HERMAN MELVILLE'S MOBY DICK
AND THE CONTRADICTIONS OF MODERNITY

by Ralph Dumain [1]

Introduction

I see Melville as one of the most profound and prescient thinkers on the contradictions of modernity, the impossibility of finding a coherent meaning and place in the modern world, the struggle between the sacred and secular in bourgeois society, the modern in relation to the primitive, and the emergence of a post-secular, post-empiricist, paranoid-fascist world view in the person of Ahab, whose metaphysics is proto-fascist though he himself is not necessarily so. Melville manifests a profound ambivalence and recognition of the multiple irresolvable contradictions of his world leading to total destruction. 

Moby Dick

I read this novel as a "naïve" reader of the 21st century, innocent of the background assumptions of Melville's original readership of 150 years ago, and without a background in Melville's other works or life, or in the critical literature of Melville Studies. Aside from the ways in which C.L.R. James prejudiced me to read this work [2], I have taken a few hints from Michael Paul Rogin [3], D.H. Lawrence [4], and Clare Spark [5], but by and large my reading is my own. Thus my reading is naïve: you be the judge of how naïve.

Moby Dick is and is meant to be an experience of the uncanny. The narrator Ishmael ostentatiously confronts his landlocked reader with a reality vastly different from what his own experience has taught him. Ishmael toys with his reader, but has no compunctions about puncturing the reader's every assumption about his world. Life at sea is a journey into the unknown, but Ishmael engages in a program of instruction, breaking every taboo to reveal its reality. The assumptions to be overturned are both metaphysical and social. Melville makes this as plain as can be: "in landlessness alone resides the highest truth." [chapter 23] 

From the introduction of Queequeeg, to become Ishmael's fast friend, Melville rubbishes all presumptions of racial superiority, "as though a white man were anything more dignified than a whitewashed negro" [chapter 13], just to cite one of his bolder remarks. The white man’s rule is mentioned from time to time [e.g. chapters 27, 42], yet the symbolism of whiteness is subject to major reversals.

Queequeeg, though characterized as a savage, is shown to possess the most civilized of personal qualities, a nobility and generosity of character, a harmony of mind and body, that in its unassuming reality far exceeds the pretensions of the Christian white man. 

The narrator is relentless in ridiculing the presumed superiority of the Christian over the pagan. Here are some choice pronouncements: "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian." "I'll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy." "We cannibals must help these Christians." [chapters 3, 10, 13] Ishmael gives an elaborate albeit ironic justification for participating in Queequeeg's "idolatrous" religious ceremony as an act of Christian kindness. [chapter 10] 

There is something of the fascination of the "noble savage" on the part of Ishmael. From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, C.L.R. James and D.H. Lawrence are highly suspicious of this. It is worth keeping this in mind for later consideration. Ishmael is showing off to his reader, to be sure, but in the process, his opposition to white racism and genteel society does not seem to harbor ulterior motive. 

In Melville’s "wicked book", once the Pequod sets sail, white supremacy, the rights of property, bourgeois morality, and Christianity are tossed overboard in short order. Face to face with the demands of basic survival, without the artificial supports of what is called civilization, the pretensions of the white bourgeois Christian man melt away. Life at sea strips life down to its barest essentials and strips the white man of all his idealist illusions. Ishmael plainly says that a whale hunter is a savage [chapter 57] and a pagan too. The allurements of nature only cover the charnel house it actually is. [chapter 42] Man’s own feeding behavior is indistinguishable from the sharks and cannibals. [chapters 64-65] We are all really pagans when push comes to shove, and Christianity is a joke. Melville, via Ishmael, makes it plain that all the ideological pretensions of his society are stuff and nonsense, and that there is nothing white about the white man when you come down to it, not on the high seas, which cast aside all established landlocked notions of caste and culture, and where all that matters is naked power. 

The question naturally arises, to what extent is the social structure of the Pequod an analogue of American society? I am unconvinced by a number of interpretations I have seen. For example, there is a lot to be learned from the chapter of Michael Rogin's Subversive Genealogies on Moby Dick, in terms of the ideological background for Melville, i.e. the religious and metaphysical symbolism. Most instructive is the theme of the American obsession with primitivism, which Americans adopt under rugged conditions even as they displace the people they term "primitives". This also calls into question the relation between American and European culture.  

