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On my recent flight to Florida I took a break from reading Moby-Dick and switched to my favorite Hemingway book, The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe it was because I was on my way to the warm, sunny Gulf of Mexico, but after Melville’s overblown descriptions of the deep, dark sea and the deep, dark creatures that dwell within it, Hemingway’s terse yet elegant description of the waters of the Gulf stream were a joy, flowing through my mind like those very waters I approached. I read non-stop during the flight and finished the book (ok, it’s pretty short) just before we landed.

I think there’s a lot to be learned in comparing these two books – not an accident, I think, as Hemingway wrote to a publisher that Melville was one author he was still trying to beat. Did he? Hmmm . . .

Santiago is the eponymous Old Man (I’ve always wanted to use the word eponymous), an aging fisherman who has struck a run of bad luck – 84 days without a fish. His luck has been so bad that he’s lost his helper and his student, a boy named Manolin. Manolin’s father insists the boy join another boat, and so he does so, though he still takes care of the old man each morning and each evening. Once the boats sail, there is nothing Manolin can do to help the old man. For over a month Santiago has gone out alone, with only his oars, his sail, his meager fishing gear – and a lifetime of experience.

Today, a lovely day on a lovely warm ocean in the month of September (“The month when the great fish come – anyone can be a fisherman in May”), Santiago’s luck changes. He hooks a great fish – not just any fish, but the largest marlin the old man has ever seen. If only he had the boy, Santiago could bring this great fish in and change everything. But Santiago doesn’t have the boy. He has only himself.

old man and the sea

Santiago is a romantic:

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

But he’s also a realist:

“He is a great fish and I must convince him, he thought. I must never let him learn his strength nor what he could do if he made his run. If I were him I would put in everything now and go until something broke. But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.”

To me this passage carries all the weight and all the difference between The Old Man and the Sea, which I love, and Moby-Dick, which still haunts me. Santiago does what he does out of love of life, love of the sea and his part in it, love of the act of living. He realizes that the fish is neither good nor evil – the fish merely is. The fish’s strength comes with no malice, no evil intelligence, no conspiracy with the fates. The fish simply is. Nature simply is. Nature is indifferent to our suffering – and in the end, that in some sense makes nature even scarier, and makes our struggle that much sweeter. We bring meaning into this world. We depend on ourselves, our will, our intelligence, our ability to think through our pain, to overcome our adversity, to remain resolute in the face of defeat. We willingly take on the struggle that the indifferent universe poses. We choose.

By contrast, Ahab wants vengeance – vengeance on an animal that was only trying to defend itself. I’m still torn on the issue of how Melville characterizes Moby Dick. I believe, I think this is true, that Moby Dick is made a monster in the secondhand tales and hearsay, but in the actual flesh (remember we don’t meet the whale in person until the final three chapters of this long and complex book), Moby Dick seems like an animal – clever, yes, but hardly malicious, and graceful, like Santiago’s fish – until finally (out of, I believe, desperation to end the persecution) Moby Dick crushes himself against the Pequod, both sinking the boat and almost certainly killing himself.

If this is really Melville’s opinion of the whale, then Ahab is sadly deranged, and in an interesting way the mirror opposite of Santiago. Ahab sees evil intent where only indifference lies. Ahab, who comes so close to self-realization, self-actualization, self-choice, falls back on the ideas of fate and destiny, God and prophesy, and we as mere pawns in a game whose outcome is already decided. Melville refuses to choose. I simply can’t come to grips with this failure. It haunts me.

Santiago seems at first glance to fail nearly as completely as Ahab. Yes, Santiago does finally kill his fish (hope I didn’t give anything away there), but then the fish is devoured by sharks on the way back home. Santiago ends his journey with nothing but a skeleton, a boatful of ruined gear, and an old and devastated body. But Santiago has won. The boy, Manolin, upon spotting the great skeleton, upon seeing Santiago’s wrecked boat, upon finding the old man exhausted and starved, makes a choice. He will stay with the old man. He will fish with the old man. The old man will teach Manolin all he knows: about fishing; about life; about the struggle against indifferent nature, the struggle to know and test and experience our own selves. And what more could any of us ask for?

Santiago, a great fan of “the baseball” asks Manolin to “think of the great DiMaggio”. I say, think of the great Santiago.


This year my family and I are visiting Sanibel Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida. As usual on these ocean pilgrimages, I plan on taking my daily early-morning walk on the beach to see what I will see.

Our trip is still a few weeks away, and will fall in the heart of sea turtle nesting season. Already, there are thousands of baby turtles safe and snug in the sands of Sanibel. Will this be another near-record year for loggerheads in Florida? Check out this website to watch the daily egg count tick ever upward.

In other ocean news, I’ve joined an online reading of Moby Dick.

I’m looking forward to perhaps gaining some insight into why this book is still haunting me nearly two years after I read it the first time.

I recently finished a book called Melville’s Quarrel with God. The author, Lawrance Thompson, makes the argument that Melville was even more anti-religious than I’d intimated in my own review of Moby-Dick, that Melville’s whole point in writing his “wicked book” was to explore a world with a malevolent, bullying god in charge.

Thompson makes a strong argument, but I think it falls down when we see how Melville’s hero Ahab ultimately fails as a person once he rejects God. I agree with Thompson when he says Melville quarreled with God throughout the book. What Thompson doesn’t quite touch, where both he and Melville swing at nothing but air, is this: once God is rejected, then what?

I also recently finished, once again, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, just because I wanted to. And I found myself forced to consider this same question with Mark Twain’s (and my own) hero Huck. Huck rejects God just as surely as Ahab does, when he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” And now I see that Huck fails, too, just as surely as Ahab fails.

