The ship is called the Pequod, after a native American tribe wiped out by Puritans in the mid-17th Century. Two hundred years later the whaler and the continent embody nascent capitalism: hunting as mass industry. The ship’s crew process whales for profit on a scale never seen before. The chief, second and third mates rely on their harpooners to get the dirty work done, and they are native or black.
But this allegory of America’s reliance on the dispossessed and the enslaved is not enough for the ship’s captain, Ahab. He chases the White Whale, as the presidents of the early eighteen hundreds chased the Unmapped West. With the future of slavery at stake in lands freed by genocide, no one knew where the journey to catch that particular beast would take America. When the novel hit shelves in 1851, in a country stretching from sea to shining sea, it seemed slavery would prevail. Just over a decade later that project was dead in the water, like The Pequod and its crew.
We think we’ll read that prescient story, but as we begin, go on, give it hour after hour, we realise not many of the two hundred thousand words of Moby Dick are spent on Ahab’s hunt. Instead they describe the narrator’s personal pursuit of the whale. If Ahab tries to catch the body of the whale, Ishmael attempts to define the idea. Quotes, figures, anecdotes, entries in a vast compendium about whales. If the Pequod is America, what exactly is the whale? Allegorical virgin territories escape, become abstract. Inversely, the idea of the whale becomes a concrete object, as the book expands with cetological facts to embody the unwieldy hulk of the whale.
Moby Dick is too big to be caught, by harpoon or by words, or by us readers. The whiteness of his skin, however much it is inscribed by steel spear or nib, remains elusive, enigmatic, empty but for the scars from unfathomable battles. Melville describes its white as “a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink” (Ch 42). Perhaps the pursuit of the whale is a search for God or truth, but then the truth of God ends up being nothing at all.
The medium of Moby Dick is irony, it is the sea in which the whale-as-book swims. Words are there to be twisted. Ahab proclaims “Naught’s an obstacle” (Ch3 7): he refuses to see the nullity of his pursuit and looses everything. To Ishmael, in contrast, “Nothing exists in itself” (Ch 11): it is there in the sea, to be seen, to be read, and thus to be survived. In order to read Moby Dick successfully we must stop being Ahabs and become Ishmaels. Only if we realize that we will catch nothing, will we relax and enjoy the ride. Maybe even nod off a little at the mast-head while keeping an eye out for the whale; but beware metaphysical dreams.
“There is no life in thee now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever”. (Ch 35)
Moby Dick is an out of date historical allegory. It is an encyclopedia not in alphabetical order. It is a handbook in how to not to read.
Now read it again.