Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues19-1Melville and the Vortex Theory of...


The brief reference to the Cartesian vortex in Moby-Dick has already been discussed in numerous specialized articles, usually in terms of the history of ideas, e.g. in two articles by D. C. Leonard (1979; 1980). By itself, a vortex is an appropriate image for being immersed, obsessed, absorbed, and blended into objectivity, but the paper will focus on another, non-Cartesian vortex, which was emerging in the 1850s as the so-called vortex theory of matter. The point of this “hydrokinetic theory of matter” was that it was a “unitary continuum theory” of a “Universal Plenum,” conceived initially on the basis of Herman von Helmholtz’s work on hydrodynamics. In 1859, the German physicist demonstrated mathematically that stable vortex rings could exist indefinitely in a (theoretical) continuous elastic fluid, rather like the remarkably stable smoke rings blown by guns or as a smoking trick. For a time, the vortex atom was recognized as a very promising idea on the cutting edge of science. In literary fiction, the vortex atom translated into curious imagery of a claustrophobic universal plenum, matter and soul combined, organized by intermeshing vortices, and leaving no possible room for a hovering freedom in empty space. In a universe based on the vortex theory of matter, a subject is not in a vortex, but is itself a vortex, continuously meshing with other vortices, in a basket-like, tightly knit lattice that comprises everything. Melville’s imagery related to matter and vortices seems to be one of the early instances of the simultaneous fascination and dismay provoked by the vortex theory of matter in the second half of the nineteenth century, not among scientists, but among the non-scientific general audience. The article focuses on Clarel, comparing three different images of the vortex with imagery from contemporary popular scientific articles. Additional examples from Moby-Dick, Pierre, and Billy Budd are discussed as contexts illustrating the variety of meaning attached by Melville to the vortex.

Top of page

Full text

1Theoretically, this article is based on the assumption that literary representation of settings and objects is influenced by contemporary ideas about matter; when an author describes the material world, there is an implicit reference to the science (popular science, pseudoscience) of matter. This is generally related to the New Materialist approach, particularly in contemporary criticism of nineteenth-century fiction, poetry, and nature writing. The more general theoretical approach is remotely rooted, perhaps, in European phenomenology (Bryant 2011; Bello 2015; Shaviro 2014), with its interest in the cultural determination of perception, even on the most basic level of everyday observation of nature: the experience of looking at objects and landscapes is controlled by the load of presuppositions, superstitions, accepted ideas and cultural legacies. In the American context, the approach was recently developed, among other critics, by Monique Allewaert (2013) and Dana Luciano (2014), who both focused on American nature writing as their source of examples. Allewaert proposes “reconsidering the relation between material and literary processes” (61), focusing on “the partial” (an incomplete, isolated observation) or “the relation between the part and the whole” (61) in literary representation of materiality. Luciano presents a study on nineteenth-century speculations about spirituality of matter, exemplified by The Soul of Things (1863) by William and Elizabeth M.F. Denton (according to which, geological specimens can directly affect the human retina, visual nerves, and the brain, in a material manner suggested by photography, so that geologists can share memories with rocks). For the history of American fiction and poetry, the importance of material figuration is similarly asserted, among other authors, by Branka Arsić (2016), Cristin Ellis (2018), and Juliana Chow (2022). Although these authors are interested in a very wide range of themes in nineteenth-century nature writing, they all suggest that representation of matter, the very perception of the material world, is shaped by a complex cultural background.

2In Melville’s case, the perception of matter seems to be influenced by his interest in the image of the Cartesian vortex, part of Descartes’ theory of gravity. However, between the 1860s and the 1910s there was another type of vortex in cultural circulation. For a time, in the second half of the nineteenth century, representation and perception of matter was influenced by the vortex theory of matter, based on the idea that atoms are vortex-rings in fine, subtle ether. The allure of this theory rested on its perceived mathematical elegance, and the possibility of a unitary, monist explanation of matter, spirit, and energy, as various modes of vortex motion in the universal, underlying, psycho-physical ether. Such was, for instance, the mode of popular presentation in Scientific American in “Matter as a Mode of Movement,” an anonymous article from 1877. Given the popularity of this theory, it is possible to relate it to Melville’s obsession with the vortex—an important image that recurs in his later work.