Huck’s failure comes from his primary character trait: he will not rise above. As a result, Huck goes along with all of Tom Sawyer’s ridiculous and dangerous plans. This makes me reconsider the Boggs-Sherburn incident earlier in the book, where Sherburn expresses his belief that people are cowards. Is Huck, despite his resolution on the raft, also a coward? Is that what Twain was getting at with his “Tom Sawyer” chapters?

When I wrote about the book a while ago, I was undecided on whether or not those final chapters, the ones taking place on the Phelps’ farm, were just Mark Twain giving in to the temptation to be funny, or were instead something deeper. Now that I see these chapters as an intentional failure, much like Ahab’s intentional failure, I think I like them even less. Are these failures necessary? Is it necessary for every hero to fail, just as Hamlet, Macbeth, Achilles, and all the rest fail? In this case Twain inserts a pat ending on Huck’s failure, showing that it was all OK in the end, a deus ex machina provided by Sawyer himself. I think here Twain is expressing his ultimate pessimism about humanity. While rejecting God, I think Twain is rejecting man, too. After all, as Twain knew all too well (though Melville either would not or could not face this ultimate horror), man created God in his own image. If God is a bully, it is only because man needed one.

That’s too depressing for me. Next I’ll write about a much more positive book, The Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark. Tegmark has some wild ideas, but also much in common with David Deutsch. Now I’m beginning a new book, Infinitesimal by Amir Alexander. Too early to tell, but it seems to be about a time when man refused to fail. I’ll let you know.


And so we enter upon the third day of the chase for Moby Dick. We know how it must end. I trust I won’t be spoiling it for anyone to cover the events that finally doom both Ahab and his ship.

I have to say that, compared to Ahab’s thrilling soliloquy in the storm, the writing of this final chapter left me cold. It was old, worn, tired, just a playing out of what had to happen to cap this epic tale with a suitable Shakespearean finale. I was disappointed.

First Ahab, following Macbeth, begins the chase by stating once again his belief in his own immortality.

“Drive, drive in your nails, oh ye waves! to their uttermost heads drive them in! ye but strike a thing without a lid; and no coffin and no hearse can be mine:- and hemp only can kill me! Ha! ha!” (p 834)

You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Moby Dick arrives on the scene, causes his usual havoc with every boat but Ahab’s, and then reveals a human figure pinioned to his back. It is, of course, Fadallah, “his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned full upon Ahab.” (p 835)

Fadallah has gone before Ahab, and Moby Dick himself is the first hearse – remember, “the first not made by mortal hands.” Clever, Melville, very clever. Ugh.

But still following the path first trodden by the Scottish king, Ahab holds onto his belief that the full prophesy cannot possibly come true. “Where is the second hearse?” (p 836) Ahab shouts to the sea. It’s a little like the guy who says, “Let’s split up,” after they discover the dismembered teenager in the slasher movie.

And of course you know what’s coming now. Ahab once again harpoons Moby Dick, and the whale snaps the line. Then, in an act that would be implausible were it not the replay of an actual historical event, Moby Dick aims headlong not at Ahab, but at the Pequod itself. When the great whale collides with the great ship, the wound Moby Dick makes in her hull dooms the Pequod to sudden and irrevocable collapse. In short order, the ship goes down. It is, of course, the completion of the prophesy.

“The ship! The hearse! – the second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”

Oh, please. Oh, barf. Why is it that every prophesy ever made has to come true, but only in some twisted and unforeseen way? And why must every “hero” misinterpret the prophesy, leading to his downfall? Can’t anyone think of anything else?

Once again like Macbeth, who gets to shout “I will not yield” before his inevitable end, Ahab still has his famous final attack upon Moby Dick.

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

And somehow, as this harpoon goes flying toward Moby Dick, the hemp rope (Get it? Remember the prophesy? Remember the gallows?) catches Ahab around the neck and pulls him right out of the boat. His harpoon once again embedded in Moby Dick’s flesh, Ahab and the whale together disappear under the waves and out of our story. The Pequod sinks (not without one more grotesquely symbolic drowning – I’ll let you read that one yourself, it’s so ridiculous I can’t bear to write of it). Next a coffin-turned-lifebouy explodes from the water, and Ishmael (remember him? The narrator? The star of the book’s first twenty chapters?) grabs hold. A passing ship rescues him, the lone survivor of the tragedy, and our sad story finally ends.

But wait. What of the whale? As stated before, where Starbuck sees Ahab’s desire for vengeance as blasphemous, we moderns see it simply as misguided. We know that whales are animals, not evil spirits. We know that if you try to kill an animal, you should expect it to fight back. I think it’s clear that Melville agrees with Starbuck, as the very air and water rebel against Ahab, sending sharks to chew on his boat’s oars, eagles to steal his ship’s flags, and lightning storms to reverse the Pequod’s compasses. We look at Ahab and see error. Melville looked at Ahab and saw sin.

So is there nothing to redeem this failure of human spirit? After 845 pages, does Melville leave me nothing but a morality lesson about flying too close to the Sun? Maybe not. But the hope I take from the story comes from a remarkable place.

Speaking of remarkable, it is worth stating that, for all the talk of Moby Dick, the whale itself does not even appear in the book, except in the tales of others, until chapter 133. And when it finally does appear, it doesn’t resemble at all the monster that was described in ridiculous and overblown prose in chapter 41.

(S)uch seemed the White Whale’s infernal afore-thought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent. (p 266)

Yet when finally the whale is seen up-close by the sailors of the Pequod, here is the description Melville gives us: “A gentle joyousness- a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale.” (p 807) Is this the unconquerable beast that thirsts for human blood? But wait, maybe the legendary ferocity will appear once the attack has begun. No. While crafty and experienced in avoiding the harpoon and knocking the whalers from their boats, in each encounter Moby Dick swam away while helpless men floated in the ocean like little crunchy snacks.

