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Author(s): William Heath
Dialectical Anthropology
, Vol. 3, No. 4 (NOVEMBER 1978), pp. 315-330
Published by: Springer
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Accessed: 11-07-2016 21:23 UTC
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William Heath
Moby-Dick defies anything approaching a
"definitive" interpretation because it is such a
cornucopia of genres; the critic who discusses
the book as tragedy, neglects its comedy; some
see its epic sweep but miss its importance as
natural history; others praise its satire without
understanding its celebration of the American
whaling industry; still others see its symbolist
romance without being aware of its critique
of all modes of knowing; many are sensitive
to the book's ultimate religious concerns, but
few relate that sensitivity to a search for the
primitive, and the malaise of western civiliza?
tion.* Critics trained in psychoanalysis and
mythology discover inexhaustible depths, yet
even their readings are incomplete and mutual
ly incompatible. Melville intended the book to
be a dramatized image of the "ungraspable
phantom of life" and so it will remain; all
serious students of Moby-Dick must admit
that the most they can do is illuminate one or
two facets of the work, knowing that their
emphases may distort subtle balances, but
hoping that they may, nevertheless, help
readers to appreciate previously unperceived
Melville's experience of the ethnological
primitive, along with his projective primitivism,
are presented in Moby-Dick with profound
ambiguity: the primitive is associated, on the
one hand, with frightful origins, savage
slaughter, and demonic possession, and, on
William Heath is a poet and professor of English at Vassar
College, Poughkipsee, New York.
?Melville's denunciation of civilization, is perhaps the
strongest and most impressive writing in Typee and Omoo.
Melville was delighted by the basic joy of the Marquesans,
their freedom from excessive toil, their elaborate skills of
social intercourse, their relative lack of envy, vanity, quar?
reling, and contention, their "buoyant sense of healthful
physical existence," their effective social order, their com?
munal sense of life, their equitable distribution of goods,
their respect for women and their sense of dignity.
On several occasions in Typee Melville made the contrast
between primitive society and civilization explicit. Like
Thoreau, who read Typee while he was at Waiden Pond,
Melville prized simplicity:
"In a primitive state of society, the enjoyments of
life are unalloyed; but Ciyilization, for every advantage
she imparts, holds a hundred evils in reserve; - the heart?
burnings, the jealousies, the social rivalries, the family
dissensions, and the thousand self-inflicted discomforts of
refined life, which make up in units the swelling aggregate
of human misery, are unknown among these unsophisticated
people" [37a].
If contact with civilization overwhelmed the primitive world
with its image of materialistic wealth, contact with the
primitive enabled some sensitive observors to become aware
of the degradation of industrial society:
There were no foreclosures of mortgages, no protested
notes, no bills payable, no debts of honour in Typee; no
unreasonable tailors and shoemakers, perversely bent on
being paid; no duns of any description; no assault and
battery attorneys, to forment discord, backing their
clients up to a quarrel, and then knocking their heads to?
gether; no poor relations, everlastingly occupying the
spare bed-chamber, and diminishing the elbow-room at
the family table; no destitute widows with their children
starving on the cold charities of the world; no beggars;
no debtors' prisons; no proud and hardhearted nabobs in
Typee; or to sum up all in one word: no Money! [38].
(note continued)
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the other, with spiritual destiny, saving actions,
and redeeming rituals. The largely projective
(and negative) side of the "primitive" is em?
bodied in Ahab's satanic quest (actually a
primitivism, not an ethnological constitution
of reality), Fadallah and his devlish crew, the
sharkish sea, and the mythic (and malefic)
powers of the white whale, while the "positive"
side is found in the enormous figure of Queequeg
and the uncanny manifestations of Nature, from
the minute mysteries of brit to the sublime
revelations of leviathan. Ahab, of course, is the
visionary victim of his ail-too civilized Faustian
ambitions, primitive, in the sense of being a
primitive or fundamentalist old testamentarian,
or primitive in the psychoanalytic sense, i.e.,
at the mercy of primary processes and arhaic
repressions; and the white whale symbolizes
far more than the reified force of evil. Ishmael,
as the novel's mediator as well as its narrator,
must learn to face the appalling truths that
torment Ahab without losing the wisdom that
sustains Queequeg. Both Ahab and Queequeg
die for Ishmael: one to teach him the tragic
limits of the civilized human condition, the
other to locate for him the vital centre of
permanent values that makes life possible.
Structurally, Moby-Dick falls into several
sections, with one or two genres dominant at
any given time. The opening twenty-two
chapters of the book are essentially comic
? with tragic adumbrations ? centering on the
relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg.
Ishmael, a man who has named himself, is so
depressed by his experience of civilization that
he has contemplated suicide, but takes to the
sea instead. He is a meditative man with a taste
for speculation; his chief motive for choosing
whaling is "the overwhelming idea of the great
whale himself." Although he tries to be a
tolerant man, he has what Henry James called
"the imagination of disaster":
I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.
I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.
Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror,
and could still be social with it - would they let me -
Melville was also appalled by the rapid growth of industrial
society's death technology:
The fiend-like skill we display in the invention of all
manner of death-dealing engines, the vindictiveness with
which we cany on our wars, and the misery and desolation
that follow in their train, are enough of themselves to
distinguish the white civilized man as the most ferocious
animal on the face of the earth [38a].
Civilization's enormous atrocities, he concluded, far out?
weigh the primitive "crimes we regard with such abhorrence"
Because of "the tainted atmosphere of our feverish
civilization", Melville recommended that a group of
Marquesan missionaries be sent to the United States;
Melville's stay among the Marquesans had given him "a
higher estimate of human nature than I had ever before
entertained", and he had no doubt that the "good works"
of the missionaries would only lead to the destruction of the
Marquesans, depriving them of all of their cultural supports
and natural virtues and leaving them with none of the merits
and all of the defects of civilization. He had witnessed the
process at work in Tahiti and Hawaii, so he could picture the
Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the
images overturned, the temples demolished, and the
idolaters converted into nominal Christians, than disease,
vice, and premature death make their appearance. The
depopulated land is then recruited from the rapacious
hordes of enlightened individuals who settle themselves
within its border, and clamorously announce the progress
of the Truth. Neat villas, trim gardens, shaven lawns,
spires, and cupolas arise, while the poor savage soon finds
himself an interloper in the country of his fathers, and
that too on the very site of the hut where he was born.
The spontaneous fruits of the earth,.... remorselessly
seized upon and appropriated by the stranger, are devoured
before the eyes of the starving inhabitants, or sent on
board the numerous vessels which now touch at their
shores [39a].
The oppressed natives found themselves "civilized into
draught horses, and evangelized into beasts of burden,"
because the church, placing "an unwarranted confidence in
the sanctity of its apostles [40]," believed it was accomplishing
spiritual ends when, in actuality, it was using evil means to
achieve the rampant demoralization and inevitable destruction
of the very people it was pretending to save.
In Omoo Melville traced the missionary process to its fatal
conclusion. Even after the vast majority of Tahitians were
converted, it was clear that they were only superficial
Christians, forced into a life of hypocrisy, no longer following
their old tabus and not really believing in the blue laws that
had replaced them.
(note continued)
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since it is but well to be on friendly terms will all the
inmates of the place one lodges in [1].
