Symbolism

Nigh to everything in Moby-Dick is elaborated as symbolic–not simply as what it is but as a reflection or manifestation or, well, symbol of some deeper human (or inhuman) phenomenon. In Chapter 35, “The Mast-Head,” Ishmael looks back in history for the earliest mast-head standers and finds the Egyptians, having built the pyramids for “astronomers to mount to the apex, and sing out for new stars; even as the look-outs of a moderns hip sing out for a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight.” (154) Later, Ishmael says of the statues of Napoleon and Washington that “it may be surmised, that heir spirits penetrate through the thick haze of the future, and descry what shoals and what socks must be shunned” (155).

The mast-head, then, is a high place from which one looks out to see something important or portentous which cannot be seen from below–and this is an image which seems to glimmer with some vital yet not fully apprehensible import, an image of, for lack of a better word, the spiritual dimension of human life.

This is the proper understanding of what Dreyfus and Kelly discuss as the experience of the gods (cf All Things Shining, Ch. 3), what we must be “alive to” if we are to adequately grasp and respond to the world in its full meaningfulness. That Odysseus should escape death by a half dozen archers at close range does seem like an event which has further meaning, and perhaps in this instance D&K are right that the proper response is gratitude, however one understands the agency (or sheer chance) responsible. But the most important images and experiences are those which imply a direction, and Moby-Dick is full of such images. It is hard to avoid watery metaphors here (the book is an ocean of such images, is swimming in them) and I think this in itself is illuminating, since the vastness of the ocean is the book’s ultimate image of both the limit and the object of that toward which we are directed–something that ever exceeds but demands our consciousness.

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Nobility and tragedy

Pequod fitted out with whale teeth, jaw: “A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.” (69)

Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease. (73-74)

…moody stricken Ahab stood before them [the officers] with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal over-bearing dignity of some mighty woe. (122-3)

Nature and God

Moby-Dick Ch. 22-31; Iliad Books 5-6

In Chapter 24, Ishmael humorously but earnestly defends the nobility of whaling. Comparing and contrasting whalemen to soldiers, he says, “For what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God!” (Ch. 24, p. 107), e.g. the natural dangers of whales and the sea.

Nature, this indicates, is what is not man, what is not man-made, what is (therefore, by definition) God-made. This is why for traditional Christians nature is a manifestation of God’s glory.  In Moby-Dick, nature is still what is not man, and it’s therefore symbolic of all that is not man, but it’s no longer certain what it is that manifests itself in nature, what it is that nature represents or symbolizes.

Among other things, the ship (generally, and the Pequod specifically) is the human spirit–at least that part of the human spirit which insists on confronting nature. Nature in Moby-Dick is no longer the ordered universe of a benevolent God; it is characterized less by God’s presence than by the absence of both man and God, of both human purposes and the purposes of a caretaking or even interested God.

The land is social reality, comfortable but confining. It is also the haven of the human spirit, but of the animal part, so to speak, that which needs warmth, connection to other human beings. Bulkington, then, is humanity fully sublimated, the animal and social all but gone, and thus he is a demigod (Ch. 23).

Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God–so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!….Take heart, take heart, oh Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing–straight up, leaps thy apotheosis! (105-106)

Humanity is a ship that has its purpose and proper being only at sea, dangerous as the sea may be. The tragic truth may be that the sea is ultimately hostile to human being–that it lures one to where life is impossible, because one can no longer stand the ingloriousness of the shore; that all that which is not humankind is not, finally, benevolent to humankind, but hostile or at least indifferent.

Ishmael’s irony

Today: Moby-Dick Ch. 17-21; Iliad Books 3-4

I notice in Moby-Dick criticism a tendency to talk about Ishmael as if he were a real person, and this gives me a strange feeling because he seems so clearly to me a /fiction/–even if he is his (the narrator’s) own fiction. We don’t even know his name, only what we are to call him.

Continuous with this is a tendency to take what Ishmael says seriously–as in Arnold Weinstein’s lectures for the Teaching Company (“Classics of American Literature”), in which he talks about Ishmael’s ‘transformation’ by Queequeg, quoting the lines from Ch. 10, “No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it.” On the one hand, this seems at the least an overstatement–we had gotten little sense of Ishmael having had a “splintered heart” (despite his opening comments about his “hypos” and knocking people’s hats off) nor, it seems to me, does he seem dramatically different afterward; on the other hand, if he /had/ really been in a state, his playful report of his exploits up til that point must be taken as somewhat masking of reality.

In Chapter 17, Ishmael begins with a proclamation of his catholicism:

…I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshiping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of the earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.
I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects.

If this is not irony…

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