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    Review of:
    And God Created Great Whales. Conceived and Composed by Rinde Eckert. Performed by Rinde Eckert and Nora Cole. Directed by David Schweizer. The Culture Project at 45 Bleecker, New York, NY. 9 September 2000.

  1. There's a clever irony in the very premise of And God Created Great Whales, Rinde Eckert's funny, haunting, and irreverent chamber opera, which finished a two-week off-Broadway run last fall: Nathan, the protagonist, is struggling to remember Moby-Dick. It's a problem he likely shares with the show's audience. After all, Melville's masterpiece is, in M. Thomas Inge's phrase, "the great unread American novel" (696). It's also the one work of American fiction everyone knows, even if one has never read it; or for many Americans it's the one novel they would prefer to forget having been forced to read in college. But Nathan's inability to recall Moby-Dick is more than just a case of literary amnesia, for he's desperately rushing to complete his professional opus--an operatic adaptation of Moby-Dick--before his rapidly deteriorating memory, plagued by some unspecified atrophic condition, fails completely.
  2. That a failure of memory should form the basis of this marvelous opera-within-an-anti-opera is fitting. Remembering Moby-Dick, often in oblique ways, forms something of a tradition in twentieth-century America. In the past few years alone, for instance, those of us with an eye on the roiling seas of American popular culture eager for sightings have seen the whale breach in the most unexpected of places, not only on stage but also in print and on screen. Consider: Laurie Anderson's most recent performance, Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick, unveiled the year before And God Created Great Whales; an op-ed column in the New York Times in which historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. compares Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton to "Captain Ahab's monomaniacal 'quenchless feud' with the White Whale"; the publications of Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife (1999), Tim Severin's In Search of Moby-Dick (2000), and Nathaniel Philbrick's National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea (2000); and a new television version of the novel (1998) featuring Star Trek's Patrick Stewart as Ahab.[1] To these, add the countless allusions to the novel on television shows from The X-Files to The Simpsons; mentions of it in movies as disparate as Ricochet, Deep Impact, and Before Night Falls; and even a full-page newspaper ad from the Microsoft Corporation that reproduces the novel's opening paragraph to announce their "Microsoft Reader." A century and a half after publication, Herman Melville's novel, if not his fictitious whale, appears to be everywhere.
  3. Perhaps Ishmael should have been less incredulous when he remarked on "the superstitiously inclined" who accepted "the unearthly conceit that Moby-Dick was ubiquitous" (Melville 158). Or perhaps this ubiquity is nothing new. Since the revival of Melville during the 1920s and '30s, when he was plucked from literary obscurity and fashioned into the quintessential, heroic American artist, unappreciated and misunderstood, his greatest novel has persisted not only as a pop-culture icon, a mainstay of comic books and seafood restaurants, but as a touchstone for artists with "grand and lofty" ambitions, from John Barrymore, who played the role of the mad Captain twice on film, one silent (1926) and one with sound (1929), to John Huston, whose own film adaptation (1956) starred Gregory Peck and Orson Welles (who wrote just one play, Moby-Dick--Rehearsed), and for several of the most well-known figures in post-WWII American art: Pollock, Stella, Motherwell, Serra, and Basquiat.[2] Certainly no other nineteenth-century American novel has left such an impression in our cultural memory.
  4. Inseparable from this rich and disorderly intertextual network, Moby-Dick might well be considered one of the great ongoing cultural productions of postmodern America; a diffuse text that writers, musicians, artists, and politicians, as well as the creators and consumers of popular culture continue to respond to, abuse, revise, and appropriate. And God Created Great Whales is both aware of and a contribution to this vast constellation of meanings within which Melville's text circulates. With a rare blend of critical intelligence and emotional intensity, it foregoes a faithful recreation of Moby-Dick in favor of a postmodern reimagining. And in a tight 75 minutes, Eckert not only manages to capture the spirit of Melville's novel--its unruliness and wit as well as its tragedy--but also to provide both a reading of the novel and a meta-commentary on his own musical form, sporting with the conventions of opera as irreverently as Melville flouted novelistic form.
