[lead]”So Real You Wouldn’t Even Know”: Michael Bergin’s Oceanic Knowledge[/lead]
Call him Michael Bergin. In a video that went viral earlier this week after he posted it to his Facebook page, a Massachusetts man and his friend—the relatively silent Jay—encounter Leviathan in the waters off Boston. Lolling on the surface of the water, an immense, disc-shaped creature with fins pitched and flapped. “Holy shit what the fuck is that, kid?” Bergin yells, and he does not leave off in this pitch, half sobbing and half shouting as he tries to identify the great kraken before them. Is it a baby whale? A sea turtle or a tuna or a flounder? Something with good meat, Bergin concludes in his distinctive Boston accent, as their initial impulse to preserve the possibly dying creature (“we gotta call the aquarium or something dude”) ends in a drive to annihilate it (“Let’s fucking hook that shit and we’ll be on the fucking news man. Come on man let’s get that thing”).
For seven straight minutes—a four-years’ cruise in viral video time—Bergin gawps profanely on the mystery facing him. Twice he tells Jay, “We’re seeing some shit we ain’t never seen before.”
I’m not shy about my enthusiasms, and friends on social media are generous in sharing links to stories relevant to my interests: the polar regions, the sea, Axl Rose, a possible sighting of what Bergin called a “baby feckin wheel [whale].” This was a good week. The highlight came when my friend Franklin Ridgway set Bergin’s Masshole ejaculations against an iconic Rockwell Kent image from Moby-Dick.
Ridgway’s creation brilliantly alerts us to the resonance of Bergin’s speech with Stubb’s exhortations to his whaleboat crew in “The First Lowering” in Moby-Dick. Melville describes the mate’s speech as full of “fun and fury”; like Bergin, Stubb “broadly gaped” at his companions in his excitement during the chase. Here are the whaleman’s words:
Easy, easy; don’t be in a hurry—don’t be in a hurry. Why don’t you snap your oars, you rascals? Bite something, you dogs! So, so, so, then:—softly, softly! That’s it—that’s it! long and strong. Give way there, give way! The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep. Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull. Pull, will ye? pull, can’t ye? pull, won’t ye? Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes don’t ye pull?—pull and break something! pull, and start your eyes out! Here!” whipping out the sharp knife from his girdle; “every mother’s son of ye draw his knife, and pull with the blade between his teeth. That’s it—that’s it. Now ye do something; that looks like it, my steel-bits. Start her—start her, my silver-spoons! Start her, marling-spikes!”
And here is my transcription of the Compleat Bergin in pursuit of his great leviathan. (The fish was in fact a mola mola or sunfish, which can reach over 7 feet and 2000 pounds.) As you can see, Bergin shares with Stubb a talent for repetitive, rhythmic cant, for rousing, oath-filled rhetorical questioning:
I don’t know what this is but Jay says it’s a fucking big sea turtle. It’s a baby fucking whale man. Holy shit we are witnessing a baby fucking whale right here dude. Holy shit. That thing is big Jay. What is that thing, it looks hurt. That thing looks hurt, Jay. Jay that thing is hurt bro. Holy shit look at this fucking thing. Oh my god what the fuck is that bro. Jay what the fuck is that. Oh man pull back up Jay. Come on come on bro pull back up bro. We’re seeing some shit we ain’t never seen before kid. Oh my god that thing looks dead man. We gotta call the aquarium or something dude. Oh man look at this fucking thing. Holy shit what the fuck is that. Oh man Jay it’s dead bro or something. Oh my god Jay, pull right up next to that shit Jay. Oh man look at this fucking thing, oh man look at that Jay. Holy shit what the fuck is that kid. You wanna try to pull it in? Let’s hook it. Oh man that thing’s just dead. What the hell is it? Who you gonna call? Yeah come on let’s fucking, let’s pull up next to that shit bro, lets help it. Oh man we’re calling the coast guard. Holy shit. Jay stop, here it is right here Jay, oh man look at this fucking thing. Holy shit, what is that fucking thing. A wha—if that’s a flounder man, let’s pull it in Jay. Come on Jay. Jay we can get some big money for that if it’s a fucking fish buddy, come on. Let’s fucking hook that shit and we’ll be on the fucking news man. Come on man let’s get that thing. What is that thing. It needs help whatever it is dude, it’s dying. Holy shit. Will you look at this shit. Oh my god Jay. Jay look at this fucking thing. Jay let’s get it. Let’s get it. Oh man Jay that is a fucking, that’s a tuna bro, Jay that’s a tuna or something Jay look at it come on. Oh man Jay let’s pull it in. Jude look at the fucking thing. Oh my god holy shit. Oh my god man we are seeing some shit we ain’t never seen before. But let’s get that fucking thing in this boat Jay come on. Yeah. Let’s get in in the boat bro. You got a hook, all right let’s get it. Oh man you guys are witnessing what me and Jason Foster—this is Michael Bergin and Jason Foster—we’re about ready to pull this monster, this fucking thing on this boat right here, Steve I hope you’re watching buddy. Holy shit, will you look at this fucking thing. What is that thing dude, oh my god, look at this thing, oh my—look at this fucking thing. Holy shit, holy shit Jay, oh my god, Jay’s got a little fucking fishing hook, are you shitting me, that’s the hook you come, oh my god, oh we got it, oh shit Jay, oh my fucking god, oh man we need to fucking go get that shit bro, oh man we need fucking help buddy, oh my god, Jay. That is still good meat on that fucking fish kid, am I lying? Oh my god, this is fucking crazy.
