This painting compels my imagination and pulls me back to my childhood dreams of becoming a mermaid.
I have always wanted to be a mermaid. To dive deep and explore the fantastical otherworld of our own earthly planet. Over my 40 years on land, I’ve indulged countless fantasies of swimming powerfully and gracefully below the water’s surface, registering the change of hue and temperature on my skin, even to have an altogether different kind of skin: scales.
Some of this dreaming drove me to become an English professor. For it is here, (I, again, imagined when I was younger) that one could read novels for a living. And, reading novels is as close as a biped human being can get (as far as I know) to inhabiting the skin of another creature and diving deep into foreign, imaginative seas.
It is in my life as an English professor that I now get to read, teach, and treasure Melville’s Moby Dick, the masterful story about a white whale. Now, Melville’s whale is not depicted as a soft, gentle beast; nor is his doppelganger a little girl in a bathing suit. But Moby Dick is a fantastic and enigmatic creature--perhaps the greatest in all literature-- and he compels the reader’s empathy, curiosity, and desire as much as our fear. Moby Dick is the sea, sublime.
This painting is, to me, a vision of power and whimsy. It draws upon the poignancy of fantasy and the very real darkness of Melville’s literary icon to remind us of the beautiful complexity that is childhood. This little girl is not just on or above (“sobre”) a whale. She rides this white whale. Actually, she flies him. She wears a bathing suit and swimming cap, and her goggles double as aviator glasses. She is a pilot commandeering a willing companion to frolic and dance. Yes, dance. She holds in her hands the ribbons of rhythmic gymnastics, and the colorful silk serves as her tail. She sails under the surface and above the whale. A pilot in command but also a willing traveler along for a ride, this little girl and her whale move together, exploring the gloriously pink sea.
Jessica Pressman is Assistant Professor in English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.
"Riding on whales" (Sobre ballenas) by Flor Delboy