A review of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

It will do one no good at all to read this sketch of Melville’s Moby Dick unless he has firmly in the mind (as a recent reading would ensure) the story in the novel. For this sketch is prepared as a dialogue (with no further reference than the read­er’s curiosity) to engage the reader, rather than as an exposition to teach him. The drama is a simple one. A whaling boat captain, named Ahab, seized with red passion, pursues the apparition of a great whale with uncommon virtues to the mortal peril of himself and his heterodox crew, save for one Ishmael, our narrator for the most part, who survived the destruction.

“Call me Ishmael,” said he, so modest was he that he would place in our hands the ultimate fate of his proper name. Or rather, as one seemingly disinherited, it mattered little whether we should regard him as a mere vagabond, a wanderer upon the earth. I suggest that we must understand Ishmael above all, which is to understand him, first, as Melville pre­sents him and, second, as Ishmael un­derstands himself.

I will be backward. Ishmael’s own perspective regarding his place in the world is first suggested on page sixteen (it is last suggested and refined by the central chapter, echoed in the closing words). Ishmael, to begin, is poetic and prosaic. The first intimation of his sense is the imagined series of newspaper headlines which contained notice of his pending voyage. It ran, first, an elec­tion of an American president, in italics; then, second, the whaling voyage by one Ishmael, in small Gothic; and third, in bold type, the bloody battle in Afghanistan. Ishmael’s literal and pro­saic appreciation of this image is a con­fession of ignorance of the reasons which induced the Fates to assign to him “a shabby part of a whaling voyage,” while others receive “magnificent parts in high tragedies, short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces.” His part is none of these; nor does he under­stand his part. But, says he, “I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did. . . .” Eros may in the end be one of the Fate sisters. In any event, Ishmael sees at least far enough to regard it as a delusion to think his part resulted from free will.

Ishmael again indicates his peculiar perspective in his response to Queequeg (pp. 52-53), the savage from whom he initially recoiled only, subsequently, to find himself ever drawn within Queequeg’s silent circle. In Queequeg Ishmael finds “a touch of fine philosophy.” Then, pushing the matter (his observations mediated by an acute sensitivity to things physical around him), he “began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indiffer­ence speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me.” Ishmael and Queequeg build a relation­ship out of the distance between them. They share quarters in a village inn and awake in marital embrace. Somehow, their warm relationship is made out of the very things which bespeak a lack of civilization, and yet they become the very model of brothers or fellow citi­zens. Note the “umbilical tie” in the cutting operation (pp. 270-71), which is followed, to the end of the novel, with a conscious detachment reflected in Ishmael’s ac­counts of his other ship’s fellows.

Another way of fitting together the pieces of Ishmael’s perspective is to understand his relationship with or to Ahab. In one sense that is also most important. Unfortu­nately, he nowhere speaks in terms that establish a direct link between them. He renders his impressions of Ahab, not Ahab’s impressions of Ishmael. But, he some­times describes Ahab in a categorical manner, and at least one element of his self-description is categorical. Of course, this could allow for comparison, if they be­long in the same, similar, or logically related categories. To check this I must jump ahead in my reading, but only momentarily. In chapter eighty-two (p.304), Ishmael indicates that “there are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” “The more I dive,” says he, “into this matter of whaling, and push my researches up to the very spring-head of it, so much the more am I impressed with its great honorableness and antiquity; and especially when I find so many great demigods and heroes, prophets of all sorts, who one way or other have shed distinction upon it, I am trans­ported with the reflection that I myself belong, though but subordinately, to so emblazoned a fraternity.” (Could man ever more fitly praise belonging to his fam­ily?) This occurs in a chapter which truly speaks of gods, prophets, and heroes and does not mention Ahab. Nevertheless, that category to which the gods, heroes, and prophets belong is general, and is not whaling per se. It has to do with greatness generally.

Ishmael makes clear that not every sailor, because he sails a whaleboat, can claim membership in that order. Only those sailors who in some way master “the true method” of looking into the subject are thus considered. No Starbucks, or Stubbs, and especially, no mediocre Flasks, are accorded membership. Now, let us go back and look at Ahab. The very first description that would seem to bear on his character (it does not name him) occurs when Ishmael digresses from his description of the character of Captain Bildad. He speaks of blending Bildad’s piety, adventuresomeness, and bold dashes of character (p. 71).

Then, he adds, that these things may be united in a man of “greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the still­ness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters, and beneath constellations never seen here at the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature’s sweet or savage impressions fresh from her own virgin, voluntary, and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language—that man makes one in a whole nation’s census—a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies. Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half willful over­ruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mor­tal greatness is but disease. But, as yet we have not to do with such an one. . . .”

