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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

There's something stirring in the soul of Ishmael, the narrator of this "great and enduring volume." When civilization becomes an anchor on the soul, it's time to cut the line, to cast off to sea. It's time to reawaken "that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it." He says "call me Ishmael" in the opening line of the text. He is the bastard of civilization, out of place in his own father's house, but perhaps all the better for it. He is not "the son of the inheritance," and he shrugs off all societal responsibility and obligation, in search of adventure.

As I read Moby Dick I found that I had a certain fellowship and kinship with Ishmael, a fellow pilgrim in search of a life of deeper mystery and awe, a life somehow connected with exploring the wild of the natural world, a life a bit less comfortable but a bit more terrifying. Civilization can make one "grim about the mouth." Civilization values its domestication and the easing of any human exertion. It is, in a word, boring.

I've been chatting with some folks, and I've found that many of us in the States read Moby Dick as required reading in high school. It's unfortunate, I think. (Perhaps it is unfortunate that any text is required reading for students.) It can be a difficult read. Melville's great work was a forerunner to the modern novel. It cuts from plot to poetic and philosophical musings, or it breaks off of the narrative to attempt an encyclopedic-type entry on whale classifications, these sometimes spawning several chapters at a time. This disregard for strict narrative in a novel, however, was ahead of its time. In fact, it took a generation of two to really recognize that Moby Dick is one of the great American novels; indeed, one of the greatest novels of all time.

I think Moby Dick is a novel for a mature soul to savor, and to do so with a certain joy. I found it to be insightful, informative, breath-taking in its scope, and above all quirky and irreverent. Melville's Shakespearean prose does not take itself too seriously, but in the process, I find it to be a sweeping commentary on the entirety of western civilization. My review, then, will follow the epic nature of this great text and tease out how Melville, in his subtle and sly way, re-imagines civilization: with its imperialism, religious dogmatism, philosophical foundationalism, its life of comfort, its mastery of nature, and our conception of free will, necessity, and chance, with chance being the dominant force.

A Grand Epic

The Greek tragedy warns o the passions of a human being. The grasp exceeds the reach. Be wary of overstepping the boundary of morality. Live within your nature and all will be well.

The primary story line of Moby Dick reads like a Greek tragedy, and it is epic in its scope. We see two essential characters throughout the novel: Ishmael, the insightful, if somewhat idiosynchratic, narrator of the tale, and Ahab, the monomaniacal Captain of the Pequod. Ishmael has been taken aboard the Pequod for his first whaling expedition. Not long after setting sail, Captain Ahab reveals his true intentions for the Pequod: "Death to Moby Dick," the famed white whale who kills men and once took Ahab's leg. The two perspectives of Ahab and Ishmael are woven together throughout the tale. Ishmael, the investigative, thoughtful, and poetic novice, alongside Ahab, the seasoned old captain, a "grand, ungodly, godlike man."

"The chick that's in him pecks the shell. 'Twill soon be out." Ahab is intent on his vengeance of Moby Dick. "He piled up on the white whale's hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race, from Adam down." Ahab's was a "supernatural revenge," an anger that pursued the whale with a divine fury!

One of the crew speaks prophetically, even desperately to Ahab as the chase for the whale threatens the whole ship: "Let Ahab beware of Ahab. Beware of thyself, old man." Beware of thyself could not be more Greek, that sense that one's passions mixed with hubris--an arrogance that exceeds its proper limits--might produce a monstrosity of desire. "God help thee, old man. Thy thoughts have created a creature in thee!"

Melville's intent is to create a story that is on a grand scale. As such, even his long detours on the whale, the nature of the whaling equipment, and any other fact that strikes his fancy--all of these are meant to draw the reader into the epic tale. The true-to-life detail creates a greater-than-life narrative, something worthy of the full awfulness of the sea; something to inspire awe and dread.

"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme: No great enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it."

