Melville’s Moby Dick: Between Philosophy and Literature


Passion, Reverie, Disaster, Joy:

What Philosophers Learn at Sea




All men live enveloped in whale-lines.

All are born with halters round their necks; 

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.


Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?


I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

– Moby-Dick


The broad plot of Melville’s Moby-Dick is too familiar to need retelling. What fascinates me is how the book can clasp — can so seamlessly and happily wed — a sort of philosophy to literature and religion, and to weird and occasionally demonic theology. I’ll join a certain style of philosophy – what I’ll call an informal, multi-valenced episodic philosophy – to a renegade theology and both to the literary form of the novel. This idiosyncratic joining gives us something greater than the sum of the parts. The alluring reward is that I will deliver not a new philosophy, but a rare bounty (and tumult) of philosophical, quasi-theological, and literary reflection.


Seas of Unknowing: Philosophies in Narratives

Moby-Dick presents multiple perspectives on life, and presents multiple actual forms of life, each lodged in intense and immense surrounds. This is not a treatise in formal philosophy. It does not drive toward lucid conclusions. Its endless reflections disappoint hope for a composite picture or conclusion. Its informal philosophy, embedded in life and death, doesn’t resolve what Melville sees as the eternal enigmas of human existence. We move in misty, unfinished terrain. The meaning of the white whale or divinity, the mad purposes of love and comradery, the demonic powers of hatred, are elusive. Melville – or Ishmael — seeks flashes of insight.

“[T]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.”[1] We sail and stall on religious-literary-philosophical seas awaiting “divine intuition.”

There is no rising climax of conviction about the sense, or nonsense, of it all.

Formal philosophy aims to produce answers, even the despairing answer that there just are no answers. Literature can dispense with this expectation of closure. It is free to imagine endless situations, thoughts, and apparent resolutions neglecting either promises or deliveries of definitive results. This proliferation of unanswered philosophical (or rogue-theological) questions needn’t be perturbing: it can be exhilarating — as if we could prosper in a world richer for harboring the unknown along with the known.

Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the . . . image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.[2]

We can find our face in shifting waters without falling in. Wonder can supervene on unknowing:

[W]e now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass . . . lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre . . . as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have . . .  but undulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life.[3]

This is the formless giant squid, like the fog or the dark sea it inhabits.


An Unknown God, Whale, and the Demonic

The whale is unknown. While alive its bulk lies under its visible skin; it swims mainly unseen in the depths. An unknown whale travels unknown seas, and shape-shifts toward God or the demonic.

It becomes the power, vengeance, and elusiveness of an angry Old Testament God. It elicits fearful reverence in Starbuck, and many of the Pequod’s crew:

It cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should [declare] Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal; should [he] ever be made to spout thick blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; in . . .  billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would once more be seen.[4]

Christ reappears after death. The whale will reappear, though killed. There’s strange piety in this. In searing contrast, Ahab’s regard for the whale is hateful and heretical:

That inscrutable thing [God or whale] is chiefly what I hate.[5] Be the white whale agent [of another Power], or be the white whale [the] principal [Power, God], I will wreak . . . hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.[6]

Ahab hates whale and God — they challenge his power. God knows not his own genesis, so his vaunted omniscience is mocked. Even Nature is scorned. Kant says we can’t know what lies behind appearances; this makes us humble. Ahab knows what lies behind appearances:

the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within.[7]

Nature’s beautiful appearance is deception: the “butterfly cheeks of young girls” hide a harlot’s painted face. Nature is whore-some. At the inner core of things Schopenhauer found the wonders of music; Ahab finds repulsive stench.

The novel offers alternatives to Ahab’s disgust with the world. Ishmael’s birthplace, family, and youth are unknown but that doesn’t turn him sour. He seeks out the unknown of the sea with energy, wonder and humility. His biblical namesake is cast into wilderness. He is an innocent but not embittered first son in exile. Bulkington embodies mysterious unknowability, too. He arrives god-like from nowhere: beautiful, charismatic — and then vanishes. “Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing— straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”[8] Had he lived, his charisma and power might have offset Ahab’s.


