Melville’s Curves: Mathematics and the Melvillean Imagination. Measuring a Cycloid in Moby-Dick

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In this essay I reflect on the role mathematics plays in Melville’s works and imagination moving from one specific mathematical reference in chapter XCVI of Moby-Dick “The Try-Works.” Here Ishmael mentions the cycloid, a peculiar geometrical construct that was at the center of mathematical and philosophical debates during the 17th century. In the first part of my essay I show how it is only in the light of some of its properties that Ishmael’s playful reference to the cycloid can be understood, thus testifying to the author’s profound understanding of these mathematical notions. Moreover, Melville must have also been aware of the pivotal role the cycloid played in the history of early modern thought: the investigation into its properties was at the basis of the invention of calculus, which in turn was at the center of the philosophy of post-Cartesian thinkers such as Leibniz and Spinoza. Building on this, in the second part of my essay I intend to show how Ishmael’s mention of the cycloid can be seen as a reference to a philosophical worldview according to which nature appears as a continuum of indefinitely foldable matter, a view in which Melville conflates such diverse thinkers as Spinoza, Plato, Goethe or the Transcendentalists and which he presents as both fascinating and problematic. Once the cycloid episode is read in this light and put in relation to a series of structurally similar scenes throughout the novel, it can be interpreted as the representation of this ambivalent position, one of many instances of Melville’s ability to bring together and keep alternative worldviews in creative tension.
Lingua originaleEnglish
pagine (da-a)N/A-N/A
Stato di pubblicazionePubblicato - 2022


  • Melville, Herman
  • MOby-Dick
  • mathematics
  • calculus
  • Deleuze, Gilles
  • philosophy
  • curves
  • ontology
  • geometry


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