Archive for the 'Literary Allusions, other moments of literature' Category

Mar 06 2010

Antitranscendentalism in Moby Dick: The Malevolant God of the Deep

In my last post, I discussed the implications of Captain Ahab as a fallen priest, leading his flock along the path to perdition.  Yet there is another perspective on this topic that bears acknowledgement: Moby Dick is not a false idol, but actually God. His destruction represents not God’s wrath against those who have fallen from his grace and sinned, but against those his defy his power.

In this reading, a thread that I have consistently followed through my reading drastically changes: Ahab is no longer necessarily an antagonist; Moby Dick—God—is the only truly malicious character.  Moby Dick in this reading is the uncaring, even cruel God.  He is the God that Poe wrote of, and that of Flannery O’Connor.  Ahab is the only character that attempts to rail against the almighty power.

So how does this reading work?  Moby Dick is, whether or not you call it God, a manifestation of an all powerful force, and one that is malicious, or simply does not care for humanity and antagonizes them in its pursuit of some other goal.  With this being the case, Ahab is a lone man trying to defy the destiny that it seems he has been dealt; he attempts to destroy the power that took his leg and has scarred not only his body but also his soul.  He is the one of the crew who has suffered most in this world, and therefore seeks revenge on the almighty.  Does this mean he is sane?  No. Trying to kill a God is usually reserved for the mad.  Yet he is not simply crazy, he is a man attempting a glorious and justified fight against an insurmountable force.

This reading also drastically changes the view of Starbuck that I have maintained.  Throughout this novel, I have seen the first mate as a conflicted heroic figure.  In this reading, he is in fact the opposite: a cowed, subservient man who is frightened of battling against an indestructible force, no matter how malevolent it is.  He simply is trying to live his life as he always has, in constant fear and constant supplication.  He truly is the epitomic God-fearing man.

This reading also makes Ishmael a much more fascinating character.  His conflict becomes more interesting as he is not simply deciding whether the pursuit of his captain’s revenge is justified, but if the entire pursuit is right.  Is it right to fight God, even if it does seem wicked.  Is it right to fight an evil force if one is destined to fail?  Is it worth the good fight, if the good fight is doomed?  Ishmael’s dilemma is, in the anti-transcendentalist reading, far greater.  It becomes a question of faith and righteousness; of fear and of supplication.

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Mar 05 2010

Bartleby and Other Literature

Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener” reflects and anticipates important themes from contemporary and following works of literature.  It is Bartleby’s absurd refusal to do anything in the office that resonates across other stories.

I am reminded first of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, whose unnamed narrator refuses to submit to the logical positivist philosophy of nineteenth century Europe.  He has no use for logic and insists on rebelling against it, even to the point of hurting himself.  He wishes to use his life as an example of the faults of logic and reason; he wants to show that a highly enlightened and intellectual man can turn against all considerations of reasonable human existence.  He argues instead for irrationality, and an open understanding of humanity’s inherently masochistic nature.  I think the underground man’s perspective of the futility of science and reason reflects Melville/Ishmael’s musings in Moby Dick. Both narrators hope to show us the limitations of these things.  The underground man uses a metaphor of being up against a brick wall when confronting nature, and he insists he will at the very least spit on that wall. Moby Dick might be called a great deal of spit.  I think it is unlikely that Bartleby is nearly as spiteful as the underground man, but we cannot be too sure.  We hardly glimpse his personality.  Certainly there are parallels.

Another author I’m reminded of is Franz Kafka, who came decades after Melville.  Particularly I am reminded of “The Hunger Artist,” which is about a man in a circus who deliberately starves himself.  This is his act, and the crowds eventually stop finding him entertaining.

I think all of these stories reflect a predicament of modern society, whose work environments are now very similar to Bartleby’s.  I think all three of these authors are shocked and fascinated at how dehumanized people can become by the nature of their work.

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Mar 05 2010

Moby Dick and the Myth of America

I found an interesting article about Moby Dick and American myth.  The author, Harry Slochower, addresses the question of whether there is such a thing as an American myth, and he discusses where Moby Dick fits in.  Ahab, in his view, a mythic hero not unlike Dante’s pilgrim or Goethe’s Faust, but with distinctly American characteristics.

