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My feeble attempt at interpreting Melville’s masterpiece


This section of the web site is devoted to explaining the more philosophical aspects of Moby Dick. If you could care less about the philosophy behind Moby Dick -- or I should say my best shot at interpreting it -- you probably won’t care to read this. 


First, a plethora of disclaimers: 


  1. I have written what I believe to be an attempt at understanding some of the deep and complex themes in Moby Dick. Just how accurate these themes are I will never know. 


  1. I'm not an expert on Herman Melville by any stretch of the imagination. 


  1. I'm not a student of literature or philosophy or psychology either (actually, I'm an religious studies major, anthropology minor student) but Melville's writing has always inspired me to think about the world we live in from a different perspective. 


This is my interpretation based on reading the book, watching two films (loosely - and I mean, loosely based on the book) and my research. You will find there are as many interpretations of Moby Dick as there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth, which is what makes Moby Dick so fascinating. Some people will read the book and find it to be an exciting story about a maniacal sea captain and his quest for revenge and that's all well and good. However, I find it difficult to accept such a simplistic interpretation based on some of the clues that Melville leaves in his masterpiece.


I certainly did not come to these interpretations by myself. My brother Kenny and I have been reading and discussing this book for many years and my recent discovery of the late Professor Hubert Dreyfus's podcasts were instrumental in helping me along in this effort. Additionally, the books, “Melville’s Later Novels,” by William B. Dillingham and “Melville's Moby Dick - An American Nekyia,” by Edward F. Edinger, have been instrumental in giving me some insight into the complex nature of Herman Melville. All of these resources have brought me to some rather startling revelations and new perspectives concerning Moby Dick. Gaining a new perspective is always a good thing in my book. Keep in mind this is my unique interpretation drawn from these sources and I strongly encourage you to read Moby Dick and come to your own conclusions. The movies are pretty good too - oh and yes - you definitely want to listen to my musical interpretation as well (sorry for the commercial). 


I believe there are three perspectives at work in Moby Dick that are associated with the main characters. But the theme that I believe runs throughout the book is this:


Each of us develops a unique perspective on the workings of the Universe. Each of us has a unique belief system that sustains us throughout our life's journey and to each of us belongs our own interpretation of this mechanism. No one person will have identical experiences and identical thoughts; we are all unique. You might prescribe to the same religion, philosophy or scientific precept as someone else but there will be variations on that theme. There are no universal truths but there are powerful individual truths that each of us carry with us on our life's journey. 


Additionally, I believe that Melville imbued his own beliefs in each character while exploring his consciousness. The duality of the human psyche, in the form of the conscious and subconscious mind plays a powerful role in the characterization of each personality in Moby Dick. I think they are all aspects of Melville’s projection of humanity and are archetypes of the human subconscious. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this is what Edinger calls the “quaternity” - that is - Ishmael and Queequeg (conscious and subconscious, respectively) are complimentary opposites as are Ahab and Fedallah (conscious and subconscious respectively as well). Further, Fedallah and Queequeg are complementary opposites, (the “noble savage” and the “evil savage” respectively), as well and therein lies the quaternity. I use the word “savage” here because Melville refers to them as such in the book but if you look deeper into his exploration of their character I think you will find that he is, in reality, showing us our own ignorance. I do not believe that Melville considers Queequeg or the race of people he represents savages.


I believe this is at the heart of Moby Dick. But that’s my spin on it with a lot of help from Edinger.


The Many Perspectives of the Many 


In order to prove my point I must first establish Pip's perspective on the universe. It is through Pip’s experience, (and later through his comments concerning the doubloon), that this is revealed.  


For those of you unfamiliar with the characters in the book Pip is the young cabin boy who at one point fell from one of the small boats while in pursuit of a whale. He was left behind to be rescued after the whale had been captured. While alone on the ocean Pip had a profound spiritual experience in the form of a spectacular vision. He is shown the inner workings of the cosmos: 


"The sea had leeringly 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. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God."  


This perspective is fully realized through Pip's comments in the chapter about the Doubloon. In order to get the mast-headers (the people who keep lookout) to be vigilant, Ahab nails a gold coin (a doubloon) from Ecuador to the main mast of the Pequod. He challenges the crew by declaring that there will be a reward given to the first person to catch site of Moby Dick. 


