Ellis Washington
On Melville's Moby Dick and the obsession of self-will
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By Ellis Washington
April 11, 2015


It is not down in any map; true places never are.

There is a wisdom that is woe, but there is a woe that is madness.


~ Melville

Biography of Melville

Herman Melville (1819–1891) was an American poet, novelist, writer of short stories, and a leading figure of the American Renaissance period. His most celebrated writings include his sea adventure Typee (1846) and his classic whaling novel Moby Dick (1851), nevertheless he was virtually forgotten for the last thirty years of his life and did not achieve national recognition as a great novelist until the 1920s. Melville's writing is connected to his involvement at sea as a sailor in his youth and his sea travels later as an adult, however, on a more profound level Melville's writings delve into the deep psychological aspects of human nature, the social order, literature and philosophy, and seek to address the contradictions of American society near the zenith of the Industrial Revolution with all of its revolutionary and rapid changes. The central aspects of his style is its dense, opaque quality, perhaps due to his reliance of written sources. Melville scholar, Stanley T. Williams, wrote of his modernizing influence citing that Melville's narrative "was a transforming power comparable to Shakespeare's."

In August 1850, Melville formed a short, but influential friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne and inspired by that writer wrote Moby Dick (1851) which though considered a literary classic now, at the time of publication both the critics and the public thought the novel to be unremarkable and was initially a commercial disaster. In seceding years Melville began writing short fiction stories for magazines like Bartleby and The Scrivener. This was followed by Israel Potter (1855), a serialized novel which he published as a book and The Piazza Tales (1856), a collection of short stories. In 1857, Melville wrote his last prose book, The Confidence-Man and later that year travelled to England and the Near East: twenty years later he wrote of his voyages in Egypt and Palestine in the epic poem, Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876). Melville also wrote a poetic narrative on the Civil War, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866).

Melville's Moby Dick

Since my son, Stone Washington recently wrote a very good essay on Moby Dick, I will refrain from covering ideas he so effectively covered in his work.

Melville's Moby Dick opens with Ishmael, the narrator, proclaiming his resolve to embark upon a whaling ship. Although a seasoned sailor, this will be his first voyage as a whaler. While residing in a whalers' inn at New Bedford, Massachusetts, he becomes a roommate with a man named Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Pacific. Although Ishmael is initially disgusted by Queequeg's bizarre lifestyle and outrageous appearance because he is covered with tattoos, ultimately comes to admire the man's kindness, and the two men agree to seek employment on a whaling ship together. They secure work on the Pequod, a ramshackled ship owned by Quaker owners Peleg and Bildad. They also introduce the two men to the ship's enigmatic captain, Ahab, who is recuperating from a vicious encounter on his last expedition with the legendary sperm whale, Moby Dick.

On Christmas Day the Pequod departs Nantucket with a diverse crew consisting of men from various countries and races. Once the vessel reaches calmer waters Captain Ahab makes his first appearance on deck, hobbling carefully on his false leg made from the jaw of a sperm whale. He dramatically proclaims his intent to track down and kill Moby Dick, the great white whale that cost him his leg. Since Ahab thinks that this whale is the incarnation of evil, he is obsessed with getting his revenge and offers a gold coin as a prize for the first man to set sight on the whale. As the Pequod sails toward the southern tip of Africa, Ahab reveals his own personal harpoon crew, smuggled aboard in violation of Bildad and Peleg. Superstitious and self-willed, Ahab is confident that this crew and Fedallah's prophetic talents will aid him in his pursuit of Moby Dick.

As the Pequod travels past South Africa towards the Indian Ocean, on occasion the ship comes across other whaling ships. Aggressive and obsessive, Ahab always demands news about Moby Dick's movements at sea from the captains of every ship they encounter. The Jeroboam, is one such ship that has a crazy prophet named Gabriel, who foretells disaster for all who tries to capture Moby Dick. His prophecies seem to have validity since all the crew aboard his ship who tried to kill Moby Dick have met tragedy.

Later the Pequod encounters the Samuel Enderby, a whaling vessel headed by Captain Boomer who lost an arm in a battle with Moby Dick. The two captains' converse about the whale and Boomer is surprised that despite losing a limb like he has, Ahab's obsession for revenge is even more fanatical than he ever could have imagined. During this time Queequeg gets very sick and asks the ship's carpenter to make him a coffin in expectation of his death. However, he recuperates, and the coffin serves as the ship's spare life buoy.

Possessing what he believes to be his super weapon to kill Moby Dick: a special forged harpoon, Ahab then anoints the weapon with the blood of the Pequod's three harpooners. Although initially it seems that the Pequod has good luck when it kills several whales, this victory is tempered by Fedallah who prophecies Ahab's death by hemp rope, and further that Ahab will first see two hearses, the second of which will be made from American wood. Ahab is unconcerned by these seemingly bad premonitions since there are no hearses and no hangings, therefore he understands these omens to mean that he will not die at sea. When a typhoon strikes the Pequod, causing a terrible fire, Ahab interprets this incidence as a sign of impending conflict and triumph, however Starbuck, the ship's first mate, interprets this as an ominous omen and contemplates killing Ahab to stop his mad expedition from going any further. The bad omen is fulfilled shortly after the storm ends when one of the sailors falls to his death from the ship's masthead.