Slochower explains first the American myth of opportunity, which is embodied in the “rags-to-riches” tales or in the stories of great heroic outdoorsmen finding gold, etc. Slochower identifies the distinct qualities of the American myth.  The outdoor hero is a rugged, self-reliant individualist, but his country came to be through a common effort: “Many races, religions, and customs found themselves on one boat which led them away from the restrictive and divisive hierarchies of the Old World” (261).

This myth of opportunity decayed over time.  It developed from idealism to skepticism.  He writes:

By the time of Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, and Robinson Jeffers, it has lost most of its legitimacy.  The success story of Dreiser’s “Titan” becomes suspect and the efforts of the little man to hit it rich provide the foundation for an “American tragedy.”  The shortcut to the happy ending receives even more acid treatment in Faulkner and Jeffers.  Among our contemporary writers, the myth of expectancy appears frozen (O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh), cornered (Tennesse Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire), pitiful (Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), and self-destructive (Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife).   (261)

Shlochower argues that Moby Dick is the American myth, that it is the ideal American myth, combining individualism and collective action:

Herman Melville stands at the watershed moment of this historic cycle, between individualism and coordination, between freedom and equality.  America in the mid-century still harbored vast, unexplored possibilities of adventure and fortune.  But Melville is among those who are beginning to question the ethic of expansionism and coordination.  (262)

This dynamic of individualism and collective action is exercised throughout the novel.  It is important to remember that Ahab’s quest, carried out collectively by the Pequod’s crew, is a personal quest.  And, as Slochower alludes to in the above quote, these personal quests can often be destructive and wrongfully conceived.

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Mar 05 2010

Ahab and Karamazov

I was struck by the similarity in thought that emerges between “Ahab’s Leg” of Moby Dick and a chapter entitled “Rebellion” in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

“Rebellion” is essentially concerned with how the unjust nature of life comes into conflict with the belief in a God that is good. How can one justify the goodness of God, no, how would God himself, justify the suffering of the innocent? What is just about about a world in which the murderer of a child may escape punishment and live his life with a clear consciousness? If God’s divine plan involves ruthless unpunished killings and the suffering of countless people then can we really say that god is good and just?

“Ahab’s Leg” discusses the grief and pain Ahab feels due to the loss of his leg. Although he is often reckless and careless with his leg, he “at times give careful heed to the condition of that dead bone upon which he partly stood” (354).

The pleasures of life are not shared equally among men. Some may live their entire lives and face one moment of terror after another. Even a good deed may be met with evil. Melville writes:

“…Some natural enjoyments have no children born to them for the world, but, on the contrary, shall be followed by joy- childlessness of all hell’s despair; whereas, some guilty mortal miseries shall still fertilely beget to themselves an eternally progressive progeny of griefs beyond the grave; not at all to to hint of this, there still seems an inequality in the deeper analysis of the thing.” (355)

Ahab, who has been driven insane by his obsession for revenge seems to attribute his bloodlust not to himself but to the divine plan by God of some othe force, which he has no choice but to abide by. In “The Symphony”, Ahab, as he laments to Starbuck of his his inability to change course and avoid annihilation, states:

“…What cozening hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me…? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven…how then  can this one small heart bear; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that  living and not I?” (407)

There is something unjust and cruel for Ahab about his life- a life which he does not  believe he has chosen to live but  has already been determined for him. It just does not seem fair that he must live a life of sorrow according to the plan of being greater than himself, for a reason which he himself does not know.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Brothers Karamazov. New York: W W Norton, 1976. Print.

Melville, Herman, Hershel Parker, and Harrison Hayford. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

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Mar 05 2010

Thucydides and Ishmael

Thucydides’ History of The Peloponnesian War describes the war between Sparta and Athens. While it is often interpreted as a neo-realist political work, i.e., a work which characterizes politics in terms of power relations on an international scale, I’d like to consider the work in a constructivist light. The great city of Athens had lost the war.  Thucydides, according to the constructivist interpretation, had written a work in which the loss of Athens was not only the result of poor planning and bad tactics but also of the manipulation and the eventual of the loss of the meaning of words such as “justice”, and “right”.  Thucydides seemed to believe that these words meant something concrete to the Athenians and that the meanings of these words  had, at one point, corresponded to their actions. But through the manipulation of Athenian leaders, words such as “justice” no longer corresponded with what was just, and “right” in actuality wrong; eventually Athens suffered because there was no stable meaning and thus no corresponding action. This is really oversimplified but basically, with the loss of meaning arises an instability.