The doubloon is the reward. The doubloon is also an archetype of the Self (Edinger)


The doubloon features elaborate imagery with three mountains in the foreground. On one mountain resides a tower, on another an eagle and  the third is a volcano. The characters of the zodiac adorn the sky above the mountains and the sun rests amidst the constellations. Each of the main characters is drawn to this doubloon and offers his interpretation. Each interpretation is unique and reveals each person’s true self. Some, like Ahab's, are egotistical and maniacal (although highly developed):


"There's something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here,- three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and 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. Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself. Methinks now this coined sun wears a ruddy face; but see! aye, he enters the sign of storms, the equinox! and but six months before he wheeled out of a former equinox at Aries! From storm to storm! So be it, then. Born in throes, 't is fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs! So be it, then! Here's stout stuff for woe to work on. So be it, then." 


Some, like Starbuck's, are reverent and humble - also highly developed: 


"No fairy fingers can have pressed the gold, but devil's claws have left their mouldings there since yesterday," murmured Starbuck to himself, leaning against the bulwarks. "The old man seems to read Belshazzar's awful writing. I have never marked the coin inspectingly. He goes below; let me read. A dark valley between three mighty, heaven-abiding peaks, that almost seem the Trinity, in some faint earthly symbol. So in this vale of Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the sun of Righteousness still shines a beacon and a hope. If we bend down our eyes, the dark vale shows her mouldy soil; but if we lift them, the bright sun meets our glance half way, to cheer. Yet, oh, the great sun is no fixture; and if, at midnight, we would fain snatch some sweet solace from him, we gaze for him in vain! This coin speaks wisely, mildly, truly, but still sadly to me. I will quit it, lest Truth shake me falsely." 


But in the end Pip reveals to us that each of the crew members has a unique perspective:


"I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look..." 


These excerpts are all concerned with individual perspectives based on each person's life experience. Each crew member sees something in the coin that is unique and no two crew members sees the same thing. That is what I believe to be the main theme of Moby Dick.


Three Perspectives Based on Personal Truths 


In addition to the main theme, there are three perspectives concerning personal truths which can be applied to religion, philosophy, and science as well (wherever it is you find your truth): 


Perspective #1: 


Ahab’s mono-maniacal view of God's intent (the intent of which Ahab projects onto Moby Dick). He sees only one perspective and insists on a face to face confrontation with Moby Dick. He is driven by his need for a definitive, solid answer to three questions:


1. Am I important in the Universe? 


2. Is the Universe malicious towards me? 


3. Is the Universe indifferent towards me? 


Naturally, Ahab believes that he is important and seeks affirmation. The fact that Moby Dick took off Ahab's leg, "as a mower does a blade of grass," tortures Ahab because it is unthinkable God would let something so heinous happen to him. Unless, of course, God was truly indifferent.


I believe the nature of indifference is what eats away at Ahab’s soul. If God or the Universe are malicious, then there is intent behind the loss of Ahab’s leg. If God or the universe are indifferent, then there is no intent and the devastating experience Ahab suffered is a random event. Worse than that, God or the universe has no grand plan for Ahab or more specifically, no destiny; he is insignificant as an insect or a rock. This perception is contrary to Western thought as we place ourselves at the top of nature’s hierarchy and believe we are made in the image of the creator. 


Ahab recognizes his perspective exclusively and takes everyone (save one) to their grave. He sees no other perspective, he sees no color and he sees no rainbow (the rainbow is a metaphor for the myriad perspectives in the form of humanity’s beliefs) : 


"And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor- as you will sometimes see it- glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For d'ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye."


Based on the previous excerpt, Melville tells us that God's intentions are "incommunicable." Yet more ambiguity to further intensify Ahab's mono-maniacal perception. 


The Whiteness of the Whale and the Rainbow 


Why is Moby Dick portrayed as a white whale? The whiteness of the whale is one of the most important concepts; if not the most important concept because Melville tells us it is. In Chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale," Melville spells it out quite plainly that if we are unable to grasp this idea then the whole book is worthless: 


"It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught." 