Ishmael's tolerance and his propensity for
terror are soon tested when Peter Coffin, land?
lord of the Spouter-Inn, informs him that the
only bed left in the house is with a certain
"dark complexioned" harpooner who is out
at the moment selling heads! Ishmael is
tremulous when this "head-peddling purple
rascal" comes in the room, lights a sacrificial
blaze to an idol that resembles a "three days'
old Congo baby," and then jumps into bed
with him. He cries out for rescue - "Coffin!
Angels! save me!" [la] ? ironically predicting
the novel's end, when Queequeg's coffin will,
in fact, save him.
Ishmael quickly learns to prefer "a sober
cannibal" to a "drunken Christian," and he and
Queequeg become fast friends. Melville even
toys with an imagery of marriage; they sleep
in Peter Coffin's wedding bed; Ishmael wakes
up in the morning with Queequeg's arm around
him ("you had almost thought I had been his
wife"); he cannot "unlock his bridegroom
clasp"; and he sees lying beside them "the
tomahawk sleeping by the savage's side, as if
it were a hatch-faced baby." Queequeg's vow
of brotherhood culminates the imagery: "He
pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me
round the waist, and said that henceforth we
were married; meaning, in his country's phrase,
that we were bossom friends; he would gladly
die for me, if need should be." To celebrate
their union, Queequeg divides equally "some
thirty dollars in silver" between them and
Ishmael helps make an offering to Queequeg's
"innocent little idol." In bed they share "con?
fidential disclosures" and open the "very bot?
tom of their souls" with each other: "Thus,
then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and
Queequeg ? a cosy, loving pair." Critics have
been quick to see the obvious homosexual
hints in all this, but the stronger stress, it
seems to me, is on the virtues of primitive
brotherhood, on "how elastic our stiff
Melville forsaw only doom for the people of Polynesia.
Everywhere, he believed, the process was the same: the
explorers and sailors came spreading disease, disrupting the
economic and social balance, and debasing morals; next came
the missionaries and colonial administrators who converted
the right chief, created religious wars, and tookover,
repressing all pagan institutions. Since every cultural activity
of the Polynesians was related to religion, and since their
religion was also erotic in its orientation, the entire culture
was stamped out: no idols, no cannibalism, no dancing, no
games, no chanting, no flowers, no festivals, no nakedness
or native dress, no tattooing, no drums, no art. In Tahiti the
hair of the girls was shaved off, and in the Marquesas swim?
ming and bathing were discouraged and girls were segregated
on separate islands. Deprived of their culture, deprived, indeed,
of any valid reason to live, the Polynesians fell into apathy:
Their prospects are hopeless.... Years ago brought to
a stand, where all that is corrupt in barbarism and civiliza?
tion unite, to the exclusion of the virtues of either state
In another vein, Melville thought of confronting English
"coronation beauties" with a band of island girs, seeing the
"stiffness, formality, and affectation" of the former put to
shame by "the artless vivacity"and unconcealed natural graces
of these savage maidens," He imagined what "the fine gentle?
men and dandies" of New York would look like stripped
naked - "what a sorry set of round-shouldered spindle
shanked, crane-necked varlets would civilized man appear!
Stuffed calves, padded breasts, and scientifically cut pantaloons
would then avail them nothing" [42].
Modern Tahiti has been called "tobacco road with palms,"
and a recent study of the Marquesas concluded that graffiti
was now the only erotic art and that a crude system of "night
crawling" - brief, surreptitious encounters in the bush - had
replaced what once was an elaborate eroticism [43].
Ten years after the publication of Typee and Omoo,
Melville gave a lecture tour in which he talked about the
South Seas, always concluding his remarks with a plea for
Polynesia's preservation:
"I shall close with the earnest wish that adventurers from
our soil and from the lands of Europe will abstain from
those brutal and cruel vices which disgust even savages
with our manners, while they turn an earthly paradise
into a pandemonium. As a philanthropist in general, and a
friend of the Polynesians in particular, I hope that these
Edens of the South Seas, blessed with fertile soils and
peopled with happy natives, many being yet uncontam
inated by the contact of civilization, will long remain un?
spoiled in their simplicity, beauty, and purity. And as for
annexation, I beg to offer up an earnest prayer... that the
bans of that union should be forbidden until we have found
for ourselves a civilization morally, mentally, and
physically higher than one which has culminated in
almshouses, prisons, and hospitals [44].
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prejudices grow when once love comes to
bend them," and on how Ishmael has found
at last "a real friend" [2].
Queequeg's virtues are meant to contrast
with Ahab's vices and, in a broader way, serve
as a critique of the shortcomings of Christian
civilization. He is a man "who had never
cringed and never had ... a creditor," in his
nature "there lurked no civilized hypocrisies
and bland deceits." Ishmael senses spiritual
powers in him: "You cannot hide the soul.
Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought
I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and
in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold,
there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare
a thousand devils." Ishmael is "mysteriously
drawn" to his "calm self-collectedness of
simplicity" and his ability to always seem
"entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost
serenity; content with his own companionship;
always equal to himself." All these qualities
effect Ishmael, freeing him of the "damp,
drizzly November" in his soul which had driven
him to seek the sea: "I felt a melting in me.
No more my splintered heart and maddened
hand were turned against the wolfish world.
This soothing savage had redeemed it." This
reclemtpion is particularly apt, coming as it
does in the chapter immediately following
Father Marple's sermon which, wise as it was
about the wrath of God and the power of
repentance, had done nothing to soothe
Ishmael's own despair. He prefers a healing
pagan brotherhood to a "Christian kindness"
that has proved "but hollow courtesy" [3].
Queequeg is a natural aristocrat who even
looks, Ishmael insists, like "George Washington
cannibalistically developed." He is a native of
Kokovoko, an island "not down on any map;
true places never are." Clearly Queequeg is
essentially a Polynesian, probably a Marquesan,
but he is given some eclectic traits to fit with
the universalizing strategies of the novel. He is
from a "royal" family whose prerogatives are
suggestive of Tahiti or Hawaii; curious to see
the world, he risks being "hacked in pieces"
to board a whaler; the multiple sins of the
sailors quickly convince him that "it's a wicked
world in all Meridians" and that he might as
well "die a pagan." Indeed, he feels so defiled
by his life among Christians that he is ashamed
to return home and assume "the pure and un
defiled throne of thirty pagan Kings" until "he
felt himself baptized again." Thus he had be?
come a harpooner, and thus he was ready to
join with Ishmael and "with both my hands in
his, boldly dip into the Potluck of both worlds"
[4]. Like Ahab, Queequeg is a kingly man,
like him he feels defiled by the world's sinful
ness; but Queequeg sees the wickedness in
civilization, while Ahab believes it is in Nature;
and Queequeg seeks redemption, while Ahab
only wants revenge.
Queequeg's attitude toward his god, Yojo,
is a key to his spiritual health. Like the
"heathenish little idol" Tommo (i.e. Melville)
saw worshipped in Taipi Valley, Yojo is
approached with a mixture of petulance and
propitiation. Normally Queequeg kindles
some shavings before his idol, burning a ship's
biscuit in his honor, but when he is finished
he casually crams the idol in his pocket and
goes to sleep. On one occasion Ishmael sees
him whittling on Yojo's nose with his jack
knife, presumably trying to improve his image.
Like the Marquesan tutelary deities, Yojo is
benign but not always effectual: Queequeg
"cherished Yojo with considerable esteem, as a
rather good sort of god, who perhaps meant
well enough upon the whole, but in all cases
did not succeed in his benevolent designs" [5].
