spout with a suburban modesty. Along the way, sentimental asides temper the masculine excess of sea tales: in a most iconic instance, male chest hair—that of Queequeg, resident noble savage—is shaved into a heart shape, darlingly.
Yet in another sense, this task of adaptation parallels Melville’s own, shared as well by any narrative of travel: to transcribe a voyage’s protracted and at times raucous abroadness into a familiar medium to be taken in silently at home. “For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you,” reports Ishmael.5 Moby-Dick’s countless digressions into cetology, vessel and oil manufacture, and the rituals of the ship oikos reproduce such vast contemplative intervals of life at sea. (Even climactic moments of action are mired in the whale’s inscrutability.) To read Moby-Dick in the third millennium is to enter into another time: to submit oneself to that prolonged reticence and stillness, that domestic leisure known perhaps solely to a certain class of the nineteenth century. Ben-Ner’s epic act of compressing this tale into a twelve-minute video better reflects our contemporary pace—the work of epic at present is perhaps that of compression rather than expansion. Quick recurrence of yawning stretches from sundry cupboard and refrigerator precincts mark the dawdling of mariners’ days. But Ben-Ner invests the video’s structuring velocity with the relative antiquity of vaudeville and silent film rhythms, now nearer to Melville’s time than to our own, as well as with the archaic ticking of stop-motion animation. The movie’s episodic scheme—punctuated by intertitles—and teasing counter-synchronicity (father and daughter mouth dialogue mechanically as Charlie McCarthy) match the ramshackle construction of Melville’s monument, with its chapters of deviation and abeyance, its intermittence of epic narration. That monument did not stand up to the formal expectations of cataclysm imposed on its putative genre. A contemporary critic for the London Athenaeum denounced the skittishness with which Melville handled his “topics and toys,” complaining of the composition that “its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.”6 Ben-Ner’s slapdash echoes this strategic mania, delightsomely. The whole—from passage to novel to movie—is composed, as Ishmael stresses of Stubb’s invocations above, “in a tone so strangely compounded of fun and fury.”7 Would that every father’s daughter could have such times to come home to.
Yet a more sublime at-seaness pervades the domestic interior thus charmingly outfitted, turned inside out. We find the preciousness of the video’s set of regressive pranks upstaged by a subterranean or overweening homogeneity—just as the peripatetic exoticisms of Ikea product names index a uniformity of nesting acts leading, oddly, to a vertiginous feeling. Such feeling is captured in the undergirding entropy of these zones of middle-class comfort: the kitchen’s misleading, provisional whiteness; sink-ocean, which spits instead of draining; carpet shabbiness and impending permeability; ceilings pierced by poles, trees; floors penetrated from below by fins of probable MDF, wreaking their spirals into linoleum stage. Beyond the intimacy generated by shared gags, we face in this work the awful ephemerality and duration of these frames that accommodate us: we are all squatters on the terrain or ocean of another, vanquished or indifferent, “step-mother world.”8 We find ourselves pasted together perhaps yet ultimately in line with the legendary ubiquity of Moby Dick—with that creature’s terrifying blankness, unaccommodated.