"Moby Dick" is the name of a Led Zeppelin instrumental song on the album Led Zeppelin II, which is largely a drum solo showcasing John Bonham. In concert, Bonham would extend his solo until this song reached a half-hour in length. The live version on The Song Remains the Same soundtrack is not quite that long, just under 13 minutes.

According to the site cited below, "Moby Dick" grew out of a piece called "Pat's Delight" played when Led Zeppelin first came together, and also had roots in "The Girl I Love (She Got Long Black Wavy Hair)," which can be heard on the BBC Sessions album. It went in and out of the set list until finally retired after the 1977 tour.

Source: http://tinpan.fortunecity.com/leonard/849/songs/mobydick.html

Moby Dick; or, The Whale
by Herman Melville

In Token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.

Etymology
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Epilogue

Nasrudin’s Donkey

The attempt to locate the Self in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.
And if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
Friedrich Nietzche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

There is a story about the Sufi sage, Mullah Nasrudin, which goes that one day he was seen riding frantically through the streets of the town on a donkey, looking this way and that, reaching the walls of the town and doubling back, constantly crossing the main marketplace. Eventually one of the townspeople called out to him, “Mullah, what are you looking for?”, and without stopping he cried over his shoulder, “I’m looking for my donkey!”

This parable illustrates perfectly the basic preoccupation, and paradox, of Moby-Dick. While it is impossible to fix on a reductive meaning for Melville’s most famous novel, being as it is so rich and ambiguous, and full of his musings and insights in many areas, it is clear at least that one of its most over-riding concerns is with the human attempts to ‘grasp the ungraspable phantom of life’, the ‘one insular Tahiti’ which is the essential and untouchable identity of man; the self. This desire to transcend the limitations of ordinary life and find the true self is shown to have two manifestations in the novel; as W.B. Dillingham argues in Melville’s Later Novels (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986), the desire to rise above the world and lose one’s individual identity in a merger with the infinite is balanced against the desire to plunge deep within oneself and unearth this ungraspable phantom of the inner self. However, neither is seen to be an answer sufficient unto itself - both lead to destruction and the inevitable return to a confrontation with the blank unreadability of life, its unanswerable, indeed unquestioning, stolidity.

However, I feel that the text resolves this dilemma by finding a new definition of the Self which does not configure it as an object which can be known of itself, but as that which must be inferred from the very fact that knowing is possible. The very blankness from which the characters in the book, and particularly Ishmael, recoil, is the nearest that words can approximate to the nature of consciousness and the true Self, which is blank in the sense that it does not possess characteristics by which it can be identified, and thus can never be ‘found’, but rather is always present as the ‘knower’, the ‘witness’, the ‘giant eyeball’ which Emerson said, in The Poet, that he felt himself to be when he wandered alone in the woods. As we shall see, both the symbolism and the textual devices of Moby-Dick point to this resolution of the dilemma which results from the human search for the self. In a sense, the self is like Nasrudin’s donkey in the above-mentioned parable - we charge around searching for it, not realising that it is the very means of our searching.

In his obsessive chase of the White Whale, Captain Ahab represents one of the two polarised impulses of the human mind in its search for truth or the self. His whole will is bent on the pursuit, through the measureless deep, of Moby Dick, and on his eventual slaying. As any hunter will confirm, the essential attraction of hunting is the unity of the hunter with the hunted in the moment of death. In primitive societies this feeling was described as the spirit of the animal entering the hunter, which is why it was usual for primitive hunters to identify themselves with their prey before a hunt. This is why, at the end, when Ahab sees that he cannot kill the whale, he accepts the next best thing - to yoke himself, though dead, to it, and be carried through the ocean forever.

As Dillingham says, ‘Melville’s fondness for the metaphor of deep diving is obvious to anyone familiar with his works and letters.’ (Melville’s Later Novels, p.10) Deep diving, and digging, are metaphors for the search through the dross of the world and the personality for the ambergris, the quintessence, the pure untouchable core of self:

Melville represents metaphorically the journey within self as consciously diving or willfully plunging
Melville’s Later Novels, pp.13-14
Indeed, the prevalence of this metaphor is such that it is impossible to give examples of all its appearances. In a sense, the whole book is an allegory of the plunge within the self, and constantly, at all levels, represents this plunge in the thoughts of Ishmael and Ahab, and in the action of the narrative.

Besides the main storyline, in which the whale is pursued through the ocean (which, as Jung points out, is ‘the commonest symbol for the unconscious’ - The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, New York: Pantheon Books, 1959, p.18), there are Ishmael’s recurring anatomical journeys through the innards of the sperm whale; the finding of ambergris deep within the decomposing corpse of a whale; the falling of Tashtego into the whale’s head; indeed, the entire symbolism surrounding the whales and the ocean describes a vast and unknown region populated by monsters and wonders, through which the whalers trawl in order to make their living, and through which Ahab hunts as he would hunt for his own immortal soul.