Ishmael has a liberal tolerance for Queequeg's
strange customs; he cherishes "the greatest
respect towards everybody's religious obliga?
tions, never mind how comical"; he knows
that everyone is at least a little bit crazy:
"Heaven have mercy on us all ? Presbyterians
and Pagans alike ? for we are all somehow
dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly
need mending." Ishmael, in spite of his affinity
for horror and despair, is essentially a genial,
moderate man; he loses his tolerance for
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Quequeg's Yojo worship only at the point
where he feels it is becoming fanatical: "when
a man's religion becomes really frantic; when
it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine,
makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable
inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to
take that individual aside and argue the point
with him." He tries to lecture Queequeg on
"the rise and progress of the primitive religions,"
suggesting that devotional excesses and doc?
trinal hellfire violate health and good sense;
Queequeg greets these arguments with "con?
descending concern," regretting that Ishmael
is "hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety"
[63]. All these interchanges between Ishmael
and Queequeg dramatize the trajectory of
culture shock, that is, learning to grow through
an interaction with the radical other. Chapter
XVII, "The Ramadan," suggests that all
religions have absurd, exacting beliefs which
one should tolerate unless they threaten well
being and sanity. Ahab's fanatical hatred and
fire worship contrast clearly with Queequeg's
worship of Yojo, exemplary in its moderation.
Whatever the oddities of Queequeg's beliefs,
real spiritual consequences are evident:
Queequeg is always equal to himself, his
presence has a soothing effect on Ishmael, and
at three key places in the novel he actually
saves people's lives. The first time is on the
boat to Nantucket when a bumpkin who had
been mimicking Queequeg is swept overboard
and only Queequeg has the instantaneous
sense to dive in and rescue him. Ishmael
marvels at the feat: "Was there ever such un?
consciousness?" ? echoing Rousseau in his
admiration for the natural pity displayed by
this "pre-rational" man who instictively
identifies with the sufferings of others and
who has the psychic and physical grace to do
something about them. In contrast, still fol?
lowing Rousseau, Ahab is a "degenerate animal"
who has allowed his moody meditations to cut
himself off from all-fellow-feeling and who,
instead of living in kinship with nature has
turned his hand and heart against the natural
world. For Queequeg "it's a mutual, joint-stock
world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help
these Christians," but for Ahab:
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the
lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the
sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of
life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly
personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.
He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the
general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam
down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he
burst his hot heart's shell upon it [7].
Melville does not intend to satirize Ahab in
his "crazy" rage; he takes very seriously the
existence of evil and the overwhelming sense
of the indignities and injustices suffered by
the human race; he wants us to identify with
Ahab as a tragic figure in so far as he has taken
the terrible, pitiable plight of mankind to heart.
Ahab has good cause for his wrath, like the
philosopher Zeno who killed himself because
he stubbed his toe, Ahab perceives in the loss
of his leg an instance of our frail mortality
and with Promethian spite he wants to protest
against his, and our, fate. Melville wants us to
perceive that Ahab's "quenchless feud," is
also ours; he wants us to contemplate whether
the white whale might indeed be the agent of
the demonic forces of the world, but he knows
that only Ahab would be mad enough actually
to believe this and thus try to hunt the leviathan
Queequeg is to demonstrate that there is
another way. Counterpointing Ahab's mono?
mania are a few carefully positioned chapters
that plead for universal brotherhood. In
Chapter LXXII, "The Monkey Rope," Ishmael
and Queequeg are literally tied together while
Queequeg does the dangerous business of
cutting-in on the d^ad whale. Typically,
Ishmael perceives the situation philosophically:
"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."
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Complicity and mortal interdependence are
fundamental to existence, Ishmael realizes,
thus mutual aid and fraternity are the best
ways to cope with man's fate. The brotherhood
theme is reinforced by Queequeg's rescue of
Tashtego from the "Tun," where an imagery
of midwifery emphasizes Queequeg's control
over death and rebirth. Chapter XCIV, "A
Squeeze of the Hand," expresses the theme
with the greatest poignancy: "Oh! my dear
fellow beings, why should we longer cherish
any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill
humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all
round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into
each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally
into the very milk and sperm of kindness" [8].
Queequeg's life-saving ways receive their
apotheosis in Chapter CX, "Queequeg in his
Coffin." Working in the ship's hold, Queequeg
comes down with a fever that brings him to
the point of death. Ishmael watches his dying
friend with mear religious veneration: "his
eyes seemed rounding and rounding, like the
rings of Eternity. An awe that cannot be named
would steal over you as you sat by the side of
this waning savage, and saw as strange things
in his face, as any beheld who were bystanders
when Zoroaster died." The allusion to Zoro?
aster hints at Queequeg's affinity with civiliza?
tion's early spiritual teachers; like a true
Marquesan, Queequeg faces death with com?
plete composure, ordering his coffin to be
shaped like a canoe so he could, when he died,
float away to "the starry archipelagoes" of his
heaven. When his coffin is finished, he is lifted
into it so that he can try out its comforts:
"There lay Queequeg in his coffin with little
but his composed countenance in view.
'Rarmai' (it will do; it is easy), he murmured
at last, and signed to be replaced in his ham?
mock." Remarkably, once his coffin is com?
plete, he decides not to die and, within a day,
is miraculously restored to full health. The
sailors are amazed:
They asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter
of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered,
certainly. In a word, it was Queequeg's conceit, that if a
man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not
kill him; nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some violent,
ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort [8a].
The contrast of Queequeg's life force with
Ahab's death drive could not be more apparent.
When the native recovers he carves all over the
coffin-canoe a replica of his own tattooing,
containing "a complete theory of the heavens
and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the
art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his
own proper person was a riddle to unfold" [9].
These mystic tattoo markings are the equivalent
of the Marquesan canoe maker's chants, telling
how all created things are related.
The symbolic importance of Queequeg's
ability to will his own life or death is obvious
? interestingly, several commentators claim
that the Marquesans had just such powers:
When a native felt that he must die, he took it calmly and
ordered his coffin, which he caused to be brought to the
house while he was still in life. The coffin is hollowed out
of a single log and resembles a canoe. If the sick man after
all recovered, the coffin was kept in a corner of the house
till it was wanted [ 10 ].
Stevenson noted a similar phenomenon:
A Marquesan, dying of... discouragement... has been
known... on the mere sight of that desired hermitage, his
coffin - to revive, recover, shake off the hand of death,
and be restored for years to his occupations_From all
this it mz'/ be conceived how easily they meet death when
it approaches naturally [11].
The primitive ability to accept death and will
dynamic life represents a viable alternative to
the lacerating confrontations imposed by a
tragic sense of existence. The final exaltation
of this theme comes at the very end of the
book, when Ahab's defiant hunt has resulted
in all hands going down with the ship except
one, Ishmael, who is drawn into the sinking
ship's deadly vortex only to be saved by
Queequeg's coffin-canoe:
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Till, gaining the vital centre, the black bubble upward burst;
and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and,
owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the
coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over,
and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for
almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and
dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by
as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks
sailed with sheathed beaks [12].
After being overwhelmed by the tragic flood,
Ishmael has found the "vital centre" of primitive
existence, no longer are sharks evil or the sea
cruel; he has undergone the ritual and been re?
