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Adventures in Eighteenth-century Papermaking

By Hannah L Wills, on 21 July 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

Earlier this summer, I gave a talk with some of the other engagers at our ‘Materials & Objects’ event at the UCL Art Museum. In preparing for the event, we were all challenged to think about the objects, materials, and physical ‘stuff’ that we work with on a daily basis. As I’ve written about before, my research focuses on the notebooks and diaries of a late eighteenth-century physician and natural philosopher, Charles Blagden (1748-1820), who served as secretary to the Royal Society. One of the things I’m interested in is how Blagden used his notebooks and diaries to keep track of his day-to-day activities, as well as the business of one of London’s major learned societies. Record keeping and note taking was a central part of Blagden’s life, and it’s owing to his impressive record keeping habit that there’s one material I handle in my research more than any other: eighteenth-century paper.

A selection of Blagden’s many notebooks, held at the Wellcome Library. (Image credit: Charles Blagden, L0068242 Lectures on chemistry, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, MSS 1219 - MSS1227. CC BY 4.0)

A selection of Blagden’s many notebooks, held at the Wellcome Library. (Image credit: Charles Blagden, L0068242 Lectures on chemistry, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, MSS 1219 – MSS1227. CC BY 4.0)

 

When I began preparing my talk for ‘Materials & Objects’, I started to think about how I might bring paper, a relatively mundane material, to life. My initial reading on the craft of papermaking told me that despite it being a 2000-year old process, making paper by hand has changed relatively little between then and now.[i] Out of curiosity, I decided to do an experiment, and to see if I could replicate some of the processes of eighteenth-century papermaking at home, in my kitchen.

The first stage in the papermaking process is to select the material from which the paper is going to be made. In the eighteenth century, this would typically have been cotton and linen rags. Towards the end of the century, shortages of rags, in part caused by an increased use of paper for printing, meant that makers began to experiment with other materials. In 1801, the very first book printed on recycled paper was published in London—that is, paper that had been printed on once before already.[ii]

Having selected the material, the next step is to break it down, making it into a pulp. When papermaking was first introduced in Europe in the twelfth century, rags were wetted, pressed into balls, and then left to ferment. After this, the rags were macerated in large water-powered stamping mills.[iii] In the eighteenth century, a beating engine, or a Hollander, was used to tear up the material, creating a wet pulp by circulating rags around a large tub with a cylinder fitted with cutting bars (see below).[iv] For my purposes, I found a kitchen blender worked well to break up scraps of used paper from my recycling bin at home, ready to make into new blank sheets.

(Left) Eighteenth-century illustration of a beating engine, from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5, Paris, 1767. (Right) A kitchen blender achieves roughly the same effect, breaking up old used paper soaked in water to create a pulp. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate VIII" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Abigail Wendler Bainbridge. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

(Left) Eighteenth-century illustration of a beating engine, from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5, Paris, 1767. (Right) A kitchen blender achieves roughly the same effect, breaking up old used paper soaked in water to create a pulp. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate VIII” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Abigail Wendler Bainbridge. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

 

Having been broken down, the liquid pulp mixture is then transferred to a container. In the eighteenth century, someone known as the ‘vatman’ would have stood over this container and dipped a mould into the solution at a near-perpendicular angle. Turning the mould face upwards in the solution before lifting it out horizontally, the vatman would have pulled out the mould to find an even covering of macerated fibres assembled across its surface. It is these fibres that would later form the finished sheet of paper.[v]

An eighteenth-century vatman dipping the mould into the vat. (Image credit: Detail “Papermaking. Plate X" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

An eighteenth-century vatman dipping the mould into the vat. (Image credit: Detail “Papermaking. Plate X” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

The moulds used in papermaking determine several features of the finished sheets of paper, including shape, texture and appearance. The type of mould first used in European papermaking was known as a ‘laid’ mould. This mould typically featured wires laced horizontally into vertical wooden ribs, meaning that when the mould was pulled out of the vat, the pulp would lie heavier on either size of the wooden ribs, giving vertical dark patches and the characteristic markings of ‘laid’ paper.[vi]

Screenshot 2017-07-20 11.16.04

A laid mould, with vertical wooden ribs and horizontal wires. A design and marker’s name are visible sewn into the mould, and will leave what is known as the ‘watermark’ on individual sheets of paper. (Image credit: Laid mold and deckle, Denmark – Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

Screenshot 2017-07-20 15.10.07

Characteristic ‘link and chain’ pattern found on laid paper, left by the ribs and wires. This piece is a modern imitation of antique laid paper. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

In mid-eighteenth century Britain, a new type of mould became widely used, developed by the Whatman papermakers based in Kent. This mould was known as a ‘wove’ mould, and had a much smoother surface, consisting of a fine brass screening that was woven like cloth. These moulds imparted a more uniform and fabric-like texture to individual sheets.[vii]

A wove mould, featuring two large watermark designs. Between the watermarks the smooth surface of the woven screening is visible, which leaves the paper with a fabric-like textured appearance, without the prominent horizontal and vertical lines of laid paper. (Image credit: Wove mould made by J. Brewer, London, England - Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

A wove mould, featuring two large watermark designs. Between the watermarks the smooth surface of the woven screening is visible, which leaves the paper with a fabric-like textured appearance, without the prominent horizontal and vertical lines of laid paper. (Image credit: Wove mould made by J. Brewer, London, England – Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

 

For my own papermaking, I chose to dip a piece of fine sieve-like material into my makeshift vat, aiming to replicate partially the texture and appearance of a ‘wove’ mould. The implement I chose for this was a small kitchen pan splatter guard, made up of fine mesh that when pulled out of the vat would hold a layer of fibres on its surface.