To read Moby-Dick is to feel oneself constantly being taken inward to some enclosed space.
Melville’s Later Novels, p.9
This symbolic diving into the deep places of the ocean and the ship is accompanied by the penetrating thought of Ishmael and Ahab, who also seek to dive into the hearts of men and the secrets of the world. Ahab in particular, in his attempts to decipher the world, sees everywhere this phantom of himself, just as Narcissus, in Melville’s version of the myth, sees in the water the image of himself and plunges after it:

And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
Melville, Moby-Dick, London: Penguin (Penguin Popular Classics), 1994, p.23

Jung also used the myth of Narcissus to show the fascination of water as a metaphor or symbol for the unconscious, saying that ‘whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face.’ (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, p.20) The desired goal of he who plunges into the water, or into the deep places of the earth, in a search for self, as Ahab does, and as Ishmael does in a less obsessive, more balanced way, is to find the still centre, the ‘insular Tahiti’ of the powerful and supreme and indestructible inner identity that will rescue the seeker from the pain of existence and bodily form - ‘In such an experience, one goes down to the "still point", or "the ground of the soul", thus finding a type of knowledge that is supra conceptual and therefor ineffable, a species of superthinking’ (Dillingham, in Melville’s Later Novels, quoting William Johnston’s The Still Point.)

However, as is clear from the fate of Ahab and of the crew who are swept away by the strength of his will, Melville is aware that this kind of diving after the self is fraught with danger, and ultimately must be fruitless. As we shall see later, The search for self as if it were a thing separate from one, as if it could be hunted down like a whale, creates a paradox which wreaks destruction, and always returns the seeker to the horrifying blank impersonality of life, which drove him into the search in the first place.

On the other hand, Melville also criticised the ‘mystical’ alternative to the inward search for truth and the self, which is the impulse to rise above life, to detach from it and to lose one’s sense of individual identity which Melville valued so much. Jung said of this urge in man:

For people who think in this way, spirit means highest freedom, a soaring over the depths, deliverance from the prison of the cthonic world, and hence a refuge for all those timorous souls who do not want to become anything different.
The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, p.19

In chapter 35, ‘The Mast-Head’, where he describes the experience of being in the crow’s nest and feeling one’s identity washed gently into the vast blue ocean below, Melville calls on us to imagine a hypothetical ‘young Platonist’, or Romantic, installed in the crow’s nest, and surrendering to the urge to drift higher and escape the mortal plane of existence, and finally losing his balance and falling into the ocean to drown. As Dillingham says:

Melville’s brand of "superthinking," however, is not to be confused with transcendental moments so prized by Romantic visionaries and mystics in which one’s individual identity is lost and where a sense of well-being usually is pervasive. The difference is fundamental. Melville’s deep diving is into self with the goal of discovering at the center a hidden but powerful and sublime identity; transcendental or mystical experience takes one without and merges individual identity with the whole.
...The one is a finding; the other is a losing.
Melville’s Later Novels, p.14

Dillingham concludes that, although it is clear that Melville recognises the perils inherent in the unrestrained ‘diving’, or pursuit of an inner self, represented in the character of Ahab, such a course is to be favoured over the ‘mystical’ path of losing one’s identity, and indeed may be the only path open to the seeker of the self. He believes that it is Ishmael’s ability to balance the two sides of himself - the ardent pursuer of inner meaning, and the more ‘airy’ and sensual side - which allow him to survive the destruction of the Pequod.

I agree that a ‘seeker’ of the self must choose between one or another method of going about his search, at least within the metaphorical terms presented by Melville in Moby-Dick. However, I believe that Melville represents a third option in the novel, and that it is shown not in anything Ishmael thinks, but what he represents - in the very implications of his condition throughout the novel and at its end. Before looking at the implications of Ishmael’s survival, and telling of his story, it is necessary to examine the horror, mentioned before, which is the driving force behind all pursuits and ‘diving’ in the novel, as well as all attempts to rise above life: the meaninglessness or ‘indecipherability’ both of nature and man-made artefacts in the novel, and the blankness with which the characters are confronted again and again.

Just as most religions have as their starting-point and their underlying logics a horror and sorrow arising from the overwhelming presence of evil in the world, or the imminent horror of hell; the Buddhist samsara or world of illusion; the Fall from a perfect state; so Melville begins with his imagination dominated, not by evil, but by a horror inspired by a recognition of blankness. In chapter 42, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, Ishmael says that ‘What the White Whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.’ (p.189) He goes on to explain that it is the whiteness of the whale that is the source of his horror and awe, and that this whiteness, though it can represent purity and royalty, to him (and therefore, he speculates, to all men, whether they know it or not) it conjures an inexplicable dread and uneasiness. He goes on to conclude, or at least to suggest in conclusion, that the whiteness of the whale makes it for him a symbol of ‘the palsied universe’, the ‘dumb blankness, full of meaning’ which humans try to decipher in an attempt to counter the primal confusion and fear of living in this world. Colours are described as ‘but subtle deceits’, which the universe takes to herself like a woman’s make-up. Lest we think this is simply Ishmael in one of his ‘hypos’, or Melville becoming carried away by his own preoccupation with blankness, we must remember the nature of the ‘colour’ of material objects. When light falls on an orange, the reason we perceive it to be orange is not because it is orange, but because it absorbs all of the visible spectrum except orange, which it reflects back, allowing us to perceive it. In a sense, orange is the only colour which it is not.

