Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Melville’s Moby Dick in the Digital Age

From their shared fascination with Moby-Dick, writer Philip Hoare and artist Angela Cockayne came together to curate, first, an installation in Plymouth, England, celebrating the book – Dominion: A Whale Symposium. They put together a book with the same title earlier this year then organised and recently launched the Moby-Dick Big Read (, a website to which each day a new chapter is uploaded.

Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale (2008) both revels in the novel and sets the whaling industry in a long dismal history of exploitation and extermination. In one phrase, its ships are described as ‘nineteenth century oil tankers’ and the grisly processes involved are unflinchingly described. Whales were, to the 18th and 19th centuries, much as oil fields are to the 21st. And just as this ransacking of the earth’s resources has reached forward, in new forms, into our own times, so it forms part of a continuum reaching back to the plundering of the New World, the decimation of its native populations and to the slave trade. Melville was keenly aware of these larger implications of whaling, but few at the time wanted to know. Famously, the first American edition never sold out but his book has long since been vindicated. The Moby-Dick Big Read seeks to update Melville’s message for a digital age.


You’ve invited a different person to read each chapter of the novel and a new chapter is being uploaded to the website each day. Is there something about this novel in particular which you feel lends itself to the internet?

I think Melville’s extraordinary work is strangely suited to the digital age.  After all, Moby-Dick, with its unedited, digressive and allusive prose, resembles nothing so much as a modern blog.  The famous ‘Extracts’ that precede his main text have the air of a Victorian search engine.  And if he were writing his book today, I don’t think Melville would have ever finished it: he’d be forever googling ‘Whale’.

Your book about Melville and Moby-Dick, ‘Leviathan or, the Whale’, appeared four years ago now. Has organising the Moby-Dick Big Read taught you more about the novel? If so, what?

It’s made me love it even more, even as it drove me mad.  You cannot easily negotiate it.  It is an un-navigable work.  It sprawls and curls.  Just when you think you understand it, it slips away from you.  It is a unique work, in the way Wuthering Heights is sui generis.  That comes of Melville’s utter investment in it. And that is part of its power – its delayed action effect, a literary time bomb.

Moby-Dick, with its unedited, digressive and allusive prose, resembles nothing so much as a modern blog.  The famous ‘Extracts’ that precede his main text have the air of a Victorian search engine.

This is perhaps the most famous American novel ever written and in your own book you describe both Melville and his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne as men of a ‘brave new republic’. If the book has a particular message for America at the moment, what would you say it is?

Word is that  Moby-Dick is Barack Obama’s favourite book; also Morgan Freeman’s; and Woody Allen confesses to being a recent convert.  And the reverberations of Melville’s text continue, not least in the way it raised questions of imperialism, fundamentalism, morality and faith.  When it was published, shortly before the American Civil War, it was a coded comment on the internecine conflict over slavery (most especially via the indirect inspiration of the emancipationist, Frederick Douglass, whom Melville may, or may not, have met in New Bedford’s streets).  More recently, it was cited by Edward Said in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when the writer compared the ‘war on terror’ as an impossible pursuit, like the captain’s demonic hunt for the White Whale.  Nor could you ignore its relevance today.  Witness this quote from Chapter One, ‘Loomings’:

Grand contested Election for the Presidency of the United States

The book also has fascinating English connections. Could you say something about those?

I like to think Herman Melville would have approved of this British exposition of his work.  After all, the novel was partly conceived during Melville’s visit to London in 1849 [the figure of Ahab may have been suggested by a one-legged beggar, the survivor of a whale attack, whom he saw in London].  He stayed in rooms on Craven St, next to Charing Cross station – the house is now marked by a blue plaque.  And for reasons of copyright (which did not then exist in the US), his book, entitled The Whale, was also first published in Britain by Richard Bentley, in a deluxe, three-volume edition for the carriage trade.

Famously, the book did not fare well on its transition across the Atlantic.  The American first edition never sold out and Melville died in 1891, his genius unacknowledged.  Here too we British may lay claim to reviving Moby-Dick’s reputation.  In the 1920s, writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, W.H.Auden and E.M.Forster acclaimed Moby-Dick as a modernist work before modernism was invented.

You say less about the way it has been read in continental Europe. I know Miguel de Unamuno was very fascinated by it, and Camus as well I seem to recall. There are presumably others – any spring to mind?

Oddly enough, when we showed the Arena film I made for BBC 2, The Hunt for Moby-Dick, at an Italian festival a couple of years back, I was deluged with questions about the book.  My own book has been translated into Spanish, and, next year, will appear in German and Italian editions.

