Notes from Moby Dick

This is really an outline of my thoughts on Moby Dick, and is not intended to be any sort of attempt at an outline of the novel.

I. Various levels of Moby Dick

1. Spiritual allegory

A. Man’s Great Quest (against the Infinite)

2. Moral & social commentary

A. Distinctions between Christian and pagan worldviews are irrelevant; moral expression of one’s religion is what counts. Queequeg’s idolatry is, if not equally valid, as harmless as the social gospel, which Ishmael counts as Christianity. A good cannibal is a better companion for the journey than an unkind Christian, etc.

B. Pagans and cultural Christians readily forge alliances when they see an opportunity to secure victory according to their own wills, and unite to do  battle against God.

3. Humanism, Psychology, & Gnosticism

A. Ahab hates the good for being the good because he has no goodness himself, and no wish to have any (though he seems to seek vindication through his wife and newborn child). Revenge, the driving force of his soul, is preferable to righteousness because it is an act of his own will.

B.. Moby Dick’s whiteness is part of his terror, the terror of the righteousness men innately know is required of them, and their lack of it. Even fatalists believe in judgment.

C. Ahab refers to a prophecy of his dismemberment; the prophecy was fulfilled, and he is determined to have revenge against the whale. He had already sought to kill the whale; obsessive revenge has now fueled his determination.

D.. Starbuck calls the insane desire for revenge against a dumb beast “blasphemous,” understanding that Ahab’s willfulness is rebellious usurpation of God’s will, as well as usurpation of the ship’s proper mission. Perhaps the only real tragedy in the entire chronicle is Starbuck’s departure from the way he knew was right to follow Captain Ahab.

E.. The driving force of Ishmael’s quest is to get a good story to tell, and to broaden his experience and thus his knowledge. He’s a happy gnostic. He’s not particularly seeking truth, or trying to find himself; he isn’t trying to find God, make the world a better place, or attempting to pin down a universally competent morality outside of circumstantial pragmatism. He isn’t very particular about anything at all. The narrative quest succeeds brilliantly. Ishmael is one to pretty much leave everything as he found it. His genius is knowing when it’s time to move on.

5. Philosophy

A. Through broad experience, Ishmael is comprehensively informed about the natural world, social history, and religion, and as such is an informed observer, verifying nature empirically, without making any particular moral commitment.

B. Ishmael the observer has no real interest in truth, but is content to observe, assign his observations to categories, and live and let live from one quest for diversion to the next.

C. Utilitarianism (which Melville reportedly loathed) is displayed in the incident involving Pip’s accident. The crew would have let him die rather than lose the whale — the greatest good for the greatest number.

D.  Melville places before the reader all of the philosophies of his day — pragmatism, empiricism, transcendentalism, utilitarianism, Christianity as philosophy, hedonism, voodoo, etc.. Their moral consequences are scarcely distinguishable. He implicitly declares all of them invalid, and, speaking through Ishmael, he presages existentialism.

E. Ultimately, Moby Dick is a sad testimony to Melville’s very thorough biblical literacy, without real evidence of commitment to biblical veracity.

6. Natural history of whales

7. Expository comments on whaling

8. Literal adventure

II. Premise: All men believe in an infinite God.

1. If man is not given to believe in an infinite God of infinite love and mercy, he will believe in a God of infinite malice and retribution.

2. Men know they require infinite mercy.

3. Infinite mercy can logically proceed only from infinite love.

4. Obsession sustains Ahab’s vain hope that his will-driven revenge will prevail against infinite retribution.

5. Self-will is rebellion against the providence of God, and the antithesis of faith.

III. Props

1. King Ahab of Israel had an ivory house; Captain Ahab has a whalebone ivory leg stub.

2. Perception of Fadallah as the devil: Idolatrous man inevitably seeks to materialize the spiritual.

 IV. Fatalism

1. Ahab and Moby Dick both serve brute forces: Ahab notwithstanding his humanity, the whale according to his nature.

2. A strange identity between Pharoah and a whale is displayed at Ezekiel 29:3-7 (this is not the novel):

“Behold, I am against you,
O pharaoh king of Egypt,
O great monster who lies in the midst of his rivers…
But I will put hooks in your jaws…
I have given you as food
To the beasts of the field
And to the birds of the heavens….

When they took hold of you with the hand,
You broke and tore all their shoulders;
When they leaned on you,
You broke and made all their backs quiver.”

(a.) Ahab is Egyptian, symbol of the pagan worldview.

(b.) At one point toward the end, Ahab tells Starbuck how good it is to lean on him.

3. Ahab is a fatalist, though not a very competent one, because when confronted with what he perceives as his fate, he continues to pit his own will against it. As is the case with all atheists, the only thing worthy of Ahab’s worship is his own will.


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