The peculiar properties of light are further discussed by Melville in this chapter, when he says:

we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless of itself, and if operating without medium on matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge
Moby-Dick, p.196
As we shall see, this description of light as a blankness which possesses of itself no quality, or color, is very close to Melville’s description of the soul, or consciousness, of human beings, and is important for the understanding of his conception of the Self as a living blankness.

Ishmael confronts this ‘dumb blankness, full of meaning’ throughout the novel, in two important ways. The first is represented by his examination of the painting in the inn at the beginning, chapter 3, which is a mess of colour and form,

enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet there was a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through
Moby-Dick, p.30

Though Ishmael arrives finally at an interpretation of the painting, he makes it clear that it is only his best guess, cobbled together from his own perceptions and the opinions of other sailors in the bar. The idea is repeated most clearly in chapter 99, ‘The Doubloon’, in which many of the crew, including Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, Fedallah, and Pip, one by one are heard by Stubb himself to give their reflections on the meaning of the markings on the doubloon which Ahab has nailed to the mast as a reward for the sighting of Moby Dick. Ahab comes closest of the ‘sane’ crewmen to recognising the ‘blank’ nature of the coin when he says:

and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.
Moby-Dick, p.410

Yet he sees the coin, as do the others, in the light of his own peculiar predilections and obsessions - he interprets it as a reflection of himself, seeing ‘something ever egotistical’ in the mountains and inscriptions. Starbuck sees the Holy Trinity; Stubb sees a Zodiacal commentary on man’s life; Flask sees the material objects and luxuries which the coin can buy; Queequeg sees some relation to the tattoos on his skin. Only Pip lights on the essential significance of the doubloon, when he repeats ‘I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.’ (p.413) That is: the most notable fact of the episode of the doubloon is the act of perception, the looking, in which the characters are engaged, upon which their conceptions and interpretations are built. Pip recognises this looking to be the true importance of the ‘doubloon’ episode, because of the nature of his own transition to ‘insanity’ which I will now go on to discuss.

So far the ‘blankness’ we have looked at has been found in man-made artefacts - paintings, doubloons, and other constructed objects which in the beginning had an intentional or decipherable meaning that is forgotten or unavailable to the characters. Queequeg’s tattooed skin is another example of this - it was written by a departed prophet of his country, and represents a complete treatise on the universe and the attainment of truth, but its secrets have perished with their writer, and all that is left is a mystery of markings which Ahab describes as a ‘devilish tantalization of the gods!’ (p.455). However, this blankness and ‘unreadability’ goes beyond humans’ use of symbols and becomes Melville’s idea of the whole world itself as an unreadable text - one which, however, can never firmly be said to have possessed an original and now lost meaning, like Queequeg’s skin. Instead, we are presented with the picture of the skin of the sperm whale itself, criss-crossed and scarred with thousands of marks and striations which seem to be ‘hieroglyphical’, but ‘The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.’ (p.299)

Melville may have observed the constant human attempt to ‘read’ Nature in the superstitions of sailors and their search for omens and portents - which he plays on throughout Moby-Dick, but particularly in the surreal chapter ‘The Candles’ in which lightning spouts from the masts of the ship and from the harpoon in Ahab’s hand - and also in the beliefs of the Puritans, who, believing in ‘predestination’ much as Ahab does, were enjoined to search nature for signs that they were one of the ‘elect’, bound for heaven. One can, however, see that it is a universal human trait, characterised by the recurrent question ‘Why?’ - why did these things happen to me, why is there so much suffering in the world - and also by the fascination with the supposed ability of science to ‘read’ the universe, and predict the future, and explain the past.

The purest symbol of this blank quality of life, however, is the ocean itself. When Ishmael is booking his passage on the Pequod, and explains to captain Peleg that he wants to see the world, Peleg bids him look at the sea, whose ‘prospect was unlimited, but exceedingly monotonous and forbidding; not the slightest variety that I could see,’ and then asks him ‘“Well, what dost thou think then of seeing the world?”’ (Moby-Dick, p.86) Through the novel the sea takes on many hues and shapes, but always returns to this uniform blankness which defies all attempts to rise above it, escape from it or dive within it. The sea lies between the ‘unconscious’ underwater realm and the ‘trans-personal’ sky of heaven, featureless and dumb.

Thus it is that Pip, when he falls out of the whaling boat and is left behind, in chapter 93, ‘The Castaway’, is driven insane. He becomes immersed in the vast blankness of the ocean’s surface - the ‘ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably.’ (p.396) Pip is unprepared for ‘the intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity’, being timid and young, and by the time he is rescued, ‘The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.’