My chosen mould, a kitchen pan splatter guard, made from fine sieve-like material. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

My chosen mould, a kitchen pan splatter guard, made from fine sieve-like material. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

Dipping the mould into the vat and removing slowly, fibres are left on the surface of the mould. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

Dipping the mould into the vat and removing slowly, fibres are left on the surface of the mould. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

After the mould was pulled from the vat, the eighteenth-century vatman would pass it on to a coucher who would remove the sheet from the mould, before pressing it between felts to remove the water.[viii]

On the left, the vatman pulls the mould from the vat, before passing it to the coucher on the right hand side of the image, who removes the sheet from the mould before pressing a number of sheets at the same time in a large press. (Image credit: “Papermaking. Plate X" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

On the left, the vatman pulls the mould from the vat, before passing it to the coucher on the right hand side of the image, who removes the sheet from the mould before pressing a number of sheets at the same time in a large press. (Image credit: “Papermaking. Plate X” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

In order to remove my sheet of paper from the mould, I placed another sieve-material implement over the top of the fibres and pressed down with a sponge. With a tea towel placed underneath, this worked to remove much of the water without the need for a proper press. Pulling the top piece of sieve away from the bottom, I was left with a drier surface of fibres, which could be carefully lifted off the mould, and set aside to dry.

(Left) Pressing the sheet of fibres between two splatter guards. (Right) After the top guard is removed, the pressed sheet of paper is revealed. The circular shape is due to the shape of the mould. (Image credits: Both Hannah Wills)

(Left) Pressing the sheet of fibres between two splatter guards. (Right) After the top guard is removed, the pressed sheet of paper is revealed. The circular shape is due to the shape of the mould. (Image credits: Both Hannah Wills)

 

At this point in the eighteenth-century process, sheets were ‘sized’—dipped into a gelatinous substance made from animal hides that made the sheet stronger and water resistant.[ix] After my sheets had been left to one side to dry for a few hours, I decided to experiment by writing on them. I had not applied size to any of my sheets, so found that when I wrote on them the ink spread out, giving a sort of blotting paper effect.

(Left) After pressing, the sheets are dipped into large tub containing size. This step is important if the paper is to have a slightly waterproof quality that enables it to be written on without the ink spreading. (Right) Writing with ink on untreated sheets results in the ink spreading out across the paper. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate XI" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

(Left) After pressing, the sheets are dipped into large tub containing size. This step is important if the paper is to have a slightly waterproof quality that enables it to be written on without the ink spreading. (Right) Writing with ink on untreated sheets results in the ink spreading out across the paper. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate XI” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

 

After having size applied, sheets in an eighteenth-century papermill would have undergone a number of finishing stages. These included polishing and surfacing, processes that gave the paper a more uniform appearance.[x] With my own sheets of paper, I found passing a warm iron over the surface achieved a similar effect, removing some of the creases and wrinkles that had appeared during drying.

My finished sheet of paper, trimmed down into a small square ready for use. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

My finished sheet of paper, trimmed down into a small square ready for use. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

It is after these final finishing and drying processes that sheets of paper are ready to be packaged up and sent to the stationer’s.

Replicating historic crafts and processes is not new within the discipline of history. One of my favourite examples is a paper that was published in 1995, in which the historian Heinz Otto Sibum recreated the experiments of the scientist James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) in determining the mechanical equivalent of heat. By trying to recreate the experiment from Joule’s notes, Sibum revealed that Joule made frequent use of the bodily skills he developed while working in the brewing industry, such as the ability to measure temperatures remarkably accurately by using only his elbow.[xi] Often, attempting to replicate an experiment or craft will reveal just how much it relies upon implicit bodily skills, or tacit knowledge, the kinds of ‘knacks’ that are not written down but are simply known to those who perform an activity regularly.

In attempting to replicate the craft of eighteenth-century papermaking, I really only approximated the process, making substitutions for equipment and improvising a number of techniques, particularly when it came to removing my delicate wet sheets of paper from the mould. I think the biggest lesson I learnt was to have a greater appreciation of the material, and just how many skills and processes went into crafting each sheet of paper in the eighteenth century. Characteristics of individual sheets such as colour, texture and markings had not caught my attention in the archives previously, but I now find them fascinating for what they can reveal about the nature of the fibres used, the construction of the paper mould, and the processes followed by each individual papermaker.

 

 

References:

[i] Dard Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (New York: Dover, 1978), 178.

[ii] Ibid., 309-33.

[iii] Ibid., 153-55.

[iv] Theresa Fairbanks and Scott Wilcox, Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2006), 68.

[v] Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, 177.

[vi] Ibid., 114-23.

[vii] Ibid., 125-27. See also Fairbanks and Wilcox, Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills.

[viii] Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills, 71.

[ix] Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, 194.

[x] Ibid., 196-99.

[xi] Heinz Otto Sibum, “Reworking the Mechanical Value of Heat,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 26, no. 1 (1995): 73-106.

 

Legacy in Conversation: Scrapbooks, Albums and Diaries in the 18th century

By Hannah L Wills, on 7 March 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

Hannah’s lunch hour talk, ‘Legacy in Conversation: Scrapbooks, Albums and Diaries in the 18th century’, will take place on Tuesday 14 March, 1-2pm, in the UCL Art Museum

 

 
How did people organise their notes and thoughts in the eighteenth century? This question is something that my research aims to get to grips with as I explore the diary and manuscript notebooks of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), an eighteenth-century natural philosopher, and secretary to the major scientific institution, the Royal Society. Whilst working on this strand of my research, which focuses on early modern information storage, retrieval and management, I’ve come across several synergies with the Art Museum’s current exhibition, entitled Legacy: Richard Cooper Jnr and the Artist’s Album.  