The eros theme, which received sustained,
if euphemistic, treatment in Typee and Omoo
appears, at first glance, to be largely missing
from Moby-Dick. A closer look, however,
suggests that this theme has been subject to
deep sublimation, resulting in important
symbolic transformations. Explicit hetero?
sexual references in the novel are rare. Captain
Bildad, we learn, has seen "unclad, lovely island
creatures," but the experience "had not moved
this native born Quaker one single jot." Eros
has no appeal for the penurious Bildad; it is
only a minor temptation to be avoided: "If
ye touch the islands, Mr. Flask, beware of
fornication." In the period of psychic release
and drunken license following Ahab's impas?
sioned hate speech on the quarter deck, a few
sailors talk of erotic dancing girls. The Maltese
sailor asserts, "There's naught so sweet on
earth ? heaven may not watch it ! ? as those
swift glances of warm, wild bosoms in the dance,
when the over-arboring arms hide such ripe,
bursting grapes." The Sicilian sailor responds,
"Hark ye, lad - fleet interlacings of the limbs -
lithe swayings ? coyings ? flutterings! lip!
heart! hip! all graze: unceasing touch and go!
not taste, observe ye, else come satiety. Eh,
Pagan?" To which the Tahitian sailor cries out,
"Hail, holy nakedness of our dancing girls! -
the Heeva-Heeva!" This exchange is interesting
for the intoxicated sailors, freed for the moment
from conscious restraint, seem to be expressing
the same sexual ambivalence that Melville felt
in the presence of Marquesan eroticism; the
power of primitive dancing had not left his
imagination, its allure and threat were still felt,
but his libidinal longings are only allowed a few
explicit moments, while the passional energies,
of the book are transmuted into the symbolic
implications of the whale hunt. Just before
the Pequod encounters Moby Dick in the
culminating moribund duel, there is another sig?
nificant reference to eros; when the Pequod
meets the Bachelor they see: "on the quarter?
deck, the mates and harpooners were dancing
with the olive-hued girls who had eloped with
them from the Polynesian Isles" [13]. The
Bachelor, we note, is a full ship, homeward
bound and sexually satisfied; while the Pequod
is a near-empty vessel, outward bound and
under the sway of a maimed, symbolically
castrated captain.
In Moby-Dick some heterosexual longing
has been displaced onto homoerotic brother?
hood, but the deeper and more powerful
sexual consciousness of the book dramatizes
Freudian fears. As in any authentically sym?
bolic work, the sexual emblems in the novel
cannot be reduced to a single interpretation.
Ahab, who lost one of his legs, who accidental?
ly "all but pierced his groin" [14] with his
ivory substitute leg, and who vowed revenge
on his dismemberer, hoping to kill the great
white whale with his puny harpoon, can easily
be seen as a case study in castration fear,
potency frustration, father hatred, and phallic
envy. The power and potency of sperm whales
in general and Moby Dick in particular are
stressed; there is ample ground to agree with
D.H. Lawrence that Moby Dick is the deepest
phallic being of the white race hunted to the
death by a monomaniac of the idea - the
upper consciousness trying to obliterate
"blood-awareness" [15].
Moby Dick, of course, is much more than a
glorified phallic symbol; he is a primal god,
charged with all the ambiguities of man's
religious quest, instilling wonder, terror, awe,
worship, defiance, love, and hatred; he is
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benign as well as malign, angelic and demonic,
summing up in his divine self the mixed
blessings and curses of existence. But Moby
Dick is also a big albino whale with an ab?
normal temper and more than enough natural
qualities and mysteries to preclude any need
for a psychological or theological interpreta?
tion. In fact, more of Moby Dick is devoted
to a natural history of the sperm whale than to
any other of the book's numerous genres,
aspects, and themes; Melville is at least as
interested in real blubber as he is in imaginative
Melville consciously emphasizes certain
sexual implications of his novel. In a significant
chapter, "The Grand Armada," the Pequod is
pulled by a whale into the vital centre of a vast
circle of whales; there, beneath the surface of
the water, Ishmael looks down and sees whale
mothers nursing their babies and young whales
breeding: "Some of the subtlest secrets of the
seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted
pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the
deep" [16]. This sight vividly dramatizes the
central sustaining truth of eros, complementing,
as it does, IshmaePs finding of the "vital centre"
of the vortex at the novel's end.
The importance of finding the centre is
highlighted by an intricate pattern of imagery
involving circles. At various stages in the novel
Melville presents images of the cyclical nature
of existence; often these circle images suggest
fatality and futility. Thus Ishmael warns the
young Pantheist that he hovers "over Descartian
vortices"; later he fears that the Pequod's
pursuit of the white whale might be fruitless:
"Round the world! There is much in that
sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto
does all that circumnavigation conduct?
Only through numberless perils to the very
point whence we started" [17].
Stubb's major soliloquoy equating the
signs of the zodiac with the human life cycle
depicts a Shakespearian pessimism with an
existence that ripens only, in turn, to rot.
Ishmael sees the same wheel of futility in
man's striving for philosophical certainty:
There is no steady unretraeing progress in this life; we
do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last
one pause: - through infancy's unconscious spell, boy?
hood's thoughtless faith, adolescence's doubt (the com?
mon 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 [17a].
Ishmael, speaking for Melville, wants his book
to encompass "the whole circle of the sciences,
and all the generations of whales, and men, and
mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all
the revolving panoramas of empire on earth,
and throughout the whole universe, not ex?
cluding its suburbs." [18] That he must fail in
his prodigious effort he does not deny, but
that the attempt itself is heroic is his justifica?
tion. Man must try to do more than mortal
can do ? hence Ahab tries to kill the mightiest
whale and Melville tries to write a mighty book.
The circle imagery leads to questions: how
wide are our horizons, how significant our life
cycles, how purposeful our quests, and how
truthful and complete is our knowledge. On a
more sinister level it warns us of our vanity
and self-consciousness, as well as presenting
terrifying images of the earth's cyclical food
chain as life feeds on life. Thus the circle
imagery ties in with the profoundly significant
theme of cannibalism. From Tommo's (Melville's
name for himself in Typee) private fears that
the happy primitive appearance was not the
reality and his terror that he would be a can?
nibalized victim of a sacrificial rite, Melville
has concocted a metaphysical principle ? we
are all cannibals, all life preys on itself; both
Ishmael and Ahab perceive this as a dark truth
of the universe. Perhaps the most frightful
cannibalism of all is self-cannibalism - Ahab
is compared to a vulture feeding on his own
heart; in his sleep he drives his nails into his
own palms. The most disturbing image of this
motif is Ishmael's picture of sharks in their
frenzy eating themselves:
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The viciously snapped, not only at each other's disembowel
ments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their
own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over
again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by
the gaping wound [18a].
It is this sight, more than any other, that con?
vinces Ishmael of the demonic forces of life:
"If you have never seen that sight, then suspend
your decision about the propriety of devil
worship, and the expediency of conciliating
the devil." From this and related experiences,
Ishmael learns to articulate a tragic pattern:
"Oh, horrible vulturism of earth! from which
not the mightiest whale is free." "Go to the
meat-market of a Saturday night," Ishmael says,
"and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up
at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does
not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal's
jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?" [19]
Thus in his own way Ishmael comes to under?
stand the tragic truth that has enraged Ahab
ever since the whale bit off his leg. We all kill
to live and we are all trapped within the circle.
All the circle images suggest the limitations
of the human condition; they create an under?
lying need for some vital centre that will re?
concile civilized humanity to its fate. Sup?
plying that centre is the axial contribution of
Queequeg to the novel; he can redefine life's
tragic contradictions, and he can point to their
transcendence. In the perspective of tragedy,
circles exemplify the turning wheel of fortune,
how every human destiny waxes and wanes;
but for primitive peoples the circle is a symbol
of how everything in nature revolves only to
renew itself:
Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle.