From then on, Pip is mentally unbalanced, and Ahab perceives in him an inhuman intelligence similar to his own. Ahab looks into his eyes and sees a blankness which appears to be conscious:

And who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes. Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through!’
Moby-Dick, p.489
This is strikingly similar to the description of Ahab waking from tormenting dreams in chapter 44, ‘The Chart’, in which the description of the soul which gazes through his eyes is similarly blank, a mere conscious ‘looking’, which is linked to Melville’s description of the blank nature of white light mentioned earlier:
Therefore, the tormented spirit the glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself.
Moby-Dick, p.202

A pattern is hopefully becoming clear in relation to the link between the daunting ‘blank’, or ultimately meaningless quality of the world, and the Self which is the metaphorical object of the quests both of Ahab and Ishmael. The featureless soul, which is that self which at times is apparent gazing out from the eyes of characters in Moby-Dick, is blank, like Nature herself, because, like light, it is not knowable of itself but only when it has objects to ‘color’ or lend qualities of perception to; otherwise, the Self is blank, the ‘knower’, the ‘looker’. This is a recognition of the nature of the self which is to be found in Advaita Vedanta, the main philosophical tradition of Hinduism; the Self is not the one who wakes, sleeps, or dreams, but is the Witness to all these states. Thus, it cannot be known or ‘found’ as an object, but can merely be intuited, or ‘remembered’ as the ‘living light’ which witnesses and gives colour to objects. In other words, it is Nasrudin’s donkey. It cannot be known because it is the knower; the situation is similar to the artist who paints a picture of a field, but realises that something is missing - himself, standing in the field. So he paints himself into the picture, canvas, paintbrush and all, and then realises that in the smaller painting he has just drawn, he is once again absent. . . and so on ad infinitum in a vain attempt to locate a self which cannot be represented, but which one can only be. Moreover, as the Vedantists would tell us, and as Jung’s psychology suggests, the Witness-self is not only individual but also collective, not identified with the limited beings through which it peers. Melville himself hints at this, when he writes about God as being That force which lives ‘through’ all of us:

But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.
Moby-Dick, p.508

This, finally, allows us to understand the strange situation of Ishmael as the supposed ‘narrator’ of Moby-Dick, the sole survivor who tells the tale. He survives the wreck of the Pequod through an odd combination of circumstances - somehow he is the only one to be far enough away from the ship when it sinks that he is not sucked into the depths by its whirlpool; and somehow Queequeg’s coffin breaks loose from its lashings and floats to the surface as a buoyant raft for him to avoid the sharks. The narrative at this point has become so far removed from ‘realism’ into symbolism that it is inevitable for critics to focus on Ishmael’s survival as laden with symbolic interpretations; his survival at the centre of the swirling vortex, his ‘union’ with Queequeg through the islander’s coffin being his salvation, etc. In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of Ishmael’s situation in the epilogue, floating alone on the surface of the sea, is in its comparison to Pip’s similar maroonment. Ishmael himself draws that parallel in the ‘Castaway’ chapter, saying, ‘it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself.’

Pip goes ‘insane’, and Ishmael does not; Dillingham sees this as the result of Ishmael’s managing successfully to balance the opposing natures in him - the ‘sub-sub-librarian’ who burrows through things to find their meanings, and the ‘pale usher’ who merely dusts along their surfaces. However, I feel that the important question to ask here is: How do we know that Ishmael does not ‘go mad’ in a similar way to Pip? After all, as we have seen, what is Pip’s madness but a disintegration of his normal human identity, which reveals a blank and immortal self which merely gazes out, witnessing, like light itself? It will be noticed that, in the epilogue, Ishmael is touched neither by the sharks in the sea below (who, it must be remembered, chewed at anything in the water throughout the book, from whale carcasses to the oars of the sailors in the boats) nor by the birds flying above:

The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.
Moby-Dick, p.536

It is my suggestion that this is because Ishmael has become like the sea itself - blank, dumb, a merely witnessing Self, a soul floating on a coffin in the middle of the ocean. Moby-Dick is a tale told after its occurrence, related by this survivor who tells us, at the beginning, ‘Call me Ishmael,’ and is as ambiguous about the time of the story as he is about his own identity. For a while the story is told exclusively from the point of view of this being known as Ishmael, and takes the form of a conventional narrative, but soon departs into Melville’s famous innovations and experiments, which include, among many devices, the relation of certain scenes in which Ishmael (the sole survivor, remember) cannot have been present, as well as the mutterings and inner thoughts of various of the other characters. Indeed, we have all but forgotten about Ishmael’s existence by the end of the novel, when in the epilogue we are reminded that he is the reason we are hearing this amazing tale. Certain critics, including Jean-Paul Sartre in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (from Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Moby-Dick, ed. Michael T. Gilmore, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1997), have stated their belief that this is because Melville began the novel as a conventional whaling narrative, and found his imagination reaching far beyond its original material, such that Moby-Dick is two novels, one of which grows into the other, but which are radically different in focus.

I feel there may be another way of interpreting the widening of narrative focus, and the loss of Ishmael’s exclusive viewpoint. While, as Carl Jung has noted, it is not clear how much of Moby-Dick is written with complete authorial intent, I feel that there is a link to be drawn between Melville’s conception of the Self as the blank witness to all experience, which cannot be known, and the dissolution of Ishmael’s exclusive narrative perspective. For, if Ishmael is indeed driven ‘mad’ by his experiences, becoming identified with that very Self which Ahab so wildly pursued (but could not find and fix), then it is from that Self’s perspective, and not Ishmael’s alone, that the story is told, and in trying to pin down Ishmael’s identity, rather than experiencing the book as an object coloured by that identity (as a ray of light, empty of specific colour, lends hue to the objects it encounters), we are falling into the trap of Ahab, trying to find the White Whale. I would suggest that Melville was too great an artist not to realize at some level the implications of allowing Ishmael’s perspective to melt into others’, and that this is why he prepares us for the change in Ishmael’s consciousness through the episode of Pip’s abandonment. The unfixable, blank seeing-eye of the narrative (of itself formless and not exclusively identified with any character or perspective, even that of Melville himself) is the eye of the Self which Ishmael finds, both symbolically and at the level of the straight narrative, and It is the teller of the tale, and the true survivor. Ishmael is become merely a vessel for an immortal Self to ‘sieve through’ - a means for a story to be written.


