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.

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