The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round
like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest
power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs
is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes
down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both
are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their
changing, and always come back again to where they were.
The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood,
and so it is in everything where power moves [20].
Melville postulates this primitive belief in the
redemptive power of the circle when speaking
of Queequeg's sense of life's centre and of "the
charmed, churned circle of the sperm whale"
[21 ]. If the natural order is resisted, then all
cycles from those of the planetary spheres to
that of the solitary life are feared as the chains
that bind man to his mortality, but if the
natural order is accepted, then the circle
symbolizes how each is a part of the all and
the individual is sustained and compensated
by the myth of the eternal return.
Phallic motifs play a central part in Melville's
sexual symbolism. For example, the phallic
connotations of harpoons is made clear in a
court case Melville uses to demonstrate the
difference between fast-fish and loose-fish:
though the gentleman had originally harpooned the lady,
and had once had her fast, and only by reason of the
great stress of her plunging viciousness, had at last
abandoned her; yet abandon her he did, so that she
became a loose-fish; and therefore when a subsequent
gentleman re-harpooned her, the lady then became that
subsequent gentleman's property, along with whatever
harpoon might have been found sticking in her [21a].
The phallic import of the sperm whale is
esoterically indicated in Chapter XCV, "The
Cassock," where Melville describes the mincer
skinning the whale's penis, called by the
sailors "the grandissimus," and then wearing
the skin as a protective covering during the
trying-out of the blubber: "the mincer now
stands before you invested in the full canonicals
of his calling.... What a candidate for an
archbishoprick!" The treatment here is playful
and punning, but Melville knows phallic worship
is of ancient origin. He is well aware of the
sacred power of the whale's "unaccountable
longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at
the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg.
And an idol, indeed, it is; or, rather, in old times, its
likeness was. Such an idol as that found in the secret
groves of Queen Maachah in Judea; and for worshipping
which, king Asa, her son, did depose her, and destroyed
the idol, and burnt it for an abomination in the brook
Kedron, as darkly set forth in the 15th chapter of the
first book of Kings [22].
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The association of the whale's phallic power
with Queequeg's idol reinforces the erotic life
both represent; one wonders if Melville's
fascination with phallus-worship and potency
themes in Moby-Dick derives from his wit?
nessing and reflecting on the erotic mysteries
of Marquesan religion.
The phallic motifs in Moby-Dick are related
to another major theme: the quest for the
deity. This theme, which is central to the
primitive symbolism of the novel, has multiple
dimensions. Melville seems especially inspired
by the question of whether we can know the
creator through the creation; whether the
nature of Nature can tell us the true nature of
God; and, just as importantly, he was obsessed
by the meanings of the hunt, an activity with
obvious primitive analogies.
Although Melville was puzzled by Marquesan
religion, it must have been clear to him that
the communal harmonies of their society,
which so pleased him, were directly related
to their system of beliefs. Furthermore, he
must have been aware of primitive people's
faith in the enriching reciprocities of man and
nature, and of their pantheistic leanings,
reverencing a host of spiritual forces and
presences in the natural world. The corollary
to Melville's interest in the origins of religion
and primitive patterns of belief is his disen?
chantment with Christianity and western
civilization. He was drawn to what he con?
sidered the deep tragic truths of Christianity
- innate depravity, the prevalence of sin and
evil, the sense of apocalyptic doom ? as well
as the more meliorative aspects of primitive
religion; but he felt that the western world
was spiritually enervated, manifesting its
decadence in social alienation and materialistic
calculation. Moby-Dick is an attempt to com?
bine the tragic truths of western civilization
with the primordial symbolism of primitive
belief, in the hope of assimilating both
perspectives into a new synthesis. It is intended
to be a holy book, a new scripture for an age
that has lost its spiritual centre. Melville was
not alone in this ambitious program; Emerson,
Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Whitman also tried
to fill what they felt was a religious vacuum,
but Moby-Dick is certainly the most impressive
of these attempts; precisely because Melville
conjures with such a vast wealth of primitive
Melville believed that the further back he
could trace the origins of worship and the
genesis of man, the more disturbing the truths
he would encounter. Father Marple's sermon
introduces this idea when he argues that Jonah,
after he had been swallowed and spewed out
by the whale, after he had been sucked down
to the ocean's floor and learned that "God is
everywhere," had the prophet's duty "to
preach the Truth in the face of Falsehood."
However, for Melville the deeper the truth the
less palpable it is, so Father Marple warns all
would-be prophets: "Woe to him who seeks to
please rather than appall!" [23]. The important
truths are appalling truths, the deeper the
seeker is willing to go, the darker the revelations
he discovers.
Ishmael often seems to speak for Melville
when he probes into Nature's religious mysteries,
seeking the appalling truth. In the novel's
cetological center he tries to systematize his
findings on whales and other wonders of the
sea: "The classification of the constituents
of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed." He
believes there is a latent terror in the ponderous
task he has set himself: "To grope down into
the bottom of the sea after them; to have one's
hands among the unspeakable foundations,
ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fear?
ful thing." In his effort to explain Ahab's
motivations, he argues that mad Ahab may
have undergone a breakthrough as well as a
breakdown, that he has had a glimpse of, and
been driven insane by, life's essential horror:
"Ahab's larger, darker, deeper part remains
unhinted. But vain to popularize profundities,
and all truth is profound." In Chapter LXII,
"The Whiteness of the Whale," Ishmael
speculates on a wide variety of reasons why
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the color white torments Ahab, giving several
key examples of the special reverence white
receives from primitive peoples (but not
mentioning that white was the signifying color
of tabu in the Marquesas). He has a series of
chilling intuitions about the latent terrors of
whiteness, asserting that it is the color that
best expresses how nothing is as it seems:
"Though in many of its aspects this visible
world seems formed in love, the invisible
spheres were formed in fright." This is IshmaePs
pessimism in extremes; once the appearance
is stripped away, the "palsied universe" reveals
its essence - like a painted whore Nature's
"allurements cover nothing but the charnel
house within" [24].
Ishmael's apprehensions about the core of
existence relate to Melville's projective, demonic
primitivism; Qieeqieg may stand for saving
brotherhood, but his counterpart, Fedallah,
presumably goes back to life's sinister origins:
He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the
temperate zone only see in their dreams, and that but
dimly; but the like of whom now and then glide among
the unchanging Asiatic communities, especially the
Oriental isles to the east of the continent - those
insulated, immemorial, unalterable countries, which even
in these modern days still preserve much of the ghostly
aboriginalness of earth's primal generations, when the
memory of the first man was a distinct recollection, and
all men his descendents, unknowing when he came, eyed
each other as real phantoms, and asked of the sun and
the moon why they were created and to what end; when
though, according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted
with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the un
canonical Rabbins, indulged in mundane amours [25].
Fedallah is a Parsee, not ethnologically prim?
itive, but a descendant of the ancient Persians,
whose fire-worshipping Melville believed may
have been one of the first religions. Hence the
great significance of fire in such key chapters
as "The Try-Works" and "The Candles."
Melville's primitivism here is scriptural: it
conjures up the images of hell fire, devil wor?
ship and demonic possession; the Parsee's
presence on board the Pequod implies that
Ahab has made a pact with the devil to obtain
his Faustian ends.