Rogin suggests political parallels even while eschewing the readability of the novel as a straightforward political allegory. However, the proliferation of political analogies does not add up to a coherent picture. Does Ahab represent manifest destiny or radical abolitionism? Is Ahab supposed to be John Calhoun, William Lloyd Garrison, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson, or a host of other political figures representing opposing political and sectional interests? [6

Missing in all these political analogies is a hypothetical reconstruction of the logic that Melville must have followed to transpose the social order of real society on land and that on sea vessels to the surreal order of this sea voyage. The contrast between land and sea is essential to making sense out of what is going on, for the world at sea distills and transmutes the social order on land in decisive ways, recombines its social parameters and simplifies its complex of social problems. Land and sea society exist in a relationship rather than being identical. One way to think of this is that the Pequod is to the USA as the USA is to Europe. The Pequod transforms American society as America transforms European culture. The Pequod represents the next stage of social development. Ahab is confronting the unknown, the future. 

In the Pequod, rougher even than the American frontier, traditional elitisms, established hierarchies, and artificial divisions between peoples are irrelevant. Europe and New England lose their authority. The variegated, deracinated crew exists in a state of de facto racial equality. The most significant differentiating factor is the hierarchical chain of command, though the Anglo-Saxons still sit at the top of the hierarchy. The split is between the crew and the commanding officers, headed by Ahab who determines the direction that the ship of state sails into the unknown future. The harpooners, who represent the races now under the white man’s dominion, are actually an elite among the workers, certainly the most impressive figures. Ahab seems to be largely devoid of racial prejudice, and in actuality shows more much affinity with the harpooners, upon whom he has to rely, than anyone else. However, Ahab’s need to befriend Pip as he faces disaster [chapters 125, 127, 129] betrays a perverse dependency redolent of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Moreover, there is a tacit compact with paganism, even diabolism, in Ahab’s relation to his non-white crewmen, suggesting a transmutation rather than elimination of the racialist ideological structure of his civilization. [7

The characterization of Ahab as totalitarian dictator is highly exaggerated. Ahab seems not so much villain or hero as much as another person caught up in the maelstrom of a demonic world from a particular vantage point. Ahab does not brutalize his crew as some other ship captains do nor does he inspire the mutinies that occur elsewhere as a reaction to such mistreatment. While nailing the doubloon to the mast, Ahab enlists the endorsement of the crew for his mission. [chapter 26] Ahab relies on charisma and psychological manipulation, as the narrator makes plain, but most of the time he is off by himself brooding and planning and determining the direction of the voyage. Ahab is not a future Hitler or Stalin in his political practice, but only in his metaphysics, as we shall see later. [8

For a supposed adventure story, Ahab is irrelevant most of the time, connected with the activities of the ship at crucial moments, but disconnected from daily concerns. The crewmen spend most of their time engaging in their daily business, working and dealing with the immediate tasks at hand. Melville describes their activities in the minutest detail, and enriches his narrative with lengthy disquisitions on whales. The resulting picture is not altogether different from people’s relation to leaders under any form of government in real life. The workers go about their daily humdrum business, while their rulers remotely pursue their own schemes, steering society into disaster. 

Melville contrasts the mentality and social relations of the officers from those of the crew: first, the way they behave when they dine together; second, how they spend their free time. The officers fall back on their private thoughts with dread about the future. The crew parties and sings. C.L.R. James was right to make so much emphasis of this fundamental contrast. And it seems true that Melville’s heart lies with the crew, as Ishmael says with sublime poetry:

…If I shall touch that arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! [chapter 26] 

In sum, the Pequod, even beyond the landlubber American frontier, simplifies the issues of survival. All that ultimately matters is the hierarchy of command on board the ship, the fraternity of the crew, and the conceptions that men live by. 