3While the following discussion will focus on Melville’s work, some space will also be devoted to the contextual history of science, to the comparison between Descartes’s vortex theory of gravity, and nineteenth-century vortex theory of matter. Crucial to the comparison between these two theories is the fact that the former was perceived as part of the mechanicist-materialist world-view, and the latter as a new, dynamic-monist reaction against mechanicism and materialism; this is the opposition suggested by source material and historical discussions (e.g., Kragh). It seems that a similar opposition was very important for Melville, who expressed, in numerous places in his work, the conviction that materialism was a threat against the autonomy and sovereignty of the individual, understood as a spiritual soul. In Melville’s work, this opposition between mechanicist materialism and spiritual idealism is sometimes associated with the image of a vortex, which suggests that Melville was following the trajectory of the general debate between mechanicist materialism and dynamic monism in natural science in the second half of the nineteenth century. This offers interesting context, because dynamic monism is a largely forgotten notion today, a historical artifact which, for a time, enjoyed great popularity among scientists and the general reading public: between the 1860s and the 1890s, dynamic monism was often described as a plausible world view. It is possible to claim that, even if he did not express explicit interest in the theory, Melville also lived in that world-view. The point of departure is the well-known reference to “Descartian vortices” in Moby-Dick, in the conclusion of chapter 35, “The Mast-Head”:

In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Crammer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.
There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at midday, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists! (159)

4This passage was subject to the classic analysis in Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, where the mast-head stood, symbolically, for the position of American pastoralism, hesitating between nature and culture (293). Marx identifies the vortex as “the undersea vortex of material reality” (292), but it is not really obvious what the reference to vortices means. Earlier in the chapter, Melville writes about the ocean as “the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature” (Moby-Dick, 159), and Marx also compares the fatal plunge into the oceanic vortices to the myth of Narcissus (291); those components of the image are hardly compatible with the soul-less, machine-like materiality of Descartian vortices. So are the vortices symbols of ‘spacing out,’ like in a jacuzzi bath? Or perhaps quite the opposite: at the moment of the sobering restitution of the mind-matter duality, do the vortices perhaps represent the hostile, un-spiritual matter?

5The latter possibility seems compatible with the general tone of Melville’s passage, which criticizes pantheism and pan-spiritualism: when the spiritual world is equated with the material world, the individual soul is suspended between its material base and its perceived non-material, individual subjectivity. When the soul blends itself too much with its material base, the “Pantheistic ashes” of material mind “diffused through time and space,” it becomes impersonal: “There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God.” As the wording suggests, “that rocking life” is no life at all, it is a mechanism created by God. However, the former possibility is also problematic: a subjective, non-material soul perceives the matter as threat to its very existence. Instead of identifying with the “rocking life,” the individual soul is terrified by it: “your identity comes back in horror.” Thus, too much emphasis on an individual, subjective soul, as something radically different from the (material) world, from reality itself, results in the same threat of a loss of life, with the horrifying prospect of a passage through the death of the body. Consequently, the subject hesitates, hovering over the “Descartian vortices” (matter), unwilling to sink in them, but unable to lift off away from them. This is how things are in a Cartesian world. But the second theory—the vortex theory of matter as created in the nineteenth century—produced vortices which seem to be more inviting for an individual soul to sink in. In Melville’s late work, vortex imagery suggests a similar acceptance and appreciation of the vortex. In the following discussion I will identify a number of scientific associations of the vortex image, as possible background for Melville’s imagery, not only in Moby-Dick, but recurrently in his work.

6Critical literature has identified eleven vortices in Melville’s fiction, and usually they are interpreted as visual organizing metaphors that represent relationships between characters, settings, or episodes. This is, perhaps most importantly, the function of the vortex in Mardi. However, a different interpretation is proposed by David Charles Leonard, who identifies the Descartian vortex as a negatively charged image of mechanical materialism. Leonard analyzed most of Melville’s vortices in this way (“The Cartesian Vortex” 105-09; “Descartes, Melville” 13-25). Vortices, as a visual metaphor, were part of Descartes’s theory of gravity: planets, and generally material objects, floated in a thin medium whose pressure, like ebbing water, propelled them to follow orbital paths or fall down on massive bodies. The other type of vortex image in science, used in the later vortex theory of matter, was based on the idea that atoms are vortices in a universal plenum liquid; some writings extend this idea to everything at all, including spiritual phenomena. The second vortex theory was developed in the 1860s, primarily by English physicists, and became popular among non-physicists, probably because it offered an opportunity for a fusion of materialism and spiritualism (Kragh 35; Patterson 88). There was an important difference in the proposed shape of the vortices in the two theories: Descartes’s descriptions suggest something like ordinary vortices on the surface of the water, whereas the Victorian ones filled space like smoke-rings produced by guns or smoking tricks.

