A Postmodern Perspective on Moby Dick

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” — Melville

Photo by Andrew Bain on Unsplash

This morning I received an email from someone who had read my August 19, 2009 entry How Literature Elevates Us. In that piece I reference Moby Dick, among several other great classics of fiction. The writer here offers up a pointed review, from a post-modern point of view. I share his account here in its entirety.

Hi Ed,

It’s been a while. I’ve moved on, perhaps in retrograde motion, but its movement nonetheless.

I recently read Moby Dick. I noticed that you almost had a piece about it on your blog Wednesday, August 19, 2009 How Literature Elevates Us that really didn’t materialize. I was kind of sad about that, because I think Melville still has quite a lot to say…

Here’s what I thought — post it if you like. Or just reply. Or none of the above, but hopefully you’ll enjoy ;)

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Painting: Ed Newman

Let My Boat be Stove: A Post-modern Perspective on Moby Dick

Spoiler warning: if you have never read Moby Dick, do not bother reading this piffle. It will only spoil the end of the book, and it probably isn’t worth reading anyway. But if you can’t help it, I can’t help you.

God is dead, so I’ve heard. What remains? How do we reconcile the notion of free will in a (probabilistically) deterministic universe? Is the distinction between free will and determinism illusory? Or worse, is it a red herring — or perhaps a white whale? What is the “good life”--how do we distinguish right and wrong, and if we are driven by “fate” or “destiny,” why even bother to ask the question?

Don’t ask me — I haven’t the faintest idea. I’m lost at sea, as it were, merely living my life out to its “logical” end, lost in the awesomeness of horizonless beauty, doing what I was made to do, piloting my body on its singular quest come hell or high water, or whatever alliterative phrase floats my boat.

Or maybe that’s just a sorry excuse for all of the trouble I cause or am caused. Who knows? One way or another, at the end of it all, that great, insurmountable force that draws us ever onward in life will one day drag us down to the inconceivable depths and whatever lies beyond. Unless fate buoys you up, and then you can live on to share the good news.

Is that what Herman Melville means to tell us in Moby Dick? Just what is it about this one white whale that consumes Ahab, Ishmael, and the reader? “And only I am escaped alone to tell thee,” Ishmael quotes from Job.

Why did Ishmael escape, by the way? What did he ever do to deserve to live? After he boards the Pequod, our humble narrator becomes almost a non-person in terms of the dramatic action until the very end of the book. Why is he the sole survivor? Is it just happenstance?

And just what is it he wants to tell us, exactly? That depends, I suppose, on whether the primal force of Moby Dick is seen inherently good or evil, on whether Ahab is seen as moral or immoral for setting himself against it.

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“Pegs” — Photo by Ed Newman

Melville perhaps gives us hints as to his disposition, using angelic imagery when describing the great WHITE whale, and overtly hinting at the dark nature of Ahab and his personal boat crew of Malays. The chief of them, the parsee Fedallah, is taken by second mate Stubb to be the devil himself. Snatches of some Faustian bargain between Ahab and Fedallah are sprinkled in the text, but this Mephistopheles seems even more to be some projection of Ahab’s own, darker nature. If the devil made him do it, it was the devil inside.

And yet…

Moby Dick himself is certainly no benevolent force in the novel. He simply is. He does not defend those who cannot defend themselves or otherwise do anything noble. He is Leviathan--that which was before the Great Flood, and that which will be when men are but a memory. (Not to be sexist, but the only feminine characters in the novel are: Queequeg (at the beginning of the novel), an innkeeper’s wife, a doting Quaker woman who provisions the Pequod, half-forgotten wives whom Starbuck and Ahab recall, dancing Polynesian women on a passing whaler, and one boat, the Rachel, which goes in search of its lost children and ultimately rescues Ishmael.) This Leviathan — this wild, ethereally white force — slays all who oppose it, strikes awe and fear in the hearts of men, defies all of the cunning and technology ranged against it by the Promethean Ahab, and rises again on the third day (get it?) to yet live on after the Pequod, her crew, and her very flag are sunk along with the bird who would dare carry it on.

Moby Dick may represent primal forces or the embodiment of what some may call “God”, as Gabriel (the Angel of Death!) does in the story. Even amongst the “pagans” in the novel, whale bones are used to build holy temples, are taken by Melville to be the dragons of “Here there be Dragons,” and imbued with mystical powers in order to explain stories such as that of Jonah. But whatever relationship the white whale has to the powers that be, those powers are not held to be wise, rational, or benevolent. No wonder Melville quotes from Job!

No, Moby Dick, the holy white whale, is the great force that defies Man, his technology, his logic, his pertinacity. Forever. And Ahab, in all his fieriness, with the Devil at his side, sets out to strike that foul force frontally, as Melville might like to say. Ahab, like Lucifer before him, sets out to take it out.

Is that not noble? Or just plain stupid? Pitiable?

As an aside, I think it’s interesting to note that Ahab dashes technology, his quadrant, against the deck of the Pequod while in pursuit of the whale. In short, he concludes that technology can only tell him the facts of now, not what will be. And what use is that against primal forces? How can one conquer the irrational with the rational?

To judge for the nobility of Ahab is to judge against the whale (and vice versa), and neither has much to recommend it in terms of social welfare: these forces act only in their own interests. Ahab certainly may think he has the means, the right, and the destiny to oppose the whale, but as Clint Eastwood once said “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it”. The book eschews Manichean perspectives a century before that was “cool”.

Still, maybe Ahab’s just tenacious, if not a little stupid for not turning back.

But could he actually turn back? Is that the kind of man Ahab is? Never! Like Caesar, like any man rooted to purpose, he’s as constant as the North star.

Is it wrong to fix oneself quixotically to what one sees as a “great” purpose? Should we pity anyone who does?

Whether Ahab is pitiable or not depends on whether you think he’s doomed, and Melville certainly makes no bones about that: the dude is doomed, early on. And so he’s a tragic character, his fatal flaw being the figment (still channeling Melville here… go with me on this) that he can fight and fell his famous foe (see?). He even manages to fix an iron in the great beast, as Fedallah promised. Shouldn’t the underdog think he can win, sometimes? Otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie… I mean book… I mean, life.

For, at the end of the day, what is life? We range the forces we can muster against that which is beyond our ken has ranged against us and fare as best as we can. Sometimes we are up, sometimes we are down. Sometimes we are master of the seas whom all hold in awe. And sometimes, our boat is dashed to pieces.

So let my boat be stove through and through. I sail on to my purpose, and I’ll take it down or be taken down by it, damn it all.

Can I help it? Can’t I save myself and others?

I am. And that’s the devil of things.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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