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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