Revolving the Vortex; or, Working through Trauma at Sea


Pilar Martinez Benedi

Università di Roma ‘Sapienza’, Italy

Even  as  sea  writing  in  antebellum  America  might  have aspired  to  literary  exploration—and  possession,  the  ocean, as  Hester  Blum  has  noted,  is  a  ‘landscape  than  cannot  be tangibly possessed’. The of its waters gives the sea a formless, elusive quality, and its apparently material surface hides unfathomable and ultimately ungraspable depths. The view from the masthead, moreover, offered sailors a vast barren, monotonous panorama: rather than discovery, this vantage point showed nothing—only watery emptiness. On the other hand, sea voyages were inherently circular—they ended where they had started. Whaling voyages, in particular, were non-linear and non-teleological. Or, rather, their elos—the whale—was in  perpetual  motion,  and  the  whaleship  circumnavigated the slippery oceanic landscape in his chase.The concern with how these ontological features of seafaring reflect, and are reflected by, the epistemology of sea narratives  will  broadly  frame  my  paper.  In  particular,  I  propose to look at the final vortex in Moby-Dick as an image that happily captures these aspects of seafaring—and of sea writing: elusiveness and circuitousness, and, at once, to point at how such aspects, and their blending, eloquently embody psychic trauma. A sea vortex—‘a circular movement of water with  a  vacuum  at  the  center’,  in  Paul  Brotdkorb’s  words—echoes the spiral-like experience of working-through trauma; the ceaseless revolving around an event that cannot be known, since it was not grasped as it occurred, according to Cathy Caruth’s formulation. In turn, I will contend, this vortical image is an apt trope for Moby-Dick’s own circuitous form, visually replicating  the  convoluted  process  of  working  through  its narrator’s trauma. Therefore, I will explore the ways in which, in  his  meandering,  digressive  tale,  Ishmael—and,  with  him, the reader—seems to be revolving the vortex in order to gain mastery over the unclaimed experience of his lonely survival.

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Published : 2014-05-15

Martínez BenedíP. (2014). Revolving the Vortex; or, Working through Trauma at Sea. Review of International American Studies, 7(1). Retrieved from

Pilar Martínez Benedí
Università di Roma ‘Sapienza’, Italy  Italy
Pilar Martínez Benedí holds a J.D. from the University of Zaragoza (2000) and a M.A. in English from the ‘Sapienza’ University of Rome (2012). She is currently enrolled in the PhD program in English at La Sapienza, where she will study the representations of trauma in 19th century American Literature.

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