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Blog - Moby Dick - Pelagic Horror and Nihilism

January 7, 2024

Moby Dick is an 1851 novel by Herman Melville.  Brown professor Arnold Weinstein, in the Teaching Company's Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature called it "the 800 page gorilla of American Literature."

Narrated by Ishmael, it's the story of the Nantucket whaling ship The Pequod, captained by the one legged Ahab who is obsessed with finding and destroying the white whale who crippled him.  ("Moby Dick" is the name of the whale, who in whaling circles is an almost mythological figure.)  I had read it about 18 years ago but decided to revisit it at the end of last year (2023).  


"What sort of a bamboozingly story is this?" - Style


This book is...strange.  I don't mean the plot which is actually really simple; It's strange in style and structure.  From its rather famous opening line, "Call me Ishmael," the reader is primed for a first person limited story and until Ishmael actually gets to sea onboard the Pequod, that's what it is.  Once the ship is underway, though, Ishmael the character starts to recede into the background.  


I first started noticing that something unusual was going on with the narration when Ishmael started describing events that he wasn't present for with no hint that it was related to him later, including private conversations.between the senior crewman which he couldn't have known about.   It wasn't distracting, it was just something I noticed as I was going along.  At first I thought maybe it was a slight sloppiness on Melville's part, but ultimately one that didn't really matter.


Then I hit chapter 36, which starts with the stage direction:  (Enter Ahab: Then, all).  And it continues this way for next few chapters, starting with things like (The cabin; by the stern window; Ahab sitting alone).  The first person narrator is gone; it isn't Ishmael talking.  It's Ahab giving a rather Shakespearean soliloquy, with labelled asides to the audience and all.  


(I should probably say "Elizabethan" rather than "Shakespearean."  The elevated, bombastic language feels closer to Christopher Marlowe than Shakespeare.  Ahab is not a subtle man.  If I was going to go full English Lit tinfoil, I'd make some connection between this and the occasional comparisons of Ahab to Tamerlane, the 14th Century conqueror.  Tamerlane's name is anglicized from "Timur Lang" which means Timur the Lame, so an interesting parallel to the one legged Ahab.  And Tamerlane is the title character of a popular play by... Christopher Marlowe.)  


[Note from future me: While doing the final edit on this, I found out that Melville was big into Shakespeare.  So maybe I should have said "Shakespearean" after all]


The narration does switch back to first person for the majority of the rest of the novel.  These theatrical asides almost seems like a experiment with medium or genre.  Like it's a theatrical tragedy masquerading as a novel, and occasionally the curtain slips and the reader can see the stage.


There's also occasionally some second person mixed in there which gives it an informal Ishmael-is-addressing-you-personally-around-the-fire feeling.


It's odd.


The book has both what I'll call "narrative chapters" and "philosophical chapters."  The former has the stuff that, you know, happens in the book and the latter are Ishmael expounding on ideas rather than events.


Ishmael is a very learned, thoughtful narrator and the philosophical chapters have lots of allusion filled digressions dealing with science, humanity, the nature of reality etc.   And whales.  Lots and lots about whales. I can understand that the presence of these types of chapters could be a sticking point for some readers.  There's a lot of them and while some are absolutely thematically relevant and I found most of the rest at least intellectually interesting, they do sometimes grind the momentum of the narrative to an absolute halt.  Which is kind of a shame because I found a lot of the narrative parts, particularly the whale hunting scenes, to be really compelling and often thrilling.  


I have a rather high reading tolerance for a narration just kind of dicking around, but your mileage may vary.  I wouldn't fault anyone for reading an abridgment. 


The book overall was not a slog, though it is on the denser side and requires some concentration.  Maybe someday I'll make a list of what chapters could probably be skipped.  


"A rare old craft" - Structure


Moby Dick is also structured unusually, in that the climax hits incredibly late and there's basically no falling action or wrap-up.  The final, and only, confrontation with the White Whale starts about 95% of the way through a 700 page book.  And Moby Dick just *wrecks* everyone rather easily.