Melville describes Moby Dick as an animal merely trying to survive. This is made clear by Starbuck’s shouted words to Ahab just before the final battle on the third day of the chase.

Moby Dick was now again steadily swimming forward; and had almost passed the ship, which thus far had been sailing in the contrary direction to him, though for the present her headway had been stopped. He seemed swimming with his utmost velocity, and now only intent upon pursuing his own straight path in the sea.

“Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” (p 836)

And so it goes until Moby Dick defies all convention and rams the Pequod itself. As mentioned before, this is so unlikely that it would have been quite implausible had not a similar event occurred in the year 1820, when the whale ship Essex was sunk by a collision with a sperm whale, apparently driven mad by the hunt.

We know today what Melville could not. The oil-filled head of the sperm whale that made the creature such a valued target for whalers is not a floatation device or a battering ram, but rather is a finely-tuned instrument for focusing sonar signals through dark ocean depths. It seems incredible that any sperm whale, no matter how provoked, would purposely ram this delicate organ into a ship. And yet we know it happened in reality at least once. So Melville’s collision was not wholly the creation of his own fancy. But again, perhaps, Melville misinterpreted what had really happened.

After Ahab’s last stand, both he and Moby Dick disappear from the story. We can be certain that Ahab perished in that final plunge (otherwise the prophesy would not be fulfilled, and we know that’s not allowed), but of the whale, we are left with nothing but silence. In the absence of evidence, then, we speculate.

Let us here, then, give Moby Dick a suitable finale. I imagine this magnificent whale, so tormented by its pursuers that, after three days of unrelenting pressure, Moby Dick finally chose to confront the creature that would not leave it be – the Pequod itself. In ramming its forehead into the Pequod the whale must have mortally damaged itself, but at least it would finally be free of the torment of this unceasing hunt. Stunned and injured, Moby Dick took one final insult from Ahab, catching Ahab’s last harpoon, then spiraled down into the abyss, carrying the vengeful madman down and down, creature and tormentor now linked forever.

In smashing its head into the Pequod, Moby Dick did what Ahab could not. Where Ahab followed prophesy, was “the fates’ lieutenant” and acted “under orders”, Moby Dick made a choice. And maybe it is in that final act of free will that we can find some reason for hope.

A Short Afterward

I’ve been a bit hard on Melville in these blog entries. I judge him with my own modern eyes, and that’s not really fair. But like Melville I bring my own time with me wherever I go. How could it be otherwise? I’m certain people of the future will look back at us with equally critical eyes. In fact, I hope they do. As David Deutsch said, “Only progress is sustainable.” (BoI, p 389)

I began this project with the goal of discovering how (if?) reading Moby-Dick had changed me. Did I succeed? Certainly, this reading changed my view of what had up to now been my favorite Shakespearean play, Macbeth. The book and the play have so many parallels toward their ends that I think I will never again consider one without the other. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I used to really like Macbeth.

On the brighter side, Moby-Dick left me fascinated about the history of whaling. I’m longing now to visit New Bedford and Nantucket, to stroll the streets once trodden by Ishmael, Queequeg, and even Ahab as they prepared to sail through the gates of the wonder world and into the wide ocean beyond. I did, I have to admit, enjoy the adventure.

But more deeply, Moby-Dick, and its consideration in light of The Beginning of Infinity, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has reaffirmed in me my core belief in the power and the primacy of the individual. There is nothing better than being alive in this world, to know that, in Walt Whitman’s words, “the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” What more could one ask for than the chance to play in this unscripted, unbounded drama? “All right then,” Huck said, “I’ll go to hell.” We are not guided by fate, we are not controlled by destiny. No invisible hand presses down upon us. If we feel such a hand, it is of our own making. We are not passive players in a tale that has already been told. Rather, we are the writers of our own story. The page, for now, is blank, awaiting the next verse. What will that verse be? We, and we alone, decide.


In this next-to-last entry, I’ll explore more deeply the remarkable character of Captain Ahab, and compare him to my favorite literary creation, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.

Some time before Ahab named Stubb and Starbuck as the oppositely poled representatives of humanity, he spoke his most revealing sentences. Ahab’s epiphanic speech came during a lightning storm, as the Pequod was tossed and spun and the mastheads spouted St. Elmo’s flame in a blinding midnight storm somewhere in the southwest Pacific. Ahab had just grabbed the wires connected to the ship’s lightning rods (the “links” referred to below); as he bellowed his declaration of everlasting hatred into the storm, he dared God to strike him down.

“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whenceso’er I came; whereso’er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”

[Sudden, repeated flashes of lightning; the nine flames leap lengthwise to thrice their previous height; Ahab, with the rest, closes his eyes, his right hand pressed hard upon them.]

“I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. Take the homage of these poor eyes, and shutter-hands. I would not take it. The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eyeballs ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling in some stunning ground. Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her? There lies my puzzle; but thine is greater. Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it. Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!” (p 743)

Books could be written about this remarkable soliloquy. Ahab worships God by hating God. Ahab is Ahab. “In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here.” God might kill him, as God kills all in the end, but Ahab will fight to the last, and perhaps longer if he can only manage it. “(T)hough thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent.”

Ahab not only defies God, he taunts Him, questioning God’s claims to be “unbegun”, suggesting that even for God there is “some unsuffusing thing beyond thee,” for whom, like Stubb to Ahab “all thy creativeness (is) mechanical.”

And finally, Ahab says to God, we’re not so different, You and I, “I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!”

For an atheist like me, this speech is among the most thrilling I’ve ever encountered. It makes my blood course, my breath catch. This heroic declaration of the self, this defiance of any submission, is Ahab’s finest moment. It is also, however, his downfall.