Weird Science, Weird Metaphysics 

The reversal of perspective at sea encompasses science, metaphysics, and religion. The whaling industry, not customarily associated with glamor, is shown to be central to civilization. Whaling lore displaces the authority of received notions of culture. Melville shifts the focus to cetology, to labor and practical knowledge. For Ishmael, "a whale-ship was my Yale college and my Harvard." [chapter 24] There is weird science aboard the Pequod. Ishmael combines the encyclopedic knowledge of cetology recorded in books circulating on land with the living knowledge of first-hand experience at sea, which captures aspects of cetology unknown to the landlocked dissection of lifeless specimens. [chapter 32]  

In addition, it is impossible to retain pure scientific rationality on the ocean. Its mystery, coupled with the unbuffered proximity to the vastness and violence of nature, fosters superstition and primitive animistic tendencies. [chapters 41, 59] 

The narrative abounds in metaphysical speculations of all kinds [e.g. chapter 35] (with enigmatic references to Platonism, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Bentham, Bryon, Coleridge, Descartes), and the whale becomes a master metaphor for the understanding of the universe, of metaphysics, and religion. The narrative from first to last freely plays with symbolism in a manner that suggests the arbitrariness as well as the fruitfulness of symbolic analogies. Whiteness itself becomes a variable symbol [chapter 42], inspiring terror and thoughts of the demonism of deified Nature as well as thoughts of Christian purity. White is even the color of atheism. The prophet Elijah on the docks is treated as a humbug. [chapter 19] Omens are treated in a highly contradictory manner throughout. The significance of Queequeeg’s tattoos are unknown even to him. The doubloon [chapter 99] is subject to a variety of interpretations, none authoritative, though "…some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher…" All this suggests distance and skepticism as well as intimacy with symbolism. And of course, what does the whale signify, if anything other than a natural object? 

Enlightenment and Paganism

In religious matters, too, Ishmael shows himself to be a freethinker. Ishmael preaches tolerance of all religious beliefs, taking none too seriously, gives his own seat-of-the-pants history of religion, advocates for Queequeeg and criticizes Queequeeg only for injurious ritual fanaticism. [chapters 17, 18] Ishmael asserts: "Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye." [chapter 85]

Christians are ridiculed and parodied throughout the whole book. There are sanguinary Quakers with a vengeance [chapter 16]. The whale must be savagely murdered "to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all." [chapter 81] Christian art looks weak compared to pagan art as well as the divine physical presence of the whale. [chapter 86] The mincer is as good as a Pope. [chapter 95] Queequeeg doesn’t care whose God made the shark: He "must be one dam Injin." [chapter 66] Forget about St. Peter’s: "model thyself after the whale!" [chapter 68] Real orthodoxy comes from the obstinate persistence of old sea beliefs and traditions. [chapter 69] The black cook preaches a sermon on man as shark, and the bemused Stubb cries "that’s Christianity!" [chapter 64]

In short: while the novel sustains Christian symbolism, above all of the Leviathan, Christianity is essentially a dead letter. The only tendencies that matter are Enlightenment rationality and paganism, and paganism ultimately wins.  

The Secular and the Sacred

Absolutely central to the thematics of Moby Dick is the manifest conflict between sacred and secular understandings of the universe; with that, the struggle over the meanings of human interaction and interaction with nature, and the multi-tiered nature of ideology and mystification that permeates the relations between men and between man and nature all the way through from primitive man all the way up to Captain Ahab. I see Melville struggling with a four-tiered historical ideological progression: (1) primitive religion, (2) Christian civilization, which now co-exists in a contradictory unity with (3) the secular positivism and rational calculation of modern bourgeois society, and finally (4) the emergence of Ahab’s world view. 

The conflict between Starbuck and Ahab defines the issue. [chapter 36] Starbuck is the embodiment of the Christian-bourgeois world view. Starbuck is only interested in the pursuit of whales for profit. He is not interested in vengeance. He stands by the watchword of bourgeois relations: nothing personal. Yet Starbuck goes further: "Vengeance on a dumb brute!", "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous." The injection of blasphemy into the argument disturbs its logical flow. How can there be blasphemy in an impersonal universe?

Ahab won’t have any of this: "Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me." And "Who’s over me? Truth has no confines." This is freethought, the Enlightenment and individual freedom, the revolutionary pursuit of justice and truth wherever they lead. But Ahab also attacks Starbuck’s mundane perspective: "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks." This is not empiricism. Ahab takes the cosmos personally; he wants to know its secret, and he feels the malice of its creations. This is both a reversion to primitivism and a step beyond rationalism. This is a new stage of myth-making, post-secular and post-empiricist. And this is the step, which, when taken in the 20th century, constitutes the paranoid epistemology and metaphysics of fascism.

