Stephen Carver looks at Moby Dick – Part Two

“From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned whale”

The Whale (renamed Moby-Dick at the last minute) was birthed after an 18-month labour including a substantial rewrite that saw Melville sailing so close to the wind that he was still editing proofs when the novel went to print in the autumn of 1851. Although the original plan had been another ‘straightforward’ sea story about a belligerent captain and his doomed ship, Moby-Dick’s composition is seeped in Melville’s reading at the time, a heady mix of Shakespeare and Coleridge, Carlyle, Rousseau, the Bible, Owen Chase’s memoir of the Essex, and Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), as well as his lengthy dialogues with Hawthorne. What came out of Melville in those 18 months was probably the most remarkable book of not just the 19th but any century. His design blends the forms of the Homeric epic and the Shakespearean tragedy with modernist and postmodernist masterpieces yet to be written – like Joyce’s Ulysses and Pynchon’s Gravitys Rainbow – with American history, maritime lore, the philosophies of religion, phenomenology, epistemology, and ontology. It is, as D.H. Lawrence wrote of it in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), ‘one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world’.

At the heart of the novel, the sea story is still there, as demonstrated by Ray Bradbury’s script for John Huston’s film adaptation of 1956 starring Gregory Peck as the tortured and monomaniacal Captain Ahab. Bradbury and Huston retain some of the novel’s symbolism through action and dialogue, but the focus is on Melville’s through-line, his main plotline: Ahab versus whale; whale wins. (This was not dissimilar to Melville’s first complete draft, which was finished in under a year and then substantially rewritten, taking a much more epic turn in the truly Classical sense.) This is a cracking yarn in its own right, but in the original novel Melville loads this tale of obsessive revenge with multiple layers of metaphysical meaning. Like Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836), which he was reading at the time, Moby-Dick was to be a romantic vision of the cult of the individual, with Miltonic/Satanic undertones, simultaneously fact and fiction, serious and satiric, and both speculative and historical. At the same time, Melville was also moving beyond the European and American Romantic traditions towards what the academic Harold Beaver has called ‘a drama of an individual human soul’; with his fictional double Ismael pared back to his essence during an intense period of crisis, beyond the concerns of nationality, race, religion, social class, and profession, crossing, he wrote to Hawthorne, ‘the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag – that is to say, the Ego.’ The novel is dedicated to Hawthorne, ‘In token of my admiration for his genius.’

And, like Ismael – the narrator but arguably not the protagonist (he’s rather Nick Carraway to Ahab’s Gatsby) – the structure of the novel also goes on a long and complex journey. Alongside rich and evocative narrative prose, the text comprises sermons, prophecies, dreams, songs – notably the sea shanty ‘Farewell and adieu to you, Fair Spanish ladies’, the Ahab-like shark hunter Quint’s theme in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws – poetry, multiple epigraphs (‘Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian’), catalogues, travelogues, quotations, mythology, and wildly contradictory symbolism. There are also long digressive reflections, for example, Ismael’s meditation ‘On the whiteness of the whale’ (Chapter 42) which explores the absence of colour in natural objects, both beautiful and terrible. There are also chapters presented like scenes from a play, with stage directions and dialogue, and Shakespearean soliloquies and asides. Some of Ahab’s dialogue, in fact, can be rearranged as blank verse:

By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world,

Like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.

And all the time, lo! that smiling sky,

And this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore!

Who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish?

Where do murderers go, man!

Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?

Then there’s the elaborate cetology, an encyclopaedic commentary on the leviathans of the deep as well as the history and practice of whaling. (There’s even a chapter – ‘The Cassock’ – that deals solely with whale penises that is so dense that the English censors missed it!) Ishmael also repeatedly refers to the act of writing the book itself: ‘But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.’ Every chapter is a cypher, and Ismael is the cryptographer who doesn’t know the code. Such a level of literary experimentation makes for a reading experience that is as exhilarating as the core story itself.

‘Ismael’, not that we know if this is his real name or a clever pseudonym, and who may or may not be another semi-autobiographical portrait of the author, is an experienced sailor (though not a whaler), who periodically goes to sea to fend off bouts of melancholia:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Ismael’s attitude to suicide seems to anticipate Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942), which famously begins: ‘Il n’y a qu’un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux: c’est le suicide.’ (‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.’) For Camus, the ‘philosophy of the absurd’ lies in the juxtaposition between the fundamental human need to attribute meaning to life and the ‘unreasonable silence’ of the universe in reply. He finally arrives at the position that this existential realisation does not require suicide but ‘révolte’. For Ishmael, the ‘cure’ for depression, emptiness and pointless inner searching is the sea, upon which a man can truly come to know himself. For his textual counterpart, Ahab, it is the revolt against all that there is: ‘Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.’

