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Can We Read Moby Dick?

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But, as I found myself stumbling in my response to my sister, a more elemental question arose: Can we read Moby Dick?”

Recently my sister asked me if I thought she should read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Well educated, literate, and having reached middle age, she had never gotten around to reading Melville’s great novel. But I found myself unsure how to answer: why should she read Moby Dick? Why should anyone read Moby Dick

2019 marked the two hundredth anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth. This has apparently stimulated a flurry of interest in all things Melville, including many eloquent paeans as to why we should read Moby Dick. But, as I found myself stumbling in my response to my sister, a more elemental question arose: Can we read Moby Dick?

What, then, is Moby Dick? Or, more generally, what constitutes any great work of art?  Moby Dick reflects Melville bearing witness to his experiences, his memories, doubts, hopes, fears, desires—as well as Melville’s life as a seaman and his intense readings of the Bible, Greek mythology, Sufi poetry, Shakespeare, German philosophy, and natural history. In turn, all of these are passed through Melville and transformed by what Emerson would call the “fires of his mind.”  All of  these elements are rendered into a precise, unique, and transcendent whole where every part reflects and enhances every other part. Melville understood his very consciousness as a force of nature, one of an infinite number of “linked analogies.” The written artifact Moby Dick, therefore, can be understood as itself a manifestation of nature. Moby Dick reflects Melville as simultaneously observer of—and a participant in—the world.

Moby Dick was written in a kind of wonder and fearlessness. Melville bears witness to the tragic spectacle of the voyage of the whaleship Pequod and does not shrink from contemplating the depths of despair, annihilation, and meaninglessness. And perhaps above all, Moby Dick was written guided by a kind of faith that all contrary and conflicting elements can be apprehended as a unified whole. Melville’s own “doubts of all things earthly” are complemented by his, “intuitions of some things heavenly.”

To read Moby Dick would seem to demand of the reader a similar capacity for wonder, fearlessness, and faith. Yet today, we live in a world dedicated to comfort and convenience, and, arguably, nothing defines us modern, educated human beings more than our skepticism. We pride ourselves on our “critical thinking” and our freedom from the naiveté of belief. We take nothing “at face value,” and we are ever ready to debunk any claims of transcendent authority.   

Our modern skepticism is epitomized in the rise of modern science, which has displaced the human imagination as our way of knowing reality. The power of science lies in its ability to stand apart from nature, to apprehend nature as an object outside of ourselves. Science prides itself on its capacity to break the world up into pieces, into data, information, into what E.O. Wilson calls its “constituent elements.” And we get to manipulate and rearrange the pieces to generate wealth, comfort, and—possibly—even a just social order.   

More recently, a way of thinking has emerged that presumes to confront the authority of science and the whole Enlightenment vision of a universe amenable to the powers of human reason. Postmodernism is skepticism carried to its logical ends (all claims to truth or transcendence are merely self-serving claims of power); even science itself does not escape the acid of postmodern skepticism. This way of thinking is actually epitomized as a form of academic literary criticism. Such corrosive thinking tends to deny any transcendent authority to a work of art like Moby Dick. Moby Dick is one more social artifact to be interrogated, demystified, and deconstructed into its own constituent elements. The “author is dead”; there are only interpretations, one no better than the next. Moby Dick is, like every cultural phenomenon, a mere product of the “social energies” of its time. 

What we call “education” today would seem to produce minds which would find the reality of the voyage of the Pequod alien, if not incomprehensible. .

This postmodern view of reality as an essentially subjective phenomenon appears to be in conflict with science’s view of reality as a knowable, objective phenomenon. This is a pseudo-conflict. Far from being a challenge to the whole Enlightenment vision, postmodern skepticism is merely its logical conclusion. The more science transforms nature into an object, the more we experience ourselves as subjective powers. We live a world where science gives us the facts; we give them value. The cumulative effects of these processes we call “progress.” 

Our modern capacity to separate ourselves from nature gives us tremendous power and control over its elements. But our strength is precisely our weakness. The more we cultivate our capacity to break the world down into pieces, the less we are capable of apprehending the whole: the less we are open to an experience of transcendent power—and the less we understand ourselves as participants in nature. A fragmented consciousness is an adaptation to a fragmented world. What we call “education” today would seem to produce minds which would find the reality of the voyage of the Pequod alien, if not incomprehensible. 

Melville wrote in a time when the great forces of industrialization had yet to fully transform America. His experiences on a great sailing ship afforded him quite elementary experiences of nature and of the sea, in particular. Writing several generations after the publication of Moby Dick, that other great novelist of the sea, Joseph Conrad, describes some of the effects of modern industrialization on our experience of nature. In Mirror of the Sea, Conrad’s memoir of his own life as a sailor, he observes that the transition from sail to steam not only represents a radical shift in the technology of ships but a radical change, also, in the very consciousness of the seaman, which, in turn, is emblematic of a radical change in the consciousness of modern man. 

For the crew of a great sailing vessel, Conrad writes, the sea is an “intimate companion,” sometimes beneficent, sometimes cruel. The very act of sailing requires great artistry.  All crew members are, in effect, “artists,” participating in configuring ship and sails into a meaningful and life-enhancing work of art, a fragile transcendent whole. With the advent of steam, the ocean recedes as a living power; it loses much of its wonder as it becomes a mere “highway” made of water, while a ship becomes a kind of machine, a way to efficiently transport goods from one place to another. Seamen shoveling coal into the firebox of a great steam engine embodies a new kind of understanding of nature and the sea. What understanding would they have of a great sailing ship leading “…a sort of unearthly existence, bordering on invisible forces, sustained by the life-giving and death-dealing winds”?

