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
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
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.
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!’
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.
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.
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.
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