The Ismael of Genesis, the first son of Abraham, has come to symbolise orphans, exiles, and social outcasts, a connection Melville makes explicit in the novel’s epilogue. Whereas his biblical namesake is banished to ‘the wilderness of Beer-sheba’, Melville’s Ishmael wanders in ‘the wilderness of water’. In Genesis, Ismael’s mother, the handmaiden Hagar, was visited by the Angel of the Lord who told her to name her unborn son Yishma’el, which means ‘God shall hear’. Ismael was later saved from dying in the desert by a miracle, just as Melville’s Ismael survives shipwreck ‘by a margin so narrow as to seem miraculous’.

In the Bible, the desert or wilderness is a common setting for a vision. But whether God hears, or Ismael is granted revelation is ultimately unclear. In a modernist, Joycean sense, there’s probably an argument to be made that the entire narrative is one continuous epiphany, but what all this may ultimately mean has been keeping academics busy since the Melville revival of the 1920s. Ismael, meanwhile, seems to be looking for insights rather than some grand unifying narrative, and, unlike the intransigent Ahab, prefers to keep an open mind. While Ahab’s worldview is fixed and rigid, Ishmael’s is much more expedient, changing as knowledge and experience is gathered and reflected upon, leading to fresh perspectives and realisations, ‘for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard’. This also makes Ismael appealingly free of many of the prejudices of the day, most notably racism and the myth of American exceptionalism. On his first awkward meeting with the quintessential ‘noble savage’ Queequeg in the Spouter Inn, who will become his best friend onboard the Pequod (named, incidentally after the first Native American tribe to be exterminated by white settlers), Ismael cheerily reflects: ‘Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.’

Although his mind is as closed as Ismael’s is open, Ahab is much more symbolically complex. There is this Old Testament King Ahab in him, of course, who ‘did evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him’, also Milton’s Satan, the ultimate rebel, Prometheus, who stole fire from the heavens as Captain Ahab grasps St. Elmo’s Fire, Oedipus, Narcissus, and King Lear, deluded, stubborn, arrogant and probably insane, relating only to mad Pip, the cabin boy driven out of his wits after being briefly lost at sea, just as Lear’s only confidant is the Fool. To complicate allegorical matters further, Ahab also resembles Moby Dick, the white whale: both are frequently described with regal and divine imagery; both are battle scarred, solitary, vengeful and quick to violent anger. And both are ultimately unknowable, like God, beyond the realm of ordinary human experience. Ahab is a tragic hero in the Classical, Renaissance, and Romantic sense: his hamartia – his ‘fatal flaw – is his arrogance; his anagnorisis (‘recognition’) comes when he realises the true meaning of Fedallah the Parsee’s prophecy; and his peripeteia (‘fall’), represents the nail-biting climax of the novel, the final fatal three-day hunt for the white whale. Like Macbeth, he has fallen for one part of Fedallah’s prophecy, that only hemp can kill him, and ignored the rest, imagining himself invincible. Unable to understand that his version of the white whale is really a reflection of his own dark soul – a’ vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates’ – the ‘grand, ungodly, god-like man’ drags his entire crew along with him on his quest for vengeance:

‘I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.’

‘Aye, aye!’ shouted the harpooneers and seamen, running closer to the excited old man: ‘A sharp eye for the white whale; a sharp lance for Moby Dick!’

Even Ismael confesses to being drawn in by Ahab’s astonishing rhetoric and pagan rituals (his harpoons are tempered in blood), and in Ahab we see a disturbing portrait of the persuasive power of fanatical leaders. Ahab is an ancestor of Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, a novel that shares many of the existential themes of Moby-Dick. Ahab, like Kurtz, is a Nietzschean overman; he has gazed into the abyss, and the abyss has gazed also into him.

Only the first mate, the pragmatic Quaker Starbuck resists Ahab’s spell:

‘I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market … “Vengeance on a dumb brute that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous…’

For Starbuck, Ahab’s blasphemy is twofold; it is against God, and business, the Protestant work ethic that drives the economy of New Bedford and, by extension, America itself. But, as ever, the voice of reason stands no chance against the mesmeric powers of the uncompromising ideological enthusiast. (He considers assassination but cannot do it.) Moby- Dick is also a very political novel, and one as relevant in that regard today as it was 170 years ago. In Ahab, Melville takes the American Transcendentalist doctrine of self-reliance, that ‘cult of individuality’ that seems to have recently infected the entire world with as much virulence as the current pandemic, to its extreme but logical conclusion. While his contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, celebrated the ‘vital possibilities of the self’, Melville saw only spiritual and physical death as the inevitable result of ‘individualism’ pushed to the point of narcissism and solipsism. For Melville, it is a mask charismatic leaders wear behind which is only egoism, chaos and destruction. Ahab is thus destroyed by himself. Like Ismael, Moby Dick is really only along for the ride. Unfortunately, like all such leaders, Ahab takes a lot of people with him.