To avoid talking in riddles, I will state unambiguously my thesis. Ahab is an atheist, in the sense of one who defies God. Melville uses Ahab to warn the world of the pitfalls of this kind of atheism. Ahab is a cautionary tale.

In Ahab, Melville gives us a shell of a human being, one for whom passion still clearly burns, but whose passion is grotesquely misdirected.  All kindness, all love, all reason for living has disappeared, save one. Ahab’s only desire is to hunt and kill Moby Dick, the embodiment of the God that Ahab hates, and worships by hating. If we depend too much on ourselves, Melville was saying, this is what we can become.

But Melville was wrong. Once again, David Deutsch shows the way. Discussing William Paley’s failed argument for design, Deutsch says, “none of us can choose what our ideas imply.” (The Beginning of Infinity, page 85). This remarkable statement is as true for fiction writers as it is for scientists. Melville created Ahab, and in Ahab the embodiment of the God-defying (rather than the God-denying) atheist. In a sense, Melville created the type, but Melville does not get to choose what his creation means in the world.

And that brings me to Huck, and my favorite scene in my favorite book. Jim has been sold off by the King and the Duke, and Huck must decide what to do next. Should he try to rescue Jim, or should he listen to his conscience, to his society, to all the good and pious people he’s ever known, and write to Miss Watson to help her regain her rightful property.

I’m going to quote the scene in full, and be warned that I will not edit the language. If you’ve read my previous blogs on this book, you’ll understand why.

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN.

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” — and tore it up. (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Google ebook version, p 281)

 In that moment, Huck became an atheist, in just the same sense that Ahab was an atheist. They each still believed in God. But like Ahab, Huck would not submit. Instead, to do what he had decided for himself was right, he would go to hell.

The key word is “decided.” Huck had free will. He had the power to choose. He recognized both possible universes, the one in which he returned Jim to Miss Watson, and the one in which he helped Jim escape. Both were real for him. Huck chose Jim.

Contrast this with Ahab’s final acts. After twice having his and the others’ boats wrecked by Moby Dick on successive days, Ahab stands on deck with Starbuck and makes plans for a third assault on the white whale. Starbuck begs Ahab to end this insanity, in Starbuck’s typical way, “Oh, oh – Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!” (p 827)

And Ahab responds, in what must be for me the most disappointing passage in the book, “Ahab is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.” (p 827) This to me is the key passage that separates Melville from Twain, that separates Moby-Dick as an old world novel of fate and destiny from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a truly American novel of individual choice.

Why did Ahab say this? Why, after all his declarations of free will and individuality, did he fall back on the idea that his character destined him to a pre-determined fate? I believe Melville here is indicting the flawed nature of humanity. He is saying that in our weakness we need fate, we need omens, we need to believe that our path is determined. Look at what Ahab says after making his declaration of fate to Starbuck, and after similarly spinning a yarn to the men on deck about Moby Dick’s fate to drown on the third day.

“D’ye feel brave men, brave?”

“As fearless fire,” cried Stubb.

“And as mechanical,” muttered Ahab. Then as the men went forward, he muttered on: – “The things called omens! And yesterday I talked the same to Starbuck there, concerning my broken boat. Oh! How valiantly I seek to drive out of others’ hearts what’s clinched so fast in mine!” (p 827)

What was clinched in Ahab’s heart? Ahab had secretly brought his own boat crew onto the Pequod – four oarsmen and a harpooneer named Fadallah, known as the Parsee. Fadallah is a Zoroastrian, and much like the witches of Macbeth, Fadallah gives Ahab a cryptic prophesy.

“ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”

“Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee!- a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see.”

“Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man.”

“And what was that saying about thyself?”

“Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot.”

“And when thou art so gone before- if that ever befall- then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still?- Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it.”

“Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom- “Hemp only can kill thee.”

“The gallows, ye mean.- I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;- “Immortal on land and on sea!” (p 732)

And so Ahab, like Macbeth before him, like Achilles before that, considered himself invulnerable. A lot easier to be brave under those circumstances.

On the second day of the chase of Moby Dick, Fadallah the Parsee disappeared into the waves. Still, like the doomed Macbeth, Ahab insisted on interpreting the prophesy to his own advantage:

“The Parsee- the Parsee!- gone, gone? and he was to go before:- but still was to be seen again ere I could perish- How’s that?- There’s a riddle now might baffle all the lawyers backed by the ghosts of the whole line of judges:- like a hawk’s beak it pecks my brain. I’ll, I’ll solve it, though!” (p 828)

There’s still some hope there; Ahab still sees himself as an active decision-maker, an active thinker. How, then, to account for this passage on the third and final day of the chase?

“Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels, that’s tingling enough for mortal man! To think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that.” (p 829)

What!?! After all the talk of “There’s that in here that still remains indifferent,” of leaping with God, of burning with God, of Ahab set apart from all humanity, “nor gods nor men his neighbors”? Now, now, he decides that thinking is not for him?

Remember what Ahab said after his declaration of individuality.“Cold, cold- I shiver!-“

It’s too much for Ahab. He can’t stand this place he’s found. And so, he falls back on superstition, on the certainty of fate, on the idea that he’s really a powerless actor in this ancient play. And so it is, says Melville, for all humanity. Without our beliefs, we are not. There, but (literally) for the grace of God, go thou.

It’s a failure. But the failure isn’t Ahab’s. It is Melville’s.

Melville doesn’t get how real understanding of the world, the kind of real understanding gained through the good explanations we call science, can conquer fear and superstition. He believes that without traditional religion of a Starbuck or the mechanical unconsciousness of a Stubb we are all doomed to fall into mysticism.