Now, I argue that the implied promise that we are to meet such a man in this narrative is fulfilled in the person of Ahab. And I would add that the category this descrip­tion places him in is precisely that to which Ishmael belongs, “in a subordinate role.” And, I would further argue that Ishmael’s role is subordinated only to the extent that that “morbid edge”—the capacity for the tragic greatness—is missing in his character. (Indeed, sometimes, it seems that there is not even any more reality to Ishmael than to “King John’s” Bastard.) We will, at last, see the importance of this, but first let us consult other of Ishmael’s references to Ahab to sustain the first point.

Firstly, we have Peleg’s assertion (p. 76) that Ahab is a “grand, ungodly, god-like man. . . . Ahab’s above the common; … [he has] been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales.” And then, “stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!” So far, these statements all occur before Ishmael actually meets (one should say, sees) Ahab.

The first direct description of Ahab—indirect in its characterization—speaks of Ahab’s need to conceal his ultimate objective in the guise of immediate practical objectives. The model for this necessity is the political order, as we learn with the “noble lie.” “For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, with­out the aid of some sort of external arts and entrench­ments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is, that forever keeps God’s true princes of the Empire from the world’s hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air can give, to those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass.” A footnote assures us that “God’s true princes” are they who “do not seek outward worldly honors or power.” It is irresistible: this God is de­mocracy, and the equality it necessitates not only licenses the demagogue but, more importantly, be­comes the hiding place for superiority or intellectual virtue. Occasionally, though, intellectual virtue is found rooted in the head of him that possesses political virtue as well. The result is a fearful tyranny, as the reference to Czar Nicholas suggests: When “the ringed crown of geographical empire encircles an imperial brain,” Ishmael says, then it becomes clear that political and intellectual ambition have combined. Ahab’s task in commanding his ship, therefore, is likened to the tyrant’s task in commanding his city. The “sultanism” of Ahab’s brain became “incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship.”

Ahab’s superiority can be seen as a combination of political and intellectual virtue. In so far as he and Ishmael belong in some way to the same order, I surmise that it must be the order of intellectual virtue. This was already apparent in Ishmael’s response to Queequeg. Shortly it will seem still more apparent. It is troubling, however, to note what is implied—that that which is morbid, absent in Ishmael and present in Ahab, might somehow relate to political virtue. This is suggested then, in the following passage (p. 130), Ishmael reminds us that Melville could never have overlooked the hint contained in the above passage, where he sought to “depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direct swing”and the necessity for discussing the trappings (clothing) of greatness when one discusses political virtue. That which is great in Ahab is found in “the unbodied air.” Politics, as in the case of Ahab’s crew, is of the body. To enlist the men in his higher, airy quest, Ahab must provide for their “common, daily appetites” (p. 184). It is for this that he must indulge those “external arts and entrenchments,” in themselves “more or less paltry and base.”

It is not the same to say that politics concerns the body and to say that politics is morbid. What is morbid in Ahab seems to have less to do with the body, per se, than with the curious relationship Ahab develops among body, mind, and soul. It is a certain kind of emphasis on or use of the body (or, desire) that leads to morbidness instead of health. Stubb, in all his vainglorious revelry after killing a whale, is not seen as morbid; Ahab’s very desire to kill the whale is seen as morbid, that peculiar relationship between mind, body, and soul in Ahab (which makes the mind’s happiness entirely dependent upon satisfaction of the desire and renders the soul the slave of the intellect) is given the apt description, “monomania,” by Ishmael.

This singular madness raises a single aspect of or hope in man to an organizing principle for that interior holy trinity, body, soul, and mind. Ishmael first traces this development in Ahab in chapter forty-one (pp. 160-61), here we see that body and soul have been fused. A broader madness—or anger with the material universe, usually understood as the dictatorial sway of bodily passions—has been entirely displaced by a singular madness. And simultaneously (because the body and soul now serve one purpose) Ahab’s great natural intellect surfaces, equally dedicated to that purpose. This, however, is not the common understanding of madness. Ahab knows his madness and willfully submits to it (chap. 44, p. 175). He is so given to it that his soul is depicted as completely commanded by his intellect, thus cutting off the possibility of seeing some of the other irrationalities, as Ishmael knowingly puts it, in this world. The result, in Ahab, is roughly akin to the picture painted by Ishmael of the whiteness of the whale. To that I will return later.

The morbidness of Ahab—that shows up in his singular purposiveness. The absence of morbidness in Ishmael, equally a man of great intellectual virtue—that also colors his relationship to the universe. I suspect that we can understand this relationship best in its political sense. The place to turn for that understanding may well be the dramatic interlude which occurs at about page 40. We cannot fully explain this interlude, for we are and must remain uncertain whether it be Ishmael, or the author, Melville himself, who there speaks. The form is such as to admit of either possibility. Were it Melville, of course, our conclusion about Ishmael’s role would be all the more convincing. We would be in a position roughly analogous to that of the Old Testament prophets, or of that of Moses receiving the tablets directly from the hand of God.

