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  • MLA 2014—ChicagoMelville and Matter
  • Timothy Marr, Chair

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Participants in “Melville and Matter” panel at MLA 2014, from left to right: Erik Larsen, Amy R. Nestor, Timothy Marr, Meredith Farmer. Photo Courtesy of Tony McGowan.

Herman Melville’s many physical journeys revolutionized his perspectives on the planet, with enormous ontological implications. Melville’s odyssey through open oceans, expansive prairies, frozen extremes, verdant islands, and stony deserts exposed him to a “realizing sense” (Redburn ch. 27) of the immense power and terror of the material earth in space and time. Over the course of his career, Melville regularly engages the changing forms of earth’s material reality by centering on matter’s immanent capacity to generate continuing life in the midst of the fatal embrace of earthly destruction. The resilient instinct of flora to sprout shoots, tendrils, plumes, tufts, and [End Page 95] blooms embodies Melville’s own creative urge to continue writing in the face of eruptions of doubt.

Melville often grounds his thinking in physical, chemical, organic, meteorological, and geological processes open to dynamic interpretation by both scientific studies of his own age and current theories of immanence, emergence, and assemblage in our own. Melville often materializes philosophy in vital substances such as blubber, oxygen, sap, and sperm and in refined essences such as attar, musk, and ambergris. Melville’s literary generativity is grafted with the physical forces of evolution and the “germinous seeds” of elemental energies. Melville also powerfully figures his fiction amidst such material formations as pebbles, stones, icebergs, volcanic eruptions, auroras, and stars. Extending the conference themes of vulnerability and resilience, “Melville and Matter” examined Melville’s investment in the spell of life and the myriad ways that the natural, the literary, and the human both animate and draw shape from the complex forms of inert things of matter, composing what Melville called “the mingled, mingling threads of life” (Moby-Dick ch. 114).

Systems without Bodies: Moby-Dick’s “Ungraspable Phantom of Life” Erik Larsen, University of Notre Dame

Within the first pages of Ishmael’s narration, Moby-Dick announces that “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life . . . is the key to it all.” By referencing and epistemically problematizing the concept of “life,” the novel indicates its participation in a general categorical crisis of the nineteenth century with respect to notions of vitality. This presentation explores how one philosophical formulation of this issue, namely Immanuel Kant’s conceptual bifurcation of organic life from dead or mechanical matter in his Critique of Judgment, can inform our understanding of Ahab’s crisis of self and body. More specifically, I investigate how Kant’s identification of organic life as the analogy for human subjectivity’s putative rational freedom and super-sensuous unity is reflected in Ahab’s attempts to analogize “his own proper and inaccessible being” with material objects that appear to evince a seamless unity of part and whole. The presentation explores how the failure of these attempts reveals the remarkable “accessibility” of Ahab’s being—his equitable ontological status in the world’s multitudinous forces and things—and thereby challenges the Kantian division of nature between living organisms and inorganic or dead materiality. The novel expresses a sense of nature that is neither identifiable in terms of organic bodily unity, nor merely the reflection, or antithesis, of human rationality. [End Page 96] Moby-Dick represents a formulation—highly important for current thinking in new materialism—of a ubiquitously vital nature characterized by systemic self-organization rather than one structured by the division between “living” and “dead” bodies.

Melville and Meteorology: Three Ways of Looking at a Vortex Meredith Farmer, Wake Forest University

For years critics have viewed Melville’s Captain Ahab as the paradigm of a strong, controlling agent. But Ahab’s body has a “leak” that lets a storm “burst in upon him.” And he is not even sure he could “‘find it . . . in this life’s howling gale.’” This description of “leaking” is, counterintuitively, about weather penetrating Ahab. And long before his leak is visible, we find that “subtle agencies” of the “weather” “wrought on Ahab’s texture.” In fact, Melville consistently represents humans as collections...


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