Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 7: Thursday, February 9, 2006

Moby-Dick (The Third Quarter...)

Are you reading it too late? Too soon?

Laura S.: I am angry that books are labeled "Classics" and force-fed to us by overanxious parents and/or English teachers before we are ready to read them, because then we run away screaming from the genre.

Angeldeep: I have a kind of uneducated reading of the book...which I'm trying to refocus as we proceed....I definately agree that readings are greatly context based, especially understanding of the branch of religion he is talking about doesn't really allow for me to pick up on this.

I. Coursekeeping
sign-up, papers to return, conferences to schedule

FINISH Moby Dick by classtime next Tuesday, 2/14

Papers on Moby Dick are due by 5 p.m. Wednesday, 2/16

In thinking about these papers, you might want to consider the contemporary cultural use-value of this text.

Amy: I'm almost at the point where I can read the name Starbuck and not think we're talking about Battlestar Galactica, or Queequeg without thinking of Scully's dog on X-Files.

Tyler: Being a big Dylan fan, I can't help but sometimes think of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" when I read the words "Ahab" and "harpoon" because in the song, which is an absurd parody of the discovery, colonization, and tribulations of the New World, there is a Captain Arab who says, to Dylan (or the narrator) "boys, forget the whale" and "start[s] writing up some deeds" and says "let's set up a fort and start buying the place with beeds" before he, Dylan, and the crew get "thrown in jail for carrying harpoons."

Alison: when Ahab describes the whale, I thought of Dick Cheney, "I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it."

Cf. The Place of the U.S. in the World Community (3/10/03): I join the pledge to spend my first class, after we go to war, talking about WHY we have done so, inviting my students to think about ways in which our doing so harkens back to... the monomania of Ahab (in Moby-Dick, which we're reading).
You might want to think about
  • The X-Files: "Quagmire" episode
  • Kevin Smith's film Dogma
  • Sena Naslund's novel Ahab's Wife:
    Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last. Yet, looking up--into the clouds--I conjure him there: his gray-white hair; his gathered brow; and the zaggy mark (I saw it when lying with him....) And I see a zaggy shadow now in the rifting clouds. That mark started like lightning at Ahab's temple and ran not all the way to his heel (as some thought) but ended at Ahab's heart...But I will not see him all dismembered and scattered in heaven's blue--that would be no kind, reconstructive vision; no, intact, lofty and sailing, though his shape is changeable .... What weather is in Ahab's face? For me, now as it ever was in life, at least when he was looking at me alone and had no other person in view, his visage is mild--with a brightness in it, even be it a wild, white, blown-about brightness...(Ch. 1, p. 1)

Let's try answering these questions first with regard to Moby Dick.

Picking up from Tuesday's exchange between

What's the use of that...? &

Chris (paraphrased):
Why must we rely on capitalist use-value?

We mustn't.
But what then DO we rely on?

Last summer, I heard a talk that juxtaposed three world views and their core values (a core value being "that which needs no further explanation"):
  • the premodern, which values order
  • the modern, which values efficiency, and
  • the postmodern, which values diversity.
There are trade-offs in each view (in the modern world, for example, where science reigns, there exist difficulties in dealing with the nonquantifiable: "if it is not sense data, or derivable from that," then it is "non-sense," not real).

A concrete example:
Among a group of students returning from a semester abroad,
  • a "premodernist" might say, Now I understand how good we have it here, how right we are
  • a "modernist" might say, Since we have to compete in a world economy, it's useful to understand how others live
  • a "postmodernist" might say, In order for all of us to survive--even to flourish--we need to understand how all the others (in the global network of interdependence in which we are all enmeshed) think and feel.
Our work here, so far, seems to have been expressive of one particular, particularly modern set of values--which elevates "usefulness" above other values.

As you think about what questions are motivating your next paper,
think also what sort of framework motivates your motivations:
are you interested in goodness? usefulness? survival? or...?

"Guilded Plaster and Pasteboard Mask," from MSN Encarta

We left off, on Tuesday, w/ the "pasteboard mask" passage
from Ch. 36 (The Quarter-Deck)...
what illuminations have occurred, in the time between?

Alison: I imagine a thin, whitewashed, cheap mask with small holes for ventilation and crudely drawn on features. This seems particularly New England to me. I like Ahab's vehemence,...anger and combativeness.

Margaret: I am a little uncertain about what the pasteboard masks is all about. Are the masks what we bring to an experience and we can only interpret things in a way that the masks let us? When I think of a mask I think not only of a mask that we put on to cover our faces (and perhaps our expression of emotion which may be interpreted by ourselves and others as feeling--by wearing a mask we control what emotions and feelings we show the world), but also the limited sight that one has inside of a mask. It appears that Ahab can only see things through the mask of Moby Dick--or can only interpret things as they relate to Moby Dick. This...has made me begin to think about what sort of mask I myself wear. What am I not able to see? What clouds my own interpretations of events and of the feelings I interpret in others emotions?