A Critique of Western Civilization

Where does one begin, to distill the spiritual, religious, and metaphysical musings of Moby Dick? Is it an act of hubris and madness, like the quest of the cracked old Ahab? Perhaps. And yet it may also be the case that Melville gives us the modus operandi for interpreting his text. In the interrogative words of Ishmael, "Why then do you try to enlarge your mind? Subtleize it." Melville works in a poetic, subtle, and even silly manner as he pokes at the fabric of the civilized world and the imperialistic worldview of the West.

What better place to start than with religion? Melville's imagination recasts and reinventS our conception of faith and the spiritual. He works with the same clay as the rest of us, for Melville is constantly alluding to Christian scriptures, motifs, and characters. His interest is primarily with the Hebrew scriptures, almost exclusively. Even when mentioning Jesus, Melville refers to him as "the man of sorrows," the prophetic title given in the book of Isaiah. In this way, Melville is writing his own Christian scriptures. Like a modern Apostle Paul, he recontextualizes the Hebrew faith into something new.

The best example of this work is found when Ishmael is caught in a bit of a bind. His new friend Queequeg is a "savage" and a pagan; yet Queequeg beckons Ishmael to join with him in worshiping his little idol, Yojo. Ishmael wants to be polite, friendly, and accommodating, but he is also a Presbyterian and knows that this act would make him an idolater. It is well worth citing the text at length, to see Melville's recontextualization in action.

"I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with the wild idolater in worshiping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth--pagans and all included--can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?--to do the will of God?--that is worship. And what is the will of God?--to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me--that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolater."

Not quite the same conclusion that the Apostle Paul would reach; however, in this wonderful paragraph, Melville recasts all of Christianity in light of goodwill toward one's fellow traveler. It's a sort of practical, organic Christianity that meets its neighbor where its neighbor is, even if smack in the middle of idolatry. And what is more, this interpretation seems to foreshadow the theological issues facing Christianity in the coming era of globalization. Melville's novel, as you know, was first published in 1851.

I also see Melville as developing a new (or perhaps very old) interpretation of God. I think Melville conceives of God as he conceives of the whale--as a being that is most fundamentally beyond our grasp. I suppose I ought to cite the novel again at length, to get the full sense of this idea.

"You must needs conclude that the Great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any considerable degree of exactness so there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like, and the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour is by going a whaling yourself. But by so doing you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him."

This conception of God strikes me as a very Hebrew idea. Again, I see this as Melville's reach back to the Jewish roots of Christianity. The allegorical link between God and the whal is almost made explicit when Melville says of the whale, "He has no face," and we must only see his tail. It is a clear allusion, as I see it, to the passage in Exodus chapter 33 where Moses asks to see God's glory, and God says, "you will see my back; but my face must not be seen," because, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

As has been alluded to, my read of Moby Dick is that it is not only a reinterpretation of the Christian faith but also the whole of of Western Civilization. Melville seems to take the lessons of the Greeks, with their warnings against hubris and untamed passions, and merge them with the Hebrew wisdom tradition and their conception of God as a God of awe and mystery.

There are two very notable passages where this merger seems most explicit to me. The first is in Father Maple's sermon on Job. God is not to be trifled with. Beware the disobedience of Job, Shipmates! Melville gives us an entire sermon on Job, a sermon that Ishmael listens to before embarking on his voyage. The whale narrative of Job is inverted, when rather than a whale swallowing a sinner-prophet on the run, Ahab is "chasing a Job's whale around the world." This is the switch from Hebrew narrative to Greek tragedy, but they both seem to bring the reader to the point of a healthy fear and trembling. This sense of awe is clearly lost on Western Civilization, in its imperialistic, monomaniacal quests to conquer and master the natural world.

Western Civilization in the modern era borrows its philosophical concepts from Greece and creates a new Christian God who charges her with conquering the nations in the name of Jesus. So, the pursuit of land, wealth, and glory merges with an evangelistic zeal. Melville inverts these. He takes the very human wisdom of Greece and carries over the God who cannot be contained in temples made by men.

