Down in the whole world's books: the Humanism of Moby Dick.

Author:Rogers, Robert
 
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NOT MANY WORKS of art in the vast and various field we call the humanities may be said to represent in any direct or systematic way the philosophy we refer to as humanism. In fact, a great many priceless works have a decidedly theocentric matrix, such as Dante's Divine Comedy, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel, while those manifesting theological nihilism, such as Voltaire's Candide or Camus' The Stranger, are comparatively rare. Most of the humanities, or liberal arts, are a mixed bag when it comes to their representation of the relative importance of humanity and divinity in the cosmos. The question here is this: What are the implications for contemporary humanists of a classic like Herman Melville's Moby Dick--a novel that dramatizes alternative, conflicting worldviews? What does this story tell us about the human condition?

The playful transmogrifications of Melville's often humorous style tend to mask the gravity of Ishmael's mood at the beginning of the story. He is a broke, angry, depressed young man who goes to sea as a way of "driving off the spleen" whenever there's "a damp, drizzly November in my soul" and he feels like "methodically knocking people's hats off." He appears to be an outcast like his biblical namesake, the "wild man [whose] hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him" (Gen. 16:12) Given the references to submerged hostility, we aren't surprised--after Ahab vows death to Moby Dick during his initial pep talk to the crew--to hear Ishmael say, "A wild, mystical, sympathetic feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine." As critics generally realize, of course, Ahab and Ishmael are co-conspirators representing different aspects of a single, complex identity.

Good Christian that he is, at least on the surface of his awareness, Ishmael makes a point of visiting the Whaleman's Chapel on Sunday morning. After contemplating the texts of sundry marble tablets memorializing whalers lost at sea, he reminds himself that dead men tell no tales. He wonders why life insurance companies "pay death-forfeitures upon immortals" and why the living strive so much to hush the dead. He comes to this grim conclusion: "Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.... Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death," Ishmael adds. "Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance:' And somewhat later on it occurs to him that there are times "in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke."

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The issue of the legitimacy of faith insinuates itself most strikingly in the chapter on the whiteness of the whale. While Ishmael finds the whiteness appalling, some positive associations do emerge, such as the thought that love himself became incarnate as a snow-white bull (in his move to ravish Europa). Ishmael also associates whiteness with spiritual things, remarking that it is "the very veil of the Christian's Deity." These linkages are but two among many connecting Moby Dick with gods, both pagan and Christian. Contrasting, negative associations occur when Ishmael thinks of the dangers, for seamen, of milk-white fog and...

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