Moby Dick, Evaporated
experiment #0201604102131 ·



This is a print version of an web-based project from 2007.

From the preface:

This new edition of Moby-Dick or, the Whale contains Melville’s complete text, with one small transformation: each word appears only once. After a word first appears, it evaporates forever, never to be found again in the book. The punctuation, however, remains intact. As soon as the most common connecting words begin to disappear, grammar starts to fracture and sentences crumble into a trail of disjointed phrases, pulling the reader into an accelerating vortex of lexical debris — the skeletal remains of language (Ch. 19):

“, , .”
“,”. “, , . , , ?” “Elijah.”

Yet even as the text’s lexical structure disintegrates, the foreboding tone of Melville’s epic shines through — as here, when Moby Dick is first sighted (Ch. 41):

. , Moodiness, , brooding. Unlikely, distrusting fitness, , , qualified, wildness. Gnawed, infixed, unrelenting fangs incurable; , , appalling brutes. , corporeally incapacitated, superlatively underlings attack. , , keyed, all-engrossing hunting. , righteous fiendish! Profitable, counted mint. , immitigable, .

The book abounds with passages containing punctuated streams of encrypted signals that resist decipherment through reason alone. Witness the rising crescendo of urgency and astonishment in the book’s final scenes (Ch. 135):


“!”, — “? — Ravening, , ; ? — ; , , — . ! ! , , , — ! , ; . , ; fadest; ! . ; — journey’s?; . , — ? , ! — — , ! ! — ! ? — ; ! —. : — ! — ! ! — ! ! — vane” — — “, soars! — ? , ! — , !”

The evaporative process strips away the familiar landmarks of language, leaving a distilled residue of meaning that defies rational thought, yet possesses its own unitive symbolic significance. Remarkably, the gradual disintegration of language actually draws us closer to Ishmael’s own humanity. As Ishmael’s disorienting descent into the deep progresses, the swarms of marks and scratches on the page intensify, and we become co-participants in an archetypal journey into the psyche. Together with Ishmael we abandon the safety of land, head out to sea, and fall deeper into the abyssal wilderness of Ahab’s doomed adventure. Together we descend into the maelstrom of his unconscious and unreasoning obsession. And together we drift in the wreckage — brethren survivors of an encounter with the transcendent, in whose presence words invariably fail. Language may be what elevates and distinguishes us as humans, but it is its inevitable failure that unifies us as the tender mortal beings we truly are.

* * * * *


To preserve the narrative flow of the original story, I have moved Melville’s introductory sections (“Etymology” and “Extracts”) to the back of the book. This intervention also crucially preserves the book’s opening sentence, which otherwise would have read, simply, “Ishmael.” I dared not tamper with an opening sentence so honorably enshrined within the canon of English literature. The original chapter titles have been preserved to give the reader some familiar reference points in this otherwise disorienting edition. The footnotes are Melville’s own, per the Random House Modern Library edition.

This edition is based on the open-source files provided by Project Gutenberg and WikiSource. While preparing this edition, I discovered several errors in these transcriptions. I have corrected the WikiSource edition accordingly, using the Random House Modern Library Paperback Edition (2000) and the Second Norton Critical Edition (2002) as reference.

~ jt bullitt
Steuben, Maine
April 15, 2016