Characterizing Ahab, Melville has hit upon the central philosophical conflict of modernity: "all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad." [chapter 41] What moved Melville to write this 80 years before Hitler's rise to power?

Ahab on the one hand is scientific, as epitomized by the Chart he has [chapter 44] that allows him to map the movements of whales around the globe. Yet his metaphysical ponderings rise to the level of the bizarre the closer he gets to the final confrontation. A mind-body dualism emerges. He compares the painful sensations of his lost leg to the "fiery pains of hell" experienced bodilessly. Ahab is "impatient of all misery in others that is not mad." [chapter 113] Summoning the "pagans", Ahab initiates a demonic baptism in blood of his harpoon. [chapter 113] Later Ahab refers to the "dark Hindoo half of nature" [chapter 116] Ahab misinterprets the Parsee’s prediction of Ahab’s death by hemp as Ahab’s immortality [chapter 117] Ahab smashes his quadrant and shouts "Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy…" [chapter 118] Ahab, enraptured, mystifies the superstitious crew as a magician, a personality mastering the "personified impersonal". [chapter 119] But for a moment the crew panics after Ahab’s harpoon flames and Starbuck cries out "God, God is against thee, old man …" God or no, Starbuck can not rebel. [chapter 123] While the harpooners are unimpressed with Ahab’s feats with the reversed magnetization of the compasses, Ahab resorts again to the mystification of scientific facts as magic in order to snow the sailors. [chapter 124]

Ahab soon descends to sentimentally befriending submissive Pip as an antidote to his total isolation. Pip becomes his spiritual pipeline to the world. [chapters 125, 127] The Christians and the pagans diversely interpret omens. Ahab’s dualism re-emerges: "Oh! how immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts!" [chapter 127]

Throughout the voyage, the Pequod encounters a number of ships, each embodying a particular condition or way of being. Ahab is interested only in news of the white whale. The penultimate encounter is with a ship so joyous in temperament, The Bachelor, its captain shrugs off his own experience of being mutilated by Moby Dick. The encounter with the Rachel is the last: Ahab refuses to help the captain find his son, thus severing his final moral connection to humanity. [chapter 128] Not long after, Ahab cries over his abandoned family, admitting his foolishness. [chapter 132] Humped like a deformed whale, Ahab feels as if "staggering beneath the piled centuries …" Starbuck vainly pleads again.

Ahab scorns Starbuck’s ill omens. He thinks Starbuck is small and childish:

Omen? omen?—the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint.—Begone! Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor Gods nor men his neighbors! [chapter 133]

Finally, Ahab vacillates between his total sovereignty and total passivity:

Nor white whale, nor man, nor fiend, can so much as graze old Ahab in his own and proper inaccessible being. [chapter 134]

Starbuck pleads again in Jesus’s name [chapter 134], against Ahab’s impiety and blasphemy. Ahab’s final rationalization is this:

This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by me and thee a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine. [chapter 134]

This is the conclusion of Ahab’s contradictory disintegration. Nobody will go as far as Ahab in the final stretch: he confronts the terrible secrets of the universe alone. Under the weight of converting a common social need into a purely personal goal, Ahab’s world view disintegrates completely. This, and not Ahab’s extremism, is his downfall. Ahab is no extremist; life at sea is itself extreme. Ahab allows himself to be defined by what he opposes, and so he drags himself and his microcosm of society to its doom. Ahab’s passive-aggressive metaphysics—self-deification and abject submission to a postulated destiny—is instantly recognizable in the 20th century. It was described in Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom. This is the metaphysics of fascism.  

Summing Up

Ahab is neither purely totalitarian villain nor radical abolitionist hero, but profoundly conflicted. He shares qualities with his crew and his fellow officers, but he subordinates the former to a personal goal and rebels against the latter, who are representatives of the competing bourgeois ideologies that seek to reign in Ahab's wild quest into the unknown in order to preserve order, based on either pragmatic, secular or religious justifications. 

Ahab’s disintegration reveals the depth of Melville’s genius. Ahab manifests this final stage of bourgeois ideology: Ahab bypasses Christianity, exploits primitive magic in order to control the non-western "savages" on board accompanied by a superior grasp of modern scientific understanding, but in his desperate quest for meaning and relationship to the cosmic order finally succumbs to the paranoid-fascist conception of submission to fate and destiny, as well as paranoid post-secular occultism, according to which phenomenal appearances are but pasteboard masks. 