Afterwards, there's a two page epilogue and then "The End.'  


And the above is not a criticism.  I think with the themes and ideas this book is wrestling with the finale is really appropriate and effective. On some level, to quote myself from my Last Voyage of the Demeter post, "You were a fool for thinking this was going to go any other way."


There's also really no character arcs for anyone. 


Ahab, in his surprisingly limited screen time, is strongly characterized but he is also pretty one note, by design.  His monomaniacal obsession doesn't allow for any growth.  I suppose the mates Starbuck and Stubb are decently well defined, but they are also kind of functional.  They aren't very deeply characterized and Ishmael (or the stage director, as it were) doesn't reveal much of their inner worlds.  


I think some of this character stuff is a feature not a bug.  Ishmael as a narrator is very.... arms length.  Most conversations, especially the ones that he actually participates in, are relayed in summary rather than dialog.  This puts a lot of distance between Ishmael and the other characters, almost as if he either isn't able or isn't willing to actually connect and engage with them.  Maybe he doesn't see his human interactions as particularly noteworthy or significant?


Even his exchanges with Queequeg at the beginning, which take up a good chunk of the landward story, aren't relayed in any detail.  He says they talked a lot and became brothers but you don't actually see it happen and Queequeg, like Ishmael, is shockingly not all that important to the action of the story once they are underway.


Ishmael as a character really doesn't do anything at sea and isn't a participant in any of the events in a narrative sense once he's on the Pequod.  You get a lot of what he thinks about science and metaphysics, but not much directly about what he thinks about the story that is unfolding. You even find out in the epilogue that he, by chance, was in Ahab's boat for the final confrontation, but you couldn't possibly have known that from the narration at the time.  So he doesn't even write himself into the parts of the story he was present for. He's more witness than participant.


I guess it is poetic that the sea he describes, with all its power, has in effect taken away his agency and left him the mercy of its waves and its whales. 


"We, too, who look on the loom are deafened" - Cosmic (Pelagic?) Horror


This powerlessness in the face of the universe at large, and the sea in specific, is a major theme in the novel.  Ishmael describes how the world:


... while pauselessly active in uncounted modes, still eternally holds its peace, and ignores you, though you dig foundations for cathedrals. (Chapter 107)


There's a kind of a proto-cosmic horror going on here.  The biggest idea of cosmic horror, a genre pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft in the early 20th Century, is to me best summed up by the opening lines of his story The Call of Cthulhu:


The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.  We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.  The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.


The sea in Moby Dick taps into this unique form of anxiety.  It's vast beyond reason, and utterly uninterested in us.  In chapter 93 Pip, temporarily left adrift on the open ocean, looks down into the heart of the sea and, like a Lovecraft character, is driven mad by the sight:  


The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. (Chapter 93)


The sea here, though, is not a gibbering mass of tentacled horror as in a Lovecraft story. It has a beauty to it, but it still dwarfs our feeble minds.   


The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened (Chapter 102)


Like in other cosmic horror, it's not just the power of the thing, it's the incomprehensibility, the helplessness before it, and how it reveals the folly of our assumed understanding of the natural order: 


..however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it. (Chapter 58)


For Ishmael, the avatar of the sea and its terrors is the sperm whale itself.  The whale is a force of nature, an alien and unknowable thing, a distant god:  


But in the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature. For you see no one point precisely; not one distinct feature is revealed; no nose, eyes, ears, or mouth; no face; he has none, proper; nothing but that one broad firmament of a forehead, pleated with riddles; dumbly lowering with the doom of boats, and ships, and men. (Chapter 79)


The whales in the novel are generally shown as placid, ignoring the hunters until the first harpoon strikes.  They don't care about people or even particularly notice them.  Even Moby Dick himself is described in majestic and tranquil terms before the final confrontation:


A gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale... not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam....Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou may’st have bejuggled and destroyed before. (Chapter 133)


This doesn't last long and the hunters "fatally [find] that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes."  Moby Dick, after diving without appearing to have seen them, suddenly attacks from underwater with a ferocity that is framed as malice.  The indifference of Nature has become hostility, and the humans don't stand a chance.  The book ends with the whaleboats all destroyed, the Pequod sunk, and Ishmael the only survivor.   There was no other way this was going to end, "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago." (Chapter 135)


Is the book making a statement about humans' relationship with Nature? That we can play at progress, at science, at control, but we should probably just hope that Nature doesn't notice us?


