There was a magic here, some power that pulled deeply at a fundamental urge in the human soul.
–MacDonald Harris, Herma
I was afraid to reread Moby-Dick because it had seemed so overwhelming when I first read it years ago. Melville seemed intent on characterizing the whaling enterprise of his day in seemingly its every facet; was there not a narrative tension between the pure whaling-adventure scenes and the interruptions of that adventure by all those chapters effectively presenting the full technical and cultural magnitude of the hunting of whales–the massive job descriptions, new technologies of the day, and especially the broad cultural and historical context which Melville gives to the Whaler’s Story? If anything, Melville would supplant previous grand myths with the Whaling Story, insisting at every point that it is a novel and realistic way to render the human condition.
Yet over the years I had often thought about–indeed, been haunted by–Melville’s epic of the sea–the greatest story of the sea ever written according to such as D.H. Lawrence and John Masefield. And because of those and a few other late discoveries, the obscure and forgotten Melville’s sublime book was redeemed from oblivion in the 1920s. Of course, like most of the handful of truly great epoch-making stories which move storytelling in new directions to dramatize new spirits of place and pivotal times, Moby-Dick is nothing if not strange on first reading. The style and premise are shaped by new compositional challenges arising out of new times. The natural enemies of serious literature–tradition-bound English Departments and distracted “schools” of literary critics stand out here–will seldom recognize truths in such crucial strangeness: poor Melville could not rely on “the shock of recognition.”
But I devoured Moby-Dick on my second reading. The best I can say here is that looking back from our present day it has become inevitable that Melville’s classic now emerges in all its simple profundity.
The wonderful Emily Dickinson wanted to “unname” the male-dominated poetic tradition and reconfigure experience in new ways. Fellow New Worlder Melville wrote Moby-Dick as an interruption of a vast, hoary cultural outlook whose literary paragon is, of course, Shakespeare. Yes, Melville turns away from earlier versions and explanations of the human condition, a vast body of drama epitomized by The Bard. Apropos, there is no hero in all of high literature who is like Ahab. Nor, I would wager, is there one who has been misunderstood more consistently.
Thinking of Melville’s state of mind–really, his inspiration–as he writes Moby-Dick is the key. Such genius eludes us in its wonderful moment-to-moment soaring and diving and just plain staying-the-course, but I think there are three roads which lead to the heart of Moby-Dick: 1) a reflection on the final paragraph of the novel; 2) Ahab and the Theodicy Problem; 3) the malevolent beauty of the natural world.
1. The End of Moby-Dick. Here it is in all its terrible beauty. The Pequod is sunk by Moby-Dick; all ends thusly:
Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf: a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.
Melville tries to fit the absolute essence of human experience–the Human Condition–into the story of the White Whale. There is adventure, there are thrills, there is the surface beauty of Nature (though monsters swim below the sun-dappled surface of the sea on a balmy tropical afternoon as noted for an enraptured sailer manning the Crows Nest who forgets the brute physics still holding during his idyllic vista in which in his seductive reverie he loses his footing and plunges to his death). In other words, after the whole stirring and brutal adventure in which EveryHero Ahab, calling himself “Adam, staggering beyond the piled centuries since Paradise” just to make sure we Get It about his enormous symbolic stature, diverts the Pequod and its carefully depicted global crew–here comes everyone–from the lamp-oil mission to a new Story of stories to “strike through the mask” of an “inscrutable malice” in a Nature that has it out for us. If Moby-Dick is Melville’s version of the whole world and the essence of human experience–a vast take–humanity ends up sailing on a journey which is–no other words seem as fitting–a Defiant Hero’s (not a Pilgrim’s) progress through a deadly enshrouded Nature: “…the great shroud of the sea.” We must, says Ahab, defy our circumstances.
2. Ahab and the Theodicy problem. Theodicy is a centuries-old intellectual pursuit of some explanation of why God permits evil, and a mindful quest finally focussed on the mystery of human suffering. Moby-Dick is the irreligious Melville’s agent of savage nature, and the pursuing Ahab, scarred from nape to sole by the monstrous whale, says that he’d even strike the sun if it offended him. Ahab is “monomaniacal” in his determination to defy Nature; indeed, to punish Nature. (And I imagine Melville to be snickering whenever he allowed the term into the narrative in characterizing Ahab). Now, what are the traditional “answers” to the Problem of Evil? Here are some: We humans are guilty sinners and deserve our suffering in this Vale of Tears. We humans show darkness of the intellect and cannot fathom why actually All Is Well: God has things right but we aren’t smart enough to realize it. And further, and even though suffering, we humans can through mysticism transcend that grief. Zen and Theresa of Avila.
And Ahab’s entering into this Great Question? We could review much of his conduct, but the marvelous Melville says it profoundly and simply in one moment in the drama: On one of his voyages made before the novel opens, Ahab is shown a “Holy Chalice of Communion”: Ahab spits in it.
Ahab rejects an entire and pervasive tradition.