Assessed essay for MA in American Literature and Culture, Leeds University, 1997/1998
Captain Ahab, Melville’s symbol of every man, struggles with Moby Dick, the unknown and unknowable, and emerges less than whole. In his determination to conquer the unknowable, he loses what makes him human. Ever since the loss of his leg, Ahab has been on a desperate quest to destroy Moby Dick, the creature who severed it. Ahab believes that Moby Dick is the source of all evil, and so feels that destroying the whale would rid his soul of suffering. However, in order to be focused and driven enough to reach this goal, Ahab must separate himself from humanity and the human aspects of himself.

Moby Dick is, to Ahab, “the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung” (Melville 175). He represents that which can only be partly known and not fully understood. After all, “the living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight” (250). Because he cannot conquer the unknown, Ahab becomes frustrated, angry, and hostile. To Ahab, “all that most maddens and torments;…all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil…were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick” (175). Ahab’s quest is more than simply vengeance for the loss of his leg; it is a symbolic battle between man’s desire for knowledge and the unfathomability of the universe.

However, Ahab’s single-mindedly determined pursuit of the whale causes him to break his connections with people and lose his humanness. There is little motivation in comfort, and therefore to remain motivated and focused on his task, Ahab subconsciously distances himself from things that make him comfortable and human. He finds that things that once soothed him have lost their power. In chapter 37, he muses, “Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more” (160). Earlier, just before throwing away his pipe, he commented, “How now, this smoking no longer soothes” (124). These are both examples of his subconscious need to rid himself of human comfort in order to continue moving forward. Ahab is more deliberate in isolating himself from his fellow man. He never speaks at meals, making the officers’ supper stifling and awkward, when by contrast the harpooneers laugh and joke and are sociable. He refuses to participate in gams, which are part of the normal social order of the seafaring world, with ships that cannot aid him in his quest. In his monomaniacal quest to conquer the whale, he becomes less than human.

To Melville, man, as represented by Ahab, encounters evil and loses his soul in the process. Like Adam, Ahab encounters a serpent and defies God; but unlike Adam who becomes human through the knowledge of good and evil, Ahab loses his humanity to his quest to attain power over his world.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Bantam Classic. 1981.

Man's Place: Transcendentalism vs. Antitranscendentalism in Moby Dick

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thus Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in "Nature", "In the woods, we return to faith and reason." Emerson and Thoreau's nature was an idyllic wilderness, where man found his niche and lived in harmony with the elements, and in doing so, discovered the truths of existance. Herman Melville's nature was stark, dangerous and unfeeling, ruled by chaos and chance. Moby Dick attacks Captain Ahab of the Pequod and devours his leg. Ahab fails to accept that the loss of his leg was utterly random and devoid of meaning.

The Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, had a rather naïve view of nature, according to Melville. The foundation of Transcendental belief was rooted in the idea that "universal truths" could be discovered by finding one's place in nature. Transcendentalists believed nature was understandable and events were not without meaning. If one transcended his physical senses and became one with the natural world--Emerson's "transparent eyeball"--the "universal truths" would become apparent.

Melville took a somewhat less optimistic view of nature. As exemplified in Moby Dick, Melville found nature indifferent, inexplicable and meaningless. The great white whale attacks Ahab at random. Meville does not seem to suggest that understanding nature would bring Ahab any closer to understanding Moby Dick's attack. In fact, the very lack of reason in the attack drives Ahab insane, thirsting for vengeance and hell-bent on killing the whale. Ahab frequently rallies his crew, crying, "Death to Moby-Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby-Dick to his death!"

Ahab, while not a Transcendentalist, is romantic. His obsession with revenge on Moby Dick is irrational and deeply emotional, and his brief lucid moments are quickly pushed away by opportunities to hunt the whale. His entire quest revolves around himself; he only informs the crew once they leave the harbor that this voyage of the Pequod would not be a simple whaling voyage. Ahab is not, however, an Antitranscendentalist like Melville; Ahab believes that nature has meaning, though Meville disagrees personally. Starbuck, Ahab's first mate and the sole voice of reason, is more probably Melville's outlet for his own views in Moby Dick: "Oh! Ahab ... not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby-Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!"

Whereas Melville's nature is a harsh, unforgiving place, Emerson and Thoreau's nature is peaceful and driven by higher meaning. Thoreau went into the woods to find himself, like Ishmael went to sea to find himself. However, Thoreau seemed to find the wisdom and vision he craved; Ishmael found a confusing, chaotic maelstrom: "'The ship? Great God, where is the ship?' ... And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself ... and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight."