Any nautical encounter with a large creature draws Moby-Dick comparisons, naturally. Bergin himself invites the literary analogy in the short second video that shows their futile efforts to bring the giant sunfish aboard their boat: “look at you motherfucker…it’s Moby Dick.”
These comparisons are not necessarily interesting, in and of themselves. But what Michael Bergin’s encounter offers is a neat capsule of some of the main epistemological questions at the heart of the novel: what do we know? how do we come to know? Like Ishmael in Extracts, Etymology, and Cetology, he begins by proliferating citational and taxonomic possibilities: what kind of sea creature could this be? Bergin and Jay invoke and discard a number of options. What authority might be consulted—the aquarium? the Coast Guard?
Other chapters are in play, too. The frantic intimacy lobbed at unresponsive Jay invokes Bulkington, perhaps. Bergin also ventures to think on Affidavits: “we’ll be on the fucking news man,” he tells Jay, and he further specifies in the second video, “this is going on fucking Fox 25 fucking news tonight.” When he did go on the news, he grasped at incommensurate analogies from the non-nautical zoological world—just as Ahab’s sob is once compared to that of a “heart-stricken moose,” Bergin reports “when I see something like that, I’m amazed, bro. It’s like seeing a gorilla for the first time, man.” If he did not have a strong Boston accent, the video would not have as much viral comedic appeal. This, too, is consistent with the history of genre fiction from which Melville draws, both in the form of regional dialect writing and specialized sailors’ speech or nautical cant: Tuner, floundah, Quohog.
When I shared Ridgway’s Bergin/Kent creation with my Facebook friends, Tim Cassedy offered the following reading:
The speaker insists on reaching a definition of the unknown — “what is that fackin thing?” — restaging one of the central concerns of the book in general and ch. 32, Cetology, in particular. If Moby-Dick has any resolution at all, it might be the willingness to admit that we don’t know what the fack that fackin thing is.
I loved this superb analysis. In fact I had planned to show Bergin’s video to my undergraduates, as I just happened to be in the middle of teaching Moby-Dick to a class on the American Novel to 1900 (28 of 29 thought this was a good pedagogical exercise, according to a post-class poll). We had discussed “Cetology” in the previous class, and were turning that day to the famous speech Ahab makes in “The Quarter-Deck,” after he has revealed to the crew that the true aim of their voyage is to hunt the white whale. The god-fearing first mate Starbuck, however, finds blasphemous the idea of taking “vengeance on a dumb brute.” Ahab’s response to the mate reveals his own indifference to answering the questions that undergird causality or agency in the world. His desire, instead, is to obliterate causality without understanding it:
All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask . . . . That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.
Ahab accepts that there is an unfathomable force that governs action in the world; yet the “unknown but still reasoning thing” that determines causality in the form of the whale is for him only something to hate and destroy, rather than to seek to understand.
Enter Michael Bergin, whose speedboat-swift oscillation from curiosity, to an instinct to rescue or preserve the fish, to a hunger for publicity and material gain (“That is still good meat on that fucking fish kid, am I lying?”), leads him ultimately to decide, like Ahab, to strike through the mask. The mola mola tasks Bergin, and he piles upon the sunfish the sum of all the “holy shits” that Jay and his digital recording device can bear.
“It’s going viral all over the computer, bro,” Bergin said in an interview after the video blew up—he had posted it using Facebook’s global setting, enabling its unbounded diffusion. “I promise you, buddy,” he continued, “that video is so real you wouldn’t even know.” So real you wouldn’t even know. What would constitute knowing for Michael Bergin? In one sense, his statement gestures toward the willingness to sit with unknowing that Cassedy posits as Moby-Dick‘s upshot. But what Michael Bergin’s encounter with Leviathan in the deep might offer, as well, is another prospect within Moby-Dick‘s maritime epistemology: that oceanic ways of knowing—in their constitutive motility—continually undo the possibility of our recognition of their resolution as such. We are ever seeing some shit we ain’t never seen before.
Hester Blum: Long-time listener, first-time caller.