Contrast again with Huck Finn. This 12-year-old boy was no less superstitious than Ahab. Remember the spilled salt, the shriveled spider, the handled snake skin. Like Ahab’s, Huck’s world was filled with unexplained magic and supernatural influence. And yet, when the time came to make a decision, Huck abandoned all the hocus pocus and looked within himself. He thought. He examined the consequences of his actions, and he made a choice. This is a triumph, where Moby-Dick is, ultimately, a failure.

Perhaps there is one last glimmer of hope in Moby-Dick, not for Ahab, but for another character. I’ll discuss that glimmer in the final entry.

The structure of Moby-Dick is is somewhat jarring. We first meet Ishmael, our narrator. As stated earlier, he and his harpooneer friend Queequeg are the story for the first two dozen chapters or so. Then, once the Pequod leaves Nantucket for the wide ocean, both these characters essentially disappear, to be replaced most notably by Second Mate Stubb, First Mate Starbuck, and of course Captain Ahab himself.

In short order, once Ahab makes his first dramatic appearance on deck, we learn what this book will be about. Ahab, it seems, is insane. Having lost his leg (oddly, Melville never tells us which leg Ahab lost) to an enormous white sperm whale named Moby Dick (note that the title of the book has a hyphen, but the name of the whale does not. I’m sure that has some enormous portent, but I have no idea what it is), Ahab has dedicated his remaining life and this whaling voyage in particular to the hunting and killing of same. More on Ahab later. First, his foils.

Stubb is the least important of the three characters named above, but ironically he gets the most “page time” in the book’s middle sections. Stubb is the first to kill a whale. He uses his guile and experience to obtain a second whale, a whale whose belly is filled with stinky but valuable ambergris, a material used in, of all things, perfume. Stubb is described as happy-go-lucky, unconcerned with danger, neither brave nor fearful, but just generally amused.

Starbuck is a character who could have a book (or even a coffee chain) all for himself. He is the conscience of the Pequod, the one man who could have stopped Ahab in his crazy pursuit of Moby Dick. In chapter 123, “The Musket,” Starbuck holds a loaded firearm up to his sleeping captain in one of those scenes that Ishmael could not possibly have observed.

The yet leveled musket shook like a drunkard’s arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place. (p 758)

Later (p 792), Ahab has himself hoisted in a basket above the ship’s deck, so that he might watch the water for Moby Dick. In this circumstance, someone must guard the rope holding the aloft sailor, otherwise a deck hand might inadvertently untie the rope and send the suspended captain falling to his death. For the task of minding his rope, Ahab chooses none other than Starbuck. With yet another chance to end Ahab’s mad quest, Starbuck fails again.

Why? The reason is revealed when we first meet the Pequod’s first mate.

(E)ndured with a deep, natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition . . . Outward portents and inward presentiments were his.  (p 167)

While Starbuck might have studied for all its dark portents a fart in the wind, Stubb would probably have just laughed. For Starbuck all was duty – duty and profit, as he said upon the first lowering for a whale. With this outlook on life Starbuck could no more usurp his captain than he could learn to fly.

And then to Ahab. As way of introduction to the most difficult and important character in Moby-Dick, see what he said of Starbuck and Stubb, when each tried to advise Ahab after the whale had destroyed Ahab’s boat and dumped the captain into the ocean:

Stubb saw (Ahab) pause (before his wrecked boat on the deck of the Pequod) . . . eyeing the wreck exclaimed, “-the thistle the ass refused; it pricked his mouth too keenly, sir; ha! ha!”

(and Ahab responded) “What soulless thing is this that laughs before a wreck? Man, man! did I not know thee brave as fearless fire (and as mechanical) I could swear thou wert a paltroon. Groan nor laugh should be heard before a wreck.”

“Aye, sir,” said Starbuck drawing near, “’tis a solemn sight; an omen, and an ill one.”

“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! Cold, cold- I shiver!- (p 815)

Ahab is, I believe, an atheist.

This requires some explaining. I am an atheist because I look at the world and see no place for the supernatural. As David Deutsch taught me, supernatural explanations are always bad explanations. But if there really were evidence for a superior (even if not a supernatural) being, somehow responsible for our existence, I would still be an atheist – in Ahab’s sense.

Ahab believes in God. There is no question in many of his statements that Ahab looks at the world and sees ample reason to believe in a mysterious reality beyond his own. Today, we are more likely to see the unknown as simply that – unknown. But Ahab was a man of his time. With no good explanations for things like life (remember, this was pre-Darwin), the universe, and everything, Ahab follows nearly all his contemporaries and accepts the existence of God.

So how can Ahab be an atheist if he believes in God? Because Ahab does not accept God’s authority. Ahab has made a monumental discovery. He has discovered himself.

Go back to the quote about Stubb and Starbuck. “Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind;” Earlier, Melville calls Stubb “mechanical.” This is exactly Stubb’s character. He is instinct. He acts without thought. He does not consider. His courage is shallow, because he has never considered the consequences of what he does.  Starbuck, in contrast, is the opposite of mechanical. Everything must be considered, every “omen” examined. Nothing means anything to Starbuck except in the context of omens, portents, and his and everyone’s proper place in the established hierarchy.

“(A)nd Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!” Ahab sees himself as different. Why? Because he alone acts neither mechanically nor hierarchically. Ahab alone stands and acts for himself. Alone among God’s creatures, Ahab recognizes his creator, but does not submit to him. Ahab is Ahab’s.

Such sentiments thrill me to my soul. Had I been born into a universe ruled by a god, I would like to believe that I could have Ahab’s courage. However, as we will see in the penultimate entry of my exploration of Moby-Dick, Ahab’s character, and therefore Melville’s interpretation of the world through the character of Ahab, ultimately fails, utterly and completely. But that’s for next time.

