Earlier this summer, I finished Melville’s epic concerned with a bunch of men in tight-sailor outfits, women-less and bunk-mates for 3 years at the sea, desperately searching the 139.5 million square miles of ocean for one maniacal leviathan (a leviathan with the name of “Dick the sperm whale,” who spouts "white foam"), at the beck and call of one captain who, compensating for the lose of a leg (or is he compensating for something else?), wants nothing more than to “plunge” his “harpoon” into back of this creature. I’m really not sure WHERE people find the homoerotic subtexts. Crazy homophobes, in my opinion.
I was pretty surprised by a few aspects of the novel: the complete lack of characterization; the 40% of the novel used to painstakingly explain the physicality, physiognomy, and psychology of the whale; and the rather quick ending. Despite all of this --- and despite my longing to forever mock the novel I had finally actually read --- I ended up really appreciating, and liking, it.
One of the things I was looking for throughout my read was the significance of the white whale. Despite Melville protestations that “so ignorant are most landsmen … they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory," the book would be at the very best a “good fish tale” if there were not multiple layers of meaning to this text --- and there definitely are. What seemed to continually suit the questions I posed was the idea that Moby Dick was a literary representation of God.
By “God,” I mean the Enlightenment’s Deist God: the God Melville would be very familiar with. This is a non-personal, unspeaking creator: a God who is not necessarily involved in people’s day-to-day life, but who seems to be responsible for the way the world works, physical science, birth and death, deformities, etc.
At sea, many men lost their lives; others, like Ahab, lost limbs to the elements and whales themselves. There seems to be no reason or rhythm to who was killed, maimed, or left with widowed. Looking on with the Deist viewpoint, you could only point to or ask the inscrutable God as a possible answer. But none are sure whether or not this God, like Moby Dick, is intelligent, at least in a human sense. So often, Melville focuses on the maniacal-ness of the whale, his real attempts to destroy and maim, even if they are sporadic, nonsensical, and unrelated to people’s moral lives, i.e. people who were “bad” weren’t the only ones getting their legs eaten. Despite Melville’s continued attempts to define Moby as intending to wreck havoc, he is forced again and again to reflect on the very real possibility that this whale is not consciously evil or destructive: he is simply the most powerful whale in the ocean.
The questioning Deist (or the non-Deist) finds little answers to the evil found in the world: the physically deformed, the mentally ill, the widowed wife. Life, death, pain, suffering, and joy are distributed without explanation, preference, or reasonable cause. Is it that God is evil and maniacal, or is it that He doesn’t make sense to us humans? Is He inflicting pain on us in order to be malevolent, or is there no logical answer to His doings? According the Ahab and Melville, either answer demands the same response: the desire to rid the world of this Being in Ahab’s case; or, in Melville’s case, the literary exploiting of His maniacal/unreasoning-ness. The novel’s end says a lot about the possibility of either action, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone.
Melville’s life and religious affiliation fit neatly within this reading. First, he was an alcoholic, enjoyed a poor and dysfunctional marriage, had one son commit suicide and another die in his lifetime, found a literary world turned away from him by the time he wrote his epic, and was incredibly close with penury throughout his entire life. If he was religiously affiliated at all, he attended some Unitarian services, but almost solely on account of his wife; he spoke disparagingly of such encounters. (Original Unitarianism was closely liked with Deism.)
Perhaps Moby was the conscious or unconscious manifestation of the sort of God Melville was most closely acquainted with --- the God Melville would have wanted to rebel against, if he believed in it, for the sake of his miserable life, marriage, monetary position, and offspring.
At another point, I want to connect Moby Dick with JPII’s Theology of the Body. That will be chapter 2…