I feel like I didn’t do my homework before I wrote In Praise of Ted Mooney, Part 1: Easy Travel to Other Planets. In his Acknowledgments, Mooney mentions that the explanation of sonar that Melissa, the novel’s dolphin researcher, provides, is based on a passage in John Lilly’s Lilly on Dolphins (1975). Had I looked at Lilly’s writings then, I would have known that there was a real world researcher who lived in a flooded house in St. Thomas with a dolphin named Peter for ten weeks trying to teach him to communicate in English.
John C. Lilly, MD (1915-2001) was a fascinating character. A neuroscientist by training, he invented isolation tanks that shut out as much as possible all sensory input to see what how the mind would react, and then began experimenting with LSD as he floated in the tanks. Following these experiences, he began studies of interspecies communication with dolphins. This led in the 1970s to the JANUS (Joint Analog Numerical Understanding System) project, which used computers to facilitate communication, but at the time the technologies were not adequate for the purpose, and, moreover, Lilly became uncomfortable treating dolphins as captive experimental subjects. His interests in the last decade of his life were oriented towards the intersection of neurobiology and theology.
In the late 1950s to mid 1960s, he managed the Communication Research Institute on St. Thomas. It included a flooded house, much like the one described in Easy Travel. For ten weeks in 1965, Margaret Howe lived alone in the house with dolphin Peter and she tried to teach him English. You can read her notes on the Lilly website under Interspecies Communication: Woman and Dolphin.
Melissa’s complaints about never getting dry were voiced by Margaret:
An example of all this: to take a shower at night before going to bed, means that I have to stand in knee-deep sea water during the shower, dry myself, and then wade back to my bed. This meant that when I got onto my bed, my legs from the knee down were wet with salt water. Even after drying with a towel, the dampness would still get through and make the sheet on my bed clammy and, if I had any nicks on my legs from Peter, they kept “stinging,” and in this rather bizarre setting with moonlight shining on the water making moving shadows all over the ceiling and walls, dull pump noises from below, I would try to settle down in bed, and occasionally found that out of sheer self-pity I would be adding my own salt tears to the mess I already lay in.
Now, in Easy Travel to Other Planets, Melissa and dolphin Peter make love. Margaret’s Peter was amorous as well, but she did not want a romance with her dolphin, although she did emotionally feel very attached to him. Margaret found that Peter’s desires got in the way of their work and so devised a means to accommodate them:
Now it has happened that Peter has modified his sexual rambunctiousness . . . to a more humanized level . . . and no longer has to come to a dead stop when he gets excited. Peter’s sexual excitement usually begins with the biting business, and my stroking him. Now, however, when his penis becomes erect, he no longer tries to run me down and knock me off my feet, rather he slides very smoothly along my legs, and I can very easily rub his penis with either my hand or my foot. Peter accepts either and again seems to reach some sort of orgasm and relaxes. We usually go through this three times or so before he quits and starts another game. This is not a private thing. Peter and I have done this with other people present . . . but it is a very precious sort of thing, Peter is completely involved, and I involve myself to the extent of putting as much love into the tone, touch, and mood as possible. We do not have to respect his privacy . . . but we cannot help but respect his happiness!
Now two things . . . I started out afraid of Peter’s mouth, and afraid of Peter’s sex. It had taken Peter about two months to teach me, and me about two months to learn, that I am free to involve myself completely with both. It is strange that for the one, I must trust completely . . . Peter could bite me in two. So he has taught me that I can trust him. And in the other, he is putting complete trust in me by letting me handle his most delicate parts . . . thus he shows me that he has trust in me. Peter has established mutual trust.
Coupled with that trust was Peter’s compassion toward Margaret:
Several times during the period, I felt the physically depressing effects of the situation to the point where I found myself actually crying. Small inconveniences suddenly loomed as very large and ugly. And I would find myself in a fit of self-pity, depression. It was Peter himself who brought me out of it every time without exception.
I haven’t yet found why Margaret’s stay in the flooded house ended after ten weeks.
Finally, a passage from Lilly’s The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence (1967) is of interest in thinking about the seemingly bizarre opening scene of Easy Travel:
One such area is a common human communication path. This is the path of the man and woman in love, making love. Their best form of exchange and communication is in their sexual activities. Can sexual activities be used for communication across the interspecies barrier? On the delphinic side, the answer would probably be yes. On the human side this is called a crime (sodomy). Such are some of the difficulties in our future with the dolphins. There are bound to he interspecies conflicts even as there are intercultural conflicts between men.