As much as I thrilled to the technology Melville described in Moby-Dick, I particularly enjoyed laughing at Melville’s bad science. Some of his errors are wholly understandable; Melville lived in a pre-Darwinian world in which biology remained a great mystery. But some of his mistakes reflect what will seem a ridiculous statement, yet one I believe I can defend. Melville, I argue, lacked imagination.

Let’s begin with Darwin. Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and sailed around the world aboard the HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836. While this voyage helped Darwin formulate his ideas on the evolution of life, these ideas didn’t solidify until the early 1840s, and were not published until 1856, five full years after the publication of Moby-Dick.

This pre- vs post-Darwin worldview is most obvious when Melville tries to classify whales in his chapter on cetology. The first mistake occurs before Melville has even begun his classification scheme. For Melville, “a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” (p 198). He then goes on to classify whales by size as their most important and diagnostic characteristic.

Here’s the thing: in a pre-Darwinian world, there’s no particular sense in which we could say that Melville was wrong, either about whales as fish or about their familial relationships. Without Darwin’s insight of common descent, classification is nothing more than sorting. There are many, many ways to sort everyday objects – by color, by utility, by composition, and so on. Not until Darwin showed that all animals evolved from a common ancestor could there be exactly one correct way to classify them. That one way is to follow the concept of adaptive radiation. The history of life is an ever-branching tree, with each branch a species. Pre-Darwin, anyone might make an argument for or against whales as fish or as mammals. Post-Darwin, there is only one correct answer. Whales are mammals, because their ancestors were mammals.*

*Ironically, modern cladistics, which follows logically from Darwin’s insight, shows us that whales (as well as elephants, eagles, rattlesnakes, and we) actually are fish, because deep, deep in our history, we all have fish ancestors. But this is not the sense in which Melville claims whales as fish.

There’s a revealing episode later in the book in which Melville comments on the very human-like hand bones found in every whale’s fins. Melville is commenting on how strange it is that whales’ bodies so poorly match their skeletons. He says this tendency, “is also curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb.” (p 383) What I find curious is that it never occurred to Melville to ask why the one sort of creature in the ocean with both warm blood and lungs also happened to mimic the mammalian hand under its finny flesh.

A humpback whale skeleton – note the tiny hip bone remnant, and the finger bones embedded in the fins.

As mentioned, all this is perhaps excusable; after all, Darwin’s insight was genius. It took a Darwin to show us exactly what whales (and all other animals) were. But I think there’s a deeper issue in much of Melville’s scientific philosophy. He seems trapped in worldview from an earlier time, a time when nothing much ever changed.

For instance, when discussing cetacean art (art of whales, not art by whales!) Melville makes the following bizarre statement: “(A)ny way you look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.”(p. 383) In other words, we’ll never have a good rendering of the whale in life.

A 0.20 second Google image search makes a liar of Melville “about 565,000,000” times. Not fair, you might say. How could Melville ever have predicted the way in which image technology would explode? Yet this is exactly my point. From the moment our ancestors created painted images of the beasts they hunted upon dark and rough cave walls, people have worked to create images of their world. This desire for accurate pictures has never changed, though our technological skill has certainly increased. I take it as a failure of imagination that Melville, steeped as he was in the ingenious technology used to kill whales, could not envision that technology might someday allow us to render those same whales, not into oil, but into faithful images.

More seriously, in chapter 105, Melville asks the question, “Will He (the whale) Perish?”

(W)hether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff. (p. 673)

Melville’s answer is no, we humans will never make the slightest dent in the worldwide whale population. His reasoning, once again, reveals a lack of imagination from this teller of tales. Melville argues that a single whaling ship, on a four-year cruise, is happy to kill and render perhaps forty whales. Such a small number could not possibly affect the whale’s population. He also argues that the ocean is vast, and if whales are chased away from one particular portion of the ocean, they can always relocate to another. Finally, Melville argues that as a last resort whales can always find refuge under the ice, where no human hunter can ever go.

We know, of course, that Melville’s argument fell sloppy dead on all three counts with the coming of more and better technology. Exploding harpoons, more efficient factory ships, and, of course, fossil-fuel engines that could outrun, outmaneuver, and outlast any whale anywhere in the world changed the equation dramatically.

In a related argument, Melville described the blue whale (he called it the sulphur-bottomed whale) quite briefly, merely stating that “he is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line.”(p 204) This to me reveals all, for when whaling began the same might have been said of the sperm whale. No one knew how to hunt it. Then people learned how. Why wouldn’t further learning, further ideas, further technology, reveal a method for hunting this largest of all creatures? Of course, that is exactly what happened, as the technology of World War II, once used to kill people, was soon after turned upon the blue whale, resulting in that magnificent animal’s near-extinction in a matter of decades.

All this makes me think of both David Deutsch’s book, in which he makes a statement so simple and yet deeply profound – we cannot know what we have not yet discovered – and Steven Pinker’s, in which he describes how people have changed over time. In particular, Pinker makes the argument that we today are better at reasoning than were people in the past. I was reminded of this forcefully when I read Melville’s argument that whales are fish. After describing the reasons forwarded by Linnaeus for putting whales into the mammalian class, Melville dismisses these arguments by submitting “all this to my friends . . . both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley (one of the narrator’s friends) profanely hinted they were humbug.” Now there’s an airtight argument for you!

