By Maximilian Du


Max Du is a senior at Stanford, pursuing a creative writing minor and working as a producer for the Stanford Storytelling Project. He studied Moby Dick in a small Stanford seminar with Prof. Nancy Ruttenburg, where they looked deeply at the questions of human relationships with nature and animals. He continues to explore these questions as he works on a book about human-animal relationships.

When I went to see Wu Tsang’s adaptation of Moby Dick, I hadn’t picked up the book for more than a year. But over these past few months, I’ve been obsessed with the phrase, “dancing the ocean.” It comes from an old killer whale show, when whale trainers could literally ride their whales as they rocketed out of the water. Over the last few years, I have had the unique opportunity to work with these trainers and learn about their personal stories. In my interviews, the trainers reflect on the largeness of the whale, the counter-shaded black and white, the unflinching gaze, and even the eroticism of kissing a whale on the tongue. For these reasons, Moby Dick has been a prophetic text for me. Interleaved into the iconic chapters of whale hunts and the monomaniac musings of peg-leg Ahab lies a very similar exploration of the whale, and ultimately, the suffocating feeling of being forever on the fringe of knowledge.

Wu Tsang’s adaptation of this American classic is a feature-length production that was mostly free of spoken dialogue. Most of the time, the dialogue came through title cards, but at opportune moments, a poetic narration rose from the “sub-sub-librarian,” a footnote in Melville’s book that Tsang turned into a fully realized god-like character with eye-glitter and a colorful robe. A live orchestra filled the concert hall with ethereal, foreboding music that colored every part of the story.  

I came to the performance unsure of what to expect, mostly because of the unconventional medium of presenting the story. However, after the first minute, I was hooked. Tsang chose to begin with a trance-like sequence of whalers squeezing the liquid sperm (a waxy substance produced in the whale’s head) into smooth whale oil as they chanted, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. At that moment, I wanted to laugh out loud, because it was a very specific reference to a ludicrous chapter of Moby Dick called “A Squeeze of the Hand.” Ishmael, the protagonist, gets caught in this process of rendering whale fat, and he remarks that squeezing sperm brings enough camaraderie to bring us closer to world peace. It was funny because it reminded me of the insanity of the story. As this ship chases the white whale across the world, Ishmael finds solace in obscenity, philosophy, and social commentary. This is the magic of Moby Dick, where even the rowdy images have an existential undertone. These are the very things that Tsang heightened in her interpretation of the story.  

When I think about Moby Dick, I remember many of Melville’s profound scenes. My favorite scene is in “The Grand Armada,” where the whalers are floating in small boats, surrounded by a nursery pod of sperm whales. As they float in the center, a harpooner gently pets the back of a baby whale with his razor-sharp lance. Tsang didn’t sell me short in her creation of these images. While I didn’t see “The Grand Armada,” I still remember how Tsang depicted a whale hunt by alternating between serene shots of humpback whales and an ocean colored blood-red. The creation of uncomfortable contrast is important to the story, as the whaling ship is filled with people who fundamentally disagree on how to interpret past events. The crazed captain Ahab sees malice in the white whale who took his leg, while the level-headed first mate Starbuck sees nothing but an animal. 

Tsang plays up this insanity of Ahab, but she does something more in her work. She shows Ahab in his most uncomfortable moments, giving Ahab’s insanity a generous interpretation. Tsang’s reimagination of Ahab reminded me of the core struggle in Moby Dick. This debate over animal malice is part of a knowledge crisis: the whale’s behavior can only be understood at the surface level, and even then, it can be interpreted in different ways. Even the chapters that focus purely on whales—their body parts, their types, their historical depictions (which Tsang graciously reproduces)—still showcase the failed attempts that science has taken to approach the whale center. Through these direct gazes, the true nature of the whale resists discovery. The knowledge crisis affects Ahab and Ishmael the most. As argued by Melville scholars like John Bryant and Haskell Springer, Ahab and Ishmael are both trying to understand the deep holes left in their lives. Ahab’s quest involves vengeance, while Ishmael’s quest involves glorious musings about the world of whales and people. 

Central to this knowledge crisis is the imagination of the animal experience, which I enjoyed watching in Tsang’s embodied exploration of the piece. In recent years, thanks to commonly misconstrued arguments about cetacean cognition, we have learned to romanticize whales and dolphins. In the old whaling times, these animals were commodified as oil. I’ve found that I’m not interested in either end of the spectrum. It feels wrong to see animals as objects, and it also feels wrong to assume human-level capacities in animals. I’ve found that the most compelling stories are the ones that treat animals as sentient individuals while still focusing on our human experience of them. For me, this performance hit the mark. Tsang started the story through the whale’s perspective under the surface, but she did not dwell solely on the whale’s life. She let it gain meaning by showing us that it exists, nothing more. In this way, the whale is attainable in a glorious sideways glance. This is exactly why I am drawn to places where we interact with animals theatrically, in literal cases like whale shows, but also through artistic exploration, like Tsang’s reimagination of Moby Dick.

There’s a lot more to be said about Tsang’s masterful work: the queer emphasis in the all-male crew and especially between Ishmael and Queequeg the harpooner. The view of whale whiteness through a post-colonial lens. Or, about the sub-sub-librarian and his nest of books. In the red light, playing with little models of the world, he made me wonder if he was that untouchable whale center, holding in his hands the very pieces that haunted the characters of that whaling ship. While sitting in the audience, watching these whalers swabbing decks, squeezing sperm, dancing the ocean, I started to understand what good literature truly meant. Good literature isn’t some set of books determined to be canonical, and therefore, somehow untouchable. Good literature is something that can be bent, broken, and recreated in ways that were unimaginable by the original author. This rings true for Melville’s Moby Dick, and it rings true for Tsang’s reimagination as well.