Moby Dick is Passion and Reason

Moby Dick
Moby Dick

The Encyclopaedia Britannica poorly affirms that Melville's Moby Dick (1) admits “numerous, if not seemingly infinite, readings” (2), and that the keys to understand it are the biblical verses and names. This suggestion is based in the old hermeneutics, whose three mainstays are: “mystice”, “allegorice”, “symbolice”.

Borges, in a foreword about Bartleby (3), describes Moby Dick as a novel composed by a “romantic dialect of English”. Romantic are the next lines: “joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest dust” (ch. 130). The emotions, here, are transformed into tragic matter. But with some modifications we can extract real romanticism: “joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed the ground of finest dust”. The matter, here, is mobilized by immortal souls, by emotions.

Years later, the Argentinian admirer of Kipling wrote that the aforesaid book contains “unforgettable phrases” (4). The book, he says in another place, is a credible story with incredible characters (5). The romantic platitude is, therefore, not a man, but the mankind poeticizing in the sea. There is poetry in the book, whose origin could be the “cerebral observation of the natural world”, in Bruen's words (6). An example of phonetic beauty is the next line, which looks like a sonnet: “sense of the full awfulness of the sea” (ch. 58). The phrase, which contains ten syllables, avoids occlusion and imitates the sound of aghast multitudes above vast tides. By the way, there is a line of Borges that is peppered by the same trick: “the ss hisses and the saeta hisses in the air” (7). Both expressions are fruits of the love to verbal objects.

Philip Hoare, in recent times, states that the Ahab's adventures could be a “religious tract” starry with neologisms (8). It is true. The following powerful, obscure analogy, is a strong moral critique: “But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs”. That refers us to II Corinthians (7: 10), where we read: “but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (9). Without a spiritual mind we are jackals, idolatrous moral parasites.

We will analyze, in the inferior lines, four psychological effects owing to Melville's literary techniques. Kant's philosophy will be our conceptual armory.

Melville, to modify the perception of reality, transforms analytical propositions into synthetical ones. “Whale is a spouting fish” is a proposition that indicates a necessary relation between “whale” and “spouting”, that is, an identity. “Whale is part of human history” is a proposition that indicates an accidental relation between “whale” and “human history”, that is, a non-identity (10). Whales, Melville says, have been a historical part of “nations and generations” (“Extracts”). In this way he transforms his readers into an innocent or an ignorant.

Besides, the author adds a pagan outlook. In paganism, as Lévi-Strauss taught (11), physical laws are operative here, but not there. The Queequeg's religion, therefore, is magic. The sea, here, has a mind. Ishmael says: “as if its vast tides were a conscience” (ch. 51). Innocence and magic transform life into a “strange mixed affair” (ch. 49).

Every culture includes concepts about unknown things and about known things. Those concepts are architecturally arranged by “a natural disposition of the human mind”, as Kant affirms. The result of this arrangement is a metaphysical system, which contains psychological, ontological, cosmological and theological conceptions.

We will see the metaphysic system of Moby Dick. In the bluish pampas with vertical menaces, which we call “sea”, man should be the strongest being (psychological conception). Things, in the sea, are conquerable objects (ontological conception), or in the whaler's terms, fast-fishes and loose-fishes (ch. 89). The foundation of the ownership of such things is force (cosmological conception). The foundations of force, here, are the ideas (theological conception) of “honor” (12), “dignity”, “good blood” (ch. 24). “But often possession is the whole of the law”, we read in chapter 89.

Academics and artists just give us opinions, rumours about whales, as Ishmael states. Rumours are caliginous adjectives with moral content. Such confusions commonly are disguised as mathematics axioms, emotional concerns, false causalities and episyllogisms. A whale is not merely “a spouting fish with a horizontal tail” (ch. 32). This geometrical, pseudo-scientific definition, is useless in hunting actions. A whale is not an “amputate sow” (ch. 55), according to the depictions of painters. This analogic, pseudo-scientific expression, is useless as well. A whale, in sum, is not a geometric paralogism, but something “too analytic to be verbally developed here” (ch. 46). The very way to speak on the sea, in conclusion, is poetry.

Melville reminds us that the philosophical mind lives among the next disjunctives: matter or ideas, sensuous disbeliefs or religious beliefs, collectivism or individualism, history and future or crude present. A poem of Fulke Greville, apropos of mankind, says (13):

O wearisome condition of humanity!

Born under one law, to another bound;

Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity;

Created sick, commanded to be sound.

What meaneth nature by these diverse laws?

Passion and reason, self-division cause.

The Melville's whale is, because of its whiteness, “the most meaning symbol of spiritual things” (ch. 42), but sailors are bound to “thousand nameless mechanical emergencies” (ch. 107). By unavoidable trifles and sublime facts the human soul, the idea of “I”, is annihilated or a “hobbling wight” (ch. 50).

The three stilemas of our book are: a) savages and civilized men against the idea of “evil”, which is symbolized by the white whale, and this solves the problem between Paganism and Civilization; b) arts, sciences and morals against the natural forces, which are represented by the mysterious sea and the blind will of the whale, and this indicates the classic philosophical problem between Nature and Humanity; c) dull nautical erudition blended with high metaphysical digressions, which reminds the religious dilemma between Soul and Body.-


[1] Melville, Herman, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Harmondworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1972.

[2] See the Encyclopedia Britannica´s article, Moby Dick, Novel by Melville.

[3] See Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos, “Herman Melville: Bartleby”.

[4] See An Introduction to American Literature, chapter 5, “Whitman and Herman Melville”.

[5] See This Craft of Verse. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1967-1968, Lecture 6, “A Poet's Creed”.

[6] Bruen, Matthey, How the Whalers of Moby-Dick Could Help Put Humans on Mars, Aeon, January 05, 2018.

[7] The Spanish line says: “Silban las eses como silba la saeta en el aire”.

[8] Hoare, Philip, What Moby-Dick Means to Me, The New Yorker, November 3, 2011.

[9] The Neovulgata says: “saeculi autem tristia mortem operatur”.

[10] The Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft says (“Einleitung zur Ersten Auflage”): “durch Identität” and “ohne Identität”.

[11] See La pensée sauvage, “La science du concret”.

[12] Two principles of Romanticism are, as Auden states (The Enchafèd Flood): a) “to leave the land and the city is the desire of every man of sensibility and honor”; b) “the sea is the real situation and the voyage is the true condition of man”.

[13] Chorus Sacerdotum.

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