Socratic Unknowing, Unfinished Philosophy

Socrates embodies ignorance full of wonder and unresolved perplexity. In pursuing the meaning of the whale, Ahab’s demonic obsession, or Pip’s strange access to Ahab’s heart, the novel gives us a Socratic devotion to truth and a Socratic ignorance that won’t deliver final truth. The truths of particular encounters or characters proliferate in Moby-Dick, but an overarching or universal truth is forever just beyond reach. Socrates searches for truth but avers he knows only that he knows nothing. This is not skepticism. He teaches an existential truth: the resolutions I seek will not come from any external authority. Only I, in the particularity of my insights and passions, can provide resolutions — and then, only episodically. They need renewal and resetting through time. There are no enduring answers to grand existential questions, apart from devotion to pursuing answers and making those resolutions we may, one by one, partial and context-bound. There is no rousing, cymbal-clashing truth to proclaim from the summit. This is an unfinished, ever-exploring path that leaves us always on the cusp of the new. Here philosophy begins and ends in wonder.

This is “episodic philosophy,” a non-systematic, personal, love of wisdom responsive to the moment as persons tread uncertain worlds on their own. The face of episodic philosophy is mobile and shifting like the sea. D. M. McKinnon captures its inevitability:

One cannot by magic escape the conditions of humanity, assume the absolute perspective of God.  If it is better to arrive than to travel, we are still inescapably travelling . . . .  And our perspectives are necessarily those of travelers, at least for most of the time.  But there still remains a difference between the traveler who takes the measure of his road and the one who seeks to be oblivious of its windings.[9]

Melville embraces the shifting ways of the sea, of the men who sail it, of episodic truths. Glimpses of truth appear in the lively or melancholy gestures, moods, exchanges, and meditations among the Pequod’s exotic crew. The array is startlingly. Pip’s glimpse is not Starbuck’s; Queequeg’s is not Ishmael’s; Flask’s is not Ahab’s. Each has a moment in an unfolding tapestry. Each addresses others (who return the address). This creates shifting ensembles of meaning underway. Each scenario or episode holds a truth to be existentially weighed by members of shifting shipboard ensembles and by we readers. There is no hope for a single capacious view while there is every hope that the Socratic search for truth will remain funded and thriving.

This is not a random multiplicity of questions without answers. A unifying factor in the voyage and first and last, is Ishmael. He has a presumptive reliability, a somewhat unifying take on accumulations of perspectives. His narrative encircles all actors and sites, ever and again affirming him as the steady, unflinching, openhearted story-teller. At the tale’s end Ishmael cites Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” These words remind us that it’s been his tale all along. They also invite us to repeat the journey: “I am here to tell thee!”  The telling will restart for every reader,  replicating life’s eternal repetitions.[i]

**  **

The very idea of a living, unfinished, episodic philosophy — allied with literature and rumors of religion — would be dismissed by the major strand of European post-medieval philosophy.

Since Descartes, such modern philosophy aspires to formality and impersonality. Varieties and textures of experience, its felt-realities, are dismissed as hopelessly flimsy for constructing truth. Philosophy must model itself on rational, impersonal science. But Thoreau, Nietzsche and others would dissent. They embrace episodic felt-realities where discrete individuals prosper or fail, see poorly or see well, find eloquence or boredom, move forward or back or just trudge in place.

The modern classical tradition aims for air-tight arguments, principles that are universally applicable — expositions abstracted from the bogs and heavens of living-dying souls. Plato’s sketch of a city-state aims for rational purity and order — at least on first reading — as does Kant’s deduction of the categories, or Spinoza’s demonstrations. But there’s a counter-movement in modern philosophy: the passionate, partial, epigrammatic and poetic philosophies of Nietzsche or Emerson, Montaigne or Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Wittgenstein or Cavell.[11] Such non-formal philosophy has an existential bite. It declines the brusque impersonality of the sciences. It easily welcome Melville.

The felt-reality of lives-as-lived is too subjective, we say. If subjectivity – respect for felt-realities – is given a foothold, what will happen to the hard-earned prestige of scientific objectivity? But we can live with two-fold vision. Melville gives an objective account of whale-zoology and a subjective account of the whale’s felt-power or magnificence. An impressionistic, context-sensitive subjectivity is no more subversive of scientific objectivity than Bach and Erasmus are subversive of biology or logic. We treasure friends and lovers, children and neighbors, gardens and landscapes, music and sport — and also, discoveries in astronomy. Melville’s poetic truths are in one hand and his aquatic-biology, in the other.[12]

An episodic philosophy honors the lilt of selves in life’s flows.[13] This is the “metaphysical riot” or outburst Cavell finds in Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson. They put souls at risk and take metaphysics seriously.[14] Melville raises powerful, lyrical reflections from the unschooled mouths of memorable characters. Queequeg, the “cannibal,” works on the slippery back of a dead whale tied precariously to the side of the ship. Ishmael tethers him from a spar high above. He muses philosophically on the rope that binds:

for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake.[15]