Node your homework! American Civics, Lewiston High School, 19 Dec. 01.

In Pursuit of Wisdom: Ahab's Madness is Ishmael's Guise

“All is vanity”(Ecc1.2); everything, absurd; all of life the pursuit of an uncontrollable wind—as Melville might put it: the chase for an uncatchable at the center of the greatest gale, the whitest whale, Moby-Dick. Who among us is lord of the winds that may command a direction upon them? Yet still I can open a window and create a draft. Does this not, in whatever small fashion, effect the movement of the air both inside and outside my opened window? At what point does the change of the winds’ flow of ‘invisible and irresistible arms’ end? At what point did they begin?

We walk around altering the winds of space and time, inhaling oxygen, exhaling carbon dioxide: in search of what? by whose command? Ishmael hypothesized, “the wind… seem{s} the symbol of that unseen agency which so enslave{s} {humanity} to the race” (415) towards absurdity, an effort in futility, and, in more human terms, shit. “ALL” (328). Ahab speculates that perhaps it is “these same {winds} that so directly blow my good ship on; these {winds}, or something like them—something so unchangeable, and full as strong—blow my keeled soul along!” (420).

But what percentage of thinking beings considers existence in such a way? How many carry a hammer of wisdom capable of driving in the nail of life’s most elusive questions—origins, endings, ultimate meaning—into the boards of human consciousness so that a table of truth may be built? King Solomon in Ecclesiastes tells of his personal experience in pursuit of both the ability to answer, wisdom, and the answers themselves, truth.

All this I tested with wisdom. I thought I could fathom it {what is best for a man to do in life (6.12)}, but it eludes me. The secret of what happens is elusive and deep, deep down; who can discover it? I turned with all my being, to understand, to search out and to seek wisdom and the reason of things; and to understand evil, folly and the folly of madness. And I found more bitter than death the woman {madness} who traps, her heart nets, her hands chains. He with whom G-d is pleased will be delivered from her, but he who sins will be taken by her. (7.25-26)
Melville paraphrases this portion of Ecclesiastes, writing, “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness” (328). To have wisdom is to know the sorrow of ungraspable truth, but to be trapped by that woeful wisdom is to be taken in by the chains of inconsolable madness.

In contrast to the above portion, Melville writes not of the trap of madness, but of wisdom’s mountain eagle existing in some selected souls that may sink into the deepest, blackest gorges of sorrow as well as soar to the apex of understanding. Yet, “even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain even though they soar” (ibid). Ishmael, not Ahab, is an eagle.


What has changed in Moby-Dick is not the object of Ecclesiastical wisdom, but the subject. Ishmael is no king like Solomon, in fact he only expects the 275th lay on the Pequod and is offered much less. Although Ahab is himself the captain on board, much like a king upon the ocean, he is not portrayed in the same light as the king in Ecclesiastes, for as Ahab says in his ‘Symphony’; “{even} the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread, to my mouldy crusts…” (405). Ahab has cast himself upon the sea in isolation from the social surroundings of a normal life on land. He is unable to enjoy his wife or any such human relationship due to the way he “has furiously, foamingly chased his prey…” (Ibid). Still, this notion is not unknown to Ahab, as he says to Starbuck, “let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon G-d” (406, emphasis added). Nonetheless, he is unable to relinquish his unquenchable monomania, to give up his quest for G-d; his inquisition is an unending one, he is like a man looking for sustenance whom already has an unending supply of food and water:

What cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, G-d, or who, that lifts this arm…? How then can this one heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless G-d does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. (407, emphasis added)
The woman whose hands are chains has trapped Ahab by a maddening quest for answers—i.e., the ‘woe that is madness’. He has fallen off of the cliff of the mountain eagle and his wings have been clipped: there is nothing anyone can do to derail this train from its tracks to self-destruction

There are those upon the Pequod that have not succumbed to Ahab’s monomania and have instead replaced it with megalomania. Their thirst is not for the infinite, but rather the notoriety of the accomplishment and the prosperity of the ‘doubloon.’ They have not paid heed to Ishmael’s wise words: “Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease” (74) and are too easily defined as a “money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with {their} benevolence”(321). All their attempts to aggrandize the self, above and beyond others, are futile and vane, for “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Ecc 3.20). And although many Christians would like to consider their religion as superior to all others, Ishmael refers back to

The same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg there, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets noways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands (84).


What is Past is Prologue:

In summation, through Moby-Dick, Melville is able to make an adventure story out of Solomon’s quest in Ecclesiastes; he makes an example of the absurdity of humanity’s vanity; he further categorizes ultimate truth as ungraspable; he shows with precise detail the division between wisdom and madness; ultimately, a truth of the equality of all ‘under the sun’ is perpetuated by Melville’s saber-like pen.