7The Descartian vortex in Moby-Dick has been identified as a reference to Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, of which Melville owned a 1840 reprint (Millway 419). Vortices were thought to occur in ether, and were meant to explain gravity; they rubbed and twisted around objects, changing the direction of their movement. The vortices were not identified as atoms, and actually not even as the propagation medium for gravity, but rather as a very rarefied, elastic goo that could pull objects toward one another. Chambers, in the Cyclopaedia, is highly dismissive of the concepts, both of the vortex and of ether:

VORTEX, in the Cartesian philosophy, is a System or Collection of Particles of Matter moving in the same way, and round the same Axis. Such Vortices are the Grand Machines whereby these Philosophers solve most of the Motions and other Phaenomena of the heavenly Bodies. --- Accordingly, the Doctrine of these Vortices makes a great part of the Cartesian Philosophy. (II, 330)

8This description of vortices as the Grand Machine is a critical image of mechanical materialism. In the entry on ether, Chambers points out further complications, inherent in the imagery of vortices in a fluid medium: “The Cartesian Aether is supposed not only to pervade, but adequately to fill all the Vacuities of Bodies; and thus to make an absolute Plenum of the Universe.… But Sir I. Newton overturns this opinion, from divers Considerations; by shewing, that the Celestial Spaces are void of all sensible Resistance” (I, 83). Thus, there was the Cartesian ether (mechanical medium of gravity) and Newtonian ether (luminiferous medium for propagation of light). For Chambers, the concept is essentially becoming meaningless, “embarrass’d with a Variety of Ideas, and arbitrarily applied to so many different things” (I, 82). Later, however, when Victorian physicists developed the vortex theory of matter, they would occasionally mention the earlier types of ether as precursory ideas, albeit briefly and without clearly distinguishing between them (e.g., William Thomson 1887).

9An important aspect of Descartian vortices, and of the Victorian vortex theory of matter, was that vortices were tightly packed, like cogwheels in a watch or like beans in a sack. As medium of gravity, the packing was necessary for them to mesh and push things about; this is what Chambers describes as the machine. As the very substance of matter, in the Victorian theory, vortices had to be packed to make things material, solid, coherent. At the same time, other, perhaps smaller vortices could also be presumed to constitute the substance of the spirit. As such, they offered no way out of their centripetal, intermeshed mechanism, neither for a soul, nor for matter, since both apparently were vortices, or sets of vortices. Far from being a compelling image of dynamic movement (Wettlaufer 66), the Victorian vortex was part of a lattice that structured the monist world (Holman 193), a sort of cog-wheel cage that constituted both matter and soul. One of the philosophical consequences of the Victorian theory was that it would transcend the opposition between materialism and idealism: the dynamic vortex could make for both matter and mind. This was the essential argument of Stewart and Tait’s once-famous book, The Unseen Universe (1881), which discussed the vortex theory in terms of religion and philosophy, as reconciliation between religion and science: the world was all soul. In the United States there was even a curious philosophical pamphlet by Staniland Wake (1907), an attempt to create an ethical and anthropological system based on the vortex atom. Wake derived ethical norm and gender roles (107) from lattices of geometrically arranged vortices (the book is richly illustrated). Thus, the connotations of tightly packed vortices might just as well be reversed, and the world would become all matter again: a restrictive, geometrical and mechanicist prison (Wake’s pamphlet is a good example of this reversal). It seems that the ambiguity was unavoidable.

10In Melville’s work there are numerous references to solid walls and structures which function, among other things, as symbols of the imprisonment of the mind in matter. Those are conventional this-mortal-coil images, not specific to Melville, but notable for the degree of elaborateness in his development of the imagery. Thus, the solid state is a negative image of physical matter, whereas the liquid seems closer to the soul, the gaseous and ethereal spiritualist matter. Nevertheless, Melville could charge liquidity and gaseousness with negative meanings, too. The following images occupy particularly relevant places in Melville’s hierarchy of hardness: the try-works in Moby-Dick (a brick stove on a wooden ship), the pyramid in Pierre (a secret but empty chamber of the soul), the walls in “Bartleby the Scrivener” (prisons), the islands in Mardi (orbiting planets), and the fine white marble sea surface after Billy Budd’s burial (a tomb contrasted with a vortex). It would seem that vortices offered an attractive opposition to Melville’s images of solid walls: stone structures which carry a negative meaning in Pierre, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” or in a single line of Billy Budd, and seem to represent the general idea that the soul is imprisoned in matter. One could argue that Melville sees liquidity, flexibility, and gaseousness as the preferred idea of what things and souls are, or at least should be. However, as Leonard argues, the vortex is as bad as the solid clod, because in a space filled with an aggregate of countless microscopic vortices, the vortex stands for a stable, unchanging spiral movement, like that of a machine rotor:

