Archive for the ‘ Bibliophilia ’ Category

Moby Dick, or The White Whale

My journey in reading Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, was as arduous as the Captain of the Pequod’s in attempting to slay the White Whale. I even took a detour off the book for a couple of days with Tina Fey’s light-hearted but heavy on the funny-bone Bossypants to cure myself of the melancholia that Melville’s central protagonist, Captain Ahab, inspires in readers.

The book published by Bantam Classic also contains a sampling of reviews by Melville’s contemporaries, as well as a few modern interpretations of which John Parke’s interpretation stands out for his fine ability to understand Melville’s intention in writing such a complex book. First published in 1851, contemporary critics were unanimously preoccupied with denouncing the book as ‘blasphemous’ and Melville a ‘heretic’ for the book’s theme that delved into Man’s quest for understanding the Nature of the Universe/God, while the allegory was totally lost on them. Before i proceed to present my understanding of the book, i shall confess that the book has such finer nuances and mystical references that might’ve eluded me, that it requires at least more than one reading, nay, studying, if i am to fully comprehend it’s meaning.

The book’s central character, Ahab, Captain of the Pequod, has a personal score to settle with the White Whale. It is revealed that the Captain and the Whale had previously encountered one another years before where they battled for supremacy over the seas. The Whale, with his sentient malice, tore off Ahab’s leg, leaving him devastated in more ways than one. While Ahab is convalescing, his mind is adrift on shores alien to most 19th Century Christians – denouncing the idea of a benevolent God. He now identifies his own self by one thing alone – his physical mutilation, that traumatizes him to the extent of creating a corresponding mutilation in his soul and a distorted vision of a chaotic world that is conspiring on victimizing him. The Whale has left him so frustrated that he now assigns the Whale the burden of all his life’s miseries, failures and mistakes, and now swears to slay it in a quest to re-establish a just world. The following passage from Chapter 41, Moby Dick, is enlightening of Ahab’s altered state of mind –

And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick has reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field…Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung…All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick…Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab’s fully lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably though the Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument.  If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentrated cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object”.

Why, the reader might ask, has Melville imported such significance to The Great While Whale, assigned the responsibility of all of Ahab’s life’s greatest failures to him, and thereby created an entity of such titanic proportions, whose magnificence is only witnessed when he is pitted against Ahab, who matches him in all his strength and intelligence?

The answer I believe, lies in Chapter 42, The Whiteness of the Whale. This is the chapter that i believe was the greatest source of worry for Melville’s contemporaries who lynched him for his ‘heresy’ because it is here that he posits the White Whale being emblematic of the Christian Deity himself, whose Will Ahab no longer believes in and has sworn it’s destruction to establish a new order in the world, where Man control’s his destiny. It makes sense on several levels that I know of – White is the essential colour of the Christian God and Jesus was also represented as a Fish by the Early Christians as Ichthys. Hence Ahab’s quest to duel the whale is really Man’s power struggle with God/Universe. What Melville has done in this chapter can be separately regarded as a short treatise on the duality of the Universe, essentially concerning the colour of the Whale and the contrasting emotions it evokes. The most succinct argument he puts forth for his theory is the case of the Polar Bear, who is the best natural example of this duality –

…it is not the whiteness, separately regarded, which heightens the intolerable hideousness of that brute; for, analysed, that heightened hideousness, it might be said, only arises from the circumstance, that the irresponsible ferociousness of the creature stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love; and hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds, the Polar Bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast.”

Thus, to Ahab the Whale becomes the physical manifestation of all evil in the Universe, and in order to eliminate the powerful force of an unjust Universe, Ahab must summon within him a counter-force potent enough to fight back the Universe; while this equally powerful destructive force also becomes the source of his own self-destruction in the end. This, is Melville’s message to the reader. Ahab’s failure to identify the duality of the created world has lead him to wrongly affix the notion of evil on the whole world, and in his struggle to set right the wrong in the Universe, he has also failed to recognize the evil it has created in his own self. The concluding part of Chapter 44, The Chart, forebodes at the possibility of Ahab’s eventual self-annihilation –

“God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates”.