Blagden’s diary, vol 4, 3 Apr. 1802, Royal Society. Photo credit: Royal Society

Blagden’s diary, vol 4, 3 Apr. 1802, Royal Society. Photo credit: Royal Society

 

Legacy presents, for the first time, a number of albums produced by Richard Cooper Jnr, a little known eighteenth-century artist and innovative printmaker. As this exhibition shows, Cooper used his albums as repositories for sketches of artworks produced by other artists, as well as his own ideas and compositions. This use of the artist’s album closely mirrors another form of notebook popular in the eighteenth century, known as the ‘commonplace book’. These notebooks, whose origins can be traced back to the Renaissance, served as a kind of textual scrapbook, as a repository for favourite passages copied from other texts, as well as a note-taker’s own thoughts and anecdotes. Such notebooks enabled individuals to retrieve information, and were often used to help the note-taker pen their own prose compositions, including poems and essays.[i]

 

Album

One of Richard Cooper Jnr’s albums on display in the exhibition, UCL Art Museum. Photo credit: UCL Art Museum.

 

Next week, I’ll be giving a lunch hour talk at the Art Museum, exploring some of the connections between the albums of Richard Cooper Jnr and the diaries and commonplace book of Charles Blagden. Described as ‘visual diaries’, I’ll explore how Cooper’s albums are similar to Blagden’s own diary, as devices for storing important ideas, memories and information. Exploring both the text and images found within Blagden’s commonplace book, I’ll take at look at how these notebooks functioned as a kind of textual analogue to the artist’s album, and how albums, diaries and notebooks contribute to notions of ‘legacy’.

 

 

[i] Mark Towsey, Reading the Scottish Enlightenment: Books and Their Readers in Provincial Scotland, 1750-1820 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010), 182.

‘smoke words languishing and melting in the sky’ — Stress: Remembrance, Trauma, Forgetting

By Niall Sreenan, on 23 November 2015

by Niall Sreenan

This talk was delivered on the 11th of November 2015, at the UCL Art Museum, at a public event addressing remembrance and the exhibition “Stress: Approaches to the First World War”. It has been reproduced here largely unedited other than an expanded final paragraph and the addition of bibliographic references.

In the wake of recent events in Paris and Europe, an afterword has been appended by the author.

 

smoke words languishing and melting in the sky’ — Stress: Remembrance, Trauma, Forgetting

Walk west from where we sit now, past UCL’s Front Lodge, down the Euston Road, past Great Portland Street underground station, and you will come to a location of great historical violence and a site of present remembrance. At 12.55pm on the 20th of July 1982 a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded under a bandstand in Regent’s Park, killing seven members of the British Army. The soldiers, members of the Light Infantry Battalion, the Royal Green Jackets, were playing a scheduled performance of the music of Oliver!

Today, there exists a plaque in the same location that is both dedicated to the lives of the men who perished in that attack and which commemorates this act of brutality. The plaque reads: ‘To the memory of those Bandsmen of the 1st Battalion The Royal Green Jackets who died here as a result of a terrorist attack’. It is both a commemoration of life and a marker of death – one of many waypoints of remembrance that punctuate the public spaces of London. The specific wording of this particular remembrance plaque is significant here for it surely inflamed the righteous anger of the perpetrators of this heinous violence – and perhaps deliberately so. Members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army did not view themselves as “terrorists”, as such, but as members of a legitimate armed force attempting to land a cruel blow against a nation whose armed forces occupied what they considered their sovereign state.

In the wake of the attack, the Provisional IRA took responsibility for their actions and made a proclamation that turned the rhetoric of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher against her own people. They declared: ‘The Irish people have sovereign and national rights which no task or occupational force can put down.’ In asserting this, the IRA insisted they were merely repeating the very same appeal to national sovereignty Thatcher did to justify the British action in the Falklands war. The point of this act of rhetorical ventriloquism, for the IRA, was to legitimate their terror by framing it in terms of the language of international politics, and to muddy the difference between terrorism and any other “legitimate” act of war.

The plaque that adorns the bandstand in Regent’s Park, then, is not merely a marker of remembrance for the violence of that day, but a politically contentious reminder of a controversial war that took place thousands of miles away, of the lives lost there too, and of the way in which remembrance – the way in which we remember death and conflict – is always itself political. Today this plaque stands immovable and dumb, as inanimate as the well-oxidised bronze-roofed bandstand to which it is attached – and yet, it practically hums with the polyphonic dissonance of competing historical and political voices – as well as those of the dead.

Take a seat on a bench nearby in Regent’s Park and another set of voices makes itself heard. These voices are imaginary – but no less real for that – and these too provide an opportunity to remember. One, a soldier, Septimus Warren Smith, decorated for bravery, returned to London from the First World War. The other, Lucrezia Renzi, a 24 year old Italian hatmaker whom Septimus met while billeted in Milan following the armistice in 1918. They married soon after.

And on a bright June day in Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece, Mrs Dalloway, Septimus, ‘pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat’, and Lucrezia, ‘a little woman, with large eyes in a sallow pointed face’, sit on a public bench somewhere in Regent’s Park avoiding the bustle and noise of the city. They gaze upwards at the sky where a plane writes messages, white puffs scrawled against the blue tablet of the sky.

‘So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks.’

This moment of sublime happiness is, for Septimus, a momentary consolation for he is a sufferer of what, in the 1920’s, we called shell-shock. He is beset on all sides by perceived threats and visions of horror, and blighted by images of his departed friends and comrades. He talks to himself, talks to the dead, and sees their faces in trees. He threatens to kill himself.

Woolf’s novel, which, among other things, depicts Septimus and Lucrezia’s trip to London to visit a doctor specializing in the treatment of the mentally infirm, acts as yet another form of remembrance. It is a fictional monument to the effects of the war on its survivors – on the soldiers that made it home – as well as on those who lived with these men, those who picked up the fragments of what was left of Europe in the wake of this First World War. What is distinctive about Woolf’s form of remembrance is that, unlike a plaque or cenotaph or another monumental concrete hulk, it is a supple and ambivalent form of remembrance. She neither offers judgement on an enemy or on a victim, and provides a perspective on the suffering of the First World War from within – from the subjective perspective of the sufferer who is also a killer, Septimus, and from the perspective of an innocent who must also bear that suffering, Lucrezia.