  5. The performance opens to find Nathan, played by Eckert, seated at his piano, which is propped up by wooden crates, lashed with rope and covered with sheaves of paper and Post-it notes. Suspended from the ceiling by black wires, naked light bulbs of various colors surround the stage, evoking a ship's rigging and providing a visual pun on Nathan's condition, his mind's intermittent episodes of darkness and light, and his brief flashes of inspiration. To stave off his memory loss, we learn quickly, Nathan has constructed two elaborate systems that allow him to continue his work. The first is a network of tape-recorders (of the old-fashioned rectangular variety), color-coded, strewn across his piano, dangling from wires at the back of the set, one even hanging from his neck and secured to his waist with duct-tape. These provide Nathan with a surrogate mind and offer detailed instructions: "Your name is Nathan. You are suffering memory loss. Today you will continue to work on your opera: Moby-Dick." As the performance unfolds, the voice on the tape becomes the voice of Nathan's progressive disease, the messages a matter-of-fact report on the worsening of his condition: "if you are still listening, your disease has reached an advanced stage." The second system Nathan has devised is stranger still: it's a figment of his imagination, a muse in the form of a former diva named Olivia, to whom Nathan is to be obedient, the voice on the tape explains, in all matters concerning his opera.
  6. Working together, these two recreate Nathan's version of Moby-Dick. Played by Nora Cole, whose powerful mezzo-soprano is a match for Eckert's own remarkable voice, Olivia instructs and cajoles, admonishes and inspires Nathan, pushing him toward completion. The audience is thus treated to a glimpse inside the creative process, which is to say, inside Nathan's faltering consciousness. When Nathan digresses in Ishmaelean fashion--say, to ruminate on his mind maintaining an independent existence after his body has passed away (thus explicating at once the symbolic meaning of his tape recordings and the presence of Olivia, who, after all, is really Nathan)--Olivia steers him back to his task. Occasionally in solo, but more often in tandem, they perform bits of scenes from the novel, substituting Eckert's gorgeous and surprisingly accessible music for Melville's language. And it's a fair swap: the range of Eckert's musical vocabulary--he hybridizes classical composition with styles as diverse as pop, gospel, and old sea chants--is a match for Melville's own discursive range.
  7. But while Olivia's primary charge is to assist Nathan, as a performer Cole is hardly relegated to the margins of Nathan's/Melville's narrative. Singing the roles of Bulkington, Queequeg, Tashtego and various other male characters aboard the Pequod, Olivia represents the subversive entrance of a prominent female into Melville's masculine world, allowing Eckert to riff on Moby-Dick's notorious gender-exclusivity. One of the play's funniest running jokes, for instance, is Olivia's attempt to convince Nathan to write her into the opera: she could swoop down from the sky at the end, she suggests, to rescue the orphaned Ishmael. Of course, Melville is an easy target on this point, and so Eckert doesn't belabor it. Yet the force of Cole's riveting presence--as an African-American female embodying so convincingly Melville's sailors--forms a powerful critique of both Moby-Dick and the culture that has produced it by staging, literally, gender performativity and racial fluidity--the easily forgotten subtext of Ishmael and Queequeg's homoerotically charged friendship.
  8. Eckert is likewise fascinating to watch. A large, bald white man dressed in a gray suit that looks as if he's been sleeping in it, he affects Nathan's frailty with the smallest of gestures: dragging his toes in baby steps, slumping his shoulders feebly. But when he receives a burst of passion, he erupts seamlessly into the more commanding and imposing roles he assigns himself, putting his booming voice to use thundering at the universe as Ahab or exhorting the audience-turned-parishioners as Father Mapple. In fact, Eckert's version of the sermon on Jonah is one of the show's highlights, rivaling even Orson Welles's brilliant performance in the otherwise forgettable John Huston film. At another moment, Eckert shifts just as nimbly into the character of Pip, standing still at the front of the stage to sing a lovely aria in a most unexpected falsetto.
  9. Obviously, it's impossible to treat all of Moby-Dick's multiple characters, stories, discourses, and themes in just over an hour. But Eckert is less interested in re-presenting Moby-Dick than in he is in striving for the kind of "outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep" possessed by Melville's novel. And this is the great advantage of Eckert's art form: his music provides the means to compress language. As if to demonstrate this very principle, one exchange has Nathan poised at his piano as Olivia feeds him the names of characters from the novel, each of which Nathan renders in a few short bars, thus transforming Melville's cast of "isolatoes" into the stock figures of grand opera. Here Eckert is at his most self-consciously playful, parodying both generalized ideas about Moby-Dick and operatic conventions. Not only does he register the novel's radical shifts in mood and tone, but by mocking the seriousness of both opera and Moby-Dick (as opposed, say, to the "misreadings" perpetrated in comic books and seafood restaurants), he deflates "high" art's claims to transcendence. Yet, as if to refuse the audience the easy pleasures of such ironic knowingness, these moments are undercut by other parts of the performance that sing so rich in human emotion that truth and beauty and transcendence almost seem possible again.