And what does the whale represent? Well, you pays your money, and you takes your choice. Like the gold doubloon Ahab nails to the mast, signalling the end of the Pequod’s commercial objective and the beginning of the voyage into the outer reaches of his soul, interpretation is always conditional and fluid. The coin’s face depicts three mountain summits, one bearing a flame, one a tower, and one a cock crowing. Ahab sees in these potent symbols his resolve, his energy and certain victory; Starbuck sees the Trinity and a warning from God; the ebullient second mate, Stubb, sees astrological signs, and the third mate, Flask, sees nothing at all. Pip, meanwhile, won’t even look at it. As E.M. Forster said of this enigmatic novel: ‘Moby-Dick is full of meanings; its meaning is a different problem.’ It’s best to just forget all the academic clutter and just read the novel – it’s one of those books you must read at least once in your life, you can’t just watch the movie – and decide for yourself. There are so many conflicting metaphors and symbols surrounding the white whale in the text that your guess is as good as mine. For me, he represents the magnificent indifference of Nature, unperturbed by the illusion of human meaning. This is why the natural world lets Ismael live to tell the tale: ‘The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks’; Ismael is not a threat. The reviewers, however, were not as easy on him as the sharks and seahawks…

Melville desperately needed another hit. He had borrowed heavily to buy a 160-acre farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts he called ‘Arrowhead’, and he was now a father of two with another child on the way. Moby-Dick, he hoped, would restore his fortunes. Unfortunately, in the Darwinian world of commercial publishing, it is all too easy to be too clever for one’s own good. Although fellow artists and intellectuals like Hawthorne immediately saw the novel’s value – ‘What a book Melville has written!’ he wrote to their mutual friend Evert Duyckinck, ‘It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones’ – most critics were quick to dismiss the work, as they had done Mardi, while general readers were put off by its sheer size and complexity. The novel saw print first in Britain, and there were some favourable reviews, although not in the major literary journals. John Bull, for instance, praised Moby-Dick as ‘far beyond the level of an ordinary work of fiction’, while the Morning Post found it ‘one of the cleverest, wittiest, and most amusing of modern books’, predicting that it would ‘do great things for the literary reputation of its author’. The Conservative but hugely influential Athenaeum, however, dismissed the novel as:

…an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.

This line was similarly taken up by the Literary Gazette and the Spectator, with the Gazette also decrying Melville’s egalitarianism: ‘Mr. Melville cannot do without savages, so he makes half of his dramatis personae wild Indians, Malays, and other untamed humanities.’ (Nowadays, some academics read the multicultural crew of waifs, strays, and misfits as a metaphor for the American Republic. For others, they represent the world.) This was not helped by the editorial hatchet job perpetrated on the English manuscript by Bentley’s copyeditors. Anything perceived as blasphemous, obscene, or critical of the British Empire was cut, and syntax deemed ‘ungrammatical’ was rigidly corrected with the most conservative editorial eye, taking the life clean out of it. And while inexplicably moving the novel’s extended epigrams to the back of the book, they had accidently excised the epigraph in which Ismael tells of his escape from the Pequod, creating a massive point-of-view paradox. This gave reviewers an easy technical fault on which to focus rather than having to understand the novel. ‘Nothing should be introduced into a novel which it is physically impossible for the writer to have known,’ complained the Spectator – along with many others – ‘thus, he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they all perish.’ Even though the subsequent US edition (published a month after the British in November) was as Melville intended it, American reviewers were highly influenced by their then more sophisticated counterparts in London, and therefore aped the Athenaeum in particular, often quoting large chunks of it in their own review. Praise there was, too, but not enough and not in the right places. Moby-Dick was a critical and commercial disaster. In all, Melville earned a little over $1,200 from Moby-Dick, made up of a £150 advance – about $700 – from Bentley (which the publisher did not recover in sales), and $556 from Harper’s in New York, $100 less than his usual fee. Only 2,300 copies of the book were sold in its first year, on both sides of the Atlantic, after which sales averaged under 30 a year until Moby-Dick went out of print entirely in 1887, four years before the death of its author.