In universal motion and universal whiteness or blankness lies reality. But this blankness in Moby Dick is not an absence of matter; it is, rather, a nullity of meaningless circular motion for the wretched infidel who spins about himself, makes no headway, and gains no headland. To Melville, the Cartesian vortical system replaces the optimism of transcendentalism with the pessimism of mechanism. As a result of his knowledge of Cartesianism, Melville views nature as an impersonal mechanism that runs without human or divine intervention. (Leonard, “Cartesian Vortex” 109)

11The vortex theory of matter was less pessimistic, because it was not based on the division between rough and fine matter, and indeed it abandoned the distinction between mind and matter altogether. Unfortunately, there is no firm evidence that Melville read about it, although after 1860 a general reader could easily encounter accessible explanations and demonstrations of the theory and its concepts.

12When the vortex theory of matter evolved in the 1860s and 1870s, it was part of the general trend to rarefy matter, to dispense with the image of solid, microscopic marbles. This implied that the perception of matter in everyday life, as something that can be touched and seen, does not need to extend to the microscopic level (atoms are not small marbles). This line of reasoning was very popular in the nineteenth century (Olson 91), in various hypotheses regarding the microscopic structure of matter (Brush 192-95), and perhaps has been the accepted, general way of thinking ever since. What, however, made atomic forces converge around an empty point at the atom’s center? Why were atoms so enduring and indestructible if they were anchored in emptiness? An answer was offered by the vortex theory of matter in the 1860s. In 1858, Hermann von Helmholtz demonstrated mathematically that in a hypothetical, infinitely elastic and viscous liquid (quickly to be identified as ether in English writings), vortex rings could exist, like smoke rings, which would revolve eternally, and could not be snapped (or, for that matter, sown together). Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine matter as smoke rings; a bag of candy rings is not the right image, either, because at the core of the theory was the idea that matter would be a form of movement, a ring-shaped twist. This made the vortex atoms into pleasant images of the Victorian world: scientific and religious at the same time, eternal, indestructible, un-creatable, and evidently—as demonstrated by Helmholtz—created by a miraculous act of God. Indeed, they were recognized as the “living garment of God” in Ether and Reality (1925), a somewhat later, popular contemporary presentation by Oliver Lodge (179). In 1863, the English translation of Helmholtz’s paper was published, and it immediately became popular with the leading English physicists of the day, most importantly with William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and J. J. Thomson (who later discovered the electron) (J. J. Thomson 1888).

13In Melville’s work one finds a few vortices that seem to follow this line of reasoning, most importantly in Clarel, beginning with the description of a dust devil:

Sands immense
Impart the oceanic sense:
The flying grit like scud is made:
Pillars of sand which whirl about
Or arc along in colonnade,
True kin be to the water-spout. (2.11.36-41)

14By comparing the dust devil to the water spout, Melville is referring, perhaps half-consciously, to the “Spirit Spout” in Moby-Dick, where the spout was, in turn, extensively compared to spirits and ghosts. The vortex, in the desert, is thus an image of a vibrant, spiritualized life, a desirable phenomenon, a welcome relief to thirst. The use of biological comparisons is also meaningful, because Melville is reviving the desert imagery: it is apparently the dynamic movement that makes it possible to compare grit to the scud of mist and spray. Similarly, the comparison between dust devils and water spouts suggests that the desert, below its surface, is teeming with life (sand-whales). By adding the metaphor of “true kin,” Melville suggests that the similarity is not superficial; not only visual, but inherent in the nature of movement, both in water and in dust.

