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In the spring of 1989, I registered for a class called “Melville and Pynchon.” We were assigned two novels: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The professor paired these books up, as far as I could tell, for their unreadability.

The professor’s name was Mull. Dr. Donald L. Mull. He lived up to his name. Mull mulled. He ruminated. He pondered. I recently attended a drone music event where about fifteen people played the same cluster of notes at the same time. That’s how I would describe attending “Melville and Pynchon” on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Mull kept his register around E-flat as he lectured about portentous hermeneutics of the whale week upon week; or Slothrop, Pynchon’s protagonist, voyaging across Europe, and Calvinism, and whatever the fuck the rest of the book is about.

“From the heads of all ponderous profound beings,” Ishmael pronounces in Moby-Dick, “there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam.” I saw no steam as I contemplated the whiteness of Mull’s tennis sneakers, his wrinkled tan suit, his hands palsied from nicotine-cravings. My own look in these years was meant to be profound and dangerous, but instead signified a studious lesbian of a certain age: short hockey mullet, black biker jacket, white turtleneck, bright cardigan, cuffed jeans, Doc Martens and Morrissey glasses.

moby_dickStill and all, I liked Mull. And here I should add that there’s another definition for the word mull, aside from “to study or ruminate or ponder.”  It is “to grind to dust, crumble or pulverize.” Mull did that, too.  For me, more than anything else, the class was about the struggle to sustain attention. I got high beforehand to help me make it through ninety minutes of Mull’s Melvillian mulling. I took notes as we ground Ahab’s wooden leg into ontological epistemological dust. I doodled as Mull pulverized the implications of the study of Cetology, Leviathans, and noble savages.

Half the class didn’t read either book past page 100. These were the good English majors at Rutgers. They knew that reading cover-to-cover was a waste of time, time that was better spent writing papers hewing exactly to Mull’s tastes. Now that I myself am a professor—a detail that may surprise you, considering my admission that I did not understand these texts, or any texts—I see these same students as they butter up bored instructors, game the system for easy A’s, and fill perfect MLA-formatted pages with jargon nonsense.

Back then, however, I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t understand these books.

Back then, I did not face the limits of my intelligence gracefully.

Soon the class itself turned into my great white whale. And that, as best as I can tell, is when I started seeing the cocks. Lots of cocks. Penises, phalli. Everywhere. It’s wasn’t difficult. I mean, we’re talking about Moby-Dick, which, when we take the hyphen out of the title, has the word “dick” in it. And then there’s Melville’s harpoons and long darts and omnitooled manmakers and pitchpolers and sperm and prods and grandissimuses and elastic gunwhales springing in and out, page after page. Whales fucking underwater. Archbishopricks. Cocks, dicks, everywhere.

Then one day I came across a quote from D.H. Lawrence where he calls Moby-Dick “the great American phallus.” This was my breakthrough, my spout-hole misting! Avast! Avast there! For the first time, my academic career, unremarkable up to that point, had overlapped with my substantial marijuana habit and one of my real passions: dick and pussy jokes.

On the day we were to propose paper topics, Mull ran out the clock holding court with the grad students who audited the class. They sat in the front row exchanging thoughts in a thick academic patois, beginning every statement with phrases like “to be sure” or “this passage posits.”

“Occasionally, in our treatment of mixture of romance and matter-of-fact, we may find ourselves deserting to the Arnoldian-Eliotian technique of quoting, directing the reader’s attention, and letting the matter drop. Of course, we may also reanimate the text by dissecting it, if we are to consider ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ to be a kind of companion volume to the present text, which Melville wrote in sort of a shriek…”

“Excuse me, Dr. Mull,” I said, hand raised, interrupting in-joke giggles. “Isn’t it possible that the whale isn’t some mysterious stand-in for knowledge, but instead represents the vagina dentata?”

Mull grimaced at the mention of vagina.

“Maybe Ahab is on a quest to take revenge on the whale, his castrating mother, and calls on the men aboard the Pequod to avenge the loss of his leg, which is really his penis?”

Never mind that castration means cutting your balls off, not your dick, and really Ahab’s wooden leg would be a penis replacement. I thought I was brilliant. Dr. Mull sniggered and coughed, said “well, yes,” and then got back to mulling.

“If I could read just one quote,” I continued. “It’s from the ‘Cetology’ chapter.” I paused as students turned to the page in their Dell Classics edition. Mull’s hands shook in a palsy, jonesing for tobacco.

“Here is it is: ‘To grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing.’ Don’t you think the argument can be made that this is Melville’s phallic fantasia?”

