/ 15 November 2023

A mirror to a modern conflict

Mobi Dick (1)
Wave it all goodbye: ‘Moby-Dick’ explores narcissism, revenge and punishment, which can be related to the war between Israel and Hamas.

They are the three most famous and inviting, evocative and reverberative opening words in literature in English: Call me Ishmael.

They stand at the head of “Loomings”, the first chapter of a book so vast and deep it is a writerly miracle that “Call me Ishmael” connotes and invokes the whole. Ishmael means “God hears” and as readers join Ishmael on his deathly voyage, with good and evil, the satanic and the innocent for shipmates, they will hope profoundly that someone is listening.

“It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.” Thus wrote Herman Melville of his novel Moby-Dick, published in New York on 14 November 1851. Less than a month before it had reached readers in London as The Whale, published on 18 October.

Of the many curiosities of the book, almost the first is that its hyphenated title does not extend to the whale in question, which remains resolutely Moby Dick throughout. 

As a fellow mammal and the novel’s antagonist (more about that later), perhaps the whale deserves to be referred to as “who” rather than “which”. At any rate, it is more sentient, wiser and humane than the devilish man in pursuit, Captain Ahab.

Years before, Moby Dick inflicted an injury on Ahab that led to the loss of a leg. (Curiously ­— or not — Melville does not say which leg.) Now he stands on deck balanced on an ivory leg “fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale’s jaw”. 

A sperm whale because Moby Dick is a sperm whale, ghostly and ghastly white, and based on the real-life Mocha Dick that sank many whaling boats (not ships) in the early 1840s. 

Ahab is devoted to one thing only — vengeance on Moby Dick. This, however, he hides from the officers and crew of the Pequod, the whaling ship he commands.

As a portrait of life on board a whaler, the novel is nonpareil. Behind its characters and descriptions are the nearly four years Melville spent at sea, setting out on the whaler Acushnet’s maiden voyage on 3 January 1841 from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, bound for Cape Horn and the Pacific.

But notably, this does not make the book solely a human’s view of whaling. Although Melville prefaces the whole with an etymology of the word “whale”, followed by 16 pages dubbed “Extracts” that cite, among others, the books of Genesis, Job and Jonah, Montaigne, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, and diverse old whaling songs, he devotes three lengthier chapters to whales and to Moby Dick. So, we have “Cetology”, “Moby Dick” and “The Whiteness of the Whale”. If Moby Dick is to be the antagonist, the enemy, best to know him.

But, to flip this on its head, if the whale is seen as the protagonist, defying the monomaniacal, vengeful Ahab, even better the reader should know him and his kith and kin. 

It seems perverse to suggest that Melville is on the side of a particular whale and of whales in general. Certainly, the exact opposite is at play in chapters such as “Stubb Kills a Whale”, “The Whale as a Dish”, “Ambergris”, “The Try-Works” (the gory separation of a dead whale’s parts — “assets” in our modern terminology — and boiling some over hellish fires) and “The Dying Whale”.

Nonetheless, Melville is aware always of the grandeur of whales, their ferocious nobility, and in the specific instance of Moby Dick and his real-life inspiration Mocha Dick, their superiority over humans. 

Primarily, Melville’s thesis is that the business of whaling, with its ruthless and relentless commercial extraction of nature, contaminates all involved with it. 

To illustrate those convictions, he fills Moby-Dick with the experience and lore of the sea and makes it an encyclopedia of learning and a compendium of Biblical and literary allusions, the scope of which are thrilling and breathtaking.

Melville’s prose reaches heights comparable to the King James Version of The Bible or to Shakespeare. His canvas is the globe itself, with the Pequod standing for voyages of exploration and discovery into the deepest and darkest motives of the human mind and soul. 

As the greatest Melville scholar Harold Beaver declared: “The quest for Moby Dick, then, is to be read as a pastoral turned demoniac, an extension of the Narcissus myth in which the whole ocean becomes the mirror image of man.”

But the moment in which we live, with a merciless war being waged between Israel and Hamas, demands that we reach for other meanings in Moby-Dick. For, as Beaver writes: “… this universal and global book must range through universal and global references in space and time, through all religious creeds and philosophical ideas (ancient and modern).”

Twenty years ago, as one of the Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture Series of 2003, I gave a talk titled Passageways: Revisiting Self, The Society of The Spectacle and Moby-Dick in the Wake of September 11. 

As noted then: “Given its all-encompassing nature, it is no surprise that Moby-Dick has much to say about 11 September 2001, and the war on Iraq. 

“In a moment of eerie synchronicity, the strikes on the World Trade Center occurred just as Melville academics, scholars and devotees were preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick on 18 October 2001.”

Leaving aside discussion of Guy Debord’s The Society of The Spectacle, it is significant to recall the view of Edward Said at the time.

As my talk Passageways recorded: “Ahab’s yearning for revenge on the creature that had injured him so grievously was ‘suicidal finality’, said Said, who cautioned of the perils of mystifying Osama bin Laden, and of the dangers of America embarking on a punitive expedition like that of the Pequod. 

“The subsequent imperial adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq show those warnings went unheeded.”

It takes little imagination to substitute President Benjamin Netanyahu, Hamas and Israel in the above. Netanyahu the narcissist has been grievously injured by his failure to protect his own citizens from the terrible slaughter perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October.

That humankind does not learn from history is made woefully apparent again by reference to successive sections of Passageways such as: “A passage to vengeance, transitory and troubling: we speak both of ‘I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened’ Ahab and of political and military power, united in vengeful intent. 

“At the end of ‘Sunset’, Chapter 37, Ahab rails: ‘Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run … Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!’”

As the Melville scholar Richard Chase judged: “To be Ahab is to be unable to resist the hypnotic attraction of the self with its impulse to envelop and control the universe. 

“To be Ishmael is to be able at the last minute to resist the plunge from the masthead into the sea one has been with rapt fascination gazing at, to assert at the critical moment the difference between the self and the non-self.”

In the respective fates of Ahab, Moby Dick and Ishmael we might glimpse portents of the future. Ahab harpoons the whale with the evilly tempered weapon he had specially made. Moby Dick flies forward, pulling the rope attached to the harpoon. The rope catches in the groove. 

“Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone …”

Before this, Moby Dick has delivered the deathblow to the Pequod and the sinking ship pulls into its vortex all the small whaling boats with their crews. 

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

There is an epilogue. Of all the whalers, but one survives. 

“It was the devious-cruising Rachel, [another whaling ship] that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

Call him Ishmael.