Woolf describes one particular moment in which Septimus submits entirely to his delusions:

‘He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself —

“For God’s sake don’t come!” Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead.

But the branches parted. A man in grey was actually walking towards them. It was Evans! But no mud was on him; no wounds; he was not changed. I must tell the whole world, Septimus cried, raising his hand (as the dead man in the grey suit came nearer), raising his hand like some colossal figure who has lamented the fate of man for ages in the desert alone with his hands pressed to his forehead, furrows of despair on his cheeks, and now sees light on the desert’s edge which broadens and strikes the iron-black figure (and Septimus half rose from his chair), and with legions of men prostrate behind him he, the giant mourner, receives for one moment on his face the whole —“But I am so unhappy, Septimus,” said Rezia trying to make him sit down.’

Woolf depicts with terrible alacrity the horror-stricken, jumbled phenomenology of the shell-shocked Septimus, never deigning to explain or make coherent the set of visions and confusions to which he is subject. The scale and intensity of the trauma Septimus re-experiences is made clear: legions of the dead occupy a vast desert, watched over by a giant figure, a mourner of vast and monumental scale. On the other hand, this poetry of grief, its tacit sympathy for the griever, is interrupted and cut short by the rather more prosaic, if no less profound, melancholy of the griever’s wife. Lucrezia, struggling to keep Septimus earthbound, articulates in much more simple terms her fundamental dissatisfaction of life – ‘I am so unhappy’.

The passage, then, allows us to read – to sympathise with –  both sides of a conflict. Not a war, as such, but the tension or opposition between Lucrezia’s profound unhappiness at life lived in constant battle with a shell-shocked war hero, as well as Septimus’s life lived out of joint, haunted by visitations from a traumatic, violent past.

Remembrance – or perhaps more accurately – memorialization, is always polyvalent. Monuments, whether they are dynamic and deliberately ambiguous, as Woolf’s work undoubtedly is, or solid and monolithic, as in the stone monuments dedicated to violence and suffering sitting in public spaces, are traversed by choruses of competing voices – each straining to tell a story that goes beyond our capacity as societies and individuals to remember. Whether we as individuals and a society prefer the monolithic and stoic silence of stone or the ephemeral, ambivalence of poetic discourse, is a question of what we understand by remembrance. That is to say, what is the purpose of remembrance, and what is its value?

At this stage I want to turn to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche whose understanding of history and remembrance is somewhat at odds with that of our own time. In the second of his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche takes the example of the contentment of animals, which live ‘unhistorically’ in a state of constant and pure present, and contrasts this with the tortured uncertainty of humankind whose slavery to history is a crippling encumbrance. We are, he writes, ‘all suffering from a consuming fever of history’ and ought, he believes, at the very least, begin to recognise this.

What happens in the past, Nietzsche believed, constantly and unproductively irrupts into the present, disrupting our lives in ways that are injurious to any possible feeling of contentment. ‘[I]t is a matter for wonder’, he writes, ‘a moment, now here and then gone, nothing before it came, again nothing after it has gone, nonetheless returns as a ghost and disturbs the peace of a later moment.’ However, far from wishing to entirely negate the value of historical knowledge at all, Nietzsche is railing against an obsessive relation to the historical which renders us as societies and individuals incapable of acting – of moving forward. As compulsive rememberers, constantly reflecting and ruminating on what has passed, we are in a state of sleeplessness, incapable of forgetting, and stuck in a state of paralysis.

This paralysis is recognisable in sufferers of PTSD or shell-shock, the primary, and most cruel symptom of which, is an inability to forget. Sufferers are visited and revisited, against their will, by images and memories of traumatic events from their past, forced to relive – over and over – the very events which caused their current paralysis, their submission to the horrors of the past.

Septimus is haunted by the death of his friend and fellow soldier Evans. He sees him in the park; he hears his voice from behind a screen; Evans stands silently outside his bedroom window. Septimus sees in the flowers that line the river banks near Hampton Court a sea of floating lamps. This brings to mind what Edward Grey, former British Foreign Secretary, is said to have remarked on the eve of the First World War: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’. But for Septimus, no such extinguishing of memory is available to him. We mark remembrance in Europe with the lighting of candles, the reconstitution of the light that was lost in War, but Septimus is doomed to live in a constant state of remembrance, the constant re-illumination of violence and horror, the only escape from which is the absolute blackness found in death.

There is a tension then in our desire to remember, our obsessive need to commemorate, the deaths of soldiers and the horrors of war. The adage ‘Never forget’ is perhaps the emobdiment of our ideology of remembrance. This takes on a sinister hue in light of what Nietzsche tells us of the dangers of history and what know now about the reality of post-traumatic stress: those afflicted by this awful condition are afflicted by precisely this – they never can forget.[1]

Forgetfulness is precisely what Nietzsche recommends to us as the remedy for obsessive remembrance. ‘To shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a while; not to be bothered by the noise and battle […] a little peace, a little tabula rasa of consciousness to make room for something new […] there could be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness.’

How then, as a society, can we avoid consigning ourselves to a state of societal post traumatic stress disorder. How can we remember the dead, commemorate their lives, and manage also to forget – to allow ourselves to move on?

The key, in Nietzsche’s terms, lies in the difference between active forgetting and passive forgetting. To passively forget the past is to submit oneself to it, irrespective of its value to the present. In passively forgetting, we let slide from view – or repress – that which is both difficult to apprehend and which is of value to a society today: complexity, ambivalence, the conflicted multi-perspectival historical dynamics that get lost in the shadow of a monument. We consign ourselves in this passive mode of forgetting to remembering by imitation – by repetition – obsessively recreating and insisiting on the authenticity of our remembrance.