15The final vortex references in Clarel, not to the vortex but to ether, seem to be similarly positive, and similarly combine water with dust. After Nehemiah’s death, which leaves everybody shaken as an omen of the random, mechanical operation of matter, Clarel is hoping for some sort of sign from the elements, perhaps another vortex:

‘How fare we now? But were it clear
In nature or in lore devout
That perted souls live on in cheer,
Gladness would be—shut pathos out.
His poor thin life: the end? no more?
To end here by the Dead Sea shore?’
He turned him, as awaiting nod
Or answer from air, earth, or skies;
But be it ether or the clod,
The elements yield no replies. (2.39.84-93)

16What he does see, eventually, is the “fog-bow,” a kind of rainbow, which is also centered: “Against a vertical shaft, or slight / Slim pencil of an aqueous light” (2.160.1-2). This is perhaps another vortex, but the wording is not really clear: it is aqueous, but as a vertical, pencil-like shaft of light, is it really a vortex? The image, corresponding to the antinomies mentioned with reference to history of science, combines rigidity and straightness with liquidity and dynamic movement; it is the vortex-like movement that keeps the shaft upright. This is perhaps the God-sent message from the elements: the “poor thin life” of clodded matter is combined with dynamic movement in vortices. The dynamic quality becomes visible when a vortex is viewed in isolation, as a single shaft, the “slim pencil of aqueous light.”

17Another passage, whose meaning is rather indefinite, is not part of the sequence of vortices described above, but has a marginal role as part of the background at the Valley of Siddim:

Aside they turn, and leave that gorge,
And slant upon the mountain long,
And toward a ledge they toilsome urge

High over Siddim, and overhung
By loftier crags. In spirals curled
And pearly nothings buoyant whirled,
Eddies of exhalations light,
As over lime-kilns, swim in sight. (1.266.124-125)

18Obviously, Melville is not referring to a scientific theory, but he notices the remarkable stability of smoke whirls, the “pearly nothings” of cloud puffs and such; this is the same impression that was invoked with reference to the smoke-ring experiments (e.g., Thomson, Application). However, a range of associations brought on by the Siddim gorge make the pearly smoke more material. The gorge has a “dead Medusa stare” (126) which “[c]ongeals Arabia into stone” (126), and the cloud puffs remind the lyrical I of the Biblical rain of fire. There are also speculations (115-20) about the prehistorical, pastoral beauty of the valley, possibly inhabited by “[m]occasined Nimrod, belted Boone” (115). The pastoral scenic landscape was later obliterated by “crime and earthquake, throes and war” (120), and the puffy clouds appear to be the vestiges of the landscape’s earlier beauty.

19The vortices in Clarel seem to be welcome phenomena, emblems of liberation from a deterministic mechanism, which is associated with “the clod.” However, the scientific contexts, written after Clarel, suggest a different tendency—an increasing saturation of popular scientific discourse with images of bondage, strain, and torture. This is because the vortex atom was, as it were, too rare, and it could not account for many observable phenomena. In a manner of speaking, the vortex atom had to be hardened and put to work. The phenomena that demanded explanation were, most importantly, gravity, the variety of chemical elements and their properties, and the ability of atoms to form chemical bonds. The most unusual, picturesque attempts to account for these phenomena, within the framework of the vortex theory of matter, were Peter G. Tait’s knot theory, Alfred Marshall Mayer’s floating needles, and C. Staniland Wake’s vortex philosophy.

20Peter G. Tait was one of the major proponents of the vortex theory in the 1870s, but he quickly lost interest and returned to his primary career in mathematics. His attempt consisted in speculations about variously knotted vortex rings as models of atoms of different elements. According to Kragh, “[i]n a communication to the 1876 annual meeting of the British Association, [Tait] implied that the vortex atom might be seen as a special case of knot theory” (47). This communication includes a print that shows the “seven orders of knottiness” (Tait 150), where various distinct modes of knotting a string are compared to atoms of various elements. Tait could see the connection to the vortex, because a vortex ring can be knotted like a string, but the image suggests a rather tightly organized idea of matter, not the liberating, splendid spiritual vortex from Oliver Lodge’s Ether and Reality. As Kragh argues,

[t]he vortex theory’s failure in accounting for gravitation was to a large extent compensated by what was widely conceived as its success in providing some sort of explanation of chemical phenomena at the microscopic level. As mentioned, Tait’s knot theory, an outgrowth of the vortex atom, had to a limited extent been related to the study of chemical phenomena. British chemists were from an early date aware of the vortex atom, but most of them did not consider ideas of atomic structure to be of chemical interest. After all, it was still a matter of debate if atoms existed in the first place. (60)

21The possible application of knot theory was to explain the existence and properties of chemical elements (elements as vortices knotted in various ways), and to develop a theory of chemical bonding, almost as if vortex atoms formed knotted hooks and loops. Yet it seems that the project was quickly abandoned by Tait, and never gained much currency among other scientists. It was, however, an image of matter that was no longer ethereal and soft, but was becoming bonded, intertwined, tied down, to form chemical compounds. If the vortex atom was somehow a spiritual and energetic phenomenon, the knot theory could limit its freedom and flexibility.