This is so like Pinker’s discussion of the Flynn Effect in IQ testing, reflecting our growing ability to reason. From page 776 of that book:

Consider a typical question from the Similarities section of an IQ test: “What do dogs and rabbits have in common?” The answer, obvious to us, is that they are both mammals. But an American in 1900 would have been just as likely to say, “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.” The difference, Flynn notes, is that today we spontaneously classify the world with the categories of science, but not so long ago the “correct” answer would seem abstruse and irrelevant. “’Who cares that they are both mammals?’” Flynn imagines the test-taker asking in 1900. “That is the least important thing about them from his point of view. What is important is orientation in space and time, what things are useful, and what things are under one’s control.” (p 776)

Pinker goes on to describe how this change Flynn discovered makes a real difference in our lives:

Flynn suggests that over the course of the 20th century, scientific reasoning infiltrated from the schoolhouse and other institutions into everyday thinking. More people worked in offices and the professions, where they manipulated symbols rather than crops, animals, and machines. People had more time for leisure, and they spent it in reading, playing combinatorial games, and keeping up with the world. (p 778)

All this may seem pretty academic. Big deal that Melville got the science wrong – he was writing over 150 years ago! I think, though, that Melville’s failure is telling. Understanding the world through science, particularly since the Enlightenment, has always led to greater control and influence over that world. As we will see, for Melville such control, even such understanding, is illusory. This illusion of reason speaks to the moral struggles that form the heart of the book. It is those moral struggles to which I turn next.

Enough with the metaphysics. Moby-Dick is about much more than life and afterlife. At 845 pages, it would have to be. Many who comment unfavorably on Moby-Dick do so because of the exhaustive (in every sense) descriptions of whales and whaling. On the contrary, I found these parts of the book a joy.

Whaling in the 1840s was a state-of-the-art technology, and a life-and-death struggle at the absolute frontier of our world. Consider how little was known of the world at the time. Consider how mysterious whales themselves remained (more on that in the next blog entry). Consider that ships were still the premier transportation method on the planet, despite the fact that they were still powered, as they always had been, by nothing but wind and muscle.

Take all that into account, and then think about what was involved in hunting the largest creatures on Earth. Sailors suspended high above the decks watched the ocean for spouting whales, finally shouting out “There she blows!” when the tell-tale spout appeared. The ship maneuvered close (remember, these vessels were powered by nothing but wind, yet had to change their heading at a moment’s notice, regardless of the wind’s actual direction), then one or more six-person wooden boats were lowered to the ocean’s surface.

In these boats the harpooneer, the lancer, and the rowers pursued the whale until they were near enough for the harpooneer to hurl the line-toting harpoon into the body of the whale. Then the real fun began. Once struck, the whale might swim away with the tiny boat, dive deep below the surface, or turn and attack. In any case, for the most part the whalemen had to just hold on and hope for the best. As Melville described in chapter 60, “The Line”, the rope attached to the harpoon could not also be attached to the whaleboat. That would risk the loss of the boat if the whale dove too deeply. So a truly determined whale had one certain way of escaping – simply pull all the line out of a whale boat. Of course, the whale would still have a harpoon embedded in its flesh, and several hundred feet of rope attached. The whale might well die, anyway, but such a death did the whalers no good, for what use is a dead whale that has escaped you?

The whalers, therefore, needed a method of convincing the whale that it couldn’t just keep pulling and eventually get away. What was that method? The whalers themselves would pull on the line, in opposition to the whale on the other end. But it wasn’t a tug-of-war; no six humans could pull a whale from the water. Instead, the rowers kept rowing toward the whale, while the line pulled over the rowers’ arms and backs, around which it had been wound before the harpoon was ever thrown. As Melville described the moment when the whale pulled and the men pulled back, and “all these horrible contortions be put into play like ringed lightings“ (p 406) Now that’s some serious fishing!

As the whale tired, the whalemen pulled on the line, drawing the boat up to the whale’s body. Then the lancer, who in Melville’s account is also one of the mates aboard the Pequod (more on these men soon, I promise), moved to the front of the boat and stabbed the whale to death.

With a dead 60 foot (or longer) whale on their hands, the next questions was, what to do with it? The whale was the size of the ship, perhaps even larger. It couldn’t possibly be hauled up onto the deck. The whale would have to be dealt with from the water.

For this step in the process, a remarkable transformation occurred, as the whaling boat morphed from a speedy, maneuverable sea wolf to a smoking, stationary whale rendering factory. The whale’s blubber was stripped off, cut up, and boiled down in huge metal pots into whale oil. Consider what that meant. The whaleboat, a wooden vessel on a wide ocean far from any land, burned a fire hot enough to boil oil on its deck, all in an effort to turn one enormous creature into highly condensed and immensely valuable oil.

Whale oil is the oil obtained from the blubber. Much more valuable was the sperm oil, found only in the oversized heads of sperm whales. To remove the sperm oil required a completely different process, in which the enormous and neckless creature strapped to the side of the ship was literally beheaded, then the oil was retrieved in buckets while the slippery, disintegrating cranium hung alongside the ship.

These oils were the lifeblood of the burgeoning industries of the day, oiling the gears, lubricating the flywheels, driving the industrial revolution forward. They were not just another product of the fishery. They were the materials that drove the industrial revolution.

To a modern reader, knowing the intelligence, the majesty, and the modern-day endangered status of whales, we wince at their treatment at the hands of these men, our progenitors. But if you can somehow put all that aside, if for even a moment, you will see that the technology of whaling, at a time before engines and fossil fuels, before airplanes and submarines, before the first hint of long-distance communication, electrical grids, or worldwide transportation networks, was a triumph of human imagination.

The whales didn’t leave their native environment and come onto land to find us. It was we who adapted to their way of life. We went to the oceans to find them. We learned their secrets, and we transformed ourselves into beings who could conquer the largest creatures this planet has ever produced. Whatever you feel about the morality of whaling, you have to admit that it was an impressive accomplishment.

First let me tell you the story of Jonah. Jonah’s this guy who wants to do his own thing, right? Then along comes a bully named God (how being all-powerful excuses you from bullying behavior is beyond me – it didn’t work for Trelaine or Q.) God says to Jonah, “Go to Ninevah and do my bidding. Er else.”