Lawrence thought Moby-Dick was ‘the greatest book of the sea ever written’, but it irritated him as well. It was a book ‘of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness’. He found its American theologising absurd. Both your book and the project it has turned into give the impression that, by contrast, you found a kind of all-sufficiency in this novel, a Book of Life, almost. What is the aim of the Moby-Dick Big Read? Does it have one? Or several? If this is poetry that can ‘make something happen’, what do you think that something might be?

First of all it was conceived as an art project – a long and rather ambitious installation.  It was also intended to be entirely democratic.  Only when we realised that actors are actors because they’re good at reading aloud did we concede the notion of ‘celebrity’ readers.  But overall, my passion is to get Melville’s book read, and appreciated.  The contemporary art side of the project, is much influenced by Angela Cockayne’s radical curation [see interview with Ms Cockayne below].  That opens up the metaphysical aspects of the book, I think.  It is remarkable how many contemporary artists respond to Melville’s themes – another example of his prescience, perhaps.  In a way, his is a biblical text, all things to all (wo)men.  As he told Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘I have written a blasphemous book, and I feel as spotless as the lamb’.

 Why do you think the nineteenth century paid the book so little attention?

I think the scale and ambition of the book lay outside the remit of the nineteenth century, especially the concerns of burgeoning empires.  Isn’t it interesting that it came to be appreciated only as those empires began to decay?

About Ahab. For Lawrence he’s a ‘maniac’, there is nothing but ‘madness and possession’ in these hunters of the white whale. He’s a sort of emblem of the white man’s collective doom, of something terrible that had been done to Europeans by their ‘upper consciousness and the ideal will’ (the usual culprits). For Gilbert Wilson, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale into the Sea of Japan was analogous to America’s ‘atrocious nuclear experiments and explosions in the same area’. For C.L.R. James he prefigures the twentieth century’s dictators. In all the years you’ve lived with the book you must have wondered a good deal about him: what do you think the figure of Ahab means?

He represents folly, for the manner in which he invests an animal with a sense of evil.  No animal can be evil, since it acts on instinct.  Ahab purposefully decides acts on his demented course. Although, of course, he is also caught up with his own demons.  One of the most poignant scenes in the book is when Starbuck nearly persuades Ahab to dissuade from his mission, and return to Nantucket, his wife and child.  Ahab’s backstory, like all the backstories of the book’s main characters, invests the book with its power.  Melville almost allows Ahab to be human.  That’s the greatest pity.

Why did you want to have David Cameron reading a chapter?

We didn’t, particularly.  The MP for Plymouth, Oliver Colville, happens to be a Conservative, and arranged it. We’d prefer to see him as the Prime Minister, rather than as a representative of policies with which Angela and I disagree (to put it mildly).  I hope the proximity of this question to the last is not a coded message.

(It definitely is.) Which chapter are you reading? Why?

I’m not.  Or rather, I have a cameo, guest appearance, which is to be a surprise!

Your work is often compared to that of W. G. Sebald. How much has he mattered?

Sebald entirely legitimised the way I write.  When my publishers sent him a copy of my book, Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital, he wrote me an appreciative postcard.  I couldn’t work out who it was from at first, since it was signed, ‘Max’.  I kept up a fitful correspondence with him thereafter.  He was kind enough to say other encouraging things about my work.  I met him only once.  Like Melville, people underestimate Sebald’s humour.  A very funny man.  A genius.  I think he and Herman would have gone on very well together. I was halfway through writing Spike Island, struggling to come to terms with what I wanted to say, when Adam Low, who directed The Hunt for Moby-Dick, gave me The Rings of Saturn.  It just opened everything up: the way one could be free to incorporate almost anything, in the voice of the author.  So yes, a technical freedom.  But also an artistic and even a moral freedom – from the old shackles of never using ‘I’…


The Moby-Dick Big Read developed from an installation called ‘Dominion’. What is the idea behind that installation?

Dominion is a multi-layered and allusive attempt to come to terms with a shared history between human and whale, and the liminal region in between. The installation of artworks made for the film Dominion was the culmination of several years work using Moby Dick as a mythical muse. I am interested in consilience and collaboration between the disciplines of natural sciences, art and literature so working with Philip and Melville’s text, the Big Read seemed like a natural progression, that we first discussed in a chip shop queue in Plymouth.

Moby-Dick is a shape shifter, as a work it hovers somewhere between natural history, philosophy, autobiography and fiction.