Allie: perhaps the 'call me Ishmael' is the narrator's pasteboard mask, behind which he conceals his true identity, motives for boarding the Peaquod, befriending the cannibal, etc....maybe Ishmael has indeed created a wall; therefore, taking the name Ishmael and going whaling may be his way of 'thrusting through the wall'....Should we, like Starbuck, fear the 'predictions', 'verifications', 'foregoings' around us? or, should we be like Ahab and follow our 'innermost necessities' and 'drive...on'?...Rather than synthesize his thoughts and emotions, Ahab has lumped everything behind the pasteboard mask of the whale. Had he sorted out patterns or categorized instead, I'll bet he wouldn't feel such a drive to kill the whale and endanger the lives of his crew in the process. Conversely, too much categorization and we may find ourselves the lowly sub-sub.

Jessica: "Still reasoning things" hiding behind a mask, what are those still reasoing things? God, knowledge, human nature... all the unreachable, hiding things: the inevitable incompltness of our pursuit of knowledge. In a book, in a whale....part of me has been thinking about this book in the span of writerly history....this is The Whale Book. And from when this entered the canon through the forseeable future, you cannot write a novel about whales, really, about boats, fishing, the ocean, without referencing this book.

Adina: I see the pasteboard mask as a feature of anonymity. That is why Ahab wants to strike beyond the mask -- he wants to strike at the core of real people -- at their very souls....that Ahab so passionately wants to take revenge on him personifies him.

Jorge: It seems to me that what is behind the pasteboard mask is a sort of spiritual force that cannot be reached or touched...For Ahab, Moby-Dick is a sort of mask for a spirit (good or evil) that is responsible for all his misfortunes....Is Ahab chasing after the whale because for him it represents the same God that made him loose his leg? Is Ahab blind to the fact that it may just be a whale and not a mask that God is wearing to communicate with him?

Let's continue spinning out a bit
the consequences of Ahab's "fixedness of purpose":

"Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run...unerringly I rush! Naught's an obstacle, naught's an angle to the iron way!" (143)

...all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. (156)

Margaret: Stubb and Starbuck...are so opposite each other in the way they interpret events/life and yet they are interpreting the same things. This is similar to the way that we are all reading the same big book, but interpret it differently. I think that Melville may be trying to tell us to be flexible and be able to look at things as though we were Stubb AND Starbuck when he writes funny passages. Are they funny? Yes. Do many have a serious meaning? Yes. We are warned not to become Ahab, tragically only able to interpret things one way.

Laine: Moby Dick is the end all, be all for Ahab....He has tunnel vision and all he sees is his hatred of the white whale.... I wonder though, if Ahab...feels the full range of emotions...entertain the possibility that Ahab feels a lot of very complicated emotions towards Moby Dick and that they manifest as one super emotion of hatred.

Comment during my talk on Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 about constancy: "Now I know why I always hated that poem. It's not science: it blindly refuses to adjust a confirmed belief to any evidence to the contrary."

Let's look at the role of the unconscious in Ahab's fixation, or--
back to the biology of emotion:

Cf. my therapist re: my own unremittingness/will to know-->
"you don't allow yourself an unconscious!"

The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? (158)

Laura O.: How are these whalers hidden below deck? It's pretty mysterious...the stowaways add to the bigger picture of Capitan Ahab being creepy. This guy is in a world of his own!

Fedallah...was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams, and that but dimly. (191)

And Ahab chanced so to stand, that the Parsee occupied his shadow; while, if the Parsee's shadow was there at all it seemed only to blend with, and lengthen Ahab's. (261)

D.H. Lawrence's "Herman Melville's Moby-Dick," Studies In Classic American Literature (1923): 153-170, argues that Moby-Dick is our "deepest blood-nature hunted by the maniacal fanaticism of mental consciousness...."

Cf. Ishmael's more tolerant, adjustable, open-minded (less "over-thinking"?) attitude:

...this absent-minded last... loses his identity: takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature..the spirit...becomes diffused through time and space...but...slip your hold at all...Heed it well, ye Pantheists! (136)

Abby Schlacter, Queequeg in her Coffin II (1997)

What is Melville saying, in such passages, about the relation between body and soul?
Might these be said to represent, respectively, the unconscious and consciousness?

Ahab's soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom! (p. 131)

...the soul is glued inside of its fleshly tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (p. 134).

...the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter...was not the agent....The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought escape from the scorching continguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral....his one supreme purpose...forced itself...into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could grimly live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfathered birth. Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes...was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being...a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates. (Ch. 44, pp. 169-170)

Let's look, not at the relation between nature and man, but at Melville's
portrayal of the outer world as an analogy for and expression of the world within:

Marie : I was really struck by the quote, on page 123, 'For we are all killers, on land and on sea'.... I don't normally think of everyone I'm surrounded by as killers, and surely not myself, though I've killed a few bugs in my day.