  10. It's this balance between postmodern irony (always in danger of becoming what Jameson famously called "blank parody"[17]) and truthful emotion that makes And God Created Great Whales so much more satisfying than most adaptations of Moby-Dick. Unlike the four film versions of the novel, Eckert doesn't succumb to what might be called the Ahab-problem; that is, he doesn't concentrate solely on the novel's dramatic narrative: Ahab's obsessive desire for revenge. Ahab is, of course, an irresistible dramatic subject, an archetypal figure of tragic hubris. But as anyone who has taught Moby-Dick knows, this dimension of the novel doesn't always translate effectively to our post-ironic age. That is, as compelling as the "fiery hunt" is, reducing a proto-postmodernist work of encyclopedic fiction to a pre-modern tragedy is no longer adequate. Too often Ahab seems to embody the kind of sententiousness that so bothered D. H. Lawrence about Melville himself--"Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!," Lawrence wrote (154). Rather, it's Ishmael's more protean sensibility that speaks to our age, his willingness to "try all things," but to accept, finally, indeterminacy, the kind of undecidability of meaning that typically characterizes postmodern fiction: "I but put that brow before you," he writes, as if to challenge the reader, "Read it if you can" (293). Isolating Ahab's quest from the novel's other, multiple competing narrative energies, then, only diminishes Melville's accomplishment by attributing to the text a unitary set of meanings that its unreadability and its multivocality work to resist. And worse, it consigns Moby-Dick to the unfortunate status of just another dusty classic with little claim on our attention.
  11. Consider, for instance, two additional contributions to the ongoing production of Melville's text: Laurie Anderson's Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick and Tim Hawkinson's Überorgan. Anderson's performance style, with its presentation and proliferation of images and languages from across the contemporary American landscape, might seem to lend itself naturally to capturing Moby-Dick's heteroglossia. Yet, Songs and Stories, while a pleasurable enough experience (at least for Melville aficionados), ultimately seems to subordinate Anderson's art to Melville's.[3] She creates plenty of atmosphere, both visually and aurally: long lines of scrolling text, for instance, are superimposed over vast images of seascapes and projected onto an enormous scrim at the back of the stage, and her music, bass-heavy or provided by her ingenious and unnerving "talking stick"--a computerized lance that emits digitally enhanced musical notes as she runs her hands along its breadth--ranges from the ethereal to the funky. But Anderson treats Moby-Dick as nearly inviolable, with little of the incisive, critical consciousness--or the sly ironic wit--that typically characterizes her work.
  12. By contrast, it's easy to be captivated by Hawkinson's Überorgan--a massive installation/sculpture on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art--without knowing anything about Moby-Dick, though to experience it is akin to what it must be like to stand in the belly of a whale. A 300-foot network of twelve enormous air-filled polyethylene bladders, many of them suspended from the ceiling, the Überorgan plays on the double meaning of the "organ" in its title. That is, it at once suggests the intestinal system of an impossibly large animal (a mythical whale, for instance) and a musical instrument. Controlled by a rudimentary central nervous system--a mechanism that operates on the principles of the player-piano--a series of valves opens and closes, causing sounds like foghorns or the lowing of cows or flatulence to be emitted from long foil-covered pipes affixed with reeds. Überorgan combines wonder and spectacle, ambition and scope, with pleasure and self-mocking--it's art that is at once serious and just plain fun. Hawkinson has said that he had Moby-Dick in mind when conceiving his Überorgan,[4] but the association Hawkinson's piece forms with Melville's text has little to do with Captain Ahab and his monomania. Rather, like And God Created Great Whales, Überorgan evokes not just the Moby-Dick of Ahab--the "au grand sérieux," to borrow from Lawrence again--but the Moby-Dick of Ishmael, his vaulting imagination as well as his delight in making a fart joke.[5]
  13. Of course, Moby-Dick can no more do without Ahab than it can do without the white whale. But the fact that these two symbols now have an existence in American culture almost independent of the novel from which they sprang--which is to say that they have become a part of our common language, in effect, literary clichés--has its unfortunate side. Melville's novel is easily drained of its power to challenge, to shock, and to provoke ("I have written a wicked book," Melville said after finishing Moby-Dick, "and feel spotless as the lamb") and is instead put to use selling coffee for Starbuck's and electronic equipment for Microsoft. The trouble is that, for all its value, our present scholarly preoccupation with "historicizing" is ill-suited to combat consumer culture's tendency to simplify and to sanitize.[6] And it's surely too much to ask of our artists that they should fight that battle. Hawkinson and Eckert, however, offer hope: by creating work that's both powerful and pleasurable--by granting their audiences a new point of entry into Moby-Dick and making it fun again--they suggest exciting new ways of reinventing a text that is, after all, always already ours.
  14. Department of English
    University of Massachusetts, Amherst