Again, the big picture: the crew, deracinated individuals who happen to embody variant cultural lineages, thrown together, bringing their conceptions and experiences of social organization and human relations out to life at sea with its unknown indeterminate possibilities, away from the relative stability of organized societies, have to collaborate and survive under conditions of alienation, the fundamental alienation being not only the command structure of the ship, but the violence and mystery of nature itself, to which myth and magic form the conceptual response. 

The sacred, the secular, the quest for meaning, modernity, and alienation, are all of a piece. The bizarre, interdependent duality between Puritan Christianity and secular commerce, and between both of these and paganism, the airy pretensions of the white man vs. the sensuality of colonized peoples, linked to the numinosity and violence of nature itself, are all tied together in a unified package. Melville himself, experiencing severe doubt about his own civilization but not knowing which way to go, can only careen the Pequod to its doom.

Melville the American autodidact should be seen as one of the most prescient and brilliant theorists of modernity, revealing its irresolvable philosophical contradictions. The whale means anything and everything, but in the end it is just a huge mammal. The real question is: what do men live by?  


Notes

[1] This is an adaptation of excerpts of the Introduction and Part One of the draft of my paper "C.L.R. James, Herman Melville, and Modernity at the Breaking Point", delivered as part of a conference, "Mariners at 50: A Symposium", at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, April 5-6, 2002. My analysis of Moby Dick will probably be cannibalized for the forthcoming published version of the paper and will not appear in the form published here. [-> main text]

[2] C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, with an introduction by Donald E. Pease (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College: University Press of New England, 2001). In my full paper I sharply critique this book and examine James's other writings on the subject, especially American Civilization, edited and introduced by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart with an afterword by Robert A. Hill (Cambridge, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993).  [-> main text]

[3] Michael Paul Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (New York: Knopf, 1983).  [-> main text]

[4] D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: T. Seltzer, 1923; New York: Viking Press, 1964). Lawrence writes like a blood-and-soil fascist, a British Spengler, sadomasochistically revelling in the destruction of white civilization while upholding white supremacy. The theoretical viciousness and unsentimentality, the scorning of all ideals—this is the mark of the fascist who rediscovers the Body, the intellectual social type who transmutes and immolates his own idealism in the worship of naked power. Lawrence's treatment of Melville is not highly informative, but his cold-blooded cynicism alerted me to some peculiarities in Ishmael's admiration for Queequeeg. Lawrence's obsession with the white man's sickness over his own civilization and his need to escape its confines pushes the envelope in thinking about Melville, and confirms in its own monomania my conjectures about the importance of the relation of Melville to "modernity." The substance in Lawrence's treatment of Moby Dick is this: 

But he was a deep, great artist, even if he was rather a sententious man. He was a real American in that he always felt his audience in front of him. But when he ceases to be American, when he forgets all audience, and gives us his sheer apprehension of the world, then he is wonderful, his book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe.

In his 'human' self, Melville is almost dead. That is, he hardly reacts to human contacts any more; or only ideally: or just for a moment. His human-emotional self is almost played out. He is abstract, self-analytical and abstracted. And he is more spell-bound by the strange slidings and collidings of Matter than by the things men do. In this he is like Dana. It is the material elements he really has to do with. His drama is with them. He was a futurist long before futurism found paint. The sheer naked slidings of the elements. And the human soul experiencing it all. So often, it is almost over the border: psychiatry. Almost spurious. Yet so great.

It is the same old thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on, and an old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things. There you are: you see Melville hugged in bed by a huge tattooed South Sea Islander, and solemnly offering burnt offering to this savage's little idol, and his ideal frock-coat just hides his shirt-tails and prevents us from seeing his bare posterior as he salaams, while his ethical silk hat sits correctly over his brow the while. That is so typically American: doing the most impossible things without taking off their spiritual get-up. Their ideals are like armour which has rusted in, and will never more come off. And meanwhile in Melville his bodily knowledge moves naked, a living quick among the stark elements. For with sheer physical vibrational sensitiveness, like a marvellous wireless-station, he registers the effects of the outer world. And he records also, almost beyond pain or pleasure, the extreme transitions of the isolated, far-driven soul, the soul which is now alone, without any real human contact.