Ahab's fanatical self-will to kill Moby Dick is his singular obsession and a leitmotiv throughout Melville's novel. Now he is assisted by Pip who seems to have bought into Ahab's mania. Soon the Pequod ship comes across two more whaling vessels, the Rachel and the Delight, each of which had had deadly battles with the whale. Soon Ahab encounters Moby Dick and immediately the harpoon boats are dispatched, and Moby Dick attacks Ahab's harpoon boat, devastating it. On day two Moby Dick is spotted again and the whale is harpooned, but Moby Dick again smashes Ahab's boat. Fedallah, entangled in the harpoon line, is pulled overboard to his death. Starbuck saves Ahab's life by moving the Pequod between Ahab and the furious whale.

In the final climatic scene on day three, the boats hunts after Moby Dick, who once more savagely attacks them as the men recoil in horror at the site of Fedallah's corpse entangled with the whale's body by harpoon ropes. Moby Dick smashes into the Pequod and the ship is lost. Suffering the same fate as Fedallah, Ahab is likewise entangled in a harpoon rope, dragged out of his harpoon boat to his death. The other harpoon boats and residual crew are trapped in a whirlpool caused by the sinking Pequod ship where all are drowned. Fate spared the life of Ishmael for he was flung from a boat at the opening of the chase, and thus was outside of the death spiral caused by the sea's vortex. His macabre deliverance was atop Queequeg's coffin the crew earlier had used as a substitute buoy which floated amongst the wreckage. Eventually Ishmael is rescued by the Rachel, who was searching the seas for their lost crewmen from an earlier battle with Moby Dick.

Melville in modern times

The Scarlet Letter (1850) by writer Nathaniel Hawthorne whom Melville briefly met in 1850, greatly influenced the creation of Moby Dick and bears the dedication to him. Melville had a profound respect for Hawthorne's psychological complexity and gothic grimness and connected Hawthorne with an original, uniquely American literature he sought to integrate into his own works. Incorporating the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Old Testament Bible stories, Melville was an iconoclast in that he didn't rely exclusively on famous cultural prototypes. He also found inspiration in popular culture including whaling narratives, which were widespread throughout the nineteenth century, despite increasingly being a dying industry since by the 1850s whales had almost been hunted into extinction as alternates for whale oil where discovered. Some of the other sources Melville used include J. Ross Browne's chronicle, Etchings of a Whaling Cruise and Thomas Beale's exhaustive Natural History of the Sperm Whale.

Throughout Melville's life and particularly in Moby Dick it is very evident that Melville was obsessed with the theme of an existential struggle of man vs. nature and championed the style of Romanticism in American literature which paradoxically utilized the same form of epistemological uncertainties and the metaphysical problems these uncertainties caused. In other words, Melville's work was art imitating life. Melville's obsession about the limitations of knowledge compelled him to doubt and grapple with ideas like the existence of God, nature, the problem of evil, the meaninglessness, randomness and chaos of the universe as the Age of Science reached its apotheosis in the 1870s. These ideas were popularized in mainstream society as an evolution atheist worldview began to replace the former Judeo-Christian worldview in society after the publication of Charles Darwin's two wildly popular books: On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871).

Until the early 1920s Moby Dick was generally ignored, however, it became a part of the canon when it was rediscovered and indorsed by literary historians involved in creating an American literary tradition. To many critics, Moby Dick was together a groundbreaking work expanding on definitive American themes such as the rise of the industrial age, fate, religion, and a fundamentally experimental anachronism that was a precursor of Modernism in its massive scope and satire of literary forms. Together with such classics as James Joyce's Ulysses, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Albert Camus, The Stranger, Moby Dick stands out as a novel that seems unusual to the degree of being incomprehensible, yet demonstrates this work to be considerably accessible to understanding, application and analysis.

It was the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who beginning in the 1880s came up with the idea, the Will to Power (German: der Wille zur Macht) to identify what Nietzsche thought to be the principle driving force in humans – namely, ambition, achievement, and the striving to reach the highest possible position in life with no regards to justice, the rule of law, moral obligations, or transcendental truths. Herman Melville's narrative of 19th century whaling is not merely an enthralling deep sea adventure saga, it is a cautionary tale, a deep psychological commentary on the grotesqueries of human nature, revenge, obsession, and the triumph of human belief and despite being written 30 years before, applies Nietzsche's Will to Power over extreme hardship, danger and death making Moby Dick a true classic of the American literary genre.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 27 – Fate; Vol. 2, Chap. 29 – God; Vol. 3, Chap. 74 – Punishment; Vol. 3, Chap. 102 – World; Vol. 48 – Melville.


Book Notice

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Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington

 

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)

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