Moby Dick or, the Whale

“I am Fate’s lieutenant.”

I approach this book as a Philistine looking at the Mona Lisa.  I know there are deep messages in it, but if I approach the text that way, then I am also sure I am reading into the book things that might or might not be there.  Here goes nothing.

In terms of prose and literary power, this book is the pinnacle of American literature.  Chapter 23 is probably the finest page in all of American literature (literally, it’s only a page long). Melville writes, “But in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God–so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if it were safety….Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing–straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”

Some pages later Melville returns to the idea of the indefinite–this time against pantheists. The ocean, like pantheism, can be a void that subsumes one’s identity.  This is the pantheist view of the self (chp. 35).

Ahab wants revenge for the loss of his leg.

I like Ahab.  I see him as similar to the “rage of Achilles.” Indeed, Ahab’s first appearance to his men is akin to rallying the soldiers.

In Ahab’s mouth, the inscrutable is something we hate. We wear masks but what is beyond the mask? Is Ahab driven by his own self, and if so, is his true self simply the hatred of the White Whale (ch. 36)?

There is a subtle reference to Democritus and Epicurus. Ahab boasts that his purpose is fixed on iron rails.  He (correctly) mocks the Epicurean doctrine that freedom is simply a swerving on molecules from its otherwise fated run.

The White Whale is the scapegoat. Melville writes, “The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniacal incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them….Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it” (chapter 41).

Elsewhere, Ishmael/Melville engages in what can only be brilliant biblical typology. The whale-hunters are like the knights who fought dragons, since the whale is Leviathan. He calls upon the ancient heroes–Perseus and St George.  “Any man may kill a snake, but only a Perseus, a St George, a Coffin, have the heart in them to march boldly up to a whale” (ch. 82).  He then connects Leviathan with the fish-god Dagon.

So what about the final confrontation between Ahab and  Moby Dick?  That’s what’s strange about this novel.  (You already know what’s going to happen, by the way.) The whole book leads up to this moment, but in many ways it isn’t that important for the narrative.

The book itself is a literary feast.  It is soaked in the language of the King James bible.


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