Ralph Dumain

Letter to Free Inquiry
July 16, 2002

FEEDBACK: Melville the “Atheist”

My most intensive intellectual activity this year has been a struggle over the interpretation of Moby Dick. (See my "Herman Melville's Moby Dick & the Contradictions of Modernity" at http://www.autodidactproject.org/my/marmoby.html.) I was therefore surprised to see and eager to buy your Summer 2002 issue featuring Gary Sloan's "Moby Dick: Broiled in Hellfire." Given the difficulties of boiling down the essentials of such a complex and difficult novel for a popular audience, Prof. Sloan's presentation was exemplary. I find his argument basically congenial and sound, as far as it goes. However, I find difficulties in accepting a wholly positive view of Ahab, even granting the legitimacy of his rebellion against the bourgeois-Christian world view defended by Starbuck. (For the latest word against the scholarly portrayal of Ahab as proto-fascist/Stalinist, see Clare Spark's monumental historical investigation of Melville criticism, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, http://www.clrjamesinstitute.org/clare.html.)

There are three problem areas presenting challenges to Sloan's interpretation: (1) the rationality of Ahab’s quest, (2) Ahab’s relation to Ishmael, (3) Ahab’s relation to the crew. The first is the most fundamental.

If we accept the symbolic nature of the quest as given, heathens like myself should have little trouble accepting Ahab as a real hero. However, I am not the only reader whose point of departure is the literal narrative. Readers like me will evaluate the symbolic dimension by comparison with a completely naturalistic perspective. Moreover, the novel itself encourages such a comparison, constantly proliferating and calling into question symbolic and allegorical interpretations of entities and events. Hence, the otherwise compelling rationality and justice of Ahab’s rebellion is undermined by the apparent irrationality of his vendetta against the whale.

There are two other alternatives to Ahab’s world view as well as to Starbuck's orthodoxy. One is the "pagan" crew, from which Queequeeg emerges as the enigmatic moral center of the book; but lacking an independent intellectual or political perspective, the harpooners can only exemplify man's lost harmony with nature and himself.

The serious alternative is Ishmael, who matches and exceeds Ahab’s heretical but still dogmatic capacity for symbolic projection. Ishmael recognizes the relativity of all theologies and symbolic allegories as well as the dangers of (quasi-)religious fanaticism. However, Ishmael is as passive as the harpooners in one respect: his critical intellect notwithstanding, Ishmael has not settled on any world view that is worth fighting for or against, so in practice he too is only a mercenary.

The third issue is Ahab’s relationship to the crew. The obvious contention here, much disputed, is that of Ahab’s alleged dictatorship and tyranny, and his actual manipulation of the crew. On the other hand, one may doubt whether Ahab is especially despotic compared to his peers, given that all naval vessels operate under the hierarchical autarky of their captains. As for manipulation, all commanders manipulate their soldiers in wartime, not limiting themselves to rational means of persuasion. However, Ahab’s growing irrationality and his resort to irrational means to control his crew contradict the claim to Ahab as an Enlightenment figure. But even there, God or Nature may be the ultimate culprit, as in the ocean there are only fast and loose fish, absent a moral order by which to abide.

Another sub-issue, though less controversial, is Ahab’s reckless endangerment of all lives on board for a purely individual objective. However, as the crewmen are essentially mercenaries, the issue devolves to the question of where and when Ahab goes too far in risking their lives as well as his own, and for what.

There is a third issue regarding Ahab and the crew—the least obvious and the least explored—the meaning of Ahab’s relation to labor. Distinct from the issue of Ahab’s despotism (concomitant with imputed political allegories of Ahab as capitalist, fascist, or Stalinist), Ahab’s monomania and his psychological isolation at the apex of command from the crew (with its conviviality and camaraderie) and from the satisfactions of many-sided practical relations with the world, are symptomatic of the interconnection between distorted metaphysics and distorted human relations. Herein lies the radical contribution of C.L.R. James to Melville studies. (See The Pequod Project, http://www.clrjamesinstitute.org/pequod.html.) There are in my estimation key flaws in the summation of James's work on Melville, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (http://www.upne.com/1-58465-093-1.html); among them, taking the glorification of the crew to disturbingly organicist proportions. Yet, in identifying labor as the interpretive linchpin of Moby Dick as well as its center of gravity, James not only pursues the novel's political implications but completely displaces the customary significance attributed to its metaphysical quandaries.

©2002, 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved. Reproduction or publication in any form prohibited without permission of author.

Herman Melville's Moby Dick & the Contradictions of Modernity

Herman Melville & German Philosophy by Henry A. Pochmann

American Philosophy Study Guide


The Pequod Project
of The C.L.R. James Institute

"Moby Dick" by Gary Sloan (14 Nov 2001)

Gary Sloan & "The Liberator" articles

Power Moby Dick

Melville's Marginalia Online

The Life and Works of Herman Melville

Herman Melville: Between Charlemagne and the Antemosaic Cosmic Man
by Loren Goldner

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 4 March 2003
Links added 18 Feb & 7 June 2009
Links updated 8 February 2022

©2003-2022 Ralph Dumain