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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