Ishmael then proposes that personal obligation erases individuality and free will:

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death.[16]

Reflection can be solo, or among chatting shipmates, or from intense dialogue. We have a vivid exchange between Ahab and Pip, patterned on Shakespeare’s dialogue between Lear and his fool. Philosophical reflection can be addressed to nature herself — as if she were eloquence eliciting human eloquence. Ahab:

Then hail, for ever hail, O sea, in whose eternal tossings the wild fowl finds his only rest. Born of earth, yet suckled by the sea; though hill and valley mothered me, ye billows are my foster-brothers![17]

For the moment, in Ahab’s glance, we enter an abundant nurturing creation.


A Metaphysics of Intimate Abundance

Melville can soar into mystic realms, but he’s not a Platonist. He’s too disorderly to be Aristotelian. If you don’t mind hyphenated identities, he’s a Romantic-Vitalist. Earth, sea and stars are alive –  breathing, growing. Galileo inaugurates a materialism of sticks, stones, and atoms that consigns living, dying, and passions to illusion. Melville’s natural world bespeaks wonder, life, death, and struggle. It bursts with poetic-religious-metaphysical light and dark.[18] This abundance is this-worldly and owes nothing to extra-terrestrial Platonic or Christian orbs:

the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver’s loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures


And this orb is not always innocent:

Under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves… these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.[20]

Waves become sociable, swells become cradling, and velvet paws hide remorseless fangs. Abundance has poetic sheen. The Good or Beautiful are immanent, and companion the Terrible and Devouring. Whether terrible or serene, realities are co-articulate:

[There are] the mild blue hill-sides; as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes . . . And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.[21]

Playfully and seriously, Ishmael imagines metaphysical riots and spouting:

I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts.[22]

Imaginings can be ruminations about ideas, and as likely, triggered by whales or thunderclaps,  an intoxicating moon, or the scent of sea creatures. This is the stuff and “mystic mood” of poetry, of befitting reverie, of philosophy where fact and fancy meet.[23]


Christians, Cannibals, Affectionate Address

Philosophy boils up from life’s dramas. Queequeg, a “cannibal,” is the kindest companion and roommate. He observes Ramadan, sitting cross-legged through the night, in a rigorous fast.[24]  On the way to Nantucket he rescues an overboard rube who had insulted him, and remarks “We cannibals must help these Christians.”[25]  Reflecting, Ishmael remarks:

I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool.[26]

He begs Queequeg to give up Ramadan, but this bedroom harangue is good humored and intimate. The discourse of professors is never so cozy:

Queequeg, said I, get into bed now, and lie and listen to me. I then went on, beginning with the rise and progress of the primitive religions, and coming down to the various religions of the present time, during which time I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense. I told him . . . it pained me . . . to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his.[27]

If we abstract an “argument” we’d lose wit, affections, and Ishmael’s generosity. Plato takes philosophy as care for the soul, and in this case it’s the embodied soul. Ishmael tucks Queequeg in: night fasts are unhealthy.

Plato’s Symposium starts with camaraderie among friends sharing drink and dinner and ends with an embodied flirtatious contest between Alcibiades and Socrates, between lust and love. Ishmael’s critique of Ramadan includes tucking in his friend. Reasons flow from care and affectionate play. And Ishmael doesn’t place Christian practice above Queequeg’s “savage” or “Muslim” practice. Lent also is bad for the body. Eros, humor, and philosophy are embedded in the words, actions, and gestures of the everyday: sleeping, eating, pacing, rowing, climbing.

Speech can be wise or foolish, and life’s pauses and movements can bespeak things wise, conventional, or foolish. Bodily presence bespeaks metaphysical moods. Ahab’s peg-leg and body-length scar bespeak terror and doom:

Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck . . . you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil.[28]

Scar and peg-leg modulate thought and speech; speech modulates pacing; jointly they shape him.


Metaphysical Defiance

The infinite world is episodically extended in pacing, laughing, listening, speaking, and offers fickle cosmos amidst intermittent chaos with all levels of order and disorder between. “God” ought to install order, but take Ahab’s twisted “theological” stance. He addresses a God-like Thou and equally disowns it as fraud:

Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent.[29]

Ignorant of His origins, this “God” must bow to Ahab’s knowledge. Divinity’s claims to eternity and creative power also get mocked:

There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness [merely] mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it.[30]

Ahab sees through the pretense despite a “refiner’s fire.” This would-be omnipotence is an orphan – grieving alone and beyond comfort.

Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated [unshared] grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee![31]

But can worship be defiant and irreverent? Ahab presumes to leap heavenward, the son with the father.  Yet there’s a nice ambiguity in calling God “my sire.” God may have sired him, or he may have sired it! An embracing leap tied to this “blindfolded” divinity ties mortal to immortal:

Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee![32]

“God” emerges as light from darkness, but light can’t illuminate its own dark beginnings without a second source of light. Thus the first light is functionally orphaned, blind to its source.

This is wild surrealism. Only dark Power can say “let there be light!” As Prince of Darkness, Ahab leaps from the brow of this blind, dark, foundling god.

Ahab can see both his own and God’s origins, and so is the greater.

On these seas I as Persian once did worship [thee], till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own [grant] thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here.[33]

The attack on this “speechless, placeless power” morphs into Ahab’s hate-filled welding to a whale, to a speechless, placeless Moby Dick:

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.[34]

The whale may destroy him but can’t conquer his spitting, defiant spirit. Moby-Dick is tangible magnificence and power while God is illusory magnificence and power — a miserable foundling to stab. Ahab takes vengeance on any beast, man, or divinity who would deny his Magnificence. He welds himself to his harpoon and welds both to the whale. In parallel, he “. . . would fain be welded” to his God, and would kill Him. [35]

But even his vengeance is fickle. We soon find Ahab suffused in compassion: he asks to be tenderly riveted to the slightly crazed cabin boy, Pip – like divinity, a foundling, a holy fool. But there is no defiance here. Shakespeare has Lear seek instruction from his fool. Pip anticipates a tender welding moment, where he would be welded to Ahab:

 Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude.

Ahab – shockingly — transcends defiance and hatred in this moment of love and gratitude. More surprising still, he can glimpse within himself a serenity and joy:

… amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.[36]

In scenes like these, tremendous energy overflows the dissonances of mortals and immortals, sense and nonsense, hatred and joy, bereavement and repair: “Shall I call that wise or foolish; if it be really wise it has a foolish look to it; yet, if it be foolish, then has it a sort of wiseish look to it.” [37]

**   **  **


In a play within the play, in Hamlet, Polonius presents “the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-comical, tragical-comical-historical, one-act plays or long poems.”[38]  Melville too delivers multiple genres: long meditations, dramas (each player named), rollicking adventures, biology or “cetology” lessons, extended overtures and finales.

The prologue features an assembly of words for “whale” from dozens of languages, and a “sub-sub-librarian” assembles a catalogue of passages citing whales. Were this clerk to confront Moby-Dick, he’d try to nail down its catalogue genre — but without success. It’s “historical-comical, tragical-comical-historical, full of one-act plays or a long and unlimited poem” – and so, beyond cataloguing.  A good reader will leave sub-sub-librarians aside to dive with Ishmael into wildness.

Moods and perspectives shift and conflict, and genre escapes us. Yet there is a subtle progress of scenarios: wonder and terror at creation’s abundance; unfolding tales of catastrophe and bursts of new life. The Book of Job gives us a majestic Creator-Whirlwind, a Voice impressed by its own wildness, and by the infinite ingenuity of its scope.[39] Moby-Dick is not just about destructions or a vengeful God, nor just about a vengeful sea-captain, or a place of slaughter:

another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales . . . and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; — even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.[40]

Sucklings are innocent, without hate, and soulful — eyes raised toward heaven.

This tender serenity is redemptive. This particular scenario and mood is divine and comedic.  Killers set harpoons to rest as awe and affection supervene. Serenity cloaks this place of affirmation and rebirth. Peace and new life replace disaster and death.[41]


Rebirth as Renewal

The text opens: “Call me Ishmael.” Was this name given at birth? Perhaps this is the nom de plume of an otherwise anonymous story-teller, anticipating new life in the wilds. Perhaps he is born with the birth of his story of adventure, disaster, and rebirth.

The biblical Ishmael is reborn as he survives wilderness. The writer who says, “Call me Ishmael,” is cast out of a tribe of bloodless school-teachers and pupils.  He will be reborn at sea as author of his own story. The wonder of his emerging from nowhere is matched by the wonder of his surviving disaster and by the wonder of the tale he brings to birth. Only he lives to tell. As Job survives his afflictions and the Whirlwind, Ishmael survives the whirlpool that swallows the Pequod.