Melville’s literary status went into a steep decline. His next novel, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), a psychological gothic based on his childhood with no reference to the sea, was another critical and commercial failure, and was hardly read at all in the 19th century. (Bentley turned it down after Melville refused to revise it and there was thus no British edition.) Such was the density of the novel’s style that the New York Weekly Day Book went with the headline ‘HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY’. The manuscript of his next project, Isle of the Cross, was lost and remains elusive to this day, and Harpers did not want his next novel, Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855), the narrative of a Revolutionary War veteran, fearful of the ire of the reviewers after the failure of Moby-Dick and Pierre. After a long struggle to find a publisher at all, Israel Potter was finally serialised in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. Melville wrote five short stories for Putnam’s, including ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’, ‘Benito Cereno’, and ‘The Encantadas’. These were published in the collection The Piazza Tales in 1856, with as sixth linking story – ‘The Piazza’ – added to draw the disparate tales together. Reviews were short and perfunctory, sales not great. Melville’s final novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade was published by Dix, Edwards & Co (New York) in 1857. The novel is a harsh satire of American society set on a Mississippi riverboat, suggesting that scams and cons are the driving force behind the country’s culture and economy. There is also charity in the novel, but presented as proof of lunacy, with the only ray of hope wryly being that there are still innocents in all this; they’re the ones being cheated. In narrative form, The Confidence-Man returns to the complexity and innovation of Mardi and Moby-Dick and thus went down faster than the Pequod.

From this point on, Melville wrote only poetry, which he was forced to publish himself. Unable to make a living as either a writer or a public speaker, he finally took a job as a New York customs inspector, a post he held for 19 years. When the English poet Robert Buchanan visited New York in the 1880s in search of Melville, no one in the literary scene knew where he lived. It was only after he retired that Melville returned to prose with the novel Billy Budd, but he died of a heart attack before he could finish it in 1891.

As Marcus Valerius Martial wrote, ‘If fame is to come only after death, I am in no hurry for it.’ The ‘Melville Revival’ began in the US on the centenary of his birth in 1919. The Colombia professor Carl Van Doren’s book The American Novel (1921) included Melville in the American literary pantheon and inspired his contemporary Raymond Weaver to write the first Melville biography, during which he found and published Billy Budd. The Yale scholar Stanley Thomas Williams – the US equivalent of F.R. Leavis, who established ‘American Literature’ as a distinct academic discipline – supervised a dozen Ph.Ds on Melville in the 1930s, all of which were published, and by 1945 there was a Melville Society and Moby-Dick was well and truly canonised as a ‘Great American Novel’. Melville’s face adorned a 20-cent stamp and the intersection of Park Avenue South and 26th Street in New York was renamed ‘Herman Melville Square’. There’s even an extinct giant sperm whale named after him: Livyatan melvillei.

In Britain, the modernists were early champions of Melville, and Moby-Dick in particular, with D.H. Lawrence dubbing it ‘the greatest book of the sea ever written’. Melville’s use of language and ideas, wrote Lawrence, convey something ‘almost superhuman or inhuman’; Moby-Dick, he concluded, is ‘bigger than life’.

Lawrence was right. Moby-Dick is, above all else, the Great American Sea Story, and every subsequent one of note written pays its dues. The hopeless quest is there in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and in Peter Benchley’s original Jaws, the driven and irascible sharker Quint suffers a very Ahab-like death. The story of Ahab and Ismael is also a mainstay of science fiction, space opera being an extension of maritime drama. It’s there in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Pete Milligan’s Bad Company, and Rick Veitch’s remarkable Abraxas And The Earthman. In the Star Trek universe, Captain Kirk becomes Ahab in the original series episode ‘Obsession’, and Moby Dick in the movie Star Trek II as the embittered Melville-quoting ‘Khan’ compulsively pursues him across space. (Patrick Stewart, Captain Picard himself, also played Ahab in an underrated Australian TV miniseries that was much more loyal to the original novel than the Gregory Peck version.) Tom and Jerry took it on, as did The Flintstones, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The X-Files, and Futurama… the list goes on and on. Owen Chase’s memoir of the Essex disaster has also been filmed in Hollywood as In the Heart of the Sea, and by the BBC as The Whale, with both movies leaning heavily on the Moby-Dick connection to sell them.

Moby-Dick is now utterly ingrained in both American literary and popular culture. As a work of art, it is monolithic and universal; one of the great literary explorations of the human condition. Melville’s vision is completely vindicated. Unfortunately, like Poe, Nietzsche, Van Gogh and a legion of other revered artists who died in poverty and obscurity, Herman Melville did not live to see any of this, only the novel’s apparent failure. This, ultimately, is the true tragedy of Moby-Dick.

Stephen Carver

Image: ‘Sperm Whale Upsetting a Whaleboat’ by Percy Elton Cowen [1883-1923] Credit: Antony Souter/ Alamy Stock Photo