This Greek and Hebrew merger also comes together in Ishmael's musings on the book of Ecclesiastes. Ishmael calls this "unChristian Solomon's wisdom," insights that the Christianity of Western Civilization knows nothing of.

"Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with they hand on the helm! Turn not they back to the compass." In other words, the darkness can overwhelm. But on the other hand, "that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true--not true, or underdeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. 'All is vanity!' All. This willful world hath not yet got hold of unChristian Solomon's wisdom yet."

This "willful world" is the imperialistic force of modern civilizations, which like Ahab would cry out, "I'd strike the sun if it slighted me!" But again, we must keep in mind, that Melville's text is not a sermon. It's philosophical themes and words of instruction are tucked away in a subtle manner, with a sense of humor and a wink of the eye. Melville isn't looking for converts. He isn't even seeking to undo Western Civilization: he's only deconstructing it through is novel, using its words and story to exaggerate it. He only wants to play with it and work it out with a crazy old captain, a massive and mythological whale, and a witty observer to record it all. Ishmael records it all as such:

"Here goes for a cool, collective dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost."

Conclusion: A Desperado Philosophy

If Melville stirs up a sense of awe and fear toward the world, he does so with the advice that we ought to still dive into it. There's something of the best of all practical wisdom in that. The world, with all its grandeur and greatness can swallow you, like the deep sea. God is great and beyond us; but don't let all that stop you. If you have a sturdy back and a noble soul, then take that cool, collective dive. "I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul."

So, Melville's "desperado philosophy" emerges from all of this. "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange, mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own....That sort of wayward mood....comes in the midst of his earnestness....There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial desperado philosophy."

I do think that it is fairly clear that on some points, Melville may be guilty of a bit of over-romanticizing. He seems to believe, for example, that whales will never be driven to extinction. The whale is "immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality." The estimation that I am familiar with is that in the last 200 years, the whale population has been reduced by 90%. Ecosystems, we are now learning, are fragile things. Wiping out a species can have a devastating effect on the world, to say nothing of being deprived of the beauty of a species. Technology is powerful enough to wipe out even the mighty Leviathan.

We live in fascinating times. Our world now has the technological capability to either create "a new heavens and a new earth" or completely destroy it. This extreme is perhaps unknown in all of human history. The tower started at Babel is finally complete. Still, for all of our mastery, it is our humanness that holds us back. "Sayest all of us are Ahabs."

"Heaven have mercy on us all--Presbyterians and pagans alike--for we are all cracked about the head and sadly need mending."


john doyle said...

Congratulations for completing the entire voyage, Erdman. There are many things of interest in your excellent post, but I must begin with an error, to which, if we were psychoanalytically inclined, we might ascribe unconscious meaning.

"The first is in Father Maple's sermon on Job. God is not to be trifled with. Beware the disobedience of Job, Shipmates! Melville gives us an entire sermon on Job..."

First note, trivially, that it's Mapple with 2 p's (possibly thinking ahead to the forests of Maine?). More importantly, the sermon is of course not on Job but on Jonah. However, your quote of Ishmael is accurate: he says that Ahab is chasing a "Job's whale."

Did Ishmael make a mistake? Pretty surely not. One-legged Ahab is a Job who takes his bad fortune not stoically but vengefully. And the brief Epilogue begins with a quote from Job: "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee." In Ch. 1 of Job three different messengers report to Job of the disasters that have befallen him; each messenger concludes withe the "and I only" phrase. So now Ishmael is the messenger: to whom is he reporting the disaster? Not to the Job-like Ahab, that's for sure. It's to the reader, isn't it? It would seem that Ishmael is telling us of our bad fortune, that this whole story is bad news for us. How so?

Incidentally, I could utter the "I only" phrase here too, Erdman, as it seems that all commenters but the Viagra salesman have jumped ship.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ha, ha!

