"Why Moby Dick?"

Moby Dick remains one of my favorite (if not favorite) books for reasons that I know will continue to expand over the years. Moby Dick is a collective of so many things; it contains an overwhelming multitude of offerings for humanity that requires a type of patience that I am personally not accustomed to exercising. I’ve read Moby Dick three times now, but I know that reading it many more times and at many different stages in my life will continuously yield new meaning.  Although I cannot speak with confidence for any sort of collective – here is what I do know, from my own experience with the text. This is my shallow attempt to describe its early offerings to a very young, very sheltered soul.

  • Spiritual quest. My favorite observation about Melville came from his close friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne: “…He will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wondering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.” This idea that he could not fully believe, but could also not be comfortable in his unbelief, is the agony of the earnest, doubting seeker. Surely, there is more hope for the doubting than the indifferent – and Melville would never be deemed an “indifferent” man.  His own spiritual torment followed him throughout his life, and this notion of the quest is also a constant presence in Moby Dick.  We see an obsessive, tormented need for “The Real” in Ahab, and a much different approach for the same understanding in Ishmael. It is clear that hunting this great white whale is a vehicle for something else as well. Melville’s own bleak skepticism is matched in the “darkness” of this text, and pairs well with the questing element that is at the heart of the story. Moby Dickis packed with symbolism, notions of salvation, the looming inevitability of death and the mortality of man (accepted by some, rejected by others), and a variety of approaches to religious and spiritual faculties.
  • The hero’s journey. Melville creates such complex characters that it would be a disservice to outline a heroic journey in too simplistic of terms – but the evidence of the traditional outline as developed by Joseph Campbell is still present and visible. Captain Ahab and Ishmael are both men who find themselves called to adventure and ultimately are lost at sea on their own unique heroic adventures that take place within the backdrop of a tragic epic (although the text is also many other things at once). Captain Ahab takes on the distinct role of the literary tragic hero while Ishmael’s role as narrator marks him as a modern hero and messenger, hoping to assign meaning to the ambiguity of life. This distinction in motives especially separates the nature of the quests that Ahab and Ishmael and are called to undertake.  As the book progresses, it is increasingly arguable that Ahab’s journey is one of death while Ishmael’s is one of life and experience.  Ishmael accepts that he is embarking into the unknown realm of the sea and it is through his inability to fully define the great whale that both the reader and Ishmael are able to fully comprehend the magnitude of his adventure.  Similarly, Ahab has become a part of something bigger than himself, and yet one of his most distinct departures from the nature of Ishmael’s heroic quest is that Ahab is not conscious of himself as part of something bigger. Instead, his obsession blinds him from understanding his limitations in the way that Ishmael does and ultimately drives him to respond to the call of adventure with one unconditional personal goal.  At the conclusion of the text, it becomes clear that Ishmael’s next role will be to share the story – thus fulfilling Campbell’s final stage of the heroic journey, the point at which the hero returns to society with a great “boon” to share. Ahab’s fate is sealed in his own death, in contrast to Ishmael’s goal of giving the whale meaning and life, a goal that results in the assigning of meaning to his own life.
  • Moby Dick does not possess a gilded, perfected plot. In fact, the trajectory of the story is characteristically unstable, filled with rambling tangents and lacking in general consistency. Just when you think you are following the storyline with a bit of rhythm, Melville interjects with an entire chapter on the mere color of the whale or a recipe for a chowder or specific descriptions on how a whale ship operates. This unstable approach in the text may leave the reader confused, frustrated, and unsure about what to expect next. This book requires patience in more ways than one: we know that picking up the text is a time commitment in itself – it’s an enormous work – but beyond that, it should be clear that this will not be an easy journey with clear direction. I think this is alluring in many ways. It’s a commitment that not only demands patience, but also requires a certain “letting go” – it simply cannot be read with one’s guard up, or so much will go unnoticed.