In contrast, to actively forget is to allow the possibility of those ambiguities and complexities obtain in the present and to allow ourselves to stop being haunted by the monolithic, or reified form of history, that simplifies what happened in the past.

Here then, the way in which the monolith functions suddenly becomes clearer. It is a form of passive forgetting – enacted in remembrance. The inscription on the plaque in Regent’s Park, remembering the dead from that awful attack 23 years ago, is passively aggressive – couching its sentiment in remembrance but in reality consolidating an ideological and political statement that, whatever its accuracy, brooks no argument. It is an obsessive remembering of certain details, a refusal to let past conflicts recede from view, making forgiveness impossible in the face of the monolithic reminder of a heinous violence.

And in contrast, the literary word, the shifting meaning of poetic writing, ‘languishing and melting in the sky’, does the opposite. The details it depicts are, of course, selective. But, in contrast with the monolith, the reader’s assimilation, interpretation, and response to the memories it invokes is also selective – one has the option, when reading Woolf’s account of Septimus and Lucrezia, to sympathise with the plight of women, to meditate on the horrors of shell-shock and the inhumane way in which it was treated in the 1920s and beyond; we can, as readers, both marvel in the suppleness and energy of Woolf’s prose while simultaneously recognise the horror of what she describes. Literary language is ephemeral and polysemous – and therefore does not allow itself to become set in stone – it does not dictate its meaning to us or inscribe and official memory but rather invites us to draw on our own memories and create our own meanings.

This is how I conceived, curatorially speaking, of our modest exhibition in UCL’s North Lodge. In creating an exhibition about – or in relation to – the First World War, we are, in effect, creating a form of remembrance. However, the exhibition space, the objects, and the object labels are not there to instruct but to act as a springboard or space for the possibility of discourse and questions. This is why my own choice of objects, Noel’s phrenology heads and Leonard Darwin’s photos of soldiers bequeathed to the Galton Institute, testify to the hidden bio-political valences of imperial warfare. Monolithic statues do not remember the eugenic arguments made by Leonard Darwin, which stated that the wholesale destruction of young men at the front could only be countered by an active campaign to mobilise the reproductive faculties of women on the home front. Remembering the unremembered – stressing the unstressed – allows us, not to replace the prevailing narrative of remembrance, but to add to it a set of voices that are so often quietened amidst the din of trumpets and hooves.

This is also why, when we as a group conceived of the exhibition, we wanted the “public engagement” aspect to be integral to the exhibition itself – and not as an afterthought. The presence of PhD researchers in the space at all times, to engage with the questions of visitors and to describe their own personal and disciplinary approach to curation, allows the space to be filled with a multitude of voices. The objects, the stories behind them, the interdisciplinary approach to understanding the war, and the questions and anecdotes of the visitors; these all work, I hope, to make the exhibition function as a monument in which remembrance can be enacted openly and actively.

 [1] It was pointed out to me afterwards that the adage ‘Lest we forget’ is more usually associated with the First World War (it is lifted from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” published in The Times in 1914) and would thus render my argument here slightly more complicated. The equivocal “lest” registers a sense of trepidation at what might happen should we ever entirely efface the memory of war and its victims. In contrast, “never” is both an appeal to a transcendental or eternal form of remembrance and a super-egoic injunction, something more akin to an order than a form of questioning. That said, the phrase ‘Never forget’ has gained a form of popular currency and is frequently used in conjunction with forms of remembrance in the USA – for 9/11, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor – perhaps deriving from a speech given by Benjamin Franklin in which he urged ‘May we never forget’. That ‘Never forget’ came to mind as I wrote this piece might reflect my lack of erudition in relation to this period of history but equally might also reflect the way in which remembrance today is more often than not undertaken in the spirit of a disciplinary injunction than in the spirit of open inquiry.

 

Afterword – 19th November, 2015

Since delivering this talk on the Armistice Day, the 11th of November 2015, the atrocities committed in Paris and further abroad have thrown this essay into a new light. I thought carefully about whether it was appropriate or not to post this so close to the traumatic events themselves, when the grief, emotion, and outrage these killings demand has yet to give way to the forms of remembrance I tried to explore and question in my presentation earlier in the month. It is not my desire to undermine the anger, the horror, and the sadness which has characterised the Europe-wide and worldwide response to the attacks in Paris, the attacks in Beirut, and characterises our response to brutally violent terrorist attacks anywhere, at any time, or of any political persuasion. And it was certainly not my intention in this essay to directly address the myriad political issues and the symptoms of trauma and remembrance that blight the Middle East and which periodically irrupt into European society.

 However, if anything, it is now more crucial than ever to remember and to do so actively – to engage in acts of communal commemoration and solidarity – and to do this in the spirit of open, reasoned, and empathic inquiry that such a complex incident requires. The atrocities in Paris are the horrific culmination of a number of different and often conflicting historical, ideological, and civilisational currents – or voices. Let us not, in our desire to remember the dead, drown out the voices of the living and the oppressed and the other.

Armistice Day is celebrated and remembered not to glorify war but to celebrate peace. Let us hope we will have the opportunity to do so again soon.

Works Cited and Consulted: 

Encyclopedia of Terrorism, ed. by Peter Chalk (Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2013).

Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, Trans. by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Trans. Douglas Smith, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Peter Radamanovic, “From Haunting to Trauma: Nietzsche’s Active Forgetting and Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster” in Postmodern Culture, 01/2001; 11(2).

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, Modern Classics, (London: Penguin, 2000).

 

 

 

Taxonomies of Bones and Pots – The Petrie Pops up at the Grant Museum

By Niall Sreenan, on 10 March 2014

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TAXONOMIES OF BONES AND POTS: THE PETRIE POPS UP AT THE GRANT MUSEUM

On the 13th of February, objects and ideas from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology “popped-up” in the neo-Victorian surrounds of the Grant Museum of Zoology in an event that sought to explore some of the ways in which archaeologists and biologists both engage in the act of classification and taxonomy. I attended this event in the guise of ‘Student Engager’, with the intention of sharing with visitors my own research on Darwinian evolution and literature. More on this later, but for now, it is perhaps a good idea to examine the procedure of taxonomy itself, as it relates specifically to biology and archaeology.