Good catch. I see that the text has bamboozled me. Well, fair enough. Hopefully my entire analysis does not collapse! But if it does--if the sea swallows her as I fear it has--then it will simply go the way of all flesh.

Should I change the post? I'm inclined not to. Let's let the error stand. Any review of Moby Dick is itself a quest to harpoon the deadly whale. Best to take Starbuck's advice and pull out before the whale pulls you down. "Beware thyself old man."

A "Job's whale"? I don't really see how Job fits into this narrative, particularly at this late stage. I like your interpretation. Perhaps it is bad news for the reader, who presumably is a member of Western Civilization. Is this a prophecy of the collapse of civilization into the sea? The reader is Job and must soon grapple with the fact that everything has been taken from him.

Another thought would be that Melville perhaps deliberately conflated "Job" and "Jonah." Perhaps he assumed that the reader (like myself) would see "Job" but read it like "Jonah." Then, although the reader is reading it as a "Jonah's whale" (thus making the Hebrew and Greek connection complete), there is also the gloom of Job looming o'er the narrative.

john doyle said...

I think there is a strong Job theme. What do you do when God wrecks your life? Job bore it patiently and was compensated twofold; Ahab wanted revenge and was destroyed. This is a Greek mythic theme as you say, the idea of man pitting his will and wit against the capricious but powerful gods. It's a more heroic vision of man than Jonah's flight or Job's passive acquiescence. Sometimes the Greeks failed, sometimes they succeeded, but at least they tried.

Which brings another thought to mind. You say there are two main characters in Moby Dick: Ahab and Ishmael. What about Moby Dick? He doesn't speak, he has no face, but he's more of a significant force in the action than is Ishmael, who mostly just observes and comments. It's Ahab versus Moby Dick as the two adversaries.

Another thought: might we not think of Ishmael and Ahab as doubles, or perhaps two sides of man? Ishmael is the passive thinker and evaluator; Ahab, the active doer. Kind of like "Jack" and Tyler in Fight Club.

What to think of the Biblical names Ishmael and Ahab? Ishmael is the other son of Abraham, father of the Arabs, unchosen, yet in Moby Dick Ishmael alone survives. King Ahab I don't know as much about: a warrior-king of Israel, married to foreign princess Jezebel, tolerant of idolatry, renounced by the prophets, Ahab was killed randomly in battle and the dogs licked his blood. It would seem that the names convey something of a mongrelization, a blurring of the old distinctions between gods. And we certainly see this mongrelization on the Pequod, with various peoples and religions invoked. It's also a blurring of good and evil I think.

You call Ishmael a pilgrim: this whole voyage is a pilgrimage, isn't it? The crew think they've signed on to a commercial venture, but it turns out they're embarked on a haphazard course that's a return to God, or the devil, or whatever it is you decide that Moby Dick is. The asides about whales and whaling are sort of like theological and exegetical commentaries: meticulous, factual, sometimes mythic, but never really getting much closer to truth about the main Subject in question.

And it is a return, which according to the old distinctions makes it a pilgrimage rather than a quest. There is no Promised Land or holy site toward which they sail; instead, they seek God himself and their inevitable doom on the open seas. In Genesis that's where the strange Leviathan lives, the terror of the Deep. But maybe that's where God lives too: not in any one place, claimed by any one people, but everywhere, anywhere, nowhere.

john doyle said...

'The whale is "immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality."'

If the whale is God, then maybe He's been reduced by 90% over the past 200 years. I recently heard about Towing Jehovah, a 1995 novel by James Morrow. It turns out that God has died, his two-mile-long corpse having been discovered floating out at sea.

john doyle said...

On further thought, Job's whale probably refers to the whale in Job 41. The idea there is, if you can't mess with Leviathan, what makes you think you can mess with God? But you're also right that Moby is also the satanic adversary. This is part of the blurring of good and evil. This fits the Job story, where it's clear at the beginning that Satan is acting as Yahweh's agent. Ahab too is sort of satanically godlike. The chapter following the reference to Job's whale is The Whiteness of the Whale, where Ishmael notes the way in which whiteness betokens both holiness and sinister terror -- two sides of god, the whale, man.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Aha! Yes. That is very astute observation, very keen. A "Job's whale" does indeed connect with the Hebrew text in a direct way, making the connection between God and the whale (and also the adversary/Satan).

