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l. amsterdam's picture

Week 3 Discussion Summary: Expectations, Order, Authority

This week, we began to read Moby Dick, and so various aspects of the novel were the center of our discussion.

Tuesday’s discussion started with everyone stating the expectations they had coming into the novel, and whether or not they had been met. Most of us, it seems, came in with the expectation that we would be bored; the novel seems to have the (unfounded, we concluded) reputation of being very dry. However, that expectation was not met; in fact, a number of people commented on the (unexpected) amount of humor in the novel. Religion was another topic that came up frequently. Many people found Melville’s irreverent attitude toward religion striking. Many also found the constant allusions to the Bible a bit difficult to grapple with, many of us lacking the familiarity with the Bible to understand (or even catch) many of them. Branching from this, we discussed briefly how the internet may work to get around a lack of background knowledge. There was also discussion of the fact that the Bible was a referential structure that most readers would have been familiar when Melville wrote the novel, and how our feelings toward religion work within a reading of Moby Dick. We then discussed humor within Moby Dick, and how Melville uses it to mock the reader for her expectation that any authoritative and truthful idea could come from the written word (We are led to the “Etymology” and “Extracts” by underlings who may actually be dead, only to find that there is no single history of the word “whale,” and that we cannot actually believe the authority of many of the quotes on whales). Contrasting with Melville’s humor, however, is the idea that he wanted to believe that there was an underlying truth or order in the universe.

Thursday’s discussion began by returning to the ways in which Melville challenges the authority of the written word. For example, in returning to the fact that there is no single etymology for “whale,” he pushes the reader to think about how heavily she relies upon a book as an authority. We also talked about the place of religion and spirituality in Moby Dick. Ishmael, on one hand, concludes that there is a human soul that outlasts mortal life (a life which we live, Ishmael says, like oysters gazing at the sun through the water, unable to understand the nature of this ultimate truth), and that this soul is so powerful that God cannot destroy it. Another facet of spirituality in the book is Father Mapple, who conveys, through the story of Jonah and the Whale, that the soul naturally goes against the will of God, but you will eventually find the greatest satisfaction in disobeying your own will (and the will of others) for God. We also discussed the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, namely whether or not it is sexual. We were generally undecided as to whether or not they were actually sleeping together, but concluded that it is another way in which Melville challenges objective authority or reality (If two men, whether or not they are having sex, have a relationship like that of a married couple, it could be another blow to the reader’s foundational understanding of marriage). Finally, we talked about Ahab, and that his search for Moby Dick is ultimately a search for order in the universe (He has to believe that Moby Dick took his leg out of hatred and must have revenge exacted upon him, versus his losing his leg being a random, meaningless event). The final thought of the day was that the book seems to be saying that complete knowledge of anything is impossible; however, someone challenged that by asking whether that in and of itself was a complete idea.

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