The sperm whale is also a creature whose
genealogy goes back to "the sourceless
primogenitures of the gods." In Chapter LXX,
"The Sphynx," Ahab looks at a sperm whale's
head, in what amounts to an absurdist version
of Hamlet's soliloquy on Yorick's skull, and
ponders what truths the whale has witnessed:
Of all divers, thou has dived the deepest. That head upon
which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this
world's foundations...where in her murderous hold this
frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the
drowned.... O head! thou hast seen enough to split the
planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one
syllable is thine! [25a].
Ahab wants the whale's wisdom; he feels that
the world is replete with affinities between man
and nature, but he fears that the ultimate
meanings of existence will remain unspeak?
able: "O Nature, and O soul of man! how far
beyond all utterance are your linked analogies!"
[26]. Here Ahab shows his kinship with
Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson
who believed that learning one of Nature's
secrets would make man master of the whole
system, but he is also engaging, to a degree,
in totemistic thought, meditating on the
qualities of the whale in order to find life's
If the totem animal is chosen for its ex?
ceptional qualities and powers, and if man
needs a this-worldly deity to demythologize
the heavenly abstractions of the Christian
tradition, then what better naturalistic, primal
God could be found than the sperm whale:
had the great Sperm Whale been known to the young
Orient world, he would have been deified by their child
magian thoughts.... If hereafter any highly cultured,
poetical nation shall lure back to their birth-right, the
merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone, them
again in the now egqtistical sky; in the now unhaunted
hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove's high seat, the great
Sperm Whale shall lord it [26a].
The tone here is jocular, but Melville is being
very serious: if man must worship, let it be a
sperm whale, the mightiest creature in all
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creation. If there really is no God, then the
sperm whale is a fitting substitute, and if there
is a God, then the sperm whale may well be
His closest naturalistic approximation. In
either case, compared to the relatively recent
imposition of Christianity, the sperm whale is
a fit symbol for the primal origins of the earth.
When Ishmael contemplates "mighty Leviathan
skeletons" he feels:
borne back to that wonderous period, ere time itself can
be said to have begun; for time began with man... and I
obtain dim, shuddering glimpses into those Polar eternities;
when wedging bastions of ice pressed hard upon what are
now the Tropics_Then the whole world was the whale's;
and, king of creation, he left his wake along the present
lines of the Andes and the Himmelehs. Who can show a
pedigree like Leviathan? Ahab's harpoon had shed older
blood than the Pharoah's. Methuselah seems a schoolboy.
I look round to shake hands with Shem. I am horror
struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the
unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been
before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages
are over [27].
The primitive implications of Melville's deifica?
tion of the whale, his animistic response to
the natural world, meditating on the mysteries
of the sea and its creatures and finding endless
"linked analogies" upon which to build his
philosophy of existence, cannot be insisted
upon enough. Moby-Dick is a truly radical
attempt to re-orientate our western outlook
and revitalize the possibilities of the primitive
(while recognizing the precariousness of our
situation); thus the book looks "backwards"
to the East (and beyond) and the "origins"
of religious belief, as well as anticipating the
twentieth century in its facing of our most
annihilating existential truths, as we have
learned to define them.
No one can claim that Moby-Dick is a
perfect work of art, Melville was too fitful a
craftsman and too deeply divided against himsel:
for that; but who will deny the power of the
novel's resulting ambiguities? No where is
this more clearly evident than in the motif of
the hunt that provides the novel's momentum
and suspense, and its deepest levels of meaning.
The hunt, the central activity in many primitive
societies, and a subsidiary activity in most of
the others, is richly integrated with religious
belief and ritual observance. Although the
Marquesans were known to hunt sharks and
whales, and although certain of their legends
involve confrontations with sea creatures,
theirs was not essentially a hunting society.
Melville's dramatization of the hunt probably
owes more to his own experience as a whaler
and his research into the origin of religion
than it does to his life in Taipi Valley, but whatever
the source, great stress is placed in the novel
on the aboriginal significance of the hunt.
When Ishmael decides to go whaling he makes
a point of sailing from Nantucket where "those
aboriginal whalemen, the Red-Men," first
sallied out "in canoes to give chase to the
Leviathan." He is reminded again of the
primitive origins of the hunt when he sees "a
heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears"
hung on the wall of the Spouter-Inn: Ishmael
"shuddered as [he] gazed, and wondered what
monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have
gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking,
horrifying implement." The whaling ship he
chooses, the Pequod, also has primitive con?
notations; she is named after "a celebrated
tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct as
the Medes" and her appearance suggests the
primitive hunt: "She was a thing of trophies.
A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in
the chased bones of her enemies." When
Queequeg signs on as a harpooner, Peleg, despite
his Quaker pretensions, is happy he is a
heathen: "Pious harpooners never make good
voyagers ? it takes the shark out of 'em; no
harpooner is worth a straw who aint pretty
sharkish." The other two harpooners are
praised for their primitive attributes too:
"Tashtego, an unmixed Indian from Gay
Head... an inheritor of the unvitiated blood of
those proud warrior hunters, who, in quest of
the great New England moose, had scoured,
bow in hand, the aboriginal forests of the
main" and "Daggoo, a gigantic, coal-black
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negro-savage, with a lion-like tread ? an
Ahasuerus to behold_retained all his barbaric
virtues." Ishmael even asserts that he and the
rest of the crew are transformed by the whale
hunt irlto the primitive:
Long exile from Christendom and civilization inevitably
restores a man to that condition in which God placed
him, i.e. what is called savagery. Your true whale-hunter
is as much a savage as an Iroquois. I myself am a savage,
owning no allegiance but to the King of the Cannibals;
and ready at any moment to rebel against him [27a].
Spaced through the novel are repeated refer?
ences to the primitive origins of the hunt and
the savage nature of whale hunters. Queequeg,
who is impressively individualized in the
opening chapters of the novel, becomes, with
the exception of a few significant chapters,
merely one of "the pagan harpooners" once
the Pequod sets sail and the chase begins.
After one kill the crew even find a stone lance
embedded in a dead whale: "Who had darted
that stone lance? And when? It might have
been darted by some Nor' West Indian long
before America was discovered" [28].
The mad master of the hunt is, of course,
Ahab, who, in his electrifying hate-speech on
the quarter-deck, works the crew up into a
frenzy to serve his vengeance: "And this is
what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that
white whale on both sides of land, and over all
sides of the earth, till he spouts black blood
and rolls fin out.... Death to Moby Dick! God
hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to
his death!" [29]. Then the three harpooners
drink "fiery waters" from their harpoon sockets,
ratifying their commitment to the diabolical
hunt. In Chapter CXIX, "The Candles," they
renew their vows by dipping their harpoons in
blood (as did Marquesan warriors when taking
revenge on an enemy).
There are at least three major kinds of whale
hunt presented in Moby-Dick. Ahab is aware
that it will be a long time, if ever, before he
and the crew actually grapple with the whale,
so he permits whaling business as usual until
that fateful moment comes. One kind of hunt,
then, is the profit-making, impersonal slaughter
of sperm whales carried out at the command of
mercantile-capitalist enterprise. On this level,
the Pequod is simply a floating factory and
the whale is systematically obliterated in the
interests of commercial profit. Hence, Starbuck,
Stubb, and Flask, in differing ways, all look
on whaling merely as a job: Starbuck wants
"to kill whales for my living" and be done
with it"; for Stubb "long usage... had con?
verted the jaws of death into an easy chair,"
and for Flask, "utterly lost... to all sense of
reverence_the wonderous whale was but a
species of magnified mouse, or at least water
rat, requiring only a little circumvention and
some small application of time and trouble
in order to kill and boil." Ahab is aware that
"the permanent constitutional condition of
the manufactured sordidness,";
the degraded and alienated workers in his
floating factory are not inclined to sustain his
own vindictiveness; therefore he makes a point
of observing "all customary usages" and not
stripping the crew of "all hopes of cash" [30].