Jonah doesn’t like either of these options, so he hops on the first boat out of God’s territory. Too bad for Jonah, though, ’cause God don’t play that. God whips up a storm that just about sinks the boat Jonah’s on. Nothin’ like a little collateral damage, right God? Lucky for the ship’s sailors, they figure out before the boat sinks that Jonah’s got enemies in bad places, so they dump him overboard. Just like that, storm’s over. Magic. Pretty powerful guy, this God. More on that later.

Meanwhile, Jonah’s sinking like a stone when all of a sudden he’s swallowed by a “great fish.” Now Jonah’s inside the fish (musta been an air pocket in there somewhere, I guess) and finally he thinks, hmmm, this God guy’s got me by the unmentionables. Guess I better do what the big jerk says.

So Jonah whips up a plan. Flatter the bully, and maybe he’ll let me go. Jonah goes into an obsequiation that would turn any decent creature’s stomach. And it works, because the fish barfs Jonah back up onto the dry land. Unfortunately for Jonah, the dry land where the fish chooses to de-Jonah its belly is none other than Ninevah, right where God wanted Jonah in the first place. And so there you are. The bully wins. Didja learn your lesson, kids?

Maybe not the King James version, but I think there’s a certain something there.

Anyway, a pathetic and sad (but social) character in Melville’s book has a somewhat different take on the Jonah story. Father Mapple is a retired whale hunter who’s now a hunter of men, or something like that. He climbs up on his ship-shaped pulpit and lets Ishmael and the rest of the congregation have what for. In Mapple’s twisted version of the Jonah tale, Jonah is a sinner. His horrible sin? Thinking for himself. Not allowed in Mapple’s world. Jonah is “most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God . . .” (p 63)

It gets worse. After Jonah is swallowed, the fish (which in Mapple’s account must of course be a whale) then “shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison.” Jonah, deep inside the whale, goes into his “God is great” routine. And Father Mapple gets all dewy-eyed over it.

He feels that his dreadful punishment is just . . . And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah . . . (p 68)

Well, yeah! The bully won! He got what He wanted. I’m sure He was pleased as punch with His Cosmicness.

Just one quibble. If God could whip up a storm, if God could prepare a whale (with breathable air inside, no less), if God could stifle a storm at a moment’s notice, if God could monitor Jonah’s every word while covered with both sea and blubber, why couldn’t God have run his own errands back in Ninevah? Just something to ponder.

But the final and most awful blow is still to come. For now, his yarn spun, Father Mapple reveals the great weight and burden that he, like Jonah, feels. “Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me.”(p 69) Mapple now seems near breaking under all the pressure, but Mapple’s own whale returns to the surface and Mapple expresses, of all things, delight.

(D)elight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven . . . And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath – O Father! – chiefly known to me by Thy rod – mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. (p 71)

If Jonah were in my belly, I’d have just barfed him out after listening to that festering twaddle. A victim who is beaten, then expresses love for his tormentor, is in every sense of the word, a pitiful creature. But I feel no pity for Father Mapple. Why?

Because the whole thing is just a ridiculous ruse. The story is metaphor*

*What’s a metaphor? It’s for cows to eat in!

There probably was no Jonah. If there was he certainly wasn’t swallowed by a whale, or any other “great fish.” And he couldn’t have survived the ordeal if he had been. I know it. You know it. Father Mapple probably knew it, too (yeah, I know, Mapple wasn’t real either. Just go with it, ok?) But there’s one thing more that Father Mapple knew (or would have known, if only he had taken a peek). That hand holding the rod, you know the one, Father, that “chiefly known to me by Thy rod” business? Take a good look at that hand, Father Mapple. That hand – it’s yours.

We meet Ishmael, as odd a choice for narrator as ever there’s been. Until the moment the Pequod leaves its Nantucket port, Ishmael is essentially the entire story – his uncomfortably romantic nights with Queequeg the “cannibal” harpooneer, his journeys through the streets of New Bedford, his debate with the owners of the whaling ship regarding his pay, and his secret desire to become the world’s first serial hat-assaulter. Then, once the journey has begun, Melville conveniently forgets his mouthpiece, to the point that there are many scenes described later in the book that Ishmael could not possibly have observed, yet somehow can faithfully record. No matter, as at least he gives us one of the most memorable first lines in all literature.*

*Copied by P. Roth in his epic baseball tale, The Great American Novel, in which Roth’s narrator Word Smith begins by intoning, “Call me Smitty.” It’s no Great American Novel, that Great American Novel, but it’s worth reading. You can look it up.

Before the Pequod, before Ahab, and long before the eponymous whale, while we are still exploring with Ishmael at the edge of the unknown, there comes a scene in which Melville stirs the blood of this atheist reader, almost (almost) convincing him that the book will be that clarion call to reason that will win my soul (irony is thick in these here parts). In Chapter 7 (only 128 to go!), Ishmael enters a whaler’s chapel and, after some solemn reading of long-lost sailor epitaphs, he comes so close to embracing the secular.

(W)hy the life insurance companies pay death-forfeitures upon immortals . . .how is it that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss . . . wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. These things are not without their meanings. (p 55)

So close, Ishmael. So close. But then he frontslides.

Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance . . . methinks my body is but the lees of my better being . . . come a stove boat and a stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot. (p 56)

The New Bedford Seaman’s Chapel, where Ishmael prepared for the journey

There’s no question that Ishmael’s views of Christianity and religion are quite unorthodox for his day. There’s no doubt that he would have shocked many a reader of his own time with his irreverence (at one point (p 55) Ishmael delivers a lovely backhanded compliment, “But faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.”) But as much as I’d like to turn Ishmael into my non-believing guide through the wide ocean to come, the text simply won’t allow it. Melville may be throwing rotten tomatoes, but they’re tomatoes aimed from within the sanctuary.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
July 2019
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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