...for days and days we voyaged along, through seas so wearily, lonesomely mild, that all space, in repugnance to our vengeful errand, seemed vacating itself of life before our urn-like prow.... And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred (Ch. 51, p. 193).

...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. (Ch. 58, p. 225)

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.(p. 229)

...who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his 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. (p. 242)

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. (Ch. 68, p. 247)

O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind. (Ch. 70, p. 250)

Are you not the precious image of each and all of us men in this whaling world? That unsounded ocean you gasp in, is Life; those sharks, your foes; those spades, your friends; and what between sharks and spades you are in a sad pickle and peril, poor lad. (Ch. 72, p. 256)

...this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician's glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self. (Ch. 99, p. 332)

Erin: It seems like Ishmael has pushed off, and ...seems obsessed with this idea of the horridness of ...the 'civilized' life, which sees itself as above the savage but commits the same atrocities in some masked way....The whole world as cannibalistic, even the great, all-powerful ocean....though I find Melville's portrayal of the universality of the horrors that exist in the world very telling and truthful, it is also quite depressing and a strange combo with the humor....the humor is what lets us go on - in life and in reading this epic book.

Marie: Melville describes the biological similarities between a whale's fin and a human's hand....the sperm whale and Ahab seem to share emotions as well.... like humans, Moby Dick also experiences emotions. Ahab and Ishmael and the rest of them treat Moby as if he is acting, not instinctively and biologically, but instead, as if he is enraged with the men and serving to fulfill the role of evil in their lives....does he actually comprehend what is going on in the world above him?... does he know that he is a wanted creature, thought of as evil, and therefore, fighting back, and, in way, kind of messing with their heads?....the mask may then be Moby's ability to hide as a creature of pure instinct and animalistic tendencies, while he is actually a creature who experiences, comprehends and feels, but can play it off like he doesn't.

Tyler: the stage directions ...enhance the Pequod by making it a stage for the "play," and furthermore, a universe the reader experiences through the "play"....The name of the ship does mean "people," and...Melville is suggesting evil as a worldwide phenomoenon and using the Biblical references as a backdrop to display this phenomenon to a dominantly Christian readership.

In developing such analogies,
what is Melville telling us about the nature of the universe?
About the nature of ourselves?

But those wild eyes met his, as the bloodshot eyes of the prairie wolves meet the eye of their leader, ere he rushes on at their head in the trail of the bison; but, alas! only to fall into the hidden snare of the Indian...."God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!" (141-142)

...the White Whale's infernal aforethought of ferocity. (155)

...invisible spheres were formed in fright. (164)

...whole universe a vast practical joke. (188)

..."de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin" (243
--cf. Blake's "Tyger, Tyger" and Frost's "Design")

Frank Stella, The Whale-Watch (1993)

And what do such analogies between self-and-nature
imply about how society should be shaped?

"By art is created that great Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State--(in Latin, civitas) which is but an artificial man." Opening sentence of Hobbes's Leviathan ("Extracts," Moby-Dick)

How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man's ire - by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be - what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life, - all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. (Ch. 41, p. 158)

"It is clear...that Melville intends to make the crew the real heroes of his book, but he is afraid of criticism...The men were entitled to revolt and to take possession of the ship themselves....The meanest mariners, renegades and castaways of Melville's day were objectively a new world. But they knew nothing...the symbolic mariners and renegades of Melville's book were isolatoes federated by one keel, but only because they had been assembled by penetrating genius....Ahab's totalitarian rule...and Ishmael was an intellectual Ahab..." C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953); qted. Donald Pease, "C.L.R. James, Moby-Dick, and the Emergence of Transnational American Studies," The Futures of American Studies, Ed. Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman (2002).

Cf. talk @ emergence group on "Misinformation Networks":
our shared search for confirmatory evidence

So...finish reading the novel,
trying be open (like Ishmael?)
to non-confirmatory evidence...

Emily: I think it's really interesting to read the book thinking that Melville believes it's better to do than to read.... Why does one read for pleasure? Maybe it's because we become too tied down to be able to go on adventures, and so live surreptitiously though books.... Reading allows us to visit places and do things we wouldn't otherwise think of...fulfilling the infinite range of activities the world provides.... Life is too short to do everything we want to do, so books improvise for reality where we fall short.

Lauren : life on the ocean is really, really boring most of the time. It only seems logical that someone would try to entertain themselves contructively....Yeah, reading might be a method of escapism, and yeah, it might be a poor substitute for experience, but isn't it a great exercise for your brain? You never know when you might learn something. You never know when a book might change your life. Isn't it (dare I say)

Steph: I understand that it's a book... using whales as a metaphor for..something, but...enough is enough....little nuggets of truth seem so buried ridiculous detail that it's difficult to find them.

Go to on-line forum.

Return to Syllabus

Images on this page are taken from
Not All Paintings of Moby-Dick Look Mighty Like a Whale (University of Michigan)
Images Taken from Artists After Moby-Dick (Hofstra Museum, 2001)