I think Ishmael is struggling  with a somewhat similar instability in “The Whiteness of the Whale”. Whiteness has not necessarily lost its meaning, but its understandings are so varied  that it seems to Ishmael as though its meaning can only be found in indefiniteness and instability. It seems to me that what Ishmael really fears about whiteness is its ability to allude definition and categorization. He states, “Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voices and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behinds with the though of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?” (165). Ishmael’s whole project in the book has been to obsessively categorize and define and when he finally confronted with something whose very nature resides in indefiniteness and indefinability he becomes afraid.

Thucydides the Constructivist
Richard Ned Lebow
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 547-560
Published by: American Political Science Association
Stable URL:

Melville, Herman, Hershel Parker, and Harrison Hayford. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

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Mar 05 2010

Toilers of the Sea

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, “the Great American Novel,” has been compared to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables , which may be “the great French novel, “ for its similar number of meditative digressions.  (Porter vii).  His digressions also function similarly to those in Moby-Dick, alluding to what “narratologists” call “events” (acts of God) rather than to “acts” (purposeful human actions) (28).

However, I think it would be more interesting to compare Moby-Dick to Hugo’s not much later novel Toilers of the Sea, a once obscure novel to an even more obscure novel.

Just as The Pequod crosses pathes with the French ship The Rosebud (Bouton-de-Rose), these two great novels cross paths.

Toilers of the Sea has been viewed as a regional novel (77) but that is like saying Moby-Dick is a book about cetology!  It takes place on the island of Guernsey where the people live off of and toil with the sea.  Though perhaps the more correct word is ‘battle’: they are constantly exposed to the elements, the storms and the unbridled sea.  The crew of the Pequod, as well as many sailors of the 19th century, Melville included, would not have been unfamiliar with the island.  The first mate of The Rosebud, who humorously translates Stubb’s words to his captain, also happens to be a Guernsey-man.

Both books have prophetic beginnings: Moby-Dick opens with Ishmael saying “Call me Ishmael.”  Toilers of the Sea opens up with a mysterious girl Deruchette writing “Gilliat,” the main character’s name, in the snow.

Deruchette’s father, Lethierry, has established the first steamboat service in the region, the La Durande.  His captain, Sieur Clubin (Ahab), who has long prided himself on his honesty, awaits an opportunity to defraud his boss and run off with the money.  After a fortune is stolen from Lethierry, he tracks down the money only to trick his alcoholic helmsman (Flask) into crashing the ship on a treacherous reef.

Hiding in the rocks he plans to swim to shore, where he will arrange a secret voyage overseas.  But, like Ahab, he is struck down by fate.  A monstrous octopus seizes and drowns him, leaving his rotting carcass to attract the crabs, which it feeds upon.

Lethierry promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who can salvage the ship’s engine.  Only Gilliat takes up the challenge, though secretly.

He struggles for weeks on the isolated reef where he constructs his own tools, battles fierce storms, and defeats the murderous octopus.  Finding the engine, the fortune and Sieur Clubin’s body, he returns to Lethierry who, ecstatic and devoutly thankful, wants Gilliat to be the captain of his new ship and have his Deruchette’s hand in marriage.

Tragically, in Gilliat’s absence, Deruchette has fallen in love with a new handsome minister who Gilliat saved earlier from drowning.  He fell asleep, contemplating the sea in “the Devil’s chair,” a stony armchair naturally carved out of the cliffs that is subsumed underwater during high tide.

Finding this out, Gilliat offers to selflessly arrange their marriage secretly, and they accept his generosity, unaware of his suffering.  As the couple sails away towards France, Gilliat sits in the stone armchair, watching them sail away until he drowns.

As you can tell there are many themes in common, including environment, nature, fate, labor, industrialization,  science and superstition, religion, race, politics, isolation, depression, and melancholy, or what psychoanalysts would call a “melancholic” attitude: turning anger at the other against the self (79).

Also, Moby-Dick is a metaphor for America in the nineteenth century, while Graham Robb has called this novel “a metaphor for the nineteenth century—technical progress, creative genius and hard work overcoming the immanent evil of the material world” (78).

And isn’t a giant octopus just as awesome as a whale? Kraken vs. Leviathan. I would like to see Moby-Dick and the octopus duke it out any day.

Porter, Laurence M.. Victor Hugo. Michigan State University. Twayne Publishers: New York, 1999.

