The Politics of Moby-Dick

Notes Towards Day 7 of Emerging Genres
Exploring the Political Dimensions of Moby-Dick



Leviathan, from Espace Modial

"By art is created that great Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State--(in Latin, civitas) which is but an artificial man." Opening sentence of Hobbes's Leviathan ("Extracts," Moby-Dick)

I. coursekeeping and extra-classroom relevancies
posting questions re runtogether text (Marina), html code (Megan), logging in before posting (Louisa) and repetitions (Christina)
Thursday's reading on non-foundationalism; next week's schedule:
Moby-Dick Tues, conferences Wed, Genre Theory Thurs, papers Fri

The Bible as Graphic Novel:
“We present things in a very brazen way....Christ is a hard guy, seeking revolution and revolt, a tough guy.”...The medium shapes the message. Manga often focuses on action and epic. Much of the Bible, as a result, ends up on the cutting room floor, and what remains is darker.... “It will convey the shock and freshness of the Bible in a unique way.” The Sermon on the Mount did not make the book, though, because there was not enough action to it. Mr. Akinsiku said the biblical message he wanted to underscore was justice, especially for the poor.

Jessy's hyperlink collage, vs.
Publishing Students' Work on the World Wide Web

what would Melville say?

"There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause....once gone through, we trace the round again" (Ch. 114, p. 373)

"All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side" (Ch. 60, p. 229).

Granting the "horrors of the half-known life" (Ch. 58, p. 225)
and (our discussion last week re: both)
the difficulty of accurately predicting the future and
the inevitable incompleteness of our pursuit of knowledge,
which is the wiser (more profitable?) course to take?

II. Meaning-making (and mistake-making) in public

...is centrally related to the issue I want us to look @ together today: what this book tells us--both in the story it tells and in the way it
shapes the story--about how societies (schools?) are constructed, and (more importantly!) what we might do when we object to the construction in which we find ourselves participating.

We had begun exploring, last week, why the crew follows Ahab....

How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man's ire - by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be - what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life, - all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. (Ch. 41, p. 158)

"I can't withstand thee, old man. Not reasoning; not remonstrance; not entreaty wilt though hearken to; all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is all thou breathest. Aye, and say'st the men have vow'd thy vow; say'st all of us are Ahabs. Great God forbid!--But is there no other way? No lawful way?" (Ch 123, The Musket, p. 387)

...their fear of Ahab was greater than their fear of Fate...the pagan harpooneers remained almost wholly unimpressed; or if impressed, it was only with a certain magnetism shot into their congenial hearts from inflexible Ahab's (Ch. 124, The Needle, p. 389)

They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all...was put together of all contrasting things....even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man's valor, that man's fear, guilt and gultlessness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to. (Ch 134, The Chase--Second Day, p. 415)

I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying him!" (Starbuck, Ch. 135, p. 420)

Why do they obey him?

Does doing so give them a shared sense of purpose?
Enable them to avoid responsibility?

What is Melville's attitude toward the crew?

C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, 1953:

"It is clear...that Melville intends to make the crew the real heroes of his book, but he is afraid of criticism...The men were entitled to revolt and to take possession of the ship themselves....The meanest mariners, renegades and castaways of Melville's day were objectively a new world. But they knew nothing...the symbolic mariners and renegades of Melville's book were isolatoes federated by one keel, but only because they had been assembled by penetrating genius....Ahab's totalitarian rule...and Ishmael was an intellectual Ahab..."

Does comparison with our current political situation help us make sense of their behavior?

Michael Kimaid, "Bush as Ahab: Aboard the Modern Day Pequod,"Counterpunch (May 28/30, 2005)


Call us all Ishmael.

At least those of us who have been unwittingly conscripted on what we thought was a voyage with purpose only to learn out of the sight of land that we were on a monomaniacal expedition of bloodlust revenge....there are Starbucks among the crew. Those who question the motivation, the reason and morality behind the decision to chase the white whale of terror...at all costs....there are as many Stubbs aboard the ship, but their dissent is mute....Reason gives way to the perceived need for order, and they stifle their dissent in deference to command. Mutiny is never a serious prospect, but their consciences trouble them....

