The book is so modern, it’s insane. Melville uses all these voices — historian, naturalist, botanist, lawyer, dreamer, obsessive librarian. His jump-cut style is truly contemporary.
Laurie Anderson on Moby Dick
The métro pulls in to Bobigny Pablo-Picasso in the North Eastern suburbs of Paris. Walking out on to Boulevard Maurice Thorez and up Boulevard Lénine, it is apparent that this is a world apart from the Haussmanised elegance left behind around forty minutes ago. Breaking free of the tourist flocks on the Champs-Élysées, I had descended into the subterranean belly of Charles de Gaulle Etoile to meet the familiar smell of the chthonic underworld and the squeals, clangs and clatters of the metallic worms burrowing through the entrails of the city. Doors explode open at each métro stop to displace and gorge on the huddles and tentacles of drifting humans in transit.
Up and down, to and from, the everyday life possibilities occurring directly overhead: Ternes > Courcelles > Monceau > Villiers > Rome > Place de Clichy > Blanche > Pigalle > Anvers > Barbès–Rochechouart > La Chapelle > Stalingrad >…
A change at Jaurès to pick up line 5 and soon it’s an ascent, emerging blinking into bright daylight and this different world. Here, the streets are named after artists and communist revolutionaries and the buildings remind me of the Scottish New Towns: stark, brutalist and functional. Consulting my notebook from the time I can see a handwritten scrawl:
The town where I grew up appears to have relocated to the Paris suburbs.
I was in Bobigny for the Festival d’Automne and heading to the MC93 Cultural Centre to see Laurie Anderson performing her ‘multi-media’ theatrical work Songs and Stories From Moby-Dick. Not a wholly accurate title as the piece is more of a meditation on Melville and what that book means to her. It was a fabulous experience to witness. The familiar Anderson performance tropes of expansive and existential themes, constructed instruments, minimal gestures and laconic storytelling were all brought to the fore. It certainly convinced me that there was more to this book than Ahab and his crew chasing a big fish. (ok mammal).
Then I read [Moby Dick] again. And it was a complete revelation. Encyclopedic in scope, the book moved through ideas about history, philosophy, science, religion, and the natural world towards Melville’s complex and dark conclusions about the meaning of life, fear, and obsession. Being a somewhat dark person myself, I fell in love with the idea that the mysterious thing you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive… 
For Anderson, Americans of her century and Melville’s share certain unmistakable similarities: they are obsessive, technological, voluble and in search of the transcendental,” she writes in the show’s notes. It is this latter aspect — the meaning of life — which is the focus of “Songs and Stories,” as Anderson asks Americans today, as Melville did in his lifetime: “What do you do when you no longer believe in the things that have driven you? How do you go on?” 
Up until that day I had managed to avoid reading Moby Dick. Walking back to the metro, I decided to rectify that and subsequently did. A copy now resides in the ‘hallowed’ section of the FPC library and is never too far from reach. There was also the strange delight of discovering some references to Fife in the book and a recent encounter with a building in the West Fife village of Limekilns caused me to search these out once again.
Unlike a merchant vessel going from
point A > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > > to point B,
a whaling ship is prowling,
z i g z
looking for prey.
The King’s Cellar, as it is known today sits in the village of Limekilns just west of Rosyth. A more appropriate name would be “The Monk’s Cellar” as the original building is believed to have been built by and for the monks of Dunfermline Abbey. The earliest official record of the building dates back to 1362, although the monks owned the surrounding Gellet lands as early as 1089 and it is believed that they used the “Vout” or “Vault” for storing wine and as a clearing house for monastic supplies brought in by sea. It is not clear when the building became known as the King’s Cellar but is likely to be following the dissolution of the monasteries when it was no doubt appropriated by the Crown.
Today it almost appears as if the building is being sucked into the ground with the bottom windows almost at ground level.
High up in the trees
to the rear of the cellar
a buzzard (?)
observing our every move
as has always been done
The stone above the door is misleading as it bears the arms of the Pitcairn family and the date, 1581. Pitcairn owned part of Limekilns and was the King’s private secretary and Commendator of Dunfermline. He lived in Limekilns and died in 1584, being buried in Dunfermline Abbey. The stone was transferred from his house.
Over the past 500 years the building has had parts of it rebuilt and adapted including the roof which was originally thatched. The building has been used as a wine cellar, storehouse, school, library, Episcopal Church in World War I, an air raid shelter in World War II. It is now used as a masonic lodge linked to the Bruce family of Robert the Bruce and the Elgin Marbles. A local belief exists that a secret underground tunnel connects the Cellar and the Palace at Dunfermline 4 miles away.