22A more rigid, and perhaps disturbing idea was proposed by Lord Kelvin, who noticed a communication by Alfred Marshall Mayer, an American engineer and physicist. Mayer experimented with fine magnetized needles floating on the surface of water, applying magnetic field to them, and saw them as analogs of vertical vortices on the surface of the water. But Lord Kelvin’s comments (Thomson, “On the Vortex Theory”) suggest that he was not really sure what this comparison would mean, whether or not the needles are comparable to vortices, and the idea was not further pursued.

23Of course, in Melville’s fiction there are many compass needles, and quite a few sewing ones. The former are usually symbols of guidance and assurance, the latter—of unity and continuity. In both meanings, the needle is occasionally used in an extended metaphor, as a structural unit of reality, not relatable to the needle-atoms. The complex, symbolic device of two transpointed magnetic needles with a sail-needle magnetized by the harpoon in chapter 74 of Moby-Dick is chronologically too early to be relatable to Mayer’s needles, and so is the passage from Mardi, where needles meet atoms in Babbalanja’s renunciation of humanity before Media:

Oh, Man, Man, Man! thou art harder to solve, than the Integral Calculus—yet plain as a primer; harder to find than the philosopher’s-stone—yet ever at hand; a more cunning compound, than an alchemist’s—yet a hundred weight of flesh, to a penny weight of spirit; soul and body glued together, firm as atom to atom, seamless as the vestment without joint, warp or woof—yet divided as by a river, spirit from flesh; growing both ways, like a tree, and dropping thy topmost branches to earth, like thy beard or a banian!—I give thee up, oh Man! thou art twain—yet indivisible; all things—yet a poor unit at best. (433)

24In this context, the image of a seamless connection between mind and matter is only vaguely related to needles.

25Perhaps the most pertinent link between the Victorian theory and Melville’s work, other than Clarel, is the burial scene in Billy Budd:

The details of this closing formality it needs not to give. But when the tilted plank let slide its freight into the sea, a second strange human murmur was heard, blended now with another inarticulate sound proceeding from certain larger sea-fowl, whose attention having been attracted by the peculiar commotion in the water resulting from the heavy sloped dive of the shotted hammock into the sea, flew screaming to the spot. So near the hull did they come, that the stridor or bony creak of their gaunt double-jointed pinions was audible. As the ship under light airs passed on, leaving the burial-spot astern, they still kept circling it low down with the moving shadow of their outstretched wings and the croaked requiem of their cries. (90)

26Billy Budd’s burial is immediately followed by a moment of hesitation among sailors, “an uncertain movement” and “some encroachment,” which suggests the possibility of a protest, if not a mutiny. This movement is placated by drums beating to quarters, to which the sailors automatically respond by rallying to their gun stations. Captain Vere compares this response to “the story of Orpheus with his lyre spell-binding the wild denizens of the wood,” and the earlier unrest to “the disruption of forms going on across the Channel and the consequences thereof” (91) so that the vortex becomes a symbol of political unrest, a liberating impulse. In this, the last of Melville’s vortices, the image is associated with inhuman wildness and the naturalness of animals. The placating influence of military ritual, the “measured forms” applied by captain Vere, are presented as an instrument of oppression. This seems to be a tragic impasse, because the natural vortex has not lost its mechanicist, prison-like connotations; the sailors are caught between captain Vere’s “measured forms” and the “peculiar commotion” of the sea, which is a mobile variant of the materialist grave-like, rigid clod, as the final words of the chapter suggest: “And now it was full day. The fleece of low-hanging vapor had vanished, licked up by the sun that late had so glorified it. And the circumambient air in the clearness of its serenity was like smooth marble in the polished block not yet removed from the marble-dealer’s yard” (91). This description of the sea has none of the vitality and vibrancy seen in Moby-Dick and Clarel: the sea compared to a block of marble, to a tomb, rather than a grave, of Billy Budd.

