book report: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

This summer I came across a blog post suggesting that Moby Dick is an allegory of Herman Melville's struggle with God. I read Moby Dick over twenty years ago in high school and hardly remembered it. But it did fit into a different tack I'm taking on book selection. I want to read the older books, the longer books, the harder books and abstain from the conversation of the newer books. I want to read great books. Moby Dick is certainly old, long and hard, but I'm not sure it's great. Maybe I need to be older to see it's greatness. But I was intrigued by Sproul's blog post.

Sproul writes,
If the whale embodies everything that is symbolized by whiteness — that which is terrifying; that which is pure; that which is excellent; that which is horrible and ghastly; that which is mysterious and incomprehensible — does he not embody those traits that are found in the fullness of the perfections in the being of God Himself?

Who can survive the pursuit of such a being if the pursuit is driven by hostility? Only those who have experienced the sweetness of reconciling grace can look at the overwhelming power, sovereignty, and immutability of a transcendent God and find there peace rather than a drive for vengeance.
I think Sproul's brief argument for understanding the whale as a symbol of the God who some (maybe Melville himself) feared and hated seems to agree with this Philosopedia article on Melville.
Stan Goldman’s Melville’s Protest Theism, The Hidden and Silent God in “Clarel” (1994) challenges past views that Melville was an agnostic. However, he was a member in New York City of the Church of All Souls (Unitarian), whose minister Walter Donald Kring in Herman Melville’s Religious Journey (1997) described Melville’s turning from Calvinism to Unitarianism. But Hershel Parker claims he did so to placate his wife, that actually Hawthorne liked neither Unitarianism nor its other "ism," Utilitarianism.

Of Melville's religion, Alfred Kazin, wrote that he and Abraham Lincoln were

two tortured souls who wanted to believe in God in the face of annihilation. Melville [retained a faith] even if he did not always know what and where and whom to believe. [Lincoln, however, remained "the rationalist who joined no church."]
Atheist James Wood writes of Melville, "Melville is tough. Using the word “theist” to mean a belief would say that Melville was a theist. But he was not a Christian theist. I think he was tormented by the impossibility of God, and equally tormented by a sense that he could not relinquish this idea of God."

All of this made me interested in Melville's White Whale. Was Melville writing himself in as Capt. Ahab, seeking assistance from the stowaway Parsee, the Native American, the African, and the idol-worshipping Polynesian harpoonists to finally destroy this terrible beast that haunts him? Is he also refusing the humble and wise counsel of the devout Christian Starbuck? Isn't Starbuck the true tragic hero of this story and Ahab the anti-hero? Isn't the narrator and sole survivor, Ishmael, the rejected child of Abraham rescued by the ship scorned by Ahab, the Rachel?

I started to see this story as an apology for a liberal and non-dogmatic Christianity of his wife, contrary to Parker. James Woods also notes,
In the chapter ‘The Tail,’ Ishmael admits that if he cannot really comprehend the whale’s rear, then he can hardly see his face: ‘Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen,’ an appropriate of the verse in Exodus in which God tells Moses that ‘thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.’ ”
Is there any clearer evidence that the white whale is Melville's presentation of God? Unlike Melville though, Woods chooses to disbelieve in the whale, rather than reckon with Him. Melville is more a friend to Woods than he realizes. Melville is agreeing with the Bible that it is foolish to oppose God for it will only lead to one's destruction. This leads me to think that Melville does not see himself in Ahab, but might be portraying atheists angry in a god they don't believe in.

Chapter 9 is titled "The Sermon" and it's a good one, reflecting on Jonah, another character famous for his encounter with a whale. The sermon concludes with the question, "for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?" and affirms "delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven." If Melville is a skeptic, he is not afraid of letting the believer's voice clearly and uncritically present otherwise. But Melville does have his criticisms. "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!" But these are criticisms I can agree with. He mocks the foolishness caused by a delusional sailor named Gabriel on another ship, the Jeroboam, who uses his self-proclaimed special connection with God to effectively take over the ship, with authority that even the captain will not challenge.

Ishmael, perhaps is Melville's voice, and not Ahab. He speaks of the mature man is the one who has more sorrow than joy and points to Jesus and Solomon,
The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. "All is vanity." ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon's wisdom yet.
Solomon does write in his book, The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Ecclesiastes 12:11-12.

I'm not saying Melville is a believing Christian, but I don't think he can escape the theology he was raised in. Rather, he makes Ishmael sound like a true liberal Christian saying, "Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person's religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don't believe it also." He goes on to explain to his pagan friend Queequeq about the evolution of religion and asserts that the notion of hell is a leftover idea, born from "an undigested apple dumpling." For all the fret and hand wringing of today's conservative theologians who worry about our nation's religion of therapeutic deism, it's for naught as that notion has been around at least since Melville's time in American history and the church has continued to grow anyway.

I think Melville believes he is the kind of believer who will survive. The atheist, the devout Christians, the Muslim and the pagans all go down in their ship, but Ishmael, the one born to Abraham of natural means and not of promise, the one committed to a rational approach to life, humble before all religions and respectful to all believers and all gods, he is the one who will survive.

Melville reached the peak of his popularity before Moby Dick and ended working a regular day job for the twilight of his life. His family life was tragic. He survived, but his survival seemed more like that of Pip, traumatized and muted by the thrashing of a whale because of ambition that greatly exceeded capability in the face of depression, alcoholism, and family violence.

There is a character for all readers to identify with. I pick noble and devout Starbuck who finds peace in his prayers and scriptures and remains faithful to his friend Capt. Ahab throughout his descent into madness. He knows where he'll end up if the ship goes down.

If this were all there were to this novel, then it would be a great book, but it's so hard to see the trees in the midst of this forest. For every great chapter like the sermon, there are ten chapters on the intricacies of the whaling trade. It felt like a reference book at times with a narrative squeezed in every few chapters. Since the book is so long, there is enough narrative there to make one think deeply, but the price is an historical lesson in a trade no longer practiced with enough detail to resume it when the world's economies collapse and the nations on the sea have to resort to wind power to fetch blubber again.



For more on this sculpture, the Mobius Ship, see Boing Boing.
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