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Moby-Dick in the Clickhole

Does Herman Melville’s classic make sense in the internet age?


In 2007, the British publisher Orion released a series of abridged versions of classic novels that could supposedly be read in half the time of the originals. With titles like Anna Karenina: In Half the Time and The Mill on the Floss: In Half the Time, the series was meant for those who were too busy to “read books over a thousand pages long” and were burdened by “work and kids and all the other things.” The books drew the attention of The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, who noted that the abridgment of Moby-Dick, in particular, which stripped the book down to its whale-hunting core, was part of a trend in the publishing industry for “the ‘taut, spare, driving’ narrative beloved of Sunday reviewers.”

What was sacrificed, however, was considerable. Countless readers have run aground on Melville’s mountain of details on the art of whaling, or have been left behind as he plunges, like his Catskill eagle, into philosophical realms, but it is precisely in these passages where his real appeal resides. That, at least, was the conceit of 2009’s ; or The Whale, which borrowed the oft-forgotten latter half of Melville’s title to crown a book composed entirely of passages cut by Orion. As Damion Searls, the man behind ; or The Whale, said, “[W]hat makes Melville Melville is digression, texture, and weirdness. If you only have time to read half the book, which half the time is more worth spending?”

Clearly, the world was a different place back then. The concerns shared by Gopnik and Searls are, of course, familiar to us today: that we no longer have the time to read; that even when we do, we are too distracted to linger on the page; that we prefer our whale-hunting stories to be action-driven spectacles, like the forthcoming In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s rendition of a true story that was reportedly one of Melville’s inspirations. But it is rather quaint to locate the manifestation of our collective ruin in a British publisher of abridgments, which have been around nearly as long as novels themselves.

These days, we have bigger fish to fry. In 2007, Facebook had merely 50 million users, as opposed to the 1.2 billion it boasts today. Twitter was in its infancy, and BuzzFeed was barely more than a gleam in Jonah Peretti’s eye. Thanks to the oceanic expanses of the web, there is no need to condense or abridge anything anymore, at least not for want of space. The parody site Clickhole published the entirety of Moby-Dick in a single post called “The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World”—the joke being that even the greatest American novel, digressions and weirdness and all, becomes vapid garbage as soon as it meets the internet.

This would appear to be a problem. And it is one that is likely to get worse. It is a commonplace to observe that more people, both in America and around the world, are spending more of their time online. But what is less widely understood is that the internet is becoming more like Facebook, that for many people the internet basically is Facebook, and that Facebook is, in turn, absorbing other gargantuan sites like BuzzFeed and Instagram into its DNA. Twitter, for example, is in an existential struggle to match Facebook’s reach at the risk of losing its identity, while would-be rivals like Ello fail to gain purchase because, well, everyone’s already on Facebook. The barriers to entry are impossibly high, and in this respect Facebook is more like a public utility than your average corporation, permeating the internet the way electricity courses through our homes. The blurring of Facebook and the internet writ large is particularly pronounced in the developing world, where, as Jeff Spross at The Week notes, Facebook is the sole entry point to the internet for many people.

The web is not an ecosystem that thrives on diversity; the main forces of its expansion are homogenization and monopolization, with only a handful of companies—Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon—dominating the digital landscape. If we were to reach for a comparison from the cultural pantheon of otherworldly monsters, the internet would not be a white whale—it would be the Blob, a metastasizing phenomenon that absorbs and makes monochromatic everything it touches. It has changed the way we read and write, and this is why seemingly every news website, from The Washington Post down to Refinery 29, looks and sounds the same. Every publisher is looking for what will travel well on the internet, and what travels well can be determined by a fairly straightforward formula that skews toward simplification, whether it is a cheery explainer or a blunt appeal to outrage.

While BuzzFeed is the king of this approach to content, it can also be seen in supposedly wonkier venues like Vox. It has even infiltrated literary spheres, like poetry, that have long languished on the periphery of American culture. It is no coincidence that the biggest recent dust-ups in the media—at Gawker and at this magazine—have partly revolved around the question of how to navigate this monotonous terrain. For on the whole it seems people prefer this lobotomized environment that is less complex but safer, to the point that we are now, as the author Sherry Turkle points out, increasingly afraid to have face-to-face conversations with the people we know, preferring instead to communicate through electronic devices, social media, and the protective mask of an avatar.

In this context, does Moby-Dick even make sense? The idea that we’ve suffered some great loss, that we’ve severed our link to a world of meaning, animates the Twitter feed of the International Necronautical Society, the avant-garde group headed by the novelist Tom McCarthy. When it is not doing the normal work of Twitter—i.e. shameless self-promotion—it is tweeting passages from Moby-Dick. Its first tweet, from September of 2009, reads:

It is curious that the tweet is characterized as a test transmission, as if it comes crackling uncertainly like a radio broadcast in wartime. It seems to rub against one of the premises of literature, for Moby-Dick itself is a transmission, clear as a bell, from another time and place. It not only creates for the reader the intricate world of 19th-century whaling, from its humblest tools to its hoariest legends—what the sci-fi/fantasy community now refers to as world-building—but allows you to occupy, for a while, the mind of its long-dead author, to become him and feel his oracular voice in your mouth, lending doubled resonance to that famous opening sentence: “Call me Ishmael.” It would seem that Moby-Dick is the last book that needs an external transmitter to transmit its message.

Unless, of course, it suddenly does. This tweet, from our vantage point in 2015, could be read as a call for survivors across an internet wasteland populated by zombies bearing cat photos and hot takes. Or perhaps it stands as a warning that the sum total of the written word, past, present, and future, will now be mediated by the internet, compromising our direct connection to the likes of Melville. (Even efforts to enlarge Melville’s fiction, such as Slate’s recent online annotation of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” interpose a new voice, in this case resulting in Melville sharing a byline for his own work with an interactives editor.)

Either way, it is ominous that the INS’s most sustained period of tweeting from Moby-Dick, from 2010 to 2014, reproduces the first passage of ; or The Whale—in other words, the first passage omitted by Moby-Dick: In Half the Time, which turned out to be a comparatively benign precursor to a new and more disturbing kind of erasure. The passage is a meditation on the enigmatic allure of the ocean, on what draws us to even modest bodies of water like pools and streams, and in it lies one of the book’s central themes: “Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

The ungraspable phantom of life: this is the hidden universe that resides on the other side of banal existence, numinous glimpses of which we have all caught at one point or another, perhaps at those times when, like Ishmael, we looked to the ocean, the alien world that ceaselessly overlaps with our own. It is also a metaphor for literature: to go out to sea is to find meaning in what lies beyond, to penetrate its secrets and bottle its essence like a message, even though it means facing the prospect of death—the white whale, the ultimate mystery—head on.

Are we still capable of accessing those secrets? Could we read the message if it washed up on our shores? We are used to thinking of narcissists as self-absorbed navel-gazers or raging egomaniacs, so lost in themselves that they fail to see the world around them. But this passage reminds us that Narcissus was not obsessed with himself but with his image, which in our era is best represented by the digital avatar, the pixelated persona whose sky is always a Facebook blue and whose earth is always a Facebook gray. What Melville couldn’t have predicted is that one day there would be a way for Narcissus to become the image he saw in the fountain, that it would be possible to live on the other side of that watery reflection. At that point, looking back, he wouldn’t gain a glimpse of what lies beyond; and what appears to him to be the phantom of life, cast in a wavering twilight, would just be life itself.