  • The narration takes unprecedented risks. The infamous opening, “Call me Ishmael,” for one, is familiar, but even by saying “call” Melville is deliberately suggesting a level of mystery, a refusal to identify the assumed protagonist entirely. All we know is that we may “call” this person Ishmael – Melville doesn’t necessary say that this is even his name. We also know, though, that this doesn’t need to matter. We are already taken away in a sense, and we’ll soon discover that the narration was never meant to be a trusted, single source of information: this adventure is going to be out of our hands. The Biblical reference of the name “Ishmael” must also be accounted for.  In the Bible, Ishmael is scorned from his family and forced to wander the dessert. Ishmael, in the opening paragraph, paints himself as a parallel character to this figure; he is destined to wander the sea. We assume, naturally, that Ishmael will be our guide on the great journey through the text. This is far from the truth.  We only have the luxury of a seemingly “secure” narrator for a few chapters. Once the Pequod is at sea, we are propelled into an unstable, ever-varying world that is largely characterized by Ahab’s own madness. The captain of the Pequod is insane, and we, as readers, are subject to the same “unknowing” that the crew of the ship experiences.
  • The sea & the unknown.  Moby Dick paints the emotional concept of the sea with such dark and mysterious accuracy, that the reader cannot help but feel a meditative connection to these descriptions. Ishmael offers a relatable personal account of the lure of the sea in the opening chapter. Ishmael explains, “ whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; […]  – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” He goes so far as to say that going to sea is his “substitute for pistol and ball.” Whether or not one has an affinity for the sea, this text explores the mysteries of the sea in a way that is able to draw anyone in.
  • Portrait of a cultural “melting pot.” Moby Dick was written at a very racially and politically charged time in history. Tensions of a looming civil war are felt in the text more than discussed, making Moby Dick perfectly relevant in any present or looming time of potential schism or socio-political chaos. Melville himself, I learned recently, was the son-in-law of the judge who upheld the fugitive slave law, and it is safe to assume Melville’s direct focal point into the ongoing shifts in America made its way into the text
  • Breathtaking prose.  Undeniably, some of the most stunning and startlingly perfect imagery that one can find and consume. When Melville wrote Moby Dick, he was encountering Shakespeare late in life – many argue that this influence plays a large part in not only the language of the novel (if we can call it such), but the characters as well (Melville develops notably complex characters that remind the reader of King Lear and other Shakespearean figures). I’ll let the writing speak for itself: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.Consider all this; and then turn to the green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”
  • Each time you read this book, it is new.  It’s impossible to read Moby Dick once and really “get it.” Anyone who thinks they only need to read it once has missed out on so much already. It reminds me of how one should approach traveling to Europe: Europe is not going anywhere, and it is best to enjoy it gradually, rather than attempting to see everything in one trip. Approach this monster text similarly, and it will prove to be more enjoyable and more meaningful. There is always a new way of approaching Moby Dick, and it is simply overwhelmed with wisdom, linguistic genius, and philosophical underpinnings that take on drastically new meaning when applied to one’s own personal developments.  This is a text meant to be picked up again and again, perhaps daily even, because it lends itself well to quick, inspirational moments and wisdom.  This is precisely why it has been referred to as the “American [Literary] Bible.” Melville, it seems, wanted to write a tome containing all the wisdom of the world.
  • Something else. It’s not easy to articulate my own sense that there is constantly something beyond my understanding at work in this text. I can’t describe it because I don’t know enough yet to grapple with it symbolically, philosophically, or linguistically. I just know, almost intuitively, that there was something at work perhaps within Melville when he created this. There is a mystery in the textual function of the sea, the allure of the whale, the minds of Ishmael and Ahab… There is something in the way that each limb of this enormous body is unified in meaning and yet, while in the midst of the journey, the reader has never felt more lost. Stepping back, things begin to come into focus; it is much easier to see traces of Melville’s intention and motivation from a distance. And yet, it still seems that Melville himself was lost – and while this could, for many, tarnish the work as a traditional, comprehensive piece of art, we might consider instead how this aspect makes the work porous in meaning, ever-changing when applied to different contexts and lenses – a living opus that is all the more fascinating in its flaws.