Taxonomy (from the Greek ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order and ‘nomos’ meaning ‘knowledge’) refers broadly to the act of (unsurprisingly) the ordering of knowledge and to the examination of the principles that underlie these logically ordered schemata. It is this process of ordering that the proponents of both ancient Egyptian archaeology and zoology practice – albeit in subtly different ways.

Taxonomy in biology, as we understand it now, is widely considered to derive from the work of the Swedish 18th Century naturalist Carolus Linnaeus. His seminal work in taxonomy, most famously given expression in Systema Naturae (1735), has bequeathed to us a method of biological classification, the finer details of which are now scientifically inaccurate, that to some extent lives on in popular thought (think of the game “Animal, Plant, or Mineral”) and whose basic outline persists in biology to this day. Linnaeus divided the natural world into three distinct types or ‘Kingdoms’, animal, plant, and mineral, and divided each of these into classes, with those categories dividing in turn into orders, familiesgenera, and species.

Regnum Animale – Systema Naturae
Click to zoom

Today, biological classification requires a more complex, nuanced system, in which there are six ‘kingdoms’, subsumed under the category of three ‘domains’ of life and take into account another category of life within this schema, the phylum. Moreover, the Linnaen classificatory system has given way to the Darwinian ‘Tree of Life’ as the dominant visual representation of the natural world, as evidenced by the current exhibition in the British Library that examines the nature of the visual representation of science: one installation in particular allows us to explore with touchscreen techonology, in great detail, the natural world through navigating this ‘Tree of Life’ and has a profoundly disorienting effect on our image of our human selves as the centre or pinnacle of the natural world. Homo sapiens in this model occupy an obscure, diminutive branch amongst the great, entangled, and monstrously abundant foliage of other species.

‘Tree of Life’ – Origin of Species, 1859

Yet despite the insistence of the dynamic, non-hierarchical schema of the Darwinian ‘Tree of Life’, the basic hierarchical ranking of Linnaean taxonomy persists (necessarily) in contemporary biology. Without this “ordering” of knowledge, with its embedded hierarchies and rankings, biological classification would be a disordered chaos. How then does this taxonomic procedure play out in other fields, distinct from biology?

While the significance of taxonomy is evident (and its history well known) in biology, the taxonomic aspects of archaeology are perhaps not as widely appreciated. The case of Flinders Petrie, the founder of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL, provides us with a particularly apposite opportunity to excavate the function and significance of taxonomic classification in archaeology. Amongst Petrie’s most crucial contributions to archaeology are his schematic, chronological sequences of ancient Egyptian pottery. Petrie, faced with an abundance of predynastic pottery, collected along the Nile at various locations, needed a method of placing these pots in chronological order. Unlike the distinctly un-scientific methods of some of Petrie’s predecessors for whom the act of archeology was partially mythic in its reconstruction of the past, Petrie paid specifically close attention to the morphology of the objects with which he was faced and treated these morphologies as, what we call today, data-sets. Based on the assumption that the morphologies of pottery changed over time (in an almost evolutionary fashion), Petrie was able, via a complex mathematical process, to systematize and sequence the chronological order creating, in effect, a taxonomical method of dating pots. Both Petrie’s skill as a mathematician and diligence as an archaeologist is underlined here as, today, this statistical approach is undertaken using computers only – the complex arithmetic required simply taking too long for humans. The consequences of Petrie’s methodology – what is now called seriation – on the discipline of archaeology were and still are profound. The process is an important method in contemporary archeology and, in particular, it revolutionized our understanding of the timeline of Egyptian history, all through his taxonomic analysis of pottery.

https://twitter.com/LatentLaziness/status/434023358943207424

It was these very histories and methods of taxonomy in biology and archaeology that provided the crucial link between the Petrie and Grant Museums, and in turn provided the subject matter and theme of the event which I attended. Visitors were invited to engage in a number of taxonomic activities: reconstructing the shattered sequence of Flinders Petrie’s classification of pots, re-connecting and correctly identifying the scattered skeletal remains of a gorilla, and placing ancient Egyptian pots in their correct chronological order. These acts of reconstruction and identification, of the re-assembling of broken sequences and structures, stress the importance of taxonomy and classification in both biology and archaeology – disciplines whose methods, goals, and data-sets overlap in the fields of anthropology and osteo-archaeology. Moreover, it invites the participant to engage in the very ordering of knowledge out of disorder that underlies the procedure of taxonomy (albeit without the complex statistical mathematics). By the same token, taking part in a re-construction allows us to consider the implications of breaking up and disrupting these structure, of the deconstruction of systems of ordered classification.

My own research as a PhD student in UCL explores the way in which reading the work of Charles Darwin can provide us with new critical and theoretical insight into works of literature – and how reading works of literature have a reciprocal effect on our readings of Darwin. I referred to the Darwinian ‘Tree of Life’ earlier in this blog and it is to this I return now. Previously, I suggested that the tree model of life provided us with a more nuanced and dynamic method of ‘ordering’ our knowledge of the natural world than that of the Linnaean classificatory system. This view of the natural world, I stated, was profoundly decentring: homo sapiens are removed from our self-appointed place at the top of the hierarchy of species. And yet, does Linnaeus specifically place humans at the top of a hierarchy? Looking at the table of species published in Systema Naturae, there is a distinct echo of the deliberate subordination of all animals to the supremacy of man that has occurred in older visual and conceptual models of the natural world. Linnaeus’ table puts us (‘anthropomorpha’) at the top of the table, bestowing us with the title of “Number 1”. This repeats the schema that has been passed down through Western thought since Aristotle in the Scala Naturae, or the “Chain of Being” in which humans existed only below God in the grand hierarchy of all species. In this context, Darwin’s arboreal structuring of the natural world, with the human race being afforded no greater a position than a mouse or a mollusc is defiantly radical, shunning the accepted wisdom of all naturalist and biological thought since Ancient Greece. Moreover, the categories in Darwin’s model of life, the taxonomic leaves that sit upon the branches of genetic connection, are themselves unstable and subject to constant change.