In Genesis, God delivers light and order from waste and welter, “tohu wabohu,” a place without form and void.[42] Ishmael drifts suicidally through the streets of Manhattan. Leaving the waste and welter of the city, shipboard order follows. Waste and welter return in the chase and final disaster; then birth once more as the story is retold. Order never stays for good. Death never gains full dominion. Genesis concludes with the image of a mummy – Joseph’s – in a coffin.[43] Queequeg makes himself a coffin. It becomes the life-buoy Ishmael clasps in the vortex devouring the ship. He survives to tell a tale of deaths and rebirths.

Tashtego works on the whale laid out on the deck. He squeezes into the head’s narrow spouting-hole, working down to retrieve the valuable ambergris. The carcass slips suddenly into the sea. Trapped, Tashtego plunges doom-ward. Queequeg dives in, pulling him from the birth canal. In a comic touch, he turns Tashtego’s leg to avoid breech birth from the spout hole:

Upon first thrusting in for him, a leg was presented; but well knowing that that was not as it ought to be, and might occasion great trouble;— he had thrust back the leg, and by a dexterous heave and toss, had wrought a somerset upon the Indian; so that with the next trial, he came forth in the good old way— head foremost.[44]

Queequeg is midwife at Tashtego’s rebirth, saving him both from drowning and from an indelicate entry to life.[45]

Moby-Dick begins with satirical prefaces laying out purgatory: the hunt for whale-names and whale-quotes rather than whales.

Moby-Dick features death and disaster, bookish mediocrity and heroic action. We laugh at the sub-sub librarian, but the laugh is on all scholars who bicker over genres: is this tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral – hyperbolic truth, true hyperbole, sublime lie – epic, novel, poem, or mash-up? One lesson of Moby-Dick is that we should flail in wilds rather than argue over labels.  It is an ongoing cycle of deaths and rebirths, resurrections. The final note is the rebirth of the teller of ever-shifting sea-tales.

There is no staying in any one place; for at one and the same time everything has to

be done everywhere. It is much the same with him who endeavors the

descriptions of the scene.[46]

Flux and instability are pervasive.

Even the epilogue is unstable: “Only I have survived to tell ye.” This citation is from Job, and gives Ishmael gravitas. Yet it also inserts doubt. Why believe a wild compendium of stories not a soul can confirm? Why believe in biblical tales or in Melville’s fictions?  “I only am escaped alone to tell thee . . .The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? —Because one did survive the wreck.”[47] We believe – or don’t.


Color, Sanity, and Truths

Melville embraces racial and religious diversity, but he doesn’t preach. He shows the virtue unfold. He reveals a fraternal community where race and cultural differences drop away. He appoints Ishmael the ex-school teacher to narrate, and the “cannibal” to be Ishmael’s best friend. Queequeg’s religion is a hodge-podge of rituals and practices including observing Ramadan at night (rather than day). He’s puritanically circumspect about exposing private parts: he’s embarrassed by the nakedness of his feet.

Queequeg is more selflessly Christian than the would-be Christians who taunt him.

We’re immersed in joy and sadness, conflicts and resolutions, kindness and cruelty, bravery and cowardice, confession and exhortation, melancholy and exuberance. And we have extended moments of sanity in madness. Nothing can replace immersion in the power – ethical, literary, religious – of Melville’s lines and paragraphs.  Enter the vengeful Ahab approaching the half-drowned, half-mad Pip, with uncommon tenderness. It’s Shakespearean, fit to be staged:

  • Ahab calls out: — Ha, Pip? come to help; eh, Pip?
  • Pip responds: — Pip? whom call ye Pip? Pip jumped from the whale-boat. Pip’s missing. Let’s see now if ye haven’t fished him up here, fisherman. It drags hard; I guess he’s holding on. Jerk him, Tahiti! Jerk him off; we haul in no cowards here. Ho! there’s his arm just breaking water. A hatchet! a hatchet! cut it off— we haul in no cowards here. Captain Ahab! sir, sir! here’s Pip, trying to get on board again.

Pip wrestles with his half-drowned self. Then the Manxman speaks, seizing Pip by the arm.

  • The Manxman: — Peace, thou crazy loon. Away from the quarter-deck!

Ahab’s sympathy with this nearly drowned and unbalanced black child shines through.

  • Ahab: — The greater idiot [the Manxman] ever scolds the lesser! Hands off from that holiness! Where sayest thou Pip was, boy?
  • Pip: — Astern there, sir, astern! Lo! lo!