So, of course, does Melville himself. Melville’s prophetic Elijah, encountered by Ishmael and Queequeg on the pre-voyage docks, foretells of doom, unlike the Elijah of the bible. Melville here is going about Emily Dickinson’s “unnaming” of things traditional. And here, perhaps, better said: “renaming.”
Another of the many signs of Melville’s anger about Theodicy: Father Mapple’s sermon early in the novel on the Old Testament story of Jonah in the belly of the whale is nastily the inverse of Melville’s vision of reality, Mapple’s harangue being a silly myth from the previous (Biblical) Story of stories before Moby-Dick appears (make no mistake, the “renaming” Melville is supremely ambitious!) and the Jonah story having no referents to the realities of Moby-Dick. In that wintry church in which Mapple climbs his little play ladder up to his little play ship of a pulpit, the abiding impression of that scene is those cold marble tombstones mounted on the church walls and listing whalers killed in that endeavor. That imagery complements symbolically the mysterious painting at the inn noticed by Ishmael in which, as you study the canvas, it gradually (as in the manner of an optical illusion–ah, Herman, what a symbolist are you!) dawns (or resolves) that the image is of a huge whale emerging from the waves and leaping high to fall upon and crush a whaler. (Recall those lectures in English class about “foreshadowing.”)
The worst oversight in reading Melville’s epic is the all-too-frequent diminishing of Ahab as somehow an obsessive who merely wants vengeance on a dumb brute. Perhaps the right explanation here to explain such views by readers is Emerson’s warning about foolish consistency: I’m certain Melville would shrug and admit that the Old Habits of Thought are in many invincible. Of course, he gives wonderful dramatic evidence to the contrary. First, Ahab is no forerunner of Hitler, etc. Ahab is Right About Things in the world of Moby-Dick, and he rouses the crew to abandon the conventional business of whaling for an epochal quest. Yes, rouses. Stirred, they (even practical-Quaker Starbuck at The End) resoundingly follow Ahab. And to point to MacDonald Harris’s enervating words–“…a fundamental urge in the human soul”–we see in Moby-Dick that Queequeg, member of the royalty on a South Sea paradise island, forsakes that life for the dangerous, avid whaling adventure as a harpooner (ready to strike through the [malevolent] mask). And as the novel opens, Melville pictures Manhattanites gazing out to sea as humans are wont to do when encountering from a coast the inscrutable sea, the great shroud. Something pulling about it, eh?
3. The savage beauty of the natural world. The symbolist Melville loves life both beautiful and painful and describes it sublimely:
Steering north-eastward from the Crozetts we fell in with vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance upon which the Right Whale largely feeds. For leagues and leagues it undulated round us, so that we seemed to be sailing through boundless herds of ripe and golden wheat. (Right Whales) with open jaws sluggishly swam through the brit…. As moving mowers who, side by side, slowly and soothingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of the marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind the endless swaths blue on the yellow sea.
But finally Melville speaks through Ahab about the malevolent force behind the “mask” of the natural world, a mask we must strike through to attack that “inscrutable malice” savaging us. And indeed Melville leaves us with little else but a shocking, stunning heroism: fierce Ahab, turning his back on an enormous tradition of human thought, becomes a would-be punisher of our invisible foe, Nature herself: The Defiant Hero.
The Defiant Hero.
Of course, Ahab is a larger-than-life hero. He embodies Melville’s Grand Take. And it is New. After all, the marvelous Herman is of the New World. And for Ahab, and eventually for the others in the global crew, reality, just as depicted in that murky painting hanging in the inn, resolves to the shrouded malevolence of a punishing monstrous whale.
This is not catharsis, not little stories about emotional problems, not metaphysical, not mystical, etc. It is instead a truly grand and pivotal and strange book, and as the great literary theorist Harold Bloom says, the Canon is comprised of strange books.
At the end, after all that magnificent adventure, we honestly do not know much, saith Melville. But we must be heroic in defiance. It seems right. And so: Ahab leaves his young wife and child and the warmth of home and hearth and takes to the sea and finally and fatally sinks his knife into the immortal flesh of the inimical White Whale.
And so here is Moby-Dick, in between the Old World and our new and most dangerous one of sensational and amazing technology. Melville did not know then where we might be now.
But he cleared the decks (grimly appropriate in talking about the Pequod) for our period.
He demolishes the Mysterian Tradition.
And now there is indeed our period. And herein another enormous story opens up to us, a redemptive one that may offer little hope of success given all the obstacles. And one far too complex to comment much on here. But: things like Cantor’s Diagonal Argument (an inkling of the Beautiful)–the sheer wonder and thrill of it–Cantor’s great glimpse of varieties of Ever. Recall that in Moby-Dick Melville speaks of the “infinite series of waves” that encircle the Earth: here is not Cantor but an Escher-like sense of being confined to a circling infinity bound to a globe: ultimately a hellish infinity of ennui. But that is not the presumptive direction of our present and future technology: that technology portends the ultimate meaning of a transformation into post-biological life in which the New World becomes Ideality and there is a boundlessly happy infinity of a grand Mathematica Dramatica far beyond the impenetrable mask.