So what could be the connection of this building with Moby Dick?
Porpoises, indeed, are to this day considered fine eating. The meat is made into balls about the size of billiard balls, and being well seasoned and spiced might be taken for turtle-balls or veal balls. The old monks of Dunfermline were very fond of them. They had a great porpoise grant from the crown.
From Chapter 65 of Moby Dick – The Whale as a Dish.
Is it too fanciful to imagine that this is the building where the porpoises would be landed for the old monks of Dunfermline?
Melville also quotes from Sibbald’s Fife and Kinross in the first few pages of Moby Dick:
“Several whales have come in upon this coast (Fife). Anno 1652, one eighty feet in length of the whale-bone kind came in, which (as I was informed), besides a vast quantity of oil, did afford 500 weight of baleen. The jaws of it stand for a gate in the garden of Pitfirren.”
From Moby Dick EXTRACTS (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian)
The reference to Pitfirren certainly refers to this locality and is now known as Pitfirrane, located just North West of Limekilns. I decided to have a look at Sibbald’s original text which Melville used and discovered that the immediately preceding passage reads:
“There is a vast fond of small coal in the lands, which is carried to the port of Lyme Kills, belonging to Pitfirren […] it is well provided with coal-yards and cellars. Several whales have come in upon this coast…”
Had Melville used the longer quote from Sibbald, Limekilns (as spelt today) would be mentioned in the book with a reference to cellars, albeit not the King’s Cellar specifically.
There are a couple of other whaling references in Sibbald:
“The monks of Dunfermline had a grant from Malcolm IV of all the heads of a species of whale that should be caught in the Firth of Forth, (Scottwattre) but his Majesty reserved the most dainty bit to himself, viz. the tongue. It is curious to remark the revolutions of fashion in the article of eatables.”
(Sibbald p. 116)
“There are several whales which haunt the Firth of Forth, which have fins or horny plates in the upper jaw, and most of them have spouts in their head; some of these are above seventy foot long, and some less: one of these with horny plates was stranded near to Bruntisland, (sic) which had no spout, but two nostrils like these of a horse. These whales with horny plates differ in the form of their snout, and in the number and form of their fins”.
(Sibbald p. 117)
Two small paragraphs that offer a glimpse of a time passed, or has it? The privileges of royalty and the landed gentry arguably continue largely unabated and the non human species of the globe decline to the point of extinction at the hands of the human actor.
There are many voices of Melville present in Moby Dick but one of them is clearly alerting humankind to pay attention and consider the consequences of potential ecological catastrophes arising from the lavish plunder of the natural world.
Whilst out research is not conclusive by any means, we place a small photograph of Melville under the stones in front of the King’s Cellar to secure the linkage in our own mind. When we pass this building in future, if nothing else, we will be reminded of Melville, Moby Dick and the King with a taste for cetacean tongues. And each time we see a copy of that encyclopedic text – Moby Dick – we will think of this small building in a West Fife village and of course Laurie Anderson who cast the line in our direction.
Now Playing: Laurie Anderson – Life on a String
Norman Fotheringham, The Story of Limekilns (Charlestown: Charlestown Lime Heritage Trust, 1997).
Molly Grogan, ‘Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories’, Paris Voice, November 1999.
Carter B. Horsley, ‘Songs and Stories from Moby Dick’, The City Review, 5th October 1999.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick or The Whale (New York: Penguin Classics Edition, 1992).
Sir Robert Sibbald M. D., The History Ancient and Modern of the Sherrifdoms of Fife and Kinross (Cupar, Fife: R. Tullis, 1803).
Mike Zwerin, ‘Laurie Anderson Grapples with Melville’s Ghost’ The New York Times 2nd December 1999.
With a huge thanks to Brian David Stevens for the use of his photographs shot from Kinghorn Beach in Fife. These images are part of Brian’s ongoing Brighter Later project which is a journey around the British Isles looking outward from the coastline to show a different view of the UK. The journey will visit every coastal county in the British Isles. The project is currently being serialised on the Caught By the River website with Fife the most recent entry.
The volcanic plug of solidified lava – North Berwick Law (hill) – is clearly visible in the photographs and I had forgotten about the whale jawbones on the summit which Brian mentions in his text. Staring at the images got me thinking about Kinghorn, volcanic plugs, whales, Herman Melville, Laurie Anderson…
Some people know exactly where they’re going The Pilgrims to Mecca The climbers to the mountaintop But me I’m looking For just a single moment So I can slip through time.
Laurie Anderson, Life on a String. (Including songs from her stage production Songs and Stories From Moby-Dick).