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Mar 03 2010

I Believe I Can Fly: Different outlooks on life in Moby Dick

I first became interested in the varying philosophies in Moby Dick when I read about the carpenter. Ishmael describes the man like a pocket knife, saying that “if his superiors wanted to use [him] like a screwdriver, all they had to do was open that part of him” (451-2). At the end of the chapter, Ishmael tells us, “this it was, this same unaccountable, cunning life-principle in him…that kept him a great part of the time soliloquoizing” (452). The carpenter believes that everything is part of a machine, even people, and even parts of people. In fact, Melville begins the chapter by mentioning that when you think of humanity as a whole, each individual is the same as all the others. We are all part of the machine that is mankind. However, the carpenter, Ishmael assures us, is “no duplicate,” and that is why we should care about what he thinks (450). This got me interested in the individual philosophies of each of the characters in the novel. Melville wrote about them for a reason. They are not duplicates, and we should care what they think.

One of the most significant philosophies, I believe, is that of Queequeg. Queequeg is a foreigner. He is not white, and we know already that his religion differs from that of Ishmael and the other white sailors. Queequeg’s beliefs become really intriguing in chapter 110, “Queequeg in his coffin,” when he wills himself back to health. Queequeg explains to the sailors that “If a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him” (463). Immortality? It’s possible.

Now, because Queequeg did not fail in his attempt to deny death, Melville is saying not that it is possible in the real world, but that it is not a wrong belief. If Queequeg had failed, there might be a lesson in it, like: foreign beliefs are wrong, tribal cultures are wrong, Jesus is the way. But Queequeg succeeded, so what Melville might be advocating is that different religions are right for different people. If you believe it, it is true for you. Queequeg believed he had control over his own life and death, so he did. What I love about this chapter is that it reminds me of the novel Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. It is about two people who, through will-power and good habits, defy death, and live for thousands of years.

One of my favorite characters in Moby Dick is Stubb. In chapter 39, “First Night-Watch,” Stubb assures us that “a laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer” (163). I agree. What a line to live by! To have a sense of humor is the smartest way to go about life – enjoying every bit of it, having no regrets, and finding the good in what you might not like or understand. Stubb’s carefree disposition reminds me once again of Jitterbug Perfume, which teaches us that a light heart will get us everywhere. It makes me think either Melville is ahead of his time, or Robbins got inspiration from an unlikely place: a happy sailor in a dense tragedy.

Starbuck is the opposite of Stubb. He looks for the bad everywhere. In “Dusk,” Starbuck exclaims, “O life! ’tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee!” Starbuck is the serious sailor who doubts Ahab and finds omens. Bad omens. A fantastic contrast between Starbuck and Stubb occurs in chapter 114, when Ishmael, Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb ponder the beautiful sea. Starbuck asks of the sea, “Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways,” once again emphasizing the bad parts of a good thing, whereas Stubb declares “that he has always been jolly” (473).

One could then read the novel to the end, and interpret all this to mean that no matter your beliefs, you will die. Even Queequeg, who can fight and win against deadly illness, can and does die in battle with a whale. You can think, if you want, that we are all going to die, but Queequeg, Stubb and I believe we are all going to live, and I leave you with this: “we’re in no more danger…than all the crews in ten thousand ships now sailing the seas” (490).

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Signet Classic, 1998

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Mar 03 2010

Starbuck and Brutus

“God keep me! — God keep us all!”

-Starbuck, The Quarter-Deck

Throughout the novel, Starbuck is forced into the rather uncomfortable situation of being the First Mate to a madman.  The mate is stuck with a captain who he honestly believes is leading his crew into great danger, and almost certainly into death.  It is one of the oldest dilemmas there is: duty versus morality.  Do you follow orders when you believe that they are not only misguided but, in all likelihood, insane?

I determined after reading The Quarter-Deck to look into the similarities between Starbuck’s situation and that of another of Shakespeare’s characters: Brutus, of Julius Caesar.  Both are central members of their respective governmental bodies, and both struggle with the fear that their leader is going down a dangerous path.

It seems to me that Starbuck and Brutus share the quality of nobility.  Brutus is the “noblest Roman of them all” according to Marc Antony, and it is clear to me that Starbuck is the noblest mate on the ship, as his two associates are full of vice and lack his leadership.  Flask and Stubb are defined by their vices: drinking and smoking.  Starbuck sincerely questions his leader’s choices in the name of his crew’s safety.  He contemplates killing his leader, just as Brutus does, in order to bring his crew back home safely.  Unfortunately for the crew, himself included, he chose not to follow his gut instinct.  And though he attempts to persuade Ahab that his vengeance can lead them only to despair, he fails in his goal.  And his son will never greet him on the hill at Nantucket’s port.