Melville was only about thirty when he wrote Moby Dick. What a genius.

john doyle said...

Camus, in his essay "Absurd Creation," identifies Dostoevsky as a writer who explores the absurd theme: stuck in an existence that's intrinsically illusory and meaningless, why not commit suicide? But Dostoevsky's main characters always bail out at the last minute, reaffirming hope in God and eternal life. Then Camus says this:

"At this point I perceive, therefore, that hope cannot be eluded forever and that it can beset even those who wanted to be free of it. This is the interest I find in the works discussed up to this point. I could, at least in the realm of creation, list some truly absurd works (Melville's Moby Dick, for instance). But everything must have a beginning. The object of this quest is a certain fidelity. The Church has been so harsh with heretics only because she deemed that there is no worse enemy than a child who has gone astray. But the record of the Gnostic effronteries and the persistence of Manichean currents have contributed more to the construction of orthodox dogma than all the prayers. With due allowance, the same is true of the absurd. One recognizes one's course by discovering the paths that stray from it. At the very conclusion of the absurd reasoning, in one of the attitudes dictated by its logic, it is not a matter of indifference to find hope coming back in under one of the most touching guises. That shows the difficulty of the absurd ascetics. Above all, it shows the necessity of unfailing alertness..."

Jonathan Erdman said...

Great quote, John. It's a great addition to this thread.

Have you been reading this Camus essay recently? Or did the discussion remind you of it?

And what's your take on this?

My initial question for Camus is whether he views hope as intricately and intimately related to absurdity almost as a necessary part of the human experience, or if his view is that writers seem to fall prey to hope in their writing and that in this way they fail to mirror the reality of life (which is absurdity)? Do we need to be vigilant as writers, not to fall prey to hope, so as to more accurately mirror reality? This seems to be what he is saying. Would you agree? And do you share the same viewpoint?

I've studied a bit of Camus in relation to my studies of Qoheleth. One biblical scholar (Michael Fox) has done extensive research and writing on the correlation between Qoheleth and Camus' notion of the absurd. It is fascinating, although I think there is probably more that can be done in that comparison, especially in relation to postmodern perspectives.

I have two of Camus' novels on my list: The Plague and The Stranger.

john doyle said...

You'd probably find this Camus essay worth reading, since he writes fairly extensively about Dostoevsky. It's in a compilation called The Myth of Sisyphus -- but now isn't the time for you to go tracking down more books to pack into boxes. I had previously cited Camus' endorsement in a short post I wrote about Moby Dick in the early days of my blog.

"writers seem to fall prey to hope in their writing and that in this way they fail to mirror the reality of life (which is absurdity)? Do we need to be vigilant as writers, not to fall prey to hope, so as to more accurately mirror reality? This seems to be what he is saying. Would you agree?"

Yes, that's pretty much what Camus is saying. So why is Moby Dick an absurd novel on these grounds? I think that Ahab really hoped he could challenge "Job's whale" and win, but he was wrong. Moby Dick bore no message from God for Ahab, like He did for Jonah and Job. Ahab's fate -- everyone's fate -- is just a faceless, speechless, powerful brute force that eats you up bit by bit until finally it takes you under. Ishmael alone survives to tell us the bad news, which is this absurd and hopeless tale.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Excellent. Yes, I will put The Myth of Sisyphus at the top of the reading list. Good. Good. I might also make the Camus novels a priority for future months.

I actually have owned Sisyphus for a year or so now, but for one reason or another I have not gotten 'round to reading it.

Unknown said...

Moby Dick of Herman Melville is awesome. Thanks for sharing this with us.