Fluid Texts: The Morgan, Moby-Dick, and Theseus’ Ship

Original and new timber of the Morgan keel

Original and new timber of the Morgan keel.

How “real” is the Morgan as a ship, is an important question to ask.  As important as asking, what do you mean by “real”?  The ship dates back to 1841, but like any ship it had to be repaired, refitted, rebuilt during its active life, and it has been restored in recent decades.  So how much of the original timber is left, and does that make a difference in our understanding of this historical and critical object?

In raising the issue of ship conservation on our “38th Voyager” listserv, crewmember Frank Reed made the following comment, invoking the philosophical conundrum known as “Theseus’s Ship,” which goes something like this:  Theseus sails out on a thirty-year voyage, and every year he replaces some part of his ship—planks, sails, rigging, fittings—with new materials until, at some point, he has replaced all parts of the ship so that nothing original remains.  When he returns home, is he on the same ship?  As you can tell from Frank’s comment, which I am quoting below, the Morgan is indeed something of a Theseus’s Ship.  In responding, I raised a parallel in literary studies to what I call Fluid Texts, and my response follows Frank’s below.  I think the conversation reveals interesting ways to talk about ships, novels, “versions,” and revision.
Frank Reed (email correspondence, 6 July 2014):
When the decision was made in the early 1970s to remove the Morgan from her sand berth, it was a conservation decision with profound consequences. Rather than being a historical artifact, the Morgan necessarily became a living ship. Protected in sand, nearly everything below the waterline was “original fabric” (19th century wood) and a lot above the waterline, too. It was estimated that the vessel was 50-60% original fabric. But after re-floating, it became necessary to restore and replace planks and beams and everything else on a regular basis. Now the Morgan is less than 20% original fabric and by some estimates only 10% original fabric (mostly the massive keel). Is this an old vessel? By the standards of living ships, yes, it is. On wooden vessels, rotten planks get replaced. But by the standards of other artifacts, it surely isn’t a historical “artifact”. If someone sold you a desk manufactured in 1841 and then explained after you bought it, that 90% of the wood had been replaced within the past thirty years, you might be appalled! The Charles W. Morgan has become a literal Ship of Theseus (though it certainly has a stronger claim to being an old vessel than the US Brig Niagara –is that vessel the second oldest in the USA, as Erie Maritime maintains, or is the Charles W. Morgan, as Mystic Seaport claims?). As a completely restored and renewed sailing vessel, some have argued that the Morgan must sail, at least for one last summer and maybe more. And even in 1974, I remember some curmudgeonly locals arguing that it had no other fate except sailing cruises for well-to-do “tourists” once it was removed from the safety of that sand berth. Living ships must sail.
My Response (email correspondence, 6 July 2014):
Dear Frank,
Your delicious explanation is fascinating, and adds more depth to what I anticipate will be one of the deeper experiences of my life: sailing on this vessel.
You raise the parallel to Theseus’ Ship, which is an old paradox that has been used in other fields, in particular one that I am engaged in, when I am not writing this Melville biography, and that is Textual Scholarship and the creative process, in particular a field of study I sort of inaugurated called “the fluid text.” The idea is that a written work exists in multiple versions, and over time a text will “evolve” through various versions that the author has no control over but which reveal fascinating aspects of our culture. Translation is one such “revision” of a text into a thoroughly different “version.” And any form of adaptation—Moby-Dick appears as a children’s book, games, films, plays, operas, music—also generates numerous versions of the work.
The fluid text approach is not to say that the original of MD is any less important, only that the many versions of it are also an important way of mapping how a culture reads MD. Anyway, I have used Theseus’ Ship in talking about fluid texts to ask: how far along, from one version to the next, can we go before we find that the version in hand is no longer a version of the original but another original of its own? And my answer to this is “only when we forget the links that connect the versions.” In short, memory is what keeps Theseus’ Ship still identifiable as Theseus’ ship, even though every plank and line has been replaced.  And only memory, or our making histories of fluid texts, keeps us conscious of the “version” being a version.
So what I draw from this is that the Morgan is like Theseus’ Ship, which is like Moby-Dick. We keep generating versions of them and if we keep remembering our continued and evolving experience of the Morgan, we won’t scoff simply because the planks under our feet are not the very molecules that were first placed there. Culture is memory, and things like the 38th Voyage keep culture alive because it creates new memories about the same object, or version of the original object. So a new plank is a version of the old plank, and the person who placed the new plank is a version of the first ship’s carpenter who placed the old plank; and we voyagers are versions of the original whalers, at least to the extent that we can relate our experience to theirs, critically and with imagination.
But having said this, I want to know how many of us will want to see, touch, and feel some part of that 10-20% of the ship that Frank tells us is “original.” Can we touch the keel, without jumping over board. Melville, or rather Ishmael, has a chapter on the risks of knowing what the whale’s spout is: you risk death finding out; but I won’t get into that.  yrs, John.
[Later in this thread, New Bedford Whaling Museum senior maritime historian Mike Dyer passed along the image that appears above showing where some of the Morgan’s original and new timbers meet.]