So what is it about whiteness that is appalling? First Melville addresses, "whiteness," in nature as bringing a beautiful quality to it (all of the following excerpts unless designated otherwise, are from Chapter 42): 


"Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls..."


But Melville also looks at the whiteness in nature from a darker perspective: 


"This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark." 


As he further expounds, we begin to see Melville's disdain for whiteness revealed: 


"It cannot well be doubted, that the one visible quality in the aspect of the dead which most appalls the gazer, is the marble pallor lingering there; as if indeed that pallor were as much like the badge of consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here. And from that pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap them. Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms; all ghosts rising in a milk-white fog- Yea, while these terrors seize us, let us add, that even the king of terrors, when personified by the evangelist, rides on his pallid horse." 


The key phrase in the previous excerpt being Death on his pallid horse. But that is only part of the answer. Melville leaves the punch line for the end of the chapter and in the final paragraph, he tells us quite plainly: 


"Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?" 



And now for Moby Dick: 

Perspective #1


"...the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like willful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?" 


White is the absence of color on its surface and yet it is the presence of all colors within. But the key word at work here is "indefiniteness." It is the indefiniteness of God and the universe that is embodied by whiteness and this indefiniteness transforms itself into intent or lack thereof. I believe that Melville is telling us that the universe is random and indefinite; there is no pattern or plan, there are just random events. When Pip falls under the ocean he sees the beautiful rainbow colors of the coral reef yet he sees no pattern. 


Ahab's perspective on the universe could be a metaphor for monotheism. Professor Dreyfus suggests that Melville was a Pantheist and believed that no one ideology can possibly have the answer to all the great questions. If you believe one ideology has all the answers, based on this premise, you are blind. He extended this view to science and ironically, to philosophy as well. 


Personally, it's difficult for me to believe that one philosophy, scientific precept or religion has all the answers. Perhaps that's why I identify with much of Melville's philosophy. 


Perspective #2: 


This next perspective embraces the multitude of perspectives, i.e. the rainbow. If no one religion, philosophy or science can have all the answers, perhaps the answer can be found in all of them. The rainbow celebrates the myriad truths, which is a lovely thought, yet according to Dreyfus this is not the best way to approach it either! If one attempts to embrace all of the myriad perspectives concerning the universe by combining all of the colors of the rainbow, they add up to white once again. There is, perhaps, no definitive answer in this perspective either. 


Perspective #3: 


Finally, there are three characters that share one similar perspective; Queequeg, Pip and Ishmael. They see the myriad truths in all ideologies (the colors of the rainbow) and although they celebrate the rainbow by being tolerant of each person's perspectives they do not attempt to embrace them to find a universal truth. They embody the truth but they cannot possibly comprehend it. 


Queequeg is the perfect example of this perspective as his tattoos were carved into him by the shaman of his people. Queequeg does not understand what all the symbols mean, yet he is the physical embodiment of the ideology. Ishmael is at first terrified by Queequeg for this very reason but as he begins to open his mind to Queequeg's faith he begins to see the rainbow of perspectives. Queequeg does not force his view of the universe on Ishmael; it is his personal sacred. 


Of these three, I believe Pip is closest to the truth as he is shown the myriad coral creatures that created the rainbow tapestry of God’s loom in the great depths of the ocean. Yet this tapestry has no definitive pattern; it is completely random. 


It is important to note that Melville’s concept of God is not traditional either. God, like the sea, is boundless and indefinite. There is no great plan (much to Ahab’s dismay), there is no destiny, and no rhyme or reason for what happens. The land has been mapped out by humanity; it contains boundaries, barricades and roads created by people. The land is safety and comfort, which, to a very minor but important character like Bulkington, is "scorching to his feet" and does not allow him to think outside the box. The land is regimented, controlled and structured like many of the world's cultures, philosophies and religions and as such does not allow for freedom like the sea as the sea cannot be mapped. This is beautifully expounded in perhaps my favorite chapter: 


"Know ye now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?" -- Moby Dick, Chapter 23 



Tony Garone 2010

The Heart of Moby Dick
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