Chain of Being – Rhetorica Christiana 1579

 

Darwin himself, writing in The Origin of Species in 1859 wrote:

 

“Naturalists try to arrange the species, genera, and families in each class, on what is called the Natural System. But what is meant by this system? Some authors look at it merely as a scheme for arranging together those living objects which are most alike, and for separating those which are most unlike; or as an artificial means for enunciating, as briefly as possible general propositions …”

 

Darwin, it seems, wishes to question the very substance and authority of this natural system, inaugurated by Linnaeus. For him, it is a necessary evil – an unwanted and ‘artificial’ ossification of the dynamism and change inherent in biological life that is nevertheless required for order and brevity in biology.

 

Yet, he goes further in his critique of classificatory systems:

 

“…we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience. This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species…”

 

The term species for Darwin is an arbitrary linguistic imposition on an organic form that by definition is never stable and always in a state of flux. He, like those who criticize the worst vagaries of cultural, linguistic, and philosophical postmodernism, sees in this biological relativism something to be maligned – a state of existential flux that results only in the melancholia of unstable and incomplete knowledge. Yet, in this he sees the prospect of an end to a “vain search”: the search for “essence”, linguistic, philosophical, and biological. Rather, Darwin would assert, we should instead attend to the ‘entangled bank’ of differences, to which he refers towards the end of Origin of Species, that make up the natural world rather than vainly trying to categorise and essentialise all of organic existence.

What if anything, does this literary critical digression of mine have to do with the taxonomical procedures of Flinders Petrie? Or, indeed, with his chronological series of pots? It might be worth asking, instead, what do Petrie’s series of pots tell us about the humans that made them? Or indeed about the relationship these humans had to the form of the pots that they created? It is my job as a literary critic to focus on ‘difference’ in literature and art; to attend in detail to the specific and subjective detail of single works of culture and their relationships with history, with other works of art, with texts, and with the individuals that created them. Taxonomy, the ordering of knowledge, on the other hand has a tendency to subordinate difference at the hands of “order”. On an instrumental level, this ordering process is vital for biology to operate – we could not simply throw our hands up give in to the desire to say that, say, tigers are contingent and temporary balls of matter in a state of constant flux and, therefore, should not be named! Yet, when it comes to the creative products of human hands and minds, there is an ethical dimension that should be attended to: to subordinate difference in art and culture is to subordinate individual difference in human life.

Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, and a colleague and acquaintance of Petrie, who worked at UCL in the early 20th C saw in the science of taxonomy, underlined by a misreading of Darwinian evolution and heredity, the potential to categorise and order human society according to his terms. He differentiated between the European races and the ‘lower races’ of man, creating, in effect, a taxonomy of human life. Not only is this scientifically incorrect, but the very act of naming and of creating order in doing so does a violence to those whom it names – restricting their existence to a category in which variance and difference within that group cannot be registered and asserting an unquestioned hierarchy of races, similar to that of the Systema Naturae. A distinctive passage from Galton’s work Hereditary Genius elucidates his views on the hierarchies of life:

“The natural ability of which this book mainly treats, is such as a modern European possesses in a much greater average share than men of the lower races. There is nothing either in the history of domestic animals or in that of evolution to make us doubt that a race of sane men may be formed who shall be as much superior mentally and morally to the modern European, as the modern European is to the lowest of the Negro races”

Galton is considered to have inaugurated the pseudo-scientific practice of eugenics, a discipline which espoused the improvement of human ‘stock’, the creation of a ‘race of sane men’, through selective breeding and other methods, the very name of which, today, can only be used in pejorative terms due to its racist foundations and invidious implications in the 20th Century.

These are the dangers of taxonomy when applied, misguidedly and without reflection, to human culture. Certainly, it is not my argument that taxonomy or order is inherently wrong. It was, however, my intention at the event held in the Grant Museum on the 13th of February to try and disrupt and disorder the usual ways in which we think about taxonomy in all fields.

Interestingly, Darwin, a scientist, like Galton, gives us an elegant means of resisting the worst vagaries of taxonomical essentialism. However it is only through a detailed and sensitive reading of Darwin’s writing that this can emerge from his texts. In other words, in order to see Darwin as holding ambivalent and philosophically interesting views on taxonomy and classification, it was necessary to ignore the taxonomical classification of Darwin as “Scientist” and “Biologist” and instead attend to the specific literary detail of his work.

Works cited and further reading (in no particular order):

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, ed. by Gillian Beer, New edition (OUP Oxford, 2008).

Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius, (London: Macmillan, 1892).

Debbie Challis, The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie, (London: Bloomsbury, 2013)

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, (London: Routledge, 1989)

Call me Jeremy Bentham: “Moby-Dick”, the Pig-Fish, and UCL Museums

By Niall Sreenan, on 21 November 2013

Niall Sreenan By Niall Sreenan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The Whiteness of the Whale", Benton Spruance, c1967. Image Courtesy of NGA, Washington DC

“The Whiteness of the Whale”, Benton Spruance, c1967.
Image Courtesy of NGA, Washington DC

In its oceanic bibliographic depth and its densely allusive prose, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is as much a work of academic research as it is a study of obsession. Indeed, its genius is to make the reader enact the academic obsession of the pursuit of truth in its narration of the story of Captain Ahab and his own obsessive, yet doomed, quest for the elusive white whale, Moby-Dick.

