Section from Moby Dick with some thoughts about perception and being.


I found this section of the book interesting, so have uploaded it to my blog, What interests me; is the idea of being able to perceive two images simultaniously. It is fascinating how Herman Melville supposes that whales can have no co-ordination between their two eyes, due to the eyes being located on opposite sides of the whale’s head. What this means is that the whale must be able to see two distinct pictures at the same time (or perhaps two distinct scenes would be a better way of describing it?), as opposed to the human who perceives only one picture or scene at a time, a single scene that is rendered by two eyes working together co-operatively. Anyway he explains the idea much better than I could which is why I have uploaded this section.

It was Herman Melvile and he’s suppositions about the whale’s subjective experience, that made me start thinking about; what it would be like? being able to perceive multiple scenes at once, and  having a kind of mental duality.

I think this is an interesting subject with regards to my research into split screen cinema.I think the idea of being able to see more than one scene at a time is perhaps both a common and a sociological pre-occupation.

It is interesting to think about –  the desire to see two scenes at once; as being a fundamental ambition, motivating development of  the survallence culture that we now occupy

It is then interesting to start thinking about the desire to be in more that one place at a time, the idea of occupying two bodies, or maybe three or maybe four or maybe absolute formless ubiquity.

Supposing we as people do have a desire to acquire or to invent the power to perceive multiple scenes at the same time, some thought into the matter would suggest that a desire to  perceive multiple scenes at the same time, is in actuality the same thing as a desire to – ‘be’ in more than one place at the same time.

We have now stumbled across one of the most immediate and also perplexing and complicated concepts in all of philosophy; the phenomena of being.  What does it mean to be?  The root of ontology is just an effort to answer this simple yet infinitely perplexing question.

Yet few people would argue with the basic ascertain that a physical being (exclusive from the phenomena of imaginary/conceptual forms of being), is defined by it’s embodiment, a being in a physical sense is a being that occupies a location. Thus in order for a being to be, it must occupy some location, it must have a presence in some place at some time. It must be a thing,  it must manifest it self through what Heidegger describes as it’s ‘thinglyness’. I.e  it’s ability to define it’s itself as a distinct entity definable in separation from every other distinct entity. Thus we can perhaps shed some light on the question – What does it mean to be?  To be, is to embody a specific entity, in a specific location at a specific time.

Lets come back then to the topic of Man and his desire to ‘be’ in more than one place at the same time.

Hopefully I have started to expose the paradox that exists in this desire, the sense of identity that makes us what we are as conscious creatures, can only ever occur in one place at one time, to be in two places at once, would automatically mean a loss of the identity, the physical oneness that is the sole characteristic of the phenomenon that defines us, the phenomena of being.

After explaining the rational impossibility of our being in more than one place at a time, it is interesting to ask why then does man have this irrational desire to be in more than one place at the same time?

Maybe it is the first step towards a greater ambition, an ambition or a desire to be everywhere at the same time, to be ubiquitous.

But what does it mean to be ubiquitous? all dictionary definitions of the word ubiquitous define it as that which is everywhere at once.

‘Everywhere at once’ is paradoxical, the word ‘once’ denotes a oneness a singularity spread across time, yet the word ’every’ is by definition contradictory to any oneness outside of a unified collective of everyness, it might be possible to be everywhere at every time, but not possible to be everywhere at once.

Therefore, to be everywhere is really to be nowhere, actually to not be at all.

Based on this argument, it is possible to say that mans desire to be ubiquitous, to be every where at once is also a desire to be nowhere at no time, a desire to escape being, to escape physicality and embodiment.

Freud believes that we do have such a desire to escape physicality, though not exactly a desire something much deeper an instinct and he defined this as the death instinct.

Anyway this is the section from Moby Dick that made me start thinking along these lines in the beginning, all of these thoughts are relevant with regard to my research topic of split screen cinema, and also digital culture at large.

Section from Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Now from this peculiar sideways position of the whale’s eyes, it is plain that he can never see an object which is exactly ahead, no more than he can one actually astern. In a word, the position of the whale’s eyes corresponds to that of a man’s ears; and you may fancy, for yourself, how it would fare with you, did you sideways survey objects through your ears. You would find that you could only command some thirty degrees of vision in advance of the straight side-line of sight;  and about thirty more behind it. If your bitterest foe were walking straight towards you, with dagger uplifted in broad day, you would not be able to see him, any more than if he were stealing upon you  from behind. In a word you would have two backs, so to speak; but at the same time also two fronts (side fronts): for what is it that makes the front of a man – what indeed, but his eyes?

Moreover, while in most other animals that I can now think of, the eyes are so planted as imperceptibly to blend their visual power, so as to produce one picture and not two to the brain; the peculiar position of the whale’s eyes, effectually divided as they are by many cubic feet of solid head, which towers between them like a great mountain separating two lakes in valleys, this of course must wholly separate the impressions which each independent organ imparts.

The Whale therefore, must see one distinct picture on this side, and one distinct picture on that side; while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him. Man may, in effect, be said to look out on the word from a sentry-box with two joined sashes for his windows. But with the whale, these two sashes are separately inserted, making two distinct windows, but sadly impairing the view. This peculiarity of the whale’s eyes is a thing always to be borne in mind in the fishery; and to be remembered by the reader in some subsequent scenes.

A curious and most puzzling question might be started concerning this visual matter, as touching the Leviathan. But I must be content with a hint. So long as man’s eyes are open in the light, the act of seeing is involuntary; that is, he can not then help mechanically seeing what ever objects are before him.

Nethertheless, any one’s experience will teach him, that though he can take in an indiscriminating sweep of things at one glance, it is quite impossible for him, attentively and completely, to examine any two things – however large or however small – at once and the same instance of time; never mind if they lay side by side and touch each other. But if you now come to separate these two objects, and surround each by a circle of profound darkness, then in order to see one of them, in such a manner as to bring your mind to bear on it, the other will be completely excluded from your contemporary consciousness. How is it then with the Whale? True both his eyes in themselves must simultaneously act; but in his brain so much more comprehensive, combining and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same time attentively examine two prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction? If he can then it is as marvelous a thing in him as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid. Nor, strictly investigated, is there any incongruity in this comparison.

It may be but an idle whim, but it has always seemed to me, that the extraordinary vacillations of movement displayed by some whale when beset by three or four boats; the timidity and liability to such queer frights, so common to such whales; I think that all of this indirectly proceeds from the helpless perplexity of volition, in which their divided and diametrically opposite powers of vision must involve them..

Pg 349 – 351

Moby Dick

Herman Melville

Everyman’s Library.


One thought on “Section from Moby Dick with some thoughts about perception and being.

  1. Pingback: Unit 1 Assesment. | Andrewburgess Weblog

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