    Talk Back




    1. A novel, Ahab's Wife tells the story of Una, the bride of Ahab (mentioned once in Moby-Dick) and her adventures during the Pequod's voyages. These include working as a cabin boy on board the whaleship Sussex (a thinly veiled version of the famous Essex; see below), harboring a fugitive slave, befriending Margaret Fuller, and attending meetings with the Transcendentalists. In In Search of Moby Dick, the travel-writer Tim Severin re-traces Melville's overseas journeys looking for evidence of an actual White Whale. In the Heart of the Sea is a historical account of the famous whaleship Essex, stove by a whale in 1821. Melville read first mate Owen Chase's account of the disaster before writing Moby-Dick.

    2. For more on Moby-Dick in twentieth-century American art, see Schultz and, more recently, Wallace.

    3. I attended Anderson's show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on 15 October 1999.

    4. Überorgan was commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Hawkinson describes how, "early on, I learned that Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick while he was living in Pittsfield, which is just down the road from Mass MoCA [in North Adams, MA]. My piece relates to the book and more generally to the nautical, with all the netting and lashing and rigging and the foghornlike sounds and the massive rib cage and organs" (152). This summer, Hawkinson and Eckert were together at Mass MoCA, where And God Created Great Whales played for two nights (after the deadline for this review) in August. Überorgan is on display through October 2001.

    5. Among Ishmael's reasons for going to sea as a sailor, he lists "the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck." Then he adds: "For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)" (15). Pythagoras recommended a restricted diet, which included avoiding beans, which cause flatulence.

    6. That is, while the "new historicism" (broadly conceived) has been effective in demonstrating the literary text's social indebtedness and has broadened our sense of what constitutes both literary and historical textuality, with regard to the texts of the past (like Moby-Dick) it also has the unfortunate effect of insisting that a text "belongs" to its moment of production (rather than to its various moments of reception). It thus tends to fix texts in the past, to shackle them to a particular cross-section of historical time, denying the possibility that texts of the past can perform cultural work in the present.

    Works Cited

    Hawkinson, Tim. "Tim Hawkinson Talks about Überorgan." Artforum (Sep. 2000): 152-3.

    Inge, M. Thomas. "Melville in Popular Culture." A Companion to Melville Studies. Ed. John Bryant. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

    Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

    Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Penguin, 1977.

    Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: W.W. Norton, 1967.

    Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. "So Much for the Imperial Presidency." New York Times 3 Aug. 1998, late ed.: A19.

    Schultz, Elizabeth A. Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1995.

    Wallace, Robert K. Frank Stella's Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.

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