In panic, Pip had leapt from the boat in the midst of a chase, fell astern, and nearly drowned. His life was saved but in his immersion his sanity is lost. He hallucinates the boatmen, chopping at his arm, as he clings to the gunwale — “a hatchet, cut it off!” They have only hatred for cowards. Ahab alone acknowledges the shattered humanity before him:

  • Ahab asks: — And who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes. Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through! Who art thou, boy?

We know Pip is holiness, a holy fool, a shattered vessel. He chatters a confusion of identities, including that of a slaver’s escaped property.

  • Pip answers: — Bell-boy, sir; ship’s-crier; ding, dong, ding! Pip! Pip! Pip! One hundred pounds of clay reward for Pip; five feet high— looks cowardly— quickest known by that! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip the coward?
  • Ahab groans: — There can be no hearts above the snow-line. Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives.

In a startling line – is he near tears?–

  • Ahab whispers: — Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings. Come, let’s down.

Where is the vengeful, heartless Ahab?

  • Pip asks: — What’s this? here’s velvet shark-skin.

He intently gazes at Ahab’s hand. Is Ahab velvet or shark, mad or sane? Both!

  • Pip continues: — Ah, now, had poor Pip but felt so kind a thing as this, perhaps he had ne’er been lost! This seems to me, sir, as a man-rope; something that weak souls may hold by.
  • Pip pleads: — Oh, sir, let old Perth now come and rivet these two hands together; the black one with the white, for I will not let this go.
  • Ahab responds: — Oh, boy, nor will I thee, unless I should thereby drag thee to worse horrors than are here. Come, then, to my cabin.
  • Ahab continues, bitter yet tender: — Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude. Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor’s!

In pre-Civil War America, by Southern lights, these last words are disgusting and seditious, and by many Northern lights, they are heroically humane. The scene taps justice and compassion through and through.  A line of simple wisdom follows from the chorus, played by the Manxman.

  • The old Manxman mutters: — There go two daft ones now. One daft with strength, the other daft with weakness.[48]


Partial and Absorbing Views

Elsewhere enter the Captain, Starbuck, and Stubb on a clear day looking into the sea for an image of life. Each recounts what he sees – Ahab, fleeting moments of bliss amidst steady dark; Starbuck, love’s deep joy; Stubb, invitations to dive and play. Here is Ahab, meadows replacing seas:

Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,— though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,— in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm.[49]

He wonders plaintively where it will end:

Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.[50]

And for us Ahab exposes utter and eloquent despair:

Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. , , ,  Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! Damned in the midst of Paradise![51]

Strangely, in contrast to his earlier unmitigated defiance, Ahab’s unbelief is now chastened:

Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life . . . let me then tow to pieces .[52]


Starbuck also seeks truth in the mirror of the sea, and finds pure beauty:

And that same day, too, gazing far down from his boat’s side into that same golden sea, Starbuck lowly murmured: — “Loveliness unfathomable, as ever lover saw in his young bride’s eye! — Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.”[53]

Now shift to the light-hearted Stubb:

Stubb, fish-like, with sparkling scales, leaped up in that same golden light: — I am Stubb, and Stubb has his history; but here Stubb takes oaths that he has always been jolly! [54]

I quote at length, knowing no substitute for direct exposure to these powerful evocations of truths upon truths. But amidst their differences, what holds these sea-gazers in community?

If Stubb, Starbuck, Ahab see three different seas, do they face the same sea? Yes and no. Imagine seeing a building, first from the street, then from the sky, then from within. We have multiple viewing stations. Melville multiples angles of perception, and withholds an absolute vantage-point for comparison and ranking. I can never see a building’s insides the way plumbers will; I’ll be blind to nuance that’s obvious to them. And the view from the attic is not the view from the basement. In a very crude sense all viewers see “the same sea,” or the same building. Yet once perception becomes extended and nuanced, persons do not scan the same sea — nor do the plumber and I see the same building – except in a trivial sense.

It takes skill and good will to communicate across differences. My plumber may not be adept in presenting his angle to me. Starbuck may not be adept in conveying his view to Stubb or to Ahab.  There may be nods of appreciation — or stares of incomprehension — as each tries to convey a take on the waters. There is no rule book for communicating across aesthetic, moral, or religious differences. Even with careful listening and imagination, we will sometimes part ways disconnected and disappointed or dismayed.

Stubb, a fish who is jolly, won’t understand Ahab, a demon.  Ishmael understands both Ahab and Stubb, and Starbuck has capacious understanding. The Manxman understands neither Pip nor Ahab. It’s futile to look for a single rock-bottom truth here. We understand each other, when we do, one by one, in passing, in this context or that. Too often we discover we don’t understand. Life goes on. Or doesn’t.