Or, as D.H. Lawrence aptly put it, "all that
practicality on the mad, mad chase" [31].
When Ishmael decides to sign on, he chooses
to be a worker rather than a passenger because
he believes that "there is all the difference in
the world between paying and being paid,"
but he does not look on the whale hunt from
a merely monetary perspective. He takes pride
in the wealth and success of the American
whaling industry, and although the deeper
levels of the novel powerfully refute the values
of capitalism, superficially he celebrates "the
high and mighty business of whaling," using
the Pequod's games with the whalers of other
nations to illustrate America's superiority over
her competitors. In Chapter XXIV, "The
Advocate," Ishmael makes a case for the role
whalers have played *'in ferreting out the
remotest and least known parts of the earth"
for colonization and imperialism. He even
praises the presence of whalers in the South
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in the infancy of the first Australian settlement, the
emigrants were several times saved from starvation by the
benevolent biscuit of the whale-ship luckily dropping
anchor in their waters. The uncounted isles of all
Polynesia confess the same truth, and do commercial
homage to the whale-ship, that cleared the way for the
missionary and the merchant, and in many cases carried
the primitive missionaries to their first destinations [32].
There does not seem to be any irony in this
passage, although we know from Typee and
Omoo that Melville hardly throught the
presence of missionaries and merchants in
Polynesia was a blessing. Ishmael, while he is
often Melville's direct spokesman, is at other
times solely a novice who states commonplace
beliefs; here, perhaps, he is consciously playing
the role of advocate and, like any "good"
lawyer, selectively puts forward an argument.
IshmaePs attitude toward whaling and the
whale deepens as the novel progresses. Already
a rather thoughtful man, he begins to meditate
on the whale shortly after the Pequod sails
until, by the time the white whale is sighted,
he has presented incredibly exhaustive in?
formation about whales, from the crudest
attempts to paint them to the most subtle
observations of their anatomy and physiology.
His intimate reflection on the qualities and
meanings of the sperm whale mirrors the way
in which primitive hunters study and achieve
empathy with their prey. In the primitive hunt
there is a reciprocal relationship between the
hunter and the hunted, often the hunter
dresses in the skin of the animal he stalks,
offerings may be made to propitiate the spirit
of the beast, and the whole activity is con
textualized by religious rituals which engender
a mystical participation between man and
animal. Again and again Ishmael urges us to
join him in his meditation on the whale: "Oh,
man! admire and model theyself after the
whale!" he says, hoping we will learn to
assimilate the best qualities of the whale (as
primitives do with their totem animals).
He even equates knowing about the whale with
gaining wisdom: "unless you own the whale
you are but a provincial and a sentimentalist
in Truth." Yet the whale, as the ultimate sym?
bol of the mystery of Nature, is not only more
complex than we think, but more complex
than we can think: "Dissect him how I may,
then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and
never will" [33].
Ishmael's participation in the primitive
mysteries of hunting is impressively revealed
by his powerful descriptions of the hunt itself,
from the magnificent chapter on the first
lowering to the horrendous depiction of the
final three-day chase of Moby Dick. He not
only experiences the full pity, terror, wonder,
and awe of the whale, but also he is "directly
brought into contact with whatever is appalling
astonishing in the sea," regaining "that sense
of the full awfulness of the sea which ab?
originally belongs to it, as well as a sense of
the "sweet mystery" of the sea, "whose gently
awful stirrings seem to speak to some hidden
soul beneath." Having learned to reverence
the sea and its creatures, only Ishmael is
spared when the Pequod goes down "and the
great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled
five thousand years ago" [37]. Ishmael, in this
second kind of hunt, returns to the primitive
perceptions about the sacred and reciprocal
relationships between man and Nature, the
hunters and the hunted. This renewing exper?
ience, together with his redemptive brother?
hood with Queequeg, makes him the character
who has undergone the greatest transformation
and, as a result, is the most worthy of being
Ahab's reason for the hunt is neither
capitalistic greed nor respectful primitive need;
his is a private vendetta, a third kind of hunt,
defined by a hyper-civilized reification and
mystification of the white whale, denying the
naturalistic limits of life and letting the Idea
subvert the actual world. Ahab's obsessive
hunt, the product of a deformed spirit, would
seem to be the polar opposite of the primitive,
ritually controlled, spiritually sanctioned, and
self-expressive quest. Yet Melville, with his
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reliance on Fedallah and his develish crew,
and Ahab's commitment to fire-worship and
dependance on pagan harpooners, projects a
primitive component in this hunt as well. For
Melville the primitive here apparently means
an exploration into "origins", assuming that
at the primordial heart of things can be found
Queequeg's saving wonder but also Fedallah's
blasting terror. However, Ahab's fixation on
abstraction and the Idea is foreign to primitive
But whatever one may say about Melville's
sense of the primitive component in Ahab's
hunt, it is in no way an ethnologically primitive
hunt. Primitive peoples typically hunt and kill
their totem animals on special, sanctioned
occasions, they are not driven by vengeance.
Melville is engaging in a reification of his own,
a primitivism, when he relates Ahab's obsession
for "justice" to a primitive quest Ahab's
hunt (as opposed to the primitive) is a breach
of the sacred order and balance of things, and
as such, generates its own punishment. Through?
out the novel Ahab is warned about the folly
of his pursuit: "Vengeance on a dumb brute...
that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!
Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing,
Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous," Starbuck
cautions; Dr. Bunger informs Ahab that "what
you take for the White Whale's malice is only
his awkwardness," and Starbuck pleads again
near the novel's end, "impiety and blasphemy
to hunt him more!" [35].
In spite of these warnings that he has pro?
jected his own gnawing grief onto an innocent
creature, Ahab persists until he confronts
Moby Dick; in the three-day battle the white
whale proves to be as malign as Ahab had
prophesied; the hunt is reversed, the pursuers
are pursued and annihilated. As Queequeg had
demonstrated brotherhood by gently placing
his forehead against Ishmael's and swearing
fidelity, so Ahab and the white whale dramatize
the opposite confrontation: "Forehead to fore?
head I meet thee, this third time, Moby Dick!"
Ahab vows; and, in turn, Moby Dick attacks:
"Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice
were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that
mortal man could do, the solid white buttress
of his forehead smote the ship's starboard, till
men and timbers reeled." The result is not a
dead whale, but a destroyed boat, as Ahab and
his crew suffer "a speechlessly quick chaotic
bundling...into Eternity." [36]. Or Perdition.
In primitive perspective the natural order
has reasserted itself, the pretensions of a
demonic man have been punished; but from a
tragic point of view Ahab's destructive actions
are not without justification. Ahab is a "grand,
ungodly, godlike man" who has tried to protest
against the injustices of the human condition;
in doing so he has transgressed the acceptable
limits of human action and brought doom down
on himself and his followers. Thus there is a
tragic fatality in his career; but he has also
heroically taken to heart the world's sorrows,
and his intuition at the end ? "Oh, lonely
death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my top?
most greatness lies in my topmost grief ? is
substantially true. Still, Ahab is too fanatically
deluded to be a classic, or authentic tragic
hereo ? he feels the tragic grief and he suffers
the tragic fate, but he does not achieve the
final equanimity of tragic insight. He is like
the man who has ignored Nietzsche's warning,
"Do not stare too long into the abyss lest
you find the abyss staring back into you".