The interlude I mean begins at chapter thirty-six, although the stage is set for it in chapter thirty-five, towards the end of which Ishmael the narrator seems to fade away. Thus, he makes room for the characters, from Ahab to the meanest member of the crew, to speak in their own names in the chapters that follow. Those chapters not only give primary focus to direct quotation, but they are headed by stage directions—signaling the dramatic break. And only the first, chapter thirty-six, has any narration whatever. Singularly, that narration is done in the third person and from a perspective some­where transcending the ship, including a privy view of Ahab’s inward thoughts: “Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.”

One reason that Ishmael fades from view, perhaps, is that in this series of chapters, in which Ahab discloses the challenge of the pursuit of Moby Dick and weds his crew to his quest, we find the only complete presenta­tion of the entire hierarchy of the ship. It is in this moment that Ahab forges his disparate crew into a single entity. They hailed from nineteen or more differ­ing countries and from all regions of the globe. But Ahab made the Pequod their common country. By the force of his rule he gave his madness the shape of sanity, dedi­cating his new found community to the constant pursuit of an inscrutable something. Can Ishamel there preserve his health?

This interlude passes from morning (chap. 36) through sunset (chap. 37), dusk (chap. 38), early eve­ning (chap. 39), and midnight (chap. 40). It took a full day to settle this project. For Ahab, who “would be democrat to all above,” required still to enlist the wills of them that “he lords it over [all] below.” As Ahab put it, he had to be the match which lights their fire: “Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting!” Still it was all in a day’s work, for Ahab, this resort to “external arts and entrenchments,” to establish a “practical supremacy” (p. 129) over his motley crew cum cosmopolis.

But where is Ishmael? Must we ever speak of Ahab? In this cosmopolis, dedicated to a universal principle or quest, a universal something or other, the wanderer appears but thrice. On the three occasions when all speak in unison, there Ishmael appears, hidden in the mass, clothed in equality. Immediately after the drama closes, however, when we return to our narrative, we find that he is as well their objective, distant observer. He admits to joining them in their blinding devotion the chase; he does not admit to being equally blind.

In the chapters that follow Ishmael offers a “scientific” description of Ahab, and of Moby Dick. He proves that, though he can participate in the moral drama, he can also stand back and judge occurrences by the standard of nature—by some notion of that which is right by nature and not simply that which is right by command. The universal God which united this cosmopolis was to him as open to question as the particular gods which once created the polis. Still, there comes a point at which the questions stop (cf., pp. 162-63), at which he abandons himself to time and place. Unlike Ahab, who found the limit of his intellect in its fatal service to his elevated desires, or, his morality, Ishmael’s very moral­ity marks the point at which he “can dive no deeper” into an objective quest. This recognition of (or at least a willingness to abide by) the distinction between moral truth and truth per se, then, marks the distinction be­tween Ishmael and Ahab. Ahab pursued the two as one and identical and, hence, lost both. This is not to confuse the loss with his death. To Ishmael, Ahab is long before lost. The model for his character can, to some extent, be found in one understanding of the chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”

Much is important in that chapter, but at the surface it offers one clear teaching: a notion that there is a special kind of innocence about full whiteness, the full absence of distinguishing color. It is not the innocence of the newborn babe, not that of the virgin. Those are circum­scribed by moral possibility and can only occur where, for some reason, the possibility of choice within a moral context is limited. The innocence of full whiteness re­lates to all possibility. It is an innocence which is so only because it signifies nothingness—or, that nothing else is possible. We might call it nihilistic innocence; or, we might say that the innocence of whiteness is soullessness.

At the end of chapter forty-four (p. 175), Ishmael described Ahab as having yielded “up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose: that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed independent being of its own.” Thereafter Ishmael consistently de­scribed Ahab as having completely emptied or divested himself (some ideas are expressible only in the language of morality!). “When what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a form­less somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself.” This is very like, nay, identical to the picture of the whale’s whiteness at the end of chap­ter forty-two (p. 170).

It seems, then, that Ahab adopts the soullessness, innocence, godlessness, whiteness of the whale. Or, his soul, in league with his mind, has bolted his body. His body is the abode of whiteness, of innocence, as Moby Dick. But, whereas there is the suspicion of intelligence in Moby Dick, there is the certainty of intelligent willful­ness in Ahab. Hence, Ishmael, in perfect contrast to Ahab, would seem the very embodiment of intellectual virtue, that intellectual virtue which is yet mindful of itself in a universe, and particularly in a political universe.

Thus, I take Ishmael’s import to be bound up in that teaching of his which occurs in the central chapter (though I do not know it to have any particular im­portance for that reason):

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole, like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. But how easy and how hopeless to teach these fine things! Of erections, how few are domes like St. Peter’s! of creatures, how few vast as the whale! (chap. 68, p. 261)

He counsels man to be in this world, but not of it. And immediately afterwards he reminds that only a few of surpassing intellectual virtue can attain that goal. Ishmael was indeed in the Pequod, but he escaped far more than its fate. It is after all we, alone, who must take care to preserve his proper name.