Allusion and bibliographic prosthesis, in much academic prose, can attenuate the richness of academic work, as our consciousness flits wearily from footnote to endnote and back to prose, yet much of the joy of reading Moby Dick is in immersing ourselves in the rich set of references with which Melville explicitly and implicitly peppers the novel.

It is often said that the chapters dedicated to the habits, behaviour, anatomy, and folklore of the leviathanic cetaceans that the Nantucketers of the Pequod seek to butcher for their livelihoods are the most boring of Moby-Dick’s chapters. They do not, it is argued, propel the narrative forwards nor do they proffer much insight into the complex psychological processes of the monomaniacal Ahab. Indeed, in much the same way as the densely allusive prose, they act as bulwarks to the general flow of the narrative, cutting it up, and disallowing our abilities as readers to devour the story, as it were.

As a student of literature, whose research explores the complex nexus of cultural linkages between science and literature, both in history and today, I find these passages to be the most fascinating, as they exemplify the very subject of my research, the intersection, or interface, between scientific writing and literary writing. Moreover, unless one is well read in historic whale biology, these sections require one to seek help at the back of one’s well-annotated scholarly edition, or  to fire up Google and hope for the best.

However, there is something of the museum to Moby Dick too…

Each of Melville’s bibliographic allusions, from archaic naturalist studies, taxonomic tomes, and subjective accounts, biblical stories and ancient Greek myth, acts as a monument to a past science, an archaeology of the sperm whale mythos, constructed from scientific and non-scientific texts. Thus, I was not surprised to find that Moby Dick proffered some intriguing connections with UCL’s own museum collections, particularly the Grant Museum, which is itself a monument to a past science.

One such chapter, dedicated to a taxonomic explication of the entire family of cetaceans as understood by the narrator Ishmael, draws a direct parallel between the size and character of certain whales and the materiality and format of books, once again enacting a collision or analogy between the whale and the text:

First: According to magnitude I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS), and these shall comprehend them all, both small and large.

Melville begins with the largest specimen, and the subject of his metaphysical hunt:

BOOK I. (FOLIO), CHAPTER I. (SPERM WHALE).—This whale, among the English of old vaguely known as the Trumpa whale, and the Physeter whale, and the Anvil Headed whale, is the present Cachalot of the French, and the Pottsfich of the Germans, and the Macrocephalus of the Long Words. He is, without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce; he being the only creature from which that valuable substance, spermaceti, is obtained.

Perseus rescues Andromeda from the sea-monster Cetus

Yet before embarking on his review of whale taxonomy and etymology, through the index of cetaceans and their now curiously outdated appellations, ‘the grampus’, ‘the blackfish’, ‘the thrasher’, and their correlatives in publishing formats, ‘the folio’, the ‘octavo’, the duodecimo’, Melville draws attention to a contested aspect of the systematic study of whales, referring to what he calls ‘fish hitherto authoritatively regarded as alien’. These fish, the ‘fish style Lamatins and the Dugongs’, for Melville are not a member of the whale species, and we know now that they are in fact members of the order Sirenia, derived from the ancient Greek mythology of sirens, which also is said to refer to the circumstances of their discovery, their being mistaken by sailors for mermaids. The order Cetecea, in which whales belong, literally means ‘large sea animal’ though itself has an ancient Greek mythological origin:  Perseus, a demigod and the killer of Medusa, defeats the sea monster Cetus, and Melville himself refers to Perseus, as ‘the first whale man’.

But Ishmael sees nothing alluring about the supposedly siren like Dugongs and Manatees. Rather, he has disdain for them, writing that ‘these pig-fish are a noisy, contemptible set, mostly lurking in the mouths of rivers, and feeding on wet hay, and especially as they do not spout, I deny their credentials as whales; and have presented them with their passports to quit the Kingdom of Cetology.’

Examining at the skeletal specimen in the Grant Museum, it is not difficult to perceive how a contradictory folkloric narrative was constructed about the Dugong. Its tail is certainly mermaid-like, flowing elegantly, its gently curved spine ending in its compact flipper. Yet, its face is distinctly porcine, its nose ending abruptly, like a snout, and hunched upon its sleek body as if stuck there by an impatient sculptor.

The Dugong at the Grant Museum of Zoology

The Dugong at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Yet, what can we tell about a whale, or a ‘pig fish’ from its skeleton? Or indeed, what can we tell about a book from its structure? Melville writes:

 But it may be fancied, that from the naked skeleton of the stranded whale, accurate hints may be derived touching his true form. Not at all. For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape.

Melville seems circumspect about our ability to tell much about an animal from its skeleton alone, a notion that might give one pause as they browse through the collection of skeletons and fossils in the Grant Museum of Zoology. Yet, for Melville, there is one exception to this rule, and this too can be found in University College London:

 …though Jeremy Bentham’s skeleton, which hangs for candelabra in the library of one of his executors, correctly conveys the idea of a burly-browed utilitarian old gentleman, with all Jeremy’s other leading personal characteristics…

Bentham, it seems, clothed as he is and looking ‘burly-browed’ emanates the very essence of his philosophy, the content of his texts and his utilitarian thought being ‘correctly conveyed’ by his skeleton alone. And once again, Melville asks us to make the link between the ‘fleshy covering’ of the whale and the organism and books, texts, and philosophies.

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon in the South Cloister of UCL

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon in the South Cloister of UCL

Indeed reading Moby-Dick, without attending to the thicket of references, allusions, quotations, and citations, is much like reading only the skeleton of the book. The plot is but the skeleton, or the structure, and the flesh, which gives meaning to the bare bones of the story, is what leads us down the avenues of discovery and research and reminds the reader of the sheer joy of education for education’s sake, and the importance and privilege of spending one’s days as PhD student, reading, thinking, writing, and seeking out the White Whale.