Or maybe I'm overthinking this and Melville was not making a joke when he said:


So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. (Chapter 45)


'The intolerableness of all earthly effort' - Nihilism


Something that surprised me was the book's ambivalence to whale hunting.  Ishmael describes the vocation as a brave and honorable undertaking, but also uses words like 'murder.'  This is what he says about the death of an old sperm whale: 


But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. (Chapter 81)


It's a very ignominious end for a creature he has described as a Deity.  A god butchered to make candles.  Given Ishmael's veneration for whales and descriptions like the above, it's strange that he continued whale hunting after his experience on the Pequod.  (The story is his first time aboard a whaling vessel, but it's told from the perspective of an older man remembering it and it's clear that he has hunted many whales since.)


This, I think, ties into a kind of nihilism in Ishmael.  The whole book is shot through with a sense of futility.  "Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort." (Chapter 13)


Maybe because he thinks that man's actions are ultimately insignificant, then ultimately what difference does it make whether he murders whales?  He explicitly says that no matter what we do, the whale and the sea will continue on.


I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over.  (Chapter 104)


Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies. (Chapter 105)


Ishmael doesn't have a very elevated view on humanity and I think this also comes from his nihilism. To him, a human is just another animal on the planet, albeit one who pretends it is not.  We're not significant or superior.  He's weirdly egalitarian on this.


Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? (Chapter 65)


Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon [the killer whale], on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included. (Chapter 32)


But this occasional timidity is characteristic of almost all herding creatures. Though banding together in tens of thousands, the lion-maned buffaloes of the West have fled before a solitary horseman. Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded together in the sheepfold of a theatre’s pit, they will, at the slightest alarm of fire, rush helter-skelter for the outlets, crowding, trampling, jamming, and remorselessly dashing each other to death. Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men. (Chapter 87)


Ishmael's egalitarianism is intra-humanity as well.  He'll refer to people as savages and cannibals, sure, but there's not the moral judgement tied to those terms that is present in, say, Heart of Darkness.


Long exile from Christendom and civilization inevitably restores a man to that condition in which God placed him, i.e. what is called savagery. (Chapter 57)


Note that he uses the word "restores."  Not "reverts" or "devolves" or something equivalent.  Again, contrast to Heart of Darkness, which uses the language of "victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night" to describe the fall of a "civilized" man. 


For Ishmael, "Civilization," whatever that means, isn't better.  It's mostly a pretense: 


Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable. (Chapter 79)


He just doesn't see much inherent difference, if any, between pagan "savages" and "enlightened" Christians.


...and Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending. (Chapter 17)


Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the [Fijian] that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident [Fijian], I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras. (Chapter 65)


What I've called Ishmael's nihilism is definitely connected to the cosmic horror aspects of the book, albeit with a different framing as compared to most cosmic horror.  Ishmael may be confronting that vast insignificance of man, but he doesn't have much anxiety about it.  He almost seems to take solace in the deep indifference of the sea.  He speaks early on of the desire to "admire the magnanimity of the sea which will permit no records." (Chapter 13)  For all his talk of the "terrors of the whale" and the "awfulness of the sea" his descriptions are full of reverence and appreciation.  


In the face of our brief existence, the permanence of the sea is a comfort.  The opening lines of the novel use the language of depression, heartsickness, and gnawing futility.  The sea is a balm to him. 


Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Chapter 1)


A Gallimaufry of Observations


I have so many more notes about things I thought were interesting, but to keep this from spinning even more wildly out of control here's just a few random thoughts.   There's a lot to think on and a lot of discussions to be had about this book, and a subject's worth has no correlation to whether I brought it up here.


Tahiti of the Soul


I couldn't quite connect this to anything above, but I found this passage really striking:


Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return! (Chapter 58)


"A good laugh is a mighty good thing" - Humor


There's some surprisingly funny stuff in this novel, though it is mostly of the gallows humor type:


Now, in general, STICK TO THE BOAT, is your true motto in whaling; but cases will sometimes happen when LEAP FROM THE BOAT, is still better. (Chapter 93)


"Betty, go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with—”no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor;”—might as well kill both birds at once." (Chapter 2)


The aftermath of Ishmael's first failed hunt in Starbuck's boat was also pretty amusing.  After the struck whale managed to capsize the boat and the hunters are fortuitously recovered by the Pequod, Ishmael, a little shaken says, essentially: "I thought Starbuck was the most careful whaleman?  Oh, that was him being careful?  So that was all pretty normal. ... I should probably do my last will and testament then, yeah?"


(Enter Ahab)


I haven't mentioned Ahab very much, but he's a memorable and dramatic figure.  He's in an almost constant state of King Lear-esque rage, an effect only amplified by his theatrical speeches.  In the final confrontation he says:


"Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee." (Chapter 135)


He's... a lot.


His obsessive madness is really tragic, though, as his soul has been "poisoned" and he's completely cracked, but he's aware enough to know it.


Begone! Let it leak! I’m all aleak myself. Aye! leaks in leaks! not only full of leaky casks, but those leaky casks are in a leaky ship; and that’s a far worse plight than the Pequod’s, man. Yet I don’t stop to plug my leak; for who can find it in the deep-loaded hull; or how hope to plug it, even if found, in this life’s howling gale? (Chapter 109)


There is a late scene where Ahab, for a brief moment, calms, and it's surprisingly poignant.


But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul. That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the step-mother world, so long cruel—forbidding—now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless ... "Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out some ashes! But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise." (Chapter 132)


It doesn't last.  Moby Dick is sighted the next day, and Ahab's back to "[piling] upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down."


"A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture" - Lovecraft


The description of New Bedford, where the story starts, was unexpectedly ominous.  Ishmael arrives at night in a storm and wanders around the freezing city.  The descriptions immediately reminded me a lot of Innsmouth from Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth.  

When Ishmael enters the Spouter Inn there's a really unsettling painting that Ishmael struggles to parse:


Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. ... But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. (Chapter 3)


Compare that to H.P. Lovecraft's description of Azatoth in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath:


Outside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.


Moby Dick predates Lovecraft's writings by more than half a century, but I wonder if Lovecraft, a New Englander who was born only 30 miles from New Bedford, knew Melville's novel, especially since it has so many proto-cosmic horror ideas.


"A thing of trophies" - The Ship


The Pequod itself is described as kind of monstrous, a creaky ship made up of the bones of the whales it killed.  I found it rather unsettling, especially on the heels of the menacing atmosphere of New Bedford.  It honestly reminded me of the Reaver ships from Firefly.

She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. ... Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. (Chapter 16)



Would I recommend this book?  Qualified yes. I very much enjoyed it, and I think it's really good.  Having said that, I understand why people don't like it or think it's boring.  But there's a lot in there, and I think it's an "important" piece of American Literature. 


To quote Professor Weinstein again: "If you don't like whales, you're not going to like Moby Dick... If you're not willing to think about liking whales, you're not going to like Moby Dick."


I think that's a fair assessment.  The novel is dense, metaphysical, philosophical and kind of long, but I did find it extremely rewarding.  As I said above, I would not judge anyone for reading an abridgment, especially if the choice is between reading Moby Dick Abridged, or not reading it at all.  And, for reference, one abridged version I found was about 300 pages shorter.


So yeah, check it out.


Happy reading



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