Where does this leave us, Ishmael? Though we cringe at the prospect of Ahab's directive, we are on this "cannibal of a craft," bound by the enforced hierarchy that governs it. Or are we? Will our relief come as Ishmael's did, when the white whale destroys our ship and crew while we are left floating on the waves, clinging to a coffin meant for someone else? Or will it come from elsewhere? Will our Ahab listen to the many... warnings that the attempt to destroy the white whale will be his own as well as his entire ship's and crew's undoing? Or will a Starbuck or a Stubbs yet unheard rise up from within the ranks of the morbid chain of command to challenge the undertaking at hand? Melville's outcome is a disastrous one, forewarned... It is a warning well worth considering so that our fate is not a similar one aboard this modern-day Pequod.

III. Why might we stay on a sinking ship? What is Melville's view of humankind (and why we might...)?

Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary. (Ch. 107, p. 356)

What is his view of the relation between consciousness and the unconscious?

D.H. Lawrence's "Herman Melville's Moby-Dick," Studies In Classic American Literature (1923): 153-170, argues that Moby-Dick is our "deepest blood-nature hunted by the maniacal fanaticism of mental consciousness...."

Let's look at the role of the unconscious in Ahab's fixation

Cf. my therapist re: my own unremittingness/will to know-->
"you don't allow yourself an unconscious!"

The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? (158)

...the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter...was not the agent....The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought escape from the scorching continguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral....his one supreme purpose...forced itself...into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could grimly live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfathered birth. Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes...was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being...a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates. (Ch. 44, pp. 169-170)

Cf. Ishmael's more tolerant, adjustable, open-minded (less "over-thinking"?) attitude: ...this absent-minded youth...at last... loses his identity: takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature..the spirit...becomes diffused through time and space...but...slip your hold at all...Heed it well, ye Pantheists! (136)


IV. What guidance does Melville give such creatures,
for constructing a state that is lawful and ordered?

Never jump from a boat, Pip, except--but all the rest was indefinite, as the soundest advice ever is. Now, in general, Stick to the boat, is your true motto in whaling; but cases will sometimes happen when Leap from the boat, is still better. (Ch 93, p. 320)

American fisherman... have provided a system of terse comprehensiveness:
I. A Fast Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
But what plays the mischief with this masterly code is the admirable brevity of it, which necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to expound it.... What are the rights of man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-fish? What all mens' minds and opinions but Loose-fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?
(Ch 89, p. 308, 310)



V. How might the nature of the natural world affect the sort of social order we're attempting to build?

"The universe is indifferent at best, hostile at worst, to the lives of mere humans." H.P. Lovecraft

But those wild eyes met his, as the bloodshot eyes of the prairie wolves meet the eye of their leader, ere he rushes on at their head in the trail of the bison; but, alas! only to fall into the hidden snare of the Indian...."God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!" (141-142)

...the White Whale's infernal aforethought of ferocity. (155)

...invisible spheres were formed in fright. (164)

...whole universe a vast practical joke. (188)

..."de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin" (243--cf. Blake's "Tyger, Tyger" and Frost's "Design")



VI. Melville uses the outer world as an analogy for and expression of the world within:

...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 (Ch. 58, p. 225).

...who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar...in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras. (p. 242)


Frank Stella, The Whale-Watch (1993)


What do such analogies between self-and-nature imply about how society should be shaped? About what attitude we should most wisely take toward the world?

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass....the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp--all others but liars! Nevertheless the sun hides not...all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true--not true, or undeveloped....Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invest thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. (Ch. 96, The Try-works, p. 328)


.... there still seems an inequality in the deeper analysis of the thing. For...while even the highest earthly felicities ever have a certain unsignifying pettiness lurking in them, but, at bottom, all heart-woes, a mystic significance....to trail the genealogies of these high mortal miseries, carries us at last among the sourceless primogenitures of the gods...the gods themselves are not forever glad. The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrows in the signers. (Ch. 106, Ahab's Leg, p. 355)

...the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang. (Ch. 114, The Gilder, p. 372)

This is the world that Darwin gave us.
For more,
come back on Thursday....