Yet perhaps the most outstanding way in which Melville brings “this willful world” closer to “unchristian Solomon’s wisdom” (328) is in his overall critique of traditional Christian religion (different from being a critic of Jesus, himself). It is assuredly the subtlest (or most blunt, depending) critique, yet if one looks closely enough, Ahab, in his faithless existence finds the idea that “the coffin is…an immortality preserver” (396) to be absurd. Merely ‘another orphan’ of the Rachel (the mother of the Hebrews)—which “still remained without comfort {mosiach}” (399) in search of its anointed (messiah) lost son, Ishmael says “take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me” (45), which is quite contrary to the eschatological notion of Christian theology’s resurrection. Ishmael goes so far as to say that he is very willing to take a pagan friend, “since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy” (56). Starbuck, who whispers to the sea of existence “Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe” (373). Even after “all {his} bursting prayers” and “all {his} life-long fidelities” (425), Starbuck, representative of the paradigm of Christian virtue and faith, is not spared from ultimate death. For Melville and Solomon, the jar of our bodies will return to dust, and our spirit is that which ascends to the infinite (Ecc 12.7). For Melville, the human notions of separate religions and of death as a terrifying thing are absurdities: all beings living and dead belong to the ‘First Congregation’ and “still we refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss” (Melville 45). “‘All is vanity.’ ALL” (Ibid).

Epilogue

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call life
: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread, -behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it-he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher, found it not.

--Percy Bysshe Shelley

This material is copyrighted ©2004


Moby Dick; or, The Whale
By Herman Melville

-It has become traditional in any discussion of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to begin by quoting the famous first line of the novel. I refuse to do this.-

You know that Great American Novel everybody’s always talking about writing? Turns out it’s already been written.
The most famous book of Herman Melville’s career used to be required reading at most high schools, but alas, times have changed. Dead white guys, European or otherwise, have fallen out of favor, so it’s no surprise that The Whale is finding readership somewhat diminished of late. This must change. And why not? This book has everything. Danger, adventure, gore and grime, philosophy, mystery, astronomy, psychology, and maybe even some romance if you butter your bread on that particular side. And BOATS. And it’s just the thing to impress people on the subway. In short, there’s no good reason not to read this book.
So without further ado, here’s a few people you ought to get to know:

Aboard the Pequod: Cast and Crew
Ishmael: Your narrator before the mast. Clever, soulful, and intellectual to a fault, you can trust Ishmael to give it to you, well, not exactly straight, but very nicely embroidered.
Captain Ahab: The great, grizzled, peg-legged captain of the good ship Pequod makes Jack Aubrey look like a sniveling cabin-boy. And he’s no slouch when it comes to making grandiose speeches either. Sure, he’s got a monomaniacal obsession with killing the whale that made breakfast of his leg a year ago (that’d be Moby Dick), but he loves his men and he’s a hell of a seaman.
Starbuck: Yes folks, this is where they got the name for that soul-sucking institution to which we offer up our daily tithes. The first mate and voice of reason on this voyage of the damned is your classic hero: handsome, honest, brave, and true. He’s no coward, but he has serious misapprehensions about his captain’s little obsession with the whale.
Queequeg: Who doesn’t love Queequeg? Ishmael’s kick-ass harpooner friend was the cannibal prince of a South Sea Isle before he went off to seek adventure in the wide world, and he’s got the tattoos to prove it.
Moby Dick: Yes, the whale is a character. No, he doesn’t get many lines. He’s big, he’s white, he may or may not be the embodiment of All Evil. Or God, or the forces of nature, or nothing at all. That’s up to you to decide.
Fedallah: Is he the Devil? Or just a manifestation of Melville’s latent Orientalism? The head of Ahab’s uncanny boat crew is a disturbing addition to the Pequod.
Pip: The Pequod’s Black cabin boy suffers a serious mental break when he’s left in the water too long. After that, he becomes a wise-fool of positively Shakespearean magnitude.
Everyone Else: It’s important to note that Melville creates one of the most unapologetically multi-ethnic casts of characters this side of It’s a Small World. There are virtually no women of course, but we can’t have everything.

What Happens (Spoilers in the Worst Way):
The way Ishmael tells it, he was hanging out in Manhattan and feeling a trifle suicidal (that happens to philosophers sometimes), so he figured that, seeing as how the Everlasting had set his canon against self-slaughter, he might as well set to sea aboard a whaler. In the process of getting himself shipped out of Nantucket he acquires a strange bedfellow in Queequeg. The cannibal’s keen eye, mighty arm, and penchant for occultism get them signed up for the Pequod, despite the warnings of the perennially creepy Elijah.

The Pequod sets sail, with the ostensible mission of killing loads of whales and processing their bodies for oil, spermaceti, and bone—a trip that could prove lucrative for all involved. But Ahab soon reveals that the true purpose of the voyage is to find and kill the great white whale, Moby Dick. He nails a gold dubloon to the mast, a reward promised to the first man to raise the white whale.

Meanwhile, the ship rounds the southern tip of Africa. Enter Fedallah. And friends. There have been whispers among the crew for a while regarding stowaways, but the appearance of the uncanny Easterner and his boat crew confirms all suspicions. These men were hand-selected by Ahab for the crewing of his own personal whaleboat.

The ship continues to sail, which is what ships do, still with no sight of the white whale. They keep bumping into other ships, which, though it seems unlikely given the vastness of the ocean and the smallness of the ships, was actually quite common. These meetings are called gams, and though they are traditionally loads of fun for captain and crew, Ahab just asks for information on the white whale and moves on.

