Filmed in the waters where Herman Melville conceived Moby-Dick, Leviathan - screening at Tate Modern this week - captures the ‘clash of man, nature, and machine’. Writer Philip Hoare explores the origins of literary and artistic fascination with the sea

An engraving from Thomas Beale's A Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1835)

An engraving from Thomas Beale’s A Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1835) - a direct inspiration for Moby-Dick

New Bedford is a city which tips down to the sea; it is entirely orientated to the ocean. Set on the eastern seaboard of Massachusetts, at the heart of maritime New England, it was, in its nineteenth-century heyday, America’s greatest whaling port, sending out its fleet of ships around the globe to harpoon and reduce to oil the great sperm whales of the far oceans. 

Those ships were the equivalent of modern oil tankers, and their barrels of spermaceti whale oil performed a similar function: whale oil lit in streets from New York to Paris, London and Berlin, while the machines of the Industrial Revolution were lubricated by the same waxy, seminal stuff. Whaling was the new republic’s greatest export after timber, and New Bedford claimed the title of the City That Lit The World

It was this story, and the subsequent decline of New Bedford once whales had been driven to near-extinction and their oil had become outmoded, that drew Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, the film-makers of Leviathan, to the city. They became interested in New Bedford’s post-whaling reinvention as a mill town, followed in turn by its own collapse, to be replaced by a fishing industry which has also lurched from boom to bust.  

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel film still Leviathan 2012 showing a ship's hull in the sea

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel film still
Leviathan 2012

Courtesy of Dogwoof

But most evidently, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel had in mind the intimate connection between New Bedford and the great American novel, Moby-Dick, whose author, Herman Melville, sailed on his own whaling voyage from the port in 1840. Ten years later, Melville wrote the book for which he would only posthumously become celebrated - perhaps the most wildly digressive, uncontained work of fiction America has ever produced.

Few books could boast chapters devoted to the whale’s foreskin, the ‘marriage’ of a tattooed Pacific cannibal and a suicidal young New England sailor, and a dissertation on the ‘Whiteness of the Whale’, in which the author inverted convention by portraying white, rather than black, as the colour of evil - from the polar bear and the great white shark, to the uncanny albino and the aborted foetus. (Hear the chapter read by Will Self). It is a passage which has more in common with the decadents of the fin-de-siecle than any sea-faring yarn. 

Weaving together such disparate influences, Melville created his book. Published in 1851, it sank without trace, only to resurface in the 20th century, when D.H. Lawrence acclaimed it as a work of futurism before futurism was invented.  In many ways, it seems to me, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel were intent on reflecting that sense of time-shifting narrative power when they set out on their project. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth' exhibited 1842

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842
Oil on canvas
support: 914 x 1219 mm frame: 1233 x 1535 x 145 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

View the main page for this artwork

Using miniature GoPro cameras, filming for weeks at sea on the fishing vessel, Athena, they created a work which, in its wild impressionistic excesses, also recalls Turner’s tempestuous paintings - perhaps not coincidentally, since Melville had been enamoured of Turner’s work ever since he’d seen it on his visit to London (itself a whaling port) in 1849. Turner’s whaling scenes - commissioned by wealthy whaling entrepreneur and patron of the arts, Elhanan Bicknell, much in the way a modern industrialist or dot-com billionaire might spend their profits – reappear in Melville’s chapter, ‘The Spouter Inn’, set in New Bedord, in which Ishmael is greeted by a ‘boggy, soggy, squitchy’ painting, ‘enough to drive a man distracted’.

Indeed, the film also put me in mind of Turner’s Slave Ship, another storm-tossed canvas in which sick and dying slaves are thrown overboard (and which in turn inspired the Otolith Group’s film, Hydra Decapita 2010, currently on show as part of the wonderful Aquatopia show at Tate St Ives). ‘Who ain’t a slave, tell me that?’ Melville wrote. In his day, whaling voyages could last up to five years, and if ‘greasy luck’ and the whales weren’t with them, the men might come home owing money to the ship for the food and clothing they consumed during the trip. Many were people of colour, and slaves in their own way - just as their masters were mostly Quakers - ironically dedicated to peace, yet pursuing the most bloody of businesses. Yet Quakers also opposed slavery, and hired fugitive slaves to work on their ships; New Bedford was a vital stop on the ‘Underground Railroad’, and an asylum for escapees from the South.

And just as Moby-Dick is an extended metaphor for the slavery which would result in a bloody, internecine civil war (it is no coincidence that the subject of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit is the White Whale), so the Athena’s crew seem enslaved in conditions equally as deadly as their nineteenth-century counterparts. Leviathan - part anthropological study, part art work, and wholly affecting - stands as a testament to the historic and cultural legacy of New Bedford. But most of all, it evokes the wild, mad beauty of Melville’s extraordinary creation.

Philip Hoare’s books, Leviathan or, The Whale and The Sea Inside are published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare will join will Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel for a discussion about the film following the preview screening of Leviathan on Friday 22 November