We wanted to share our mutual passion of the book and discussed the possibilities of reading it live during the exhibition.  The 3 day whale symposium and Dominion publication didn’t seem able to contain our ambition which quickly developed into the public chapter readings; bringing the text to a new audience in a digital age with the support of Sarah Chapman curator at Peninsula Arts. It’s been a herculean task and I’m not sure we fully anticipated the work involved, but a great team effort in pulling the website together.

Had you ever done anything similar? Could you say something about your formation / background?

Previously I’ve hosted symposiums at Bath Spa University where I teach Interdisciplinary Visual Art. Provenance based on the Wunderkammer, a recent project, was similar but with a significantly reduced cast than on the Big Read. (See:

How has the project changed your understanding of Moby-Dick?

Considerably. Moby-Dick is a shape shifter, as a work it hovers somewhere between natural history, philosophy, autobiography and fiction. A compendium of cetology, anthropology, obsession, prophesy, self-destruction and morality, it is saturated with metaphor.
Melville is my shaman of choice and helps me to navigate, he has an incredible depth of field, orchestrating the cast of Ahab, Ishmael and the mythical white whale.  I’ve read the book twice a few years apart and it became something quite different on second reading with my own shifted experience. I guess it’s like ‘the whiteness of the whale’: it’s a mirror and a reflection of ourselves.

What do you see as the Big Read’s main aim(s)?

Our aim is to bring a 19th century classic text to a new digital generation; its themes are very pertinent today reflecting our dominion of the planets resources and relationship with our co inhabitants. The whale is an ecological barometer of our own environment and destiny. In protecting a leviathan mythical or not we also protect a sentinel of our own ecological destiny.

Philip mentioned how powerfully the book seems to resonate with artists at the moment. Why do you think that is? Do any particular examples come to mind?

Agnes Denes – Flooded World

I particularly like Sean Landers wonderful image of Ahab painted as a clown, Agnes Dene’s image of a flooded world with pylons above the sea, fits beautifully with David Attenborough’s reading ch 105 . Also John Isaacs shipping containers in a cathedral, and Michael Landy’s response whale as a rubbish bin is very poignant.

It said that for every fifty people born two are shaman like the jokers in a pack of cards, in western society I believe many artists have such propensity like Melville, who achieves a mythical ambiguous space within his text, which inspires other artists.

I know Philip has an idea that the search engine / blog dimension to the book lends itself to the Internet. Are there other things you mean to explore with the way the website has been designed?

I think it would make a beautiful book, it’s like an advent calendar; rewards of visual delights punctuating each chapter, it would also be incredible to bring the works together in an exhibition.

How did you set about finding the artists?

We both had a bucket list of great artists and works we admired whom we asked to respond, other artists were selected because their work suited themes in the text, also knowledge of works previously made in response to the book. We didn’t want to illustrate the text so we only curated once all the images were in.

Are you reading a chapter? If so, which one? If not so, which is your favourite chapter, if you have one? And why?

I’m reading chapter 57 because of its wonderful references to the nobility of savagery and making of art works. But my favourite chapter is 105 Does the whales magnitude diminish, and Chapter 1 Loomings is also very restorative.

What does the project have to say to the environmental movement in particular?

This will be a very contemporary, visual and digital response to a text which is as pertinent today as when it was first written in 1851, and perhaps arguably even more so. A work ahead of its time revisited its eco-poetics for the 21st Century.  It’s prophetic visionary prose; in all its unedited, interdisciplinary rawness it remains incredibly refined, warning us of our fallibility and destructive nature in pursuit of monomaniacal quests.

The white whale in Moby-Dick is a charismatic beast; he/she seems to signify many things capitalism, religion, colonialism, and racism. Chased in pursuit to the brink of extinction, the whale is representative of our dominion over nature, and the risks we take in destroying a top predator in a finely balanced ecosystem and environment we share, and need ourselves to survive.

The world does not exist for man alone and we are becoming more aware of this than ever. To Melville the whale suggested a world that can do very well without us: ”He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuilleries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”


Moby-Dick Big Read Live  King’s Place, London N1, 29 October at 7 pm

Join Philip Hoare and Angela Cockayne, curators of the Moby-Dick Big Read, for a lively and stimulating evening of readings, film clips and discussion with guests including Richard Sabin of the Natural History Museum, Zeb Soanes, the voice of Radio Four, the distinguished American voice of Kerry Shale, and  Claire Armistead, Literary Editor of the Guardian.  They will be discussing the myth and reality of Herman Melville’s book of 1851, and why it means even more than ever today.

Horatio Morpurgo will be among those addressing the annual gathering of MARINElife at the Whalefest in Brighton, October 27th-28th.