It’s hard to believe, but this year is my twentieth as a member of the NYU faculty. And each year — except for a couple in which I’ve been on leave from teaching — I’ve had the opportunity to teach Melville’s Moby-Dick. I introduced it — against the advice of senior colleagues who thought it was too difficult for NYU English majors — into the English Department’s required American Literature I course. (Over time, it became the courses’s signature offering.) I built a version of the college’s Conversations of the West course around novel. (Sadly, that whole Conversations of the West set of courses has been replaced by the far more bland Texts and Ideas.) I’ve taught an undergraduate senior seminar and a graduate class devoted wholly to the novel, as well as senior honors these and master’s essays. It’s featured in some doctoral dissertations I’ve directed.
This proselytizing will continue in Abu Dhabi this spring, when I team-teach a course called “The Global Text: Moby-Dick” with my colleague Shamoon Zamir. Here’s our description of the course, which is meant to test out a template that we think can be applied to authors and texts around NYU’s global network:
Is there such a thing as global cultural heritage? This course resituates Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick — often described as “The Great American Novel” — as a global text that is “worldly” in its outlook and its legacy. The course examines the novel’s relation to Christian, Muslim, and Zoroastrian religious traditions; to Greco-Roman tragedy and epic; to Shakespeare; to Western and Eastern philosophical traditions; and to a variety of European, British, and American Romantic traditions. It also examines the novel’s engagement with the visual arts. The course poses three sets of questions: 1) In what ways was Moby-Dick a “global” text in its own day, adopting a “worldly” approach that transcends its particular local milieu? 2) How has the history of the publication, criticism, and teaching of the novel transformed it into a global cultural work? 3) What is the cultural legacy of the book today throughout a variety of global media forms, including plays, films, novels, operas, and works of visual art?
I’m taking a similar approach to Shakespeare this term in Abu Dhabi, and I’m going to encourage one of my colleagues to adjust his Arabian Nights course along these lines. We can imagine “global text” courses in Madrid (Don Quixote), Florence (Dante), Berlin (Goethe?), London, Paris …
In any case, it’s a great bit of luck that a project called “The Moby-Dick Big Read” begins today. Each day, the project will feature a chapter of Melville’s novel recorded by some well-known as well as not-so-well-known readers. Each day will also feature a piece of art presumably related to the day’s reading.
“The Moby-Dick Big Read” is sponsored sponsored by Plymouth University in the UK in conjunction with the Plymouth International Book Festival. According to the website, the project “grew out of the Peninsula Arts Whale Festival (2011) and was conceived and curated by Philip Hoare (winner of the 2009 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction for Leviathan or, the Whale) and the acclaimed artist, Angela Cockayne, whose exhibition, Dominion, also held at Peninsula Arts in 2011, provided vital inspiration.” You can read more about the project in this piece from the Guardian.
So for the next 135 days, I’ll be posting a link to the day’s reading. That should take us to the eve of the Moby-Dick course.
You can start by enjoying Chapter 1, “Loomings,” which is wonderfully read by Tilda Swinton. (Talk about a plummy English accent!) You can also subscribe to the series as a podcast on iTunes. Visit the site itself to see the piece of artwork chosen to accompany the day’s chapter.
And, yes, on the site’s Facebook page, someone has already asked if there are any plans to record the “Etymology” and “Extracts” sections that precede Chapter 1. No answer yet.