It remains for Ishmael to state the most valid
tragic perspective:
The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of
this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So,
therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than
sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true - not
true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest
of all men was the Man of Sorrow, and the truest of all
books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered
steel of woe.... Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it
invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There
is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness
Ishmael can achieve the balance of this tragic
understanding largely because Ahab has shown
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what it means to defy the whole of nature.
Since he has participated in and identified
with Ahab's universal feud, he can be moved to
pity and terror by Ahab's fate. A just as
Aristotle perceived tragedy as a cathartic ex?
perience, so Ishmael arrives at an emotional
and cognitive resolution; as Nietzsche felt that
"only aesthetically can we be reconciled to
the horror of existence," so Ishmael has exper?
ienced tragedy and achieved "the fine hammere(
steel of woe"; as Yeats affirmed that "tragedy
must always be a drowning, a breaking of the
dykes that separate man from man," so the
Pequod goes down and Ishmael is baptised in
the whirlpool, buoyed up by the brotherhood
symbolized by Queequeg's coffin, picked up by
the Rachel, searching "after her missing
children," and reintegrated into the human
family. For Melville the deepest insights of
civilization were to be found in Ecclesiastes,
and in Shakespeare's tragedies, while the
supreme gift of the primitive was embodied
in Queequeg's life-enhancing actions; at the
conclusion of Moby-Dick, these historically
particular, dialectically opposed themes com?
bine in a saving synthesis. It is possible, Melville
concludes, to merge civilized tragic awareness
with a primitive sense of the requirement of a
fully human existence, but of all the crew of
the Pequod, only Ishmael has escaped to tell
us how.
1 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (New York: Oxford Univer?
sity Press, 1947), p.
la Ibid., pp. 8, 8, 24.
2 Ibid., pp. 27,49-50, 52.
3 Ibid., pp. 48-49.
4 Ibid., pp. 48, 52, 54, 54.
5 Ibid., p. 64.
6 pp. 78-83.
7 Ibid., pp. 59,173.
8 Ibid., pp. 301, 391.
8a Ibid., p.
9 Ibid., pp. 446-450.
10 Sir James Frazer, quoted in Charles R. Anderson, Melville
in the South Seas (New York: Columbia University Press,
9193), p. 245.
11 Stevenson, pp. 32-33.
12 Herman Melville, op. cit., p. 532.
13 Ibid., pp. 71,99,163,461.
14 Ibid., p. 434.
15 D.H. Lawrence, in Anthony Beal (ed.) Selected Literary
Criticism (New York: The Viking Press, 1956), p. 391.
16 Herman Melville, op. cit., p. 365.
1 17 Ibid., pp. 149, 223.
17a Ibid., p.
18 Ibid., pp. 459, 426.
18a Ibid., p.
19 Ibid., pp. 285,277, 291,284.
20 John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (Lincoln, Nebraska:
University of Nebraska Press, 1961), pp. 198-199.
21 Herman Melville, op. cit., p. 509.
21a Ibid., p.
22 Ibid., pp. 372, 394, 393.
23 Ibid., p. 46.
24 Ibid., pp. 122,124,174,183,184.
25 Ibid., p. 218.
25a Ibid., p.
26 Ibid., pp. 435, 293, 294.
26a Ibid., p.
27 Ibid., pp. 326, 428.
27a Ibid., p.
28 Ibid., pp. 9,13, 66, 111, 111-112, 257, 337.
29 Ibid., p. 156. Note how Ahab's leadership abilities seem
to be related to the primitive powers of mana.
30 Ibid., pp. 107, 109, 110, 200, 201.
31 Lawrence, op. cit., p. 381.
32 H. Melville, op. cit.., pp. 6, 102, 103.
33 Ibid., pp. 290, 318. 356.
34 Ibid., pp. 168, 260,451,531.
35 Ibid pp. 153,414,519.
36 Ibid., pp. 522, 529, 36.
37 Ibid., pp. 530, 398.
37a Ibid., p.
38 Herman Melville, Typee (Boston: S.C. Page & Co., 1950),
pp. 183-184.
38a Ibid., p.
39 Ibid., p. 4.
39a Ibid., p.
40 Ibid., pp. 297, 288-289, 289-290.
41 Ibid., pp. 219-221.
42 Ibid., pp. 237-266.
43 Robert C. Sieggs, Marquesan Sexual Behaviour (New York:
Harcourt, Brown & World, Inc. 1966), p. 153.
44 Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Melville as Lecturer (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 180.
Dialectical Anthropology 3 (1978) 315-330
? Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Amsterdam - Printed in The Netherlands
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Claude Levi-Strauss begins Tristes Tropiques with a declamation against travel accounts. He is bewildered by their popularity and suspicious of their intentions. Travel books, he claims, have helped to "preserve the illusion of something that no longer exists" (1972: 39). Yet, Tristes Tropiques is as much the narrative of a voyage as it is an ethnographic description and it therefore accentuates a relationship between the traveler and the ethnographer. Although the majority of travelers in the past clearly did not view themselves as professional ethnographers, modern ethnohistorians and historical anthropologists have frequently used their accounts as a source of ethnographic data, and histories of the anthropological discipline often include discussions of such notable travelers as Herodotus and Marco Polo (Hodgen 1964). While contemporary ethnologists tend to regard fieldwork and participant observation as their primary methods of data collection, a century ago anthropologists depended almost entirely on the accounts of missionaries and merchants, traders and travelers for their ethnographic material. As Stocking (1983b) has recently reminded us, Notes and Queries was originally directed to travelers and non-anthropologists who might provide the raw data for the armchair ethnologist at home. This collection of papers, generated from among a group of scholars with varying intellectual and cross-cultural interests, has as its focus an interdisciplinary and critical examination of travel literature. Its goal is to encourage dialogue about the merits of travel accounts as sources for ethnohistorical research. The papers, therefore, range widely both in historical period (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries), and in kinds of people they are discussing (Australian aborigines, Mediterranean peasants, South American Indians, Neapolitan and Venetian urbanites). Throughout the world, travelers have made observations about peoples and places that are of interest to scholars, and no matter where one works and how one works (as a historian, literary critic, or ethnographer), if one wants to learn about the past or about historical context, delving into travelers' accounts of foreign peoples and foreign places becomes a necessity. The heterogeneity of the papers in this volume is an indication of the shared epistemological questions with which any researcher must approach this literature. In their analyses of diverse bodies of travel literature, the authors of these papers touch upon a number of issues, though by no means all, related to the use of travel accounts in ethnohistorical research. This introduction will attempt to outline some of these issues in order to set the papers into a broader context of discourse. To a certain extent, the issues overlap because they all revolve around the problem of how the ethnohistorian distinguishes the cultural baggage which the traveler brings with him and through which he sees the world from the actual observations he makes and records. It is no accident that the questions which can be asked in the process of evaluating travel accounts can and are being asked of ethnographies themselves. Of central importance, as Clifford (1980: 209) has recently
  • G John
  • Neihardt
John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), pp. 198-199.
Note how Ahab's leadership abilities seem to be related to the primitive powers of mana
  • Ibid
29 Ibid., p. 156. Note how Ahab's leadership abilities seem to be related to the primitive powers of mana.
  • C Robert
  • Sieggs
Robert C. Sieggs, Marquesan Sexual Behaviour (New York: Harcourt, Brown & World, Inc. 1966), p. 153.