27This combination of the vortex and the grave has an important corollary in the comparative analyses of Melville’s work (Moby-Dick) and paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner. It has been demonstrated by Robert K. Wallace that Moby-Dick has indirect references to Turner’s paintings (Wallace, “Bulkington”; Melville and Turner), which can be seen in “The Lee Shore” chapter in Moby-Dick and Turner’s paintings of waves breaking on lee shores. The proximity between Melville and Turner has been discussed in terms of both artists’ simultaneously undermining and preserving the legacy of rationalism (Mazis, “Modern Depths”). Trapped between the rationalist reduction of the mind to a material base, and the sovereignty of the mind over matter (which seems to be an inherent trope of rationalism), both artists created a “deepened context” where “contrasts like that between word and image were respected as distinct but also seen as in incipient breakdown” (121). This suggested breakdown, according to Mazis, ultimately stems from the eroding separation of matter and mind, object and symbol (120). Particularly, Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840) juxtaposes human cruelty with the perceived cruelty of the sea (Toth 2010), suggesting a monist unity between the human (mental) and natural (material) orders of oppression. Just like in Billy Budd’s burial, the alternative between the ship and the sea is not an alternative at all, since the turbulent vortices of the sea, in Turner’s painting, are filled with bodies of slaves, reaching out and up hopelessly, as they are devoured by sea creatures. At the same time, the stormy expanse of the sea is milky with foam, and luminous with blurred columns of sunlight, suggesting the vortex-like shaft of aqueous light in Clarel. This context, of course, is chronologically unrelated to the vortex theory of matter, but might have prepared the ground for Melville’s possible, pessimistic understanding of the theory.

28Numerous studies, e.g. by Mark Noble (2009), suggest that contemporary versions of materialism can have a strong influence on material imagery in literature; Noble wrote on Whitman’s reaction to developments in atomism. If the vortex theory of matter had any influence on Melville, this would be discernible in Clarel or in Billy Budd. In the latter, the author’s final vortex is an image of liberation, a first ripple that would grow stronger and lead to the Great Mutiny in the Royal Navy. However, the mechanicist connotations of the vortex are not lost when the sea is compared to marble in the closing lines of the chapter about Budd’s burial. Perhaps, the vortex theory of matter, even though it could combine mind and matter in a monistic way, was not such a liberating idea for Melville. As is well known, in the epilogue of Moby-Dick, Ishmael is drawn into the vortex left by the sinking Pequod:

So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. (573)

29The contrast between circular movement and the stationary “creamy pool” is similar to the contrast in the burial scene in Billy Budd, suggesting the same ambiguity: the vortex is compared to a death-like trap, a tomb. Then, through reference to Ixion’s torment (the wheel of fire), the tomb is equated with the mechanical, circular movement in nature. However, the suction force of the vortex is also drawing Ishmael to its “vital centre,” where he can be “liberated by reason of its cunning spring,” and thus brought back to life. It seems tempting to assume that the “black bubble” is of atomic nature—that it is an image of the mystery of all existence, hidden in the tomb-like centre of materialist, natural phenomena. While it might not be an appealing image, it is ambiguously optimistic, as the vortex ensures that Ishmael can survive and narrate.

30In the background of Melville’s later work, the vortex theory of matter quickly lost its appeal with scientists and the general public, as it was a short-lived research project, which functioned but a little longer as an intellectual fashion in the 1890s. Without firm biographical evidence, it is difficult to argue that it was a context for Melville, but chronologically and thematically, it all fits together: the contradictory meanings of liberation and imprisonment, mechanism and dynamism, body and soul, matter and spirit, determinism and free will, can be easily combined in the vortex, both in scientific writings and in Melville’s work.

Top of page


n/a. “Matter as a Mode of Motion.” Scientific American, vol. 36 no.7, 1877, p. 96.

Allewaert, Monique. “Toward a Figurative Materialism: A Slight Manifesto.” English Language Notes, vol. 51, no. 2, Fall/Winter 2013, pp. 61-77.

Arsić, Branka. Bird Relics, Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau. Harvard UP, 2016.

Bello, Angela Agnes. The Sense of Things: Toward a Phenomenological Realism. Springer, 2015.

Brush, S.G. “Mach and Atomism.” Synthese, vol. 18, 1968, pp. 192-215.

Bryant, Levi R., Graham Harman, and Nick Srnicek (eds). The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism., 2011.

Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia; Or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. 1728, 1741. London, 1846. The ARTFL Project online 1741 edition: Accessed 3 May 2022.

Chow, Juliana. Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Discourse of Natural History. Cambridge UP, 2022.

Ellis, Cristin. Antebellum Posthuman: Race and Materiality in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Fordham UP, 2018.