They also continue to meet and hunt those of the large and swimmy persuasion. After all, Ahab is not averse to the crew making a living, so long as it doesn’t interfere with his quest. During one of these hunts, Pip falls overboard and is left behind. When the ship finally comes back and gets him he has gone completely mad. This gives him something in common with the captain, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they become virtually inseparable.

Meanwhile the ship continues to do what ships do. Queequeg becomes ill and, seeing his life drawing to a close, he orders a coffin made and lies down in it prepared to die. He is a cannibal and therefore gets to do this sort of thing. When he fails to kick the bucket, the crew have the coffin caulked to serve as a seriously ironic life buoy.

Events increase in creepiness as the Pequod approaches the waters in which Ahab expects to find the white whale.
Creepy Thing One: The captain orders a special harpoon to be made to smite the whale and baptizes it in the blood of his three harpooners (lucky them).
Creepy Thing Two: Fedallah issues a prophecy that before he dies, Ahab will see two hearses, the second made of American wood, and that he will be killed by a hemp rope. Ahab wrongly takes this to mean that he will die on dry land. But of course he’s wrong about that.
Creepy Thing Three: The Pequod experiences a typhoon, which tips the masts with electrical fire. Ahab takes this as a sign of future success. Starbuck, playing at Cassandra, recognizes it as a bad omen, and considers going so far as to kill the captain in order to stop the quest.

As the Pequod draws nigh to the equator she encounters the Rachel, a ship whose captain begs Ahab’s aid in rescuing his son, who was lost during an encounter with Moby Dick. Ahab refuses, thinking only that the white whale must be near indeed.

He’s right. Soon after, Moby Dick is sighted for the first time and the Pequod launches whaleboats to attack. This, not surprisingly, does not go well. Ahab’s boat is destroyed, though he survives, and the crew settles back in to follow the whale a bit more.

The next day, Moby Dick is raised once again, and once again the Pequod lowers boats in pursuit. Not the most creative of whales, Moby Dick goes for what worked the last time and attacks Ahab’s boat. This time, Fedallah is dragged overboard by a harpoon line to his death.

On the third day, when the white whale is raised for the final time, Fedallah’s corpse is still visible, lashed to Moby Dick’s enormous body. This is the first hearse. The whale takes the more direct approach in this attack, ramming the Pequod and sinking it. Ahab is dragged from his whale boat, caught, like Fedallah, in a harpoon line.

All the whaleboats are sucked down into the whirlpool created by the sinking Pequod, the second of the two hearses. All hands perish.

Well, that’s not totally true. The Epilogue tells us that Ishmael resurfaces, clinging to the caulked coffin, and is picked up by none other than the Rachel, still out looking for her missing son. After all, somebody had to survive to tell the story.

Interpretation for those so inclined:

I’m not even going to try to explain the book. Too many have tried and failed. But I will say that a good working knowledge of Shakespeare—particularly Hamlet, Lear, and maybe a bit o’ Macbeth—will serve you well. Ditto a better-than-average knowledge of the Old and New Testaments (KJV)—check out Genesis, Job, and Jonah for starters.
Likewise, paying attention to a few of the primary themes will help you get a handle on the work.

Faith, religion, and the nature of God: Perhaps the most important aspect of the novel. The white whale can, and probably should, be read as a representation of the Christian God as Melville often found him, cold and capricious. However, while he condemns the cruelty of God, Melville’s none too fond of Ahab either. The captain is not, as we have seen, your model of the ideal global citizen. Melville had a very complex relationship with the Almighty; expect this to be reflected in the work.
Psychological Obsession and Mortal Greatness: One of the great questions of English literature—where do you draw the line between greatness and insanity? Do all the great men and women of history tiptoe on the edge of madness? Wasn’t Napoleon nuts? Melville gives us an answer straight out “Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”
The Universal Equality of Mankind: A sub-theme of less importance than the first two I’ve mentioned, but we should remember that Melville was, at least by the standards of his time, an egalitarian of radical proportions. The Pequod is crewed almost entirely by the oppressed races of the world. There's got to be a reason for that.
Homosociality/Homosexuality: Perhaps overemphasized these days, but nonetheless interesting. Relationships between men, sexual or otherwise, are a constant source of fascination for Melville. Don’t believe me? Read the chapter entitled The Cassock, or better yet, the bit about squeezing the sperm.

Criticism: My God, are we allowed to do this to the classics?!
YES. But there’s not much to criticize here. Melville’s a genius and this is his masterpiece (Though The Confidence-Man takes the prize for sheer mind-fuckage).
What I will offer is a word of warning: Melville knew quite a bit about sailing and whaling and doesn’t mind telling you all about it. Whole chapters are devoted to the physiology of various whales, the outfitting of whaling vessels, and the importance of certain superstitions. This can get very, very boring (unless the exact function of the clumsy cleat has some direct bearing on your life). Some people recommend you skip these chapters. Don’t. Sure, it’s a bit tedious, but Melville isn’t just showing off. The man was a brilliant craftsman; it behooves us to trust him. What he creates here is a sort of encyclopedic novel, a dictionary epic. The form of the thing alone is light years ahead of its time. So be patient, read slowly, absorb.

You will be rewarded.

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