Brutus and Starbuck are, in their essence, the same character; they are men trapped in an impossible situation, stuck between duty to follow orders and good sense and honesty.  Their only major difference is that Brutus goes forth with the assassination of his close friend and leader, while Starbuck lets Ahab drive onward.

The words of Marc Antony describe these men best:

“This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He, only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.”

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Mar 02 2010

Ahab’s bravery?

Melville puts Ahab in an interesting situation.  He portrays the story with elements of an epic poem and casts Ahab as the hero.  Homer and Ahab may both be plagued by hubris, but in the Odyssey for instance, Homer mainly wants to get home.  Ahab, on the other hand, is completely obsessed with a dangerous errand – the destruction of his arch-rival Moby Dick.  Melville foreshadows many times the dangers inherent in such a goal and with each day of the chase, the reader discovers more and more the futility of Ahab’s actions.  The white whale toys with the Pequod’s crew while Ahab rallies support, effectively condemns his shipmates, and attacks with incredible fervor and “bravery.”

But is Ahab actually brave?  Bravery definitely involves an element of foolhardiness, which Ahab has, but it should also involve agency.  No one is denying Ahab’s intelligence and command but his obsession leads me to believe his actions are out of his control, at least on a subconscious level.  Ahab admits he’s “fates lieutenant” and uses the word “brave” to inspire his shipmates in the following passage.  He probably felt brave himself as well at the time, but I wonder if his emotion may have been misguided:

“I  am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.  Look thou, underling!  That thou obeyest mine. – Stand round me, men… So with Moby Dick – two days he’s floated – to-morrow will be the third.  Aye, men, he’ll rise once more, – but only to spout his last!  D’ye feel brave men, brave?” (497)

He has nothing to lose by fighting Moby Dick even with the presence of all these bad omens and ominous signs.  Anything less than his actions, which were essentially suicide, would have appeared downright cowardly!  Melville could be conveying a message about illusory bravery.  Possibly that our typical heroes may be less brave than they seem.  Ishmael, the only crew member who survives, is not exactly the most brave or macho of the group.  I doubt this particular interpretation however because it’s not Ahab’s fault – he never received the chance to be truly brave because he never really had something to lose.  In reality, this is just a sad story.  An obsessed man with too much power went too far and realized A LOT of collateral damage.  Shame.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008

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Mar 01 2010

Fedallah’s Death and the Iliad

As I pointed out in class today, there are many striking similarities between  the ending of Moby Dick and the battle sequence in the Iliad. The first connection is the presence of prophecies. While they are a normal cultural and religious aspect of Antiquity, the idea of something as supernatural as a prophecy in Moby Dick surprised me. Going along with the more general similarities, the fact that an entire crew is chasing a violent, demonic monster. This theme is the basis for many ancient Greek literature, especially in the Odyssey.

Now for the more specific connections: The brotherhood but also the differences between Ahab and Fedallah. In the Iliad, Achilles and Hector are both great war heroes, and they even sympathize with each other, but their personalities are completely opposite. Achilles is intensely driven, violent, and angry, like Ahab. In fact, the source of Achilles’s anger is the loss of his friend, and for the duration of the book he is seeking revenge. Ahab is mourning his physical loss and promises he will get revenge on the culprit.

The prophecy that Hector will die before Achilles affects him heavily. The ironic part of this is that Achilles ends up being the one to kill Hector; ensuring his own death. In a very violent and drawn out battle scene, Achilles kills Hector and weeps for his death. Part of Greek tradition is the towing away of the loser by carriage. Hector, a noble prince with his wife and children watching, is promptly tied to the back of the carriage and is dragged around the fighting ring. His body becomes completely battered, bruised, and almost dismembered. In Moby Dick, Fedallah’s fate is identical. Not only is Ahab the cause of it, but he is dragged away via rope and his body goes through a very violent, post-mortem mangling.

There are so many similarities that is impossible to find the end of Moby Dick surprising. Achilles, the most powerful warrior in all of Greece, dies the boring and anticlimactic death of being shot in the heel. Ahab is caught by a rope. The use of foreshadowing by mimicking the most famous scene of the Iliad was a brilliant move on Melville’s part.

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