Holman, Silas W. Matter, Energy, Force, and Work: A Plain Presentation of Fundamental Physical Concepts and of the Vortex-Atom and Other Theories. MacMillan, 1898.

Kragh, Helge. “The Vortex Atom: A Victorian Theory of Everything.” Centaurus, vol. 44, no. 1-2, 2002, pp. 32-114.

Leonard, David Charles. “Descartes, Melville, and the Mardian Vortex.” South Atlantic Bulletin, vol. 45, no. 2, 1980, pp. 13–25.

---. “The Cartesian Vortex in Moby-Dick.” American Literature, vol. 51, no.1, 1979, pp. 105–09.

Lodge, Oliver. Ether and Reality. George H. Doran Co., 1925, Hathi Trust electronic edition. Accessed 5 Jun. 2022.

---. The Ether of Space. Harper & Brothers, 1909. Accessed 5 May 2022.

Luciano, Dana. “Sacred Theories of Earth: Matters of Spirit in The Soul of Things.” American Literature, vol. 86, no. 4, 2014, pp. 713-36.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. 1964. Oxford UP, 2000.

Mayer, Alfred Marshall. “Experiments with Floating and Suspended Magnets, Illustrating the Action of Atomic Forces, the Molecular Structure of Matter, Allotropy, Isomerism, and the Kinetic Theory of Gases.” Scientific American, supplement 5, no. 129, June 22, 1878, pp. 2045-47.

Mazis, Glen A. “Modern Depths, Painting, and the Novel: Turner, Melville, and the Interstices.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 70, no. 1/2, 1987, pp. 121–44.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings. 1924. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall et al., Northwestern UP, Newberry Library, 2017.

---. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. 1876. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall et al., Northwestern UP, Newberry Library, 1991.

---. Mardi: and A Voyage Hither. 1849. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall et al., Northwestern UP, Newberry Library, 1970.

---. Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale. 1851. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, Northwestern UP, Newberry Library, 1988.

Millway, Tyrus. “Melville’s Education in Science.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 16, 1974, pp. 411-25.

Noble, Mark. “Whitman’s Atom and the Crisis of Materiality in the Early Leaves
of Grass
.” American Literature, vol. 81, no. 2, 2009, pp. 253-79.

Olson, Richard. “The Reception of Boscovich’s Ideas in Scotland.” Isis, no. 60, 1969, pp. 91-103.

Patterson, Gary. “Eyes to See: Physical Evidence for Atoms.” Atoms in Chemistry: From Dalton’s Predecessors to Complex Atoms and Beyond, edited by Carmen L. Guinta, American Chemical Society, 2010, pp. 83-92.

Shaviro, Steven. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism. U of Minnesota P, 2014.

Stewart, Balfour and Peter G Tait. The Unseen Universe. Or, Physical Speculations on a Future State. 10th ed., Macmillan, 1881. Accessed 5 Feb. 2022.

Tait, Peter G. “On Knots.” Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. 28, 1877, pp. 145–90.

Thomson, J.J. Applications of Dynamics to Physics and Chemistry. Macmillan, 1888. Accessed 2 Jan. 2022.

Thomson, William. “On the Vortex Theory of the Luminiferous Æther.” Report, British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1887, pp. 486–95.

Toth, Réka Takacs. “The Relationship of Nature and Man in Turner’s Sea-scenes and Melville’s Moby-Dick.” TRANS: Revue de littérature générale et comparée, vol. 10, 2010. Accessed 12 Nov. 2022.

Wake, Charles Staniland. Vortex Philosophy; Or, The Geometry of Science, Diagrammatically Illustrated. self-published, 1907.

Wallace, Robert K. “Bulkington, J. M. W. Turner and ‘The Lee Shore.’” Savage Eye: Melville and the Visual Arts, edited by Christopher Sten, Kent State UP, 1991, pp. 55–77.

---. Melville and Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright. U of Georgia P, 1992.

Wettlaufer, John S. “The Universe in a Cup of Coffee. Cartesian Vortex Theory, Cosmic Vortices, and the Route to Cosmogony.” Physics Today, May 2011, p. 66.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Paweł Stachura, Melville and the Vortex Theory of MatterEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2023, Online since 07 September 2023, connection on 29 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Paweł Stachura

Paweł Stachura is a professor of American Literature at the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He has published on nineteenth-century American literature (Hawthorne, Melville, Gilded-Age authors), American science fiction, postmodern American fiction (Thomas Pynchon), and comparative literature (German and American fiction in the nineteenth century).

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC-BY-NC-4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search