I had practiced the question that morning, and all went as planned. I was giving my paper topic the low-key sell; if I said the book was “chock-full of cock,” for instance, it would have whipped Mull into a Thomas Mann-type frenzy.  My restraint, I felt, was admirable.

“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long,” I continued, “I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me.”

The period ended. Mull bolted out and headed for the foyer, Dunhills and lighter in-hand.

Like most professors, I suspect he thought I was an idiot. I wanted him to think I was smart, or at least not dumb. I wanted to prove to him that I possessed a single, original idea. So I went to the library and checked out twenty books of Melville criticism and a three-volume Moby-Dick concordance, and some interlibrary-loaned articles of great obscurity.

For those weeks, I obsessed over books with unusual vigor, writing copious notes on little index cards. I was advancing Melville studies, or so I thought, by talking about vaginas with teeth, ruminating over sperm-pumping with my metalhead friends.

I felt like a future public intellectual as I recited Moby-Dick’s most pornographic passages to my roommate, Derek, Rutgers-Camden’s biggest pot dealer, in between hits from his electric bong, handcrafted from an aquarium filter and a rubber hose.  The Death Bong, as we called it, sounded like a fog horn crossed with a vibrator submerged underwater.

“Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!”

I called my paper “Moby-Cock: Phallicisms in Melville’s Moby-Dick.” Only one hand-written page remains in my files. “To travel the Pequod with Herman Melville,” I began, “is to embark on an exclusively male journey.”

To extract phallicisms from Moby-Dick is to simply draw upon an already existent masculinity and reinforce it. The phallus, erect and flaccid, attached and unattached, appears in many implied and hyperbolic forms in Moby-Dick; the archetypal male symbol appears not so much as a motif, but as a fundamental mark in a classic search for man-hood.

In the lounge of Armitage Hall, I showed off the final draft to a graduate student. She had long, straight hair, was beautiful in the manner of a 70’s-girl, and seemed impressed, or at least acted that way.

*  *  *

We didn’t get to Pynchon’s book until mid-April.  The discussions we had centered mostly on puns that none of us would have gotten unless Mull explained them to us.  There were also allusions to sex. Whenever I see used copies of Gravity’s Rainbow in bookstores, I notice that most spines aren’t creased past page 112, when we find out everything was a dream.200px-Gravitys_rainbow_cover That’s when most people throw Pynchon’s opus across the fucking room. Though I somehow made it all the way through, there was no way I could put together a cohesive thought or conclude anything about what Pynchon had written.

For the final exam, instead of trying to develop a theme around the main character named Slothrop, I decided to fill three blue books transcribing from memory a science fiction story my father had made up. He told it to me once in our backyard as we looked up at Jupiter with a telescope.[1]  It was a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ayn Rand, and remains my father’s sole literary effort.

As we handed in our blue books, Mull handed back our graded papers. I remember he didn’t look at me. Then again, he never looked at me.  I received a C- for “Moby-Cock”—a “gentleman’s C,” as he called it in his comments. He didn’t write much, and what he did offer was handwritten and trailed off mid-sentence in scribbles; something about how my writing didn’t make sense, and how I lost track of my points. He drank bourbon when he marked papers, someone once told me.

Needless to say, I deserved the grade. The writing, I’m sure, was horrible, mechanically and on a thought level, as I would put it now, in the professor trade.  And I can’t help but wonder how I would have graded the paper myself. Would have I have encouraged a “Moby-Cock” paper topic? I mean, when we got to the part where Stubb, the second mate, dons the skin of a whale’s penis and conducts some pagan ceremony, would I have said, “My dear boy, sometimes a whale foreskin is just a whale foreskin”?

*  *  *

It would be twelve years until I saw Donald Mull again.  By then I was out of graduate school and living in Williamsburg. I met up with my college friend Kevin, who was screening a film he’d directed at Anthology Film Archives. It had just won the Slamdance Festival. Its plot involves a junky who cross-dresses to get smack.

There, sitting at the table with Kevin in a Russian bar in the East Village, was a frail man in a light-colored suit and white sneakers. Mull had given Kevin money for the film, which earned him the illustrious title of associate producer. We drank vodka shots and talked about good old Rutgers-Camden, Henry James, and modern poetry. By this time I had learned that Mull was, in fact, gay, that he loved cats, and his boyfriend’s name was “Titty.” I didn’t bring up “Moby-Cock,” since I doubted that he would remember me.

But he did.

“I enjoyed your comments in class,” Mull said as he out-drank me two shots to one. “Particularly about the Melville.”

And then he said something else: “I could tell you were a writer.”

I blushed. Such encouragement a decade after the fact had me floating across Second Avenue.