The communicative arena is not just bleak with despair. There are shared moments of heart-stopping awe. Men divergent in bearing and belief can congeal in awe and wonder:

Suddenly the waters around them slowly swelled in broad circles; then quickly upheaved, as if sideways sliding from a submerged berg of ice, swiftly rising to the surface . . . Shrouded in a thin drooping veil of mist, it hovered for a moment in the rainbowed air; and then fell swamping back into the deep. Crushed thirty feet upwards, the waters flashed for an instant like heaps of fountains, then brokenly sank in a shower of flakes, leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round the marble trunk of the whale.[55]

Here a startlingly majesty, even a whiff of tenderness, transcends vast differences.


Always Birth After Death?

The magnificent, multi-tiered story is one of birth, death, and rebirth, of death-lines tangled with birth-lines:

Starbuck saw long coils of the umbilical cord of Madame Leviathan, by which the young cub seemed still tethered to its dam. [Often] this natural line, with the maternal end loose, becomes entangled with the hempen one, so that the cub is thereby trapped. Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond.[56]

The tangled cords release life — and insure death. We’re trapped betwixt and between. The last word might be a breakdown of life, the hunt bringing death — or is it a breakthrough of life escaped from disaster. Does the story end with a sinking vessel — or with a man saved by a coffin? The story rolls on, through disasters and rescues, rescues and disasters.

We hope for life’s joys: children, travel, health, gardens, music – and so much more. Yet life sinks toward inescapable death and is strewn by disaster and horror. Realities are varied and polarized. The crew dies, their story doesn’t. Immortality in – and of — story is the best immortality we’ll get – That’s as good as it gets, and perhaps good enough.

There is no summation or ledger for weighing joys against abjections. There’s no way to freeze life – even if we could — to tally wins and losses. The Pequod is destroyed. The whale-hunt destroys. Which is the greater disaster? A “cunning brute” hunts down another “cunning brute.” There’s no weighing one hunt, one brutishness, against others. And destructions interlock with triumphs of friendship, bravery, and compassion.

A hemp harpoon line brings a whale to death, while the coils of an umbilical cord bespeak life. We’re caught within the cords and lines of life and death, of whales, men, mothers, demi-gods, tyrants, holy fools. All but Ishmael are brought to the bottom. He clings to Queequeg’s coffin and is reborn to tell it all: of devastations and madness, of brides in the sea, of tenderness in mothering whales:

[W]e were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion. And still in the distracted distance we beheld . . . successive pods of whales, eight or ten in each, swiftly going round and round, like multiplied spans of horses in a ring. . . . We must watch for a breach in the living wall that hemmed us in; the wall that had only admitted us in order to shut us up.[57]

Within the vortex we find “Madame Leviathan,” nursing, swimming in curves of regeneration. This reverses the swirl that swallows the ship:

First, the whales forming the margin of our lake began to crowd a little, and tumble against each other, as if lifted by half spent billows from afar; then the lake itself began faintly to heave and swell; the submarine bridal-chambers and nurseries vanished . . . .[58]

Sinking ships are not the last or only word. Though short-lived,

the best of times are priceless:

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely reveled in dalliance and delight. But even so . . . do I myself . . . disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.[59]

These words are not easily reconciled with recurrent melancholy or with the fact of a raucous whale-hunt deservedly crushed. Yet Ishmael’s declares, “I myself still . . .  still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.”[60] He sits in astonished quiet:

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along . . . I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.[61]

In “eternal mildness of joy” he survives, bespeaking a strange resurrection. And in his grand multi-chambered memorial to the dead, he bequeaths a kind of immortality to his ship and shipmates and to the sea they fail to despoil.




[1]Herman  Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. eds. Harrison Hyaford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 374.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 276.

[4] Ibid., 182.

[5]Ibid., 164.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 195.

[8] Ibid., 107.

[9] D. M. MacKinnon,Death, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. MacIntyre and Flew and MacIntyre, (New York: St. Martins,1966), 266.

[10] Ibid., 573.


[11] For discussions of Cavell, Thoreau, Bugbee, and Henry James see my Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (London: Ashgate, 2009).

[12] There are truths in objectivity, and truths in subjectivity. See On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemic, Lost Intimacy and Time (London: Ashgate, 2007).

[13] See my Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from

 Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum Books, 2009, Ch. 3.

[14] See The Senses of Walden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992: 33), where Cavell asks if the pinnacle of American philosophy might be found not in pragmatism but in “the metaphysical riot” of 19th Century literature.

