The Goney - Communication and Interruption in the Network


"If two strangers crossing the Pine Barrens in New York State, or the equally desolate Salisbury Plain in England; if casually encountering each other in such inhospitable wilds, these twain, for the life of them, cannot well avoid a mutual salutation; and stopping for a moment to interchange the news; and, perhaps, sitting down for a while and resting in concert: then, how much more natural that upon the illimitable Pine Barrens and Salisbury Plains of the sea, two whaling vessels descrying each other at the ends of the earth - off lone Fanning's Island, or the far King's Mills; how much more natural, I say, that under such circumstances these ships would not only interchange hails, but come into still closer, more friendly and sociable contact."



One of the ideas I'm tracing in Moby Dick is the networked structure of the novel, how the text - and metonymically the ship itself - functions in a nodal economy that exposes the flow of connection and disruption that characterizes our understandings of community and narrative itself. To that end, I've been doing a lot of mapping work with the idea of the "gam," the socializing between ships that Melville describes as follows:

GAM. Noun. -- A social meeting of two(or more) Whale-ships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats' crews: the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other



Melville's chapter on the gam outlines the justification and protocol for such encounters at sea (that he declares unique to the whaling voyage) in response to the first of such encounters, a strange meeting of "stranger" ships off the Cape of Good Hope. There, the Pequod encountered the Goney, a ship bound home to Nantucket after years at sea. But this first meeting at the "ends of the earth" fails to produce a "friendly and sociable contact." Indeed, far from the work of recognition and communion imagined "natural" in the meeting of men in their travels, the Goney presents us first with the feeling of estrangement and disruption.

As if the waves had been fullers, this craft was bleached like the skeleton of a stranded walrus. All down her sides, this spectral appearance was traced with long channels of reddened rust, while all her spars and her rigging were like the thick branches of trees furred over with hoar-frost...A wild sight it was to see her long-bearded look-outs at those three mast-heads. They seemed clad in the skins of beasts, so torn and bepatched the raiment that had survived nearly four years of cruising. Standing in iron hoops nailed to the mast, they swayed and swung over a fathomless sea; and though, when the ship slowly glided close under our stern, we six men in the air came so nigh to each other that we might almost have leaped from the mast-heads of one of the ship to those of the other; yet, those forlorn-looking fishermen, mildly eyeing us as they passed, said no one word to our own look-outs"



The Goney, first identifiable by common means (sails) and object (whaling), transforms at it approaches; it has upon closer view a "spectral appearance," bleached as it is "like the skeleton of a stranded walrus." The ship, named after one animal (and translated into its common equivalent by Melville himself), appears as another in decay. The men on board the Goney resist identification as well. While their look-outs at the the three mast-heads mirror the look-outs on the Pequod, the crew of the "strange" ship present a "wild sight." Their clothes are so worn they seem to be "clad in the skin of beasts" and when the pass, close enough to touch, these men say nothing but simply stare silently at their fellow whalers. This silence is aggravated by the loss of the mechanism that makes communication possible: in attempting to return the Pequod's hail, "the strange captain" loses his speaking trumpet in the "fathomless sea."


So while the gam represents an irruption of community in desolate environments, Melville introduces this idea through its impossibility: the sea changes men and ship into unrecognizable figures; the sea intervenes and reinforces the gap in communication by robbing the Goney of its ability to respond. So while the gam quite easily represents a bridging of difference through its emphasis on relation and connectivity, I think it is important to remember that this idea of connection and community is first unworked, silence irrupts or interrupts into the scene of community, the possibility of coming together only occurs after the scene of disjuncture. And this is a silence that haunts the communication that it establishes. After describing the gam, bookending the trio of chapters "The Albatross" - "The Gam" - "The Town-Ho's Story (As told at the Golden Inn)" the narrative complexity and proliferation of voices in the second encounter doesn't so much overwrite as draw our attention again to the lack we witnessed first in the Goney.


In order to work with and through this idea of silence interrupting the space of communication (and by extension, community), I've created and unleashed a Twitter bot called @TheGoney. At two-day intervals (I originally wanted it to wait 52 hours to represent the 52 initial chapters the precede its appearance) it responds to Mark Sample's @MobyDickatSea with silence.

For now that is all the bot does, but I'm planning to play with and extend its functionality in future weeks as I continue to use the gam to think through connectivity, community, and disruption (what does it mean, for example, that to encounter the Goney is also to encounter Coleridge just off the Crozet Islands?)