Moby-Dick and Melville’s Obsession

It can be said that Captain Ahab’s deadly obsession with the white whale was a representation of the things that haunted the author Herman Melville.  Moby-Dick is a story in which the narrator does not know what to do with either God or his own soul. It may be that Melville, like the protagonist Ishmael, “bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints.” Yet this apparent nonchalance seems designed to mask a restless conscience.

Melville’s creation is truly epic. It is also demanding. It took me three tries to finally get through the story. But that was not so much for its length, or the details about the whale hunting industry that many complain about; it was Melville’s often bizarre and capricious moralizing. On that point, at least, I agree with D. H. Lawrence who said, “He preaches and holds forth because he’s not sure of himself. And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.” Despite this, the beauty of the work continually beckons, as in the unforgettable opening lines:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

To the uninitiated, Moby-Dick is also surprisingly whimsical, as we see in the chapters about Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeeg. It is the best part of the book. At any rate, we should not be surprised that people try to escape their gloominess by sallies of frenetic wit and absurdity. The author’s agnosticism is constantly veiled in flippancy. At one point Ishmael is pondering the sight of a derelict whale carcass stripped of its blubber, set adrift by the Pequod. He imagines it being seen from a distance by passing ships and set down in the log-books as dangerous shoals and breakers.

And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held. There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There’s orthodoxy!

Like all impertinence, it tires after awhile, and we wonder if Melville’s real creed is simply his own moodiness. There is no denying the poetic majesty of Moby-Dick, yet its metaphysics are not only faddish but prosaic. Melville had a wonderful mystical streak that floundered in the deceptive shallows of heterodoxy. Nevertheless, Melville’s book remains the original American Odyssey, and the overarching moral (Ahab’s prideful monomania) is a salutary lesson well told.

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