Though Ahab is unable to locate the source of his conflict, he is seen occasionally pondering over it. In Chapter 132, The Symphony where he is seen for the first time questioning the moral righteousness of the life he has led. The overwhelming force within him that bids all his actions ever since his tryst with the Whale, is so intertwined with the purpose of his soul, that it’s origin seems untraceable to him –

“What is it, what nameless inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; that cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing myself, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great Sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven,; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.”

Moments before the final showdown between Ahab and the Whale, Ahab finally comes to realize the duality of the deadly force that he has created within himself, as he notes –

Oh, now I realize my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief”.

But it is too late for him to turn back now. All his life has come up to this point where he always wanted to be, and now realizing that his unnatural obsession might be the very cause of his own undoing is no deterrent to him as he heartily accepts it as his salvation in realizing one of life’s great mysteries.

The story of Ahab is the story of that half of humanity that is intrigued by the way of the world; add to that a heady mix of obsession and a troubled past. I say this because the book talks of other whaling Captains who encountered the Whale, and while they battled him they too suffered losses of personal bodily wounds, crew members and even a child in one case; but none gave him further chase. So why Ahab? Why didn’t those innumerable Captains who went before him feel the urge to follow and slay the whale? The answer to this riddle, i believe, lies in Ahab’s past, most likely his childhood. It is probable that Ahab suffered a crisis of faith in the world that we imagine it to be very early in life, and that it probably came from within his family(hence his aversion to familial ties). Having meted out with such a disillusionment on his vision of life lead him to reject all smaller joys of life as ‘lesser’ until he achieves his vision of life. It is this deep-seated discontent that sets him in pursuit of a life-long journey to fight for a world where he would be free to pursue his vision of life, and until then, he cannot rest. He abandons his young wife in the wake of his new ambition. So he is hard on himself whenever he feels himself getting distracted from his original goal. He cannot fully enjoy the interim joys of life because his mind is set on a distant, uncertain future where he shall seize the opportunity for a chance to be content with life again. So he pushes himself on and on for years, believing right till the end that his strength and resolution will see him through, failing to comprehend the magnitude of the odds stacked against him. Ahab made it his life’s quest to eradicate the source of his miseries because he believed that only by defeating Evil(the whale) can he be free. He could still choose to ignore it and live his vision of life away from it all, considering his repression as acts of individual agencies rather than an organized effort – but that is not good enough. Ahab is not convinced of it, and he is not concerned so much for himself as he is for ridding all men of this injustice.

Ahab’s eventual demise can point towards two possible conclusions –

a) That the Universe is what perceptions we impose upon it, i.e., it is the sum of all our beliefs. It is neither evil nor good. Hence Ahab was fatally wrong in attributing Evil on the Universe and his attempt to fight it was futile at the best.

b) That the Universe is dominantly controlled by Evil forces that conspire against the Meek, and Ahab alone was too vulnerable to it’s forces. An organized attack by the Meek could have delivered a fatal blow to the Evil forces and restructured the power equation.

A third scenario, which dictates that the Universe is dominated by forces that are Good, is not only naive, but preposterous. One look at the world around us, and there is enough empirical evidence. I have a theory as to why Melville would have us believe that the Universe is just what we attribute to it, a white canvass to be painted upon by our ideas, possessing no personality. A positive reference to the society of Freemasonry in Chapter 86 to me suggests that he was either a Mason, or a patron at the least, i would guess, considering how territorial they are about that sort of thing. Historians such as Caroll Quigley(Tragedy and Hope), Nesta Helen Webster(The Cause of World Unrest) and Bernard Fay(Revolution and Freemasonry, 1680-1800) have widely documented the involvement of Masons in shaping the global landscape to usher in a novus ordo seclorum(new world order; an expression that is still used today by American Presidents in times of national crises and honour); events for which the information dominating our academia can only be compared to the tip of an ice-berg. So it basically comes down to a conspiracy to deceive people about the nature of our existence. Again, it is just a theory.

Ahab is a tragic hero, but nevertheless a hero I admire – despite feeling victimized, he does not cry foul, but he philosophizes and musters up courage to hit back at the Universe. What audacity! I am certainly reading this book again, if not for discovering subtler meanings, but to remember the great tragedy of Ahab who traversed the length of this world to exact revenge on (his notion of) Evil with a force that eventually consumed him. Ah, Melville lives.