Melville’s experience with nature, then, is not quite our experience with nature. Melville is indeed a keen observer of nature: Moby Dick is replete with detailed descriptions not only of whale behavior and anatomy but also of the types of biological life commonly encountered by a 19th century whaler. But his nature is not the objective phenomenon of the scientist—let alone the solipsistic phenomenon of the postmodern skeptic. He is not simply concerned with what he can catalogue, count, or measure. Melville is not fixated on the mere forms of nature, rather—as a participant—he is inevitably concerned with the unity of form to more elemental forces. The voyage of the Pequod is not only a voyage on the surface of the sea but a mythic and psychic voyage beneath consciousness—and beyond local time and space.  

The voyage into the depths of reality and the depths of consciousness is driven by the obsessions of Captain Ahab. Ahab clearly understands that Moby Dick is but a “mask” for a mysterious elemental power which, at best, can be intuited but never fully known. What is behind the mask is neither nothing (mere random meaningless forces) nor some Christian conception of a beneficent God. Behind the mask is an inscrutable living power.  

Our own alienation is betrayed as we speak of nature in the language of accountants and bureaucrats. 

Melville’s evokes and contemplates a primal and ancient experience of nature. Not coincidentally, Melville’s Leviathan resembles the primeval Leviathan of the book of Job, one of the oldest books of the Bible and one which draws upon even more archaic traditions:

“Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook? Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

Canst thou put a hook into his nose? Or bore his jaw through with a thorn?

Will he make many supplications unto thee? Will he speak soft words unto thee?

Will he make a covenant with thee? Wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?”       

Today, we have little experience of nature as a living power; we are not so much sailors negotiating daily with the forces of nature as we are passengers on a great cruise liner observing the world pass by.  We observe but do not participate; we float upon a calm sea of conventions, beliefs, assumptions, and material wealth, which both sustain life and protect us from the great depths. We tend to experience nature as an object outside of ourselves, a surface world of what can be measured, counted, and catalogued. We are told that we must preserve “biodiversity,” as if our relationship to nature can be reduced to an arithmetical exercise with little understanding of where we fit into the whole picture. We presume that the fate of the great Leviathans is dependent upon their elevation to some great Pantheon of Victims—and that with sufficient data and the right intentions they can be “saved” or “managed.” Our own alienation is betrayed as we speak of nature in the language of accountants and bureaucrats. 

We are on the outside looking in or—perhaps more precisely—we are on the inside looking out. Alistair Graham, in his dark classic of nature writing, Eyelids of Morning directly confronts the peculiarity of our abstraction from nature. Graham chronicles and contemplates his own experiences with the crocodilian Leviathan of Job and our modern romanticization of all the great Leviathans of nature. Speaking of modern secular humans, Graham writes:

“But what are they watching for? Is it some sort of answer? Do they really believe that the poor, dumb, doomed beasts are going to share a revelation with them? (Will he speak soft words with thee? Will he make a covenant with thee?) Why is it that between them and the animals there is always a glass shield? Dark glass, plate glass, frosted glass, smoked glass; glass with crosshairs, glass with CONCERN etched into it, glass with DESPAIR etched all over it. . .”

Graham suggest that our concern is not so much concern for “the poor, dumb, doomed beasts” but a deeper intuition that we ourselves are the problem, somehow imagining that by saving the beasts, we save ourselves. Yet we flinch from looking too deeply into our own presumptions and beliefs: “We reject categorically,” writes Graham, “the possibility that they are as mythical as the savage’s flat earth.” 

Moby Dick, as many have told us, can be read on many levels, which is to say, Moby Dick can be read from shallow to deep. Metaphors of depth and the piercing of surfaces appear throughout the novel and among the most vivid is the cabin boy Pip’s shamanistic descent into the sea. In chapter 98, “Castaway,” Pip—significantly for the third time—leaps from a whaleboat that is in hot pursuit of a whale. As Pip sinks further into the sea, he was:

“carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heap; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities… ip saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom…”

Pip emerges totally transformed. After his rescue, he “spoke” of what he saw but, “his shipmates called him mad.” Even those who live for “the fiery hunt” and who have been seduced by Ahab’s dark obsessions recoil from Pip’s knowledge. Those who have no experience of such depths cannot hear or will not hear Pip. “So man’s insanity,” writes Melville, “is heaven’s sense.”

“I love all men who dive,” Melville wrote in a letter to publisher Evert Augustus Duyckinck.

Whatever else it is, Moby Dick is about the relationship of surface to depths. It is a chronicle of descents, each particular descent reflects and enhances every other descent; Pip’s descent is the narrator Ishmael’s descent; Ishmael’s descent is the author Melville’s descent, and Melville’s descent can be the reader’s descent.  

Moby Dick ends in death and the destruction and the sinking of the whale ship Pequod by the Great White Whale. The Pequod and her crew vanish into the depths and, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it has for five thousand years.” Ishmael alone survives clinging to his friend Queequeg’s buoyant coffin. Ultimately, Ishmael is rescued and returns to the world of the living. His “Epilogue” begins with a quotation from the ancient Book of Job: “I only am left to tell the tale…”

“I love all men who dive,” Melville wrote in a letter to publisher Evert Augustus Duyckinck. Melville saw himself as one of a, “corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up with blood shot eyes since the world began.” So, how deep are we willing to dive? How deep can we dive? And do we even recognize the existence of great depths?.

Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.

One thought on “Can We Read Moby Dick?

  1. Wonderful article Chris. The ascendancy of scientific skepticism is the death of mystery and seduction in the world. Postmodernism and relativism are destroying our capacity to imagine and create. The Earth has grown small and weary; and we humans bored – even hostile – of it’s enchantment.

    The Last Man is coming…

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