What else do I remember about that night? I remember that Mull cussed like a sailor, that when it was time to go, I said, “Let us go then, you and I,” and Mull recited the rest of Eliot’s “Prufrock” from memory. I remember that he held my arm as we crossed Second Avenue, that I helped him with his coat as he took his seat, and that, when the movie started and the white projector beam hit his face just so, he grinned proudly—a grin he would hold until the final credits.

 


[1] The story, such as it is, goes like this: A legless and armless Vietnam veteran, a former fighter pilot, languishes in a VA hospital bed, until one day he’s selected for a top secret mission—a flight to the outer reaches of the solar system. The flight, mission planners tell him, will take years. He won’t return. He will die out in space. The veteran agrees. They place him on a capsule and fire him out into space. Years go by.

Now here’s the twist:  What the mission control people don’t know is that the vet practices transcendental meditation. Alone in space, his meditations grow more and more intense. He focuses on growing himself a limb, a right arm. At first it doesn’t work. But then a small nub appears, like a bloom on a tree branch.  It blossoms into a hand, then an arm. He cuts off contact with mission control when he reaches his final destination, Ganymede, the largest moon of Jupiter, which turns out to have a habitable, Earth-like atmosphere. I forget the parts where the top brass on Earth try to sabotage his real mission, which I think was to blow it up before the Russians could get there. I do, however, remember the final scenes, which have the fully-limbed veteran landing his capsule, and then another where the vet and a woman he’s meditated into being run naked across a Ganymedean meadow, a little tyke chasing after them, toward the spaceship, now fashioned into a geodesic dome with hanging plants.

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Daniel Nester DANIEL NESTER’s latest book is How to Be Inappropriate, a collection of humorous nonfiction. It’s been called a “deeply funny new collection of booger-flecked nonfiction” (Time Out New York), an “enjoyable read” (Library Journal), an “an entertaining look at defying the conventions of appropriate behavior” (The Daily Beast), and “one of the year's funniest books” (Largehearted Boy).

 He's also the editor of (The Incredible Sestina Anthology), which will be published in 2013 by Write Bloody Publishing. He is the author of God Save My Queen and God Save My Queen II, collections on his obsession with the rock band Queen. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Morning News, The Daily Beast, The New York Times, The Rumpus, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Bookslut. He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.

He lives online at DanielNester.com and on Twitter at @danielnester.

7 Responses to “Moby-Cock; or, The Term Paper”

  1. Jim Vermin says:

    I love stories like this.

  2. scott says:

    Jesus. He ruined Melville AND Pynchon, and you got a buzz from him praising you? The fuck?

  3. Hey Scott. Mull didn’t ruin either, really, although Pynchon remains not my cup of tea. I now love Moby-Dick. I was just young and dumb and full of cum and couldn’t concentrate and I wasn’t ready to take the class. Not saying I’m ready now.

  4. Don Mitchell says:

    Too funny (says this retired college prof). Last month I re-read Moby-Dick and spotted those sperm-squeezing passages that somehow escaped me as an undergraduate. Can’t think how, though. Maybe I never really read it — hey, everybody knows the story, so just make shit up. Probably that’s what I did. But this time — at nearly 70 fucking years old — I loved it.

    One thing I was intensely aware of was that the sixties me probably never gave a thought to all that whale-killing. Who cared? But now it makes me cringe, and that’s interesting to me. Different time, different place, different ideas — this is familiar territory to me (I’m an anthropologist). Emotionally I just wasn’t able to put that all aside.

    I too never finished Gravity’s Rainbow. After I put it down It languished in the bathroom for 2 or 3 years. As an undergrad I adored V, so in no way was I anti-Pynchon. I just couldn’t get it on with GR.

    Your grad-student jargon is fabulous.

  5. Mary McMyne says:

    Hilarious. I love Moby-Dick, but the first time I read it, I was obsessed with the subtext between Ishmael and Queequeg. I’m surprised you didn’t go there too…

  6. Oh I did, Mary, at least in the paper. How they, like, spoon together? And Queequeg demands to sleep with his harpoon? Totally included that. I was all, like, THEORY PROVEN, MULL — YOUR MOVE. Thanks…

  7. I read moby-dick the second time I had to, as a nearly-graduating senior, and read v. as a writing student, but never got to gravity’s rainbow, tho I own one of those sturdy library-bound copies from 30 years ago. but what I really wanted to say was that I had my own mull, except his name was price (http://2longinthewasteland.blogspot.com/2010/10/on-price-charlson.html) , and my own moby-dick, except it was heidegger’s being and time. but it’s the same story.

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