[15] Melville, Moby-Dick, 320.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 497.

[18] The naturalism at issue in might be called simply “Natural-Supernaturalism” or “Natural-Transcendentalism.” However, “Supernaturalism” and “Transcendentalism” resonate too strongly with otherworldliness. See my Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). For a fine discussion of romanticism and the re-enchantment of nature, see Anthony Rudd, “Wittgenstein and Heidegger as Romantic Modernists,” Wittgenstein and Heidegger, ed. Egan et. al. (London: Routledge, 2013).

[19]  Moby-Dick, 449. Thanks to Tom Nurmi for reminding me of this marvelous passage.

[20] Ibid., 491

[21] Ibid., 492

[22] Ibid., 374.

[23] Ibid. 492, For “befitting reverie.” see Excursions with Thoreau.

[24] Of course Ramadan should be a day long fast – Melville takes liberties.

[25] Moby-Dick, 62.

[26] Ibid., 81

[27] Ibid., 85.

[28] Ibid., 123.

[29] Ibid., 508.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 507.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid. 571.

[35] Ibid., 508. All this is before Zarathustra’s “God is dead and we have killed him.”

[36] Ibid., 389.

[37] Ibid., 433.

[38] Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2); Polonius’ lines are a spoof on scholars forcing literary works into categories. William Shakespeare. Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare 2 edition (2016)

[39] See my discussion of Job in Lost Intimacy, Ch. 3, “A Lyric Philosophy of Place.”

[40] Moby-Dick, 388.

[41] Rowan Williams, speaking at a poet’s funeral: “Loss is ‘imprecise’, nothing serious, grievous, in our humanity allows us the satisfaction of being exact, wrapping it all up. What we do with bereavement is to find words that ‘turn things about.’” See his memorial sermon, PN Review, Vol.43, No. 2, November-December 2016, 232.

[42] Robert Alter translates tohu wabohu as “waste and welter.” See Genesis: a New Translation. (New York: Norton, 1997). Tohu means waste or futility. Wabohu, to his ear, is a neologism. His notes explain his arrival at “waste and welter.”

[43] Genesis 50:26. Bible, New Standard Revised (National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989)

[44] Moby-Dick, 343.

[45] There is perhaps a farcical allusion here to Jonah reborn from the mouth of a whale.

[46]  Moby-Dick, 319.

[47] Ibid., 573.

[48] Ibid., 521-522.

[49] Ibid. 492; I can’t resist quoting what immediately follows:  “There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:— through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.”

[50] Ibid., 492.

[51] Ibid., 167.

[52] Ibid., 571. Ibid., 374.

[53] Ibid., 492.

[54] Ibid., 492.

[55] Ibid., 567.

[56] Ibid., 388. Women are absent in the novel; whaling is a man’s business. Yet the worlds of nursing, mothering, and childbirth enter in a heart-stopping scene that brings killing to a swift halt: the crew responds in awe to the ocean nursery, mothers and newborns swimming in circles. Childbirth and midwifery appear in Queequeg’s delivery of Tashtego from a whale’s womb-like spouting channel. Ibid., 343. Queequeg and Ishmael sleep in a loving embrace usually reserved for wife and husband. Ibid., 25.

[57] Ibid., 387.

[58] Ibid., 389.

[59] Ibid., 388-389.

[60] Thoreau: “Joy is the condition of life.” Henry David Thoreau, “The Natural History of Massachusetts,” Collected Essays and Poems of Thoreau, Ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell. (New York: Library of America, 2001), 22.

[61] Moby-Dick, 416.




Alter, Robert. Genesis: A New Translation. (New York: Norton, 1997).

Bible, New Standard Revised (National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989).

Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

MacKinnon, D, M. Death, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Flew and MacIntyre. (New York: St. Martins, 1963).

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. Ed. Harrison Hyaford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle.  (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

Mooney, Edward F. Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

—-   On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemic, Lost Intimacy and Time (London: Ashgate, 2007).

—–   Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (London: Ashgate, 2009).

Rudd, Anthony. “Wittgenstein and Heidegger as Romantic Modernists,” Wittgenstein and Heidegger, ed. Egan et. al. (London: Routledge, 2013).

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, (Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare 2 edition, 2016).

Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems of Thoreau, Ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell. (New York: Library of America, 2001).

Williams, Rowan, PN Review, Vol.43, No. 2, Nov–Dec, 2016.

2 comments on “Melville’s Moby Dick: Between Philosophy and Literature

  1. dmf says:
    Sunday Feature: The Battle for Henry David Thoreau

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