I’m reading copy proofs today for a forthcoming article on dolphins in the early modern imagination. It’ll be out fairly soon in The Indistinct Human, a great-looking collection edited by Jean Feerick and Vin Nardizzi. I have some fun with Thomas Browne, Shakespeare, Lucian, Ovid, William Diaper, Thomas Pynchon, and a few others.
My favorite part was digging into the classical origin story, in which the first dolphins had been human pirates, transformed by the child-god Bacchus after they seemed ready to kidnap him. Pirates and dolphins, with their frightening or happy faces, present inverse visions of the mammal-ocean relationship.
I also enjoyed writing the Mason & Dixon part —
To draw out the contemporary relevance of this human-dolphin hybrid, I’ll introduce each of the five remaining sections with an excerpt from a much more recent literary vision of humanity living intimately with the ocean, Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern historical novel, Mason & Dixon (1997). My point in directing attention to an episode in the novel in which the eponymous cartographers inscribe a Line across the Atlantic where they eventually settle in quasi-oceanic space is to show how enticing and problematic the human-ocean boundary remains. This episode of Mason & Dixon presents a postmodern literary iteration of the basic human desire to engage oceanic space that underwrites early modern representations of dolphins. Pynchon’s novel uses imagined technology, rather than mammalian bodies, to create its utopian solution, but Pynchon’s portrayal of human life in direct, transformative contact with the deep reveals the continuing urgency of the fantasy dolphins represented in the early modern period and before. In conclusion I shall bring Pynchon’s ocean-crossing Line together with early modern dolphin-humans to speculate about the changing relationship between technological utopianism and natural difference in visions of maritime humanity.
Still harping on that Aquaman Fantasy…
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