Melville’s Whale Was a Warning We Failed to Heed
In 1841, while aboard the whaler Acushnet, Herman Melville met William Chase among another ship’s complement. William lent Melville a book by his father, Owen Chase: “Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.” Melville had read Jeremiah Reynolds’s violent account of a sperm whale “white as wool,” named — for his haunt near Mocha Island, off the coast of Chile — Mocha Dick. It’s unknown what led Melville to tweak Mocha to “Moby.” Good thing he did, and that Starbuck was the name he gave his first mate rather than his captain. Otherwise the novel would follow Starbuck’s obsession with a Mocha.
Owen Chase gave Melville his climax: As Essex’s boats were harpooning female sperm whales, a huge male, around 85 feet, rushed and holed the 88-foot ship, twice. No whale had ever sunk a ship. “The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me,” Melville later recalled.
He initially planned a book about whales and whaling. Reynolds helped supply Melville with a more Stygian idea, by exhorting his men to attack Mocha Dick as “though he were Beelzebub himself!” — a demon rather than a whale.
Yet Moby Dick is neither whale nor demon, but a white prop contrasting with the demonic Captain Ahab, the tormented tormentor, the malignant, abused abuser of authority and of men. Ahab’s bias is personal and color-based. A white whale becomes a blank pincushion for Ahab’s thrusting mania as Melville shades pages with his madness. Yet — and this was absolutely astonishing for its time — Moby Dick becomes the ultimate asserter of reason. In self-defense the whale delivers justice. And never dies.
Ahab vows to chase Moby Dick “over all sides of earth,” but he can’t do it alone, so he flatters his men into allegiance to his maniacal quest: “What say ye, men …? I think ye do look brave.” The harpooners shout, “Aye!” Ahab is impeccably skillful at manipulating people into abetting him, at making his self-destructive obsessions their own. Ahab isn’t merely symptomatic; through his ability to steer men into complicity — and their inability to see it — he becomes contagious, truly dangerous.
“Moby-Dick” is called a great American novel. Perhaps it’s the first great global novel. Melville broke through American myopia, vanishing over many horizons, rubbing shoulders with apostates, seeing civility in savages, savagery in the civilized and ruinous obedience to mad tyrants. Melville’s years on ships sowed what his biographer Newton Arvin called “a settled hatred of external authority.”
By the 1840s, having ventured half the world away from America, Melville cast a frigatebird-like perspective on the American character’s deepest congenital malignancy, then called Negrophobia. In the early 19th century, sperm whale hunting was never far from slave trading. Thomas Beale’s 1839 “The Natural History of the Sperm Whale” included this telling dedication to the British shipowner Thomas Sturge: “Your character may be estimated by the incessant efforts you have made to liberate the Negro from the condition of the slave.”
On docks and decks humans of varied skin shades and breathing one another’s sweat in close company tended whale-boiling caldrons and looked one another in the eye. Light-skinned men could feel trapped and dark men could taste freedom, surviving, sometimes drowning, together. Melville’s ever-philosophical narrator, Ishmael, asks: “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” From a world he experienced as spherical from atop ships’ masts, Melville perceived a sea-level humanity, embracing and celebrating the latitudes and longitudes of human variation, now termed diversity.
When Ishmael finds himself compelled to share a blanket at the sold-out Spouter Inn, he declares, “No man prefers to sleep two in a bed.” But he settles in, waiting for his mysterious South Seas roommate who, he’s informed, is peddling a shrunken head on the streets of New Bedford. Queequeg’s appearance terrifies Ishmael mute. But after things equilibrate, Ishmael reconsiders: “For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal … a human being just as I am. … Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
In the morning Ishmael wakes to find Queequeq’s arm “thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Now there’s no panic. Eventually Queequeg rouses and, by signs and sounds, makes Ishmael understand that he’ll dress and leave. “The truth is, these savages have an innate sense of delicacy,” Ishmael editorializes. “It is marvelous how essentially polite they are. … So much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness.” Reflecting on Queequeg’s tatted visage, he concludes: “Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face — at least to my taste — his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. … Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”
Mates now for life, they find a ship, but Queequeg is barred; he’s not Christian. Ishmael fast-talks: Queequeg, like “all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us,” belongs to “the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshiping world. … In that we all join hands.” Impressed by Ishmael’s impromptu sermon, the recruiter allows their marks; they’ll board the Pequod, a ship Melville has named, he reminds us, for a famed tribe of Massachusetts natives, already extinct.
Nearly two centuries ago, Melville showed us how easy it is to welcome as our own the touches of others, their equivalent colors, customs and beliefs; their journeys, their transitions. And to remember those who, unwelcomed, suffered. How much could have been avoided, and embraced, had we heeded.
Melville feverishly scribbled a diagnosis, prognosis and prescription for the human condition. We are all Ishmael the ingénue and Starbuck the pragmatist and Ahab the maniac, stuck on a ship driven by winds we cannot predict, helmed by a mind not fully comprehensible, whose compulsions we don’t control. The world is an elusive whale; we might choose coexistence or destruction. And though we do not decide the outcome, the hands on those oars are ours; each stroke invites consequences. And lest we overlook the obvious: The men went equipped to do harm in their quest for — oil. If we are all Ishmael and Starbuck and Ahab, caught in our collective addiction, the whales exemplify a counterculture, a way of living weightlessly, of not draining the world that floats them.
It’s no coincidence that Leviathan, the sperm whale, is Melville’s chosen vehicle. No other candidate qualifies. Ahab could have chased a fire-breathing dragon. But to face real quotidian madness we must have at stake real blood and real will on both sides. Only this creature — the largest with teeth on the planet — comes to us as quickened flesh and immortal metaphor, tangling us with our own pursuits, profane, bleeding, sacred, free. Only Leviathan could do it. Could win.
So one wonders about those who’ve turned the book aside — as, in college, I did. How does one fare, having failed to be forewarned about our inner Ahabs or the risks of being led into complicity with madness, uncounseled on the wisdom of rejecting the obsessive quests that the world’s pulpits condone and its ports reward. “Moby-Dick” is only partly about madness; it’s equally about banality.
Herman Melville’s haunting inquiry — “whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc” — returns to me again while every whale in every ocean returns to share our air in seas we’re warming and thickening with plastic. “If ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats,” Melville mused, “then the eternal whale will still survive, and … spout his frothed defiance to the skies.” But the warming that will erode the contours of Florida and New York, Houston, Hong Kong and Bangladesh will make life difficult for whales, too. They, and all beings, as the naturalist Henry Beston wrote, are “caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” Mesh by knotted mesh, it’s a net we have woven, perversely, by unweaving the web of life. Melville tried to warn us.