The first days in New Bedford introduce the only human being who really enters into the book, namely, Ishmael, the 'I' of the book. And then the moment's heart's-brother, Queequeg, the tattooed, powerful South Sea harpooner, whom Melville loves as Dana loves 'Hope'. The advent of Ishmael's bedmate is amusing and unforgettable. But later the two swear 'marriage', in the language of the savages. For Queequeg has opened again the flood-gates of love and human connection in Ishmael.

"As I sat there in that now lonely room, the fire burning low, in that mild stage when, after its first intensity has warmed the air, it then only glows to be looked at; the evening shades and phantoms gathering round the casements, and peering in upon us silent, solitary twain: I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him." So they smoked together, and are clasped in each other's arms. The friendship is finally sealed when Ishmael offers sacrifice to Queequeg's little idol, Gogo.

"I was a good Christian, born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with the idolater in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God ?— to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me—that is the will of God."— Which sounds like Benjamin Franklin, and is hopelessly bad theology. But it is real American logic." [pp. 146-8]  [-> main text]

[5] Clare L. Spark, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2001). While I do not share Spark's evaluation of Ahab as hero, I learned of the need to distinguish the basis of my analysis from the organic conservatism rampant in Melville criticism that fears Ahab's untamable Promethean individualism.  [-> main text]

[6] Boiling down the symbolic-mythic universe of Melville's society that Rogin describes, we could focus on the metaphysics of Manifest Destiny—a phenomenon of modernity confronting a primitive social environment—as the precursor of the American Right’s metaphysics of fascism in the 20th century, predicated on the reading of religious or cosmic meanings into secular economic and imperial undertakings. The 19th century is not the 20th, to be sure, and it has been argued that the whaling industry by and large predated the modern form of industrial organization, but a linkage on a more abstract level can still be pursued. The contradictions of modernity and its material basis in technology and the capitalist organization of commerce and industry determine the plausibility of political analogies based on Ahab as proto-totalitarian.  [-> main text]

[7] While I see the novel as inherently subversive, it is organized in a symbolic economy which contains its obviously subversive content and allows an escape hatch for the conservative reader to neutralize its subversive nature. How so? In brief: the vision of life at sea reverses the usual valuation of white/nonwhite, Christian/pagan, etc., but preserves these various dichotomies in some form rather than destroying them. How so? Because the ocean voyage can be seen as a journey into the pagan/demonic, and because it ends in disaster, the conservative reader always has an escape hatch to say: well this is the godforsaken, demonic, fallen world of nature, so what do you expect? As anti-Christian and anti-white as the novel is, it is still cast in a dichotomy that preserves the mystique of the pagan and the exotic and the noble savage, and while temporarily reversing the valuations of these terms, permits the continuation of all the customary valuations and connotations. I don't know enough about Melville to know how he himself thought, but it is likely that his symbolic economy (through Ishmael, his mouthpiece) reflects his own ambivalence, in spite of his obvious sympathy with the lower orders. In sum, this "wicked book" can be read through the lens of the "demonic", which may alternatively value the "demonic" or the Christian in the final analysis. I think this interpretation is amply supported by the text itself. 

The taxonomy of the Christian/pagan (Godly/demonic) only makes sense from the standpoint of the (Judaeo-)Christian paranoid standpoint that suppresses certain aspects of reality in order to illegitimately cast itself as morally superior. Hence from its standpoint anything that reveals the reality it has suppressed is by definition demonic. The next stage would be to transcend this dichotomy altogether, say from an Enlightenment perspective that transcends culture as the fundamental category, as Marx in fact did by finishing off the notion of volksgeist through the concept of historical materialism.  [-> main text]

[8] The murkiest political question in the book is, in my view, this: what is the relationship between the crew and Ahab's quest for individual freedom (rebelling against the forces embodied in Starbuck)? After doing my work to put this essay together, I discovered Donald E. Pease, Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), chapter 7: Melville and Cultural Persuasion, pp. 235-275. Pease addresses the quintessential American problem: how does the valuation of individual freedom of the heroic individual (entrepreneur?) get converted into a mechanism for suppressing the freedom of masses of people?  [-> main text]

© 2002 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved. Reproduction or publication in any form prohibited without permission of author.


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