MOBY DICK — pagan masterwork

I have just this minute finished reading MOBY DICK, and by salt and hemp I am awed and impressed. What a work! This monstrous book, this whale of a book (no other phrase will do) deserves its fame.

I read somewhere that Melville confessed the book was a wicked work, and for a time, I could not puzzle out his meaning. By now, I see it.

Melville, with the wild, almost drunken humor of a poet, a mad poet, fixed his heart on the purpose of writing a modern pagan epic, to capture the stern grandeur of ancient Jewish tales, the majesty and sorrow of Achilles and Agamemnon. He wrote of the fall of Icarus, or, if you will the Fall of Lucifer, except that his Ahab (absurdly) was a sea captain instead of a King, and his Greek demigods of old were (absurdly) whaling men of Nantucket.

Wicked? To a pious Christian, yes, because the tale is Homeric. It is pagan work from start to finish, no, I must say, from stem to stern.

All the old friends of the Greek and Viking poets are here: the implacable and monstrous Fate, whose weird no man escapes, the Whale, as pallid white as any beast ever chased by Pwyll into the underworld, the unchecked hubris of the doomed, and the madness of Ajax, now lodged in Ahab’s brain for reasons every pagan knows: for those whom the gods destroy they first drive mad.

The very hemp that twines the riggings is pagan. The wording is pagan: As a vast and billowing whale, who, breaking the surface in a spray of water, and send up waves to awe the fisherman, that then linger for a moment in the blue air, and form a cloud of dazzling fine spray, which falls and turns the waves to foam as white as milk, so to is this book surrounded with Homeric metaphors that hang just as finely in the air, before collapsing under their own mass.

The humor is pagan: solemn Christians often scowl at pagan saturnalias, not seeing the grim and hopeless character that sits like iron underneath the outward frivolity, the gay bunting and amorous ditties. In MOBY DICK, Melville indulges in weird frivolities of language, explores odd ironies, or describes, tongue in cheek, common things in overblown heroic language, or heroic things in understated dry language. The delight of his rich inventions, the sheer giddy FUN of the thing, is the one thing no one ever told me about this book. The author is being ridiculous, as deliberately ridiculous as a fool in motley wearing bells on his cap, when he, for example, defends Whalemen against the charge of being smelly. He proclaims:

“Nor indeed can the whale possibly be otherwise than fragrant, when, as a general thing, he enjoys such high health; taking abundance of exercise; always out of doors; though, it is true, seldom in the open air. I say, that the motion of a Sperm Whale’s flukes above water dispenses a perfume, as when a musk-scented lady rustles her dress in a warm parlor. What then shall I liken the Sperm Whale to for fragrance, considering his magnitude? Must it not be to that famous elephant, with jewelled tusks, and redolent with myrrh, which was led out of an Indian town to do honour to Alexander the Great?”

The richness of the language is pagan. Melville makes casual reference to ancient things, metaphors worthy of Milton:

“Moby Dick swam swiftly round and round the wrecked crew; sideways churning the water in his vengeful wake, as if lashing himself up to still another and more deadly assault. The sight of the splintered boat seemed to madden him, as the blood of grapes and mulberries cast before Antiochus’s elephants in the book of Maccabees.”

But the thing separating pagans from Christians is joy. Even the latch-faced prune-mouthed Puritan is promised joy unending in Heaven. Pagans, real pagans, are grim. Even the most glorious hero, Achilles, is left in the underworld twittering like a bat in the gloom, envious of the slave of a dirt-farmer.

The moral of the tale is pagan: Fate rules even the gods. No act of man can turn his fate aside. Hear him:

“Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.”

And Starbuck does obey, although he knows it is disobedience to God to obey this monomaniac, the sin of pride, the sin of suicide. Once and twice Starbuck pleads with his mad captain to seek whales for profit, and to return home alive:

But Ahab says (I kid you not) ‘talk to the hand’. Listen again: “But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand–a lipless, unfeatured blank.”

As in some grand Norse saga, where a relentless drumbeat of omens and signs dog the steps of the doomed gods marching toward Rangnarok, omens cluster thick as vultures around this symbol-laden drama. Elijah foretells the death, and Gabriel, and countless other characters named so blatantly. More omens: The thunderstorm demagnetizes the ship’s compass, so they are all going the wrong way: Ahab remagnetizes the iron by a the trick of smiting a lance head with a hammer—and after this it is proud Ahab whose lodestone the ship follows. The life buoy is withered from disuse, even as in Ahab’s soul there is nothing to save him. The log and line, used for dead reckoning, is rotted from sun exposure. Ahab himself dashes the quadrant to the deck and tramples it to pieces, for he will no longer take any signs from heaven as his guide. The ship is covered with bones and whale’s teeth, and has a coffin instead of a life-buoy, and her works amidships are blazing with darkness and sparks, surrounded by the desolation of the sea that promises nothing but death, death all around: and the crewman dance to the tambourine of the mad cabin boy, Pip, and make merry. Carrion birds carry off the captain’s cap and later his colors.

The bone-covered vessel sails the flood without guide, without dead reckoning, without looking to heaven, carrying a hellfire with you, madness for a captain and madness for a song to dance to … PILGRIM’S PROGRESS could not contain such symbolism.

“Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”

The ship going the other way (which Melville slyly names BACHELLOR) is described thus: “On the quarter-deck, the mates and harpooneers were dancing with the olive-hued girls who had eloped with them from the Polynesian Isles; while suspended in an ornamental boat, firmly secured aloft between the foremast and mainmast, three Long Island negroes, with glittering fiddle-bows of whale ivory, were presiding over the hilarious jig.”

The irony is pagan. The sibyl herself could not have invented the sly double meaning surrounding the prophecy of Ahab’s death. The Parsee tells him he will not perish until he sees two hearses on the sea, the second made of American wood; that the Parsee will be his pilot and go before him; and that only a noose will kill him. All these dark riddles are grimly fulfilled. Ahab laughs, thinking himself immortal, and boasts of his deathlessness a moment before he dies, his neck snapped by the fouled hemp line of a tangled harpoon.

They all die pagan deaths, bravely and hopelessly. It is fate.

Fate! “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.”

Iron-faced Thanatos, he comes to all. Here are the last words of Starbuck, a man who, like the very conscience, urges wisdom in whispers, and is not heeded; of Stubb, a man of passion and good humor, who laughs even as he dies, his thought full of life’s good pleasures, and of Flask, a man of such leaden soul and saturnine pragmatism that even death cannot startle or frighten him:

STARBUCK: “The whale, the whale! Up helm, up helm! Oh, all ye sweet powers of air, now hug me close! Let not Starbuck die, if die he must, in a woman’s fainting fit. … Is this the end of all my bursting prayers? all my life-long fidelities? Oh, Ahab, Ahab, lo, thy work. … He turns to meet us! Oh, his unappeasable brow drives on towards one, whose duty tells him he cannot depart. My God, stand by me now!”

STUBB: “Stand not by me, but stand under me, whoever you are that will now help Stubb; for Stubb, too, sticks here. I grin at thee, thou grinning whale! Who ever helped Stubb, or kept Stubb awake, but Stubb’s own unwinking eye? And now poor Stubb goes to bed upon a mattrass that is all too soft; would it were stuffed with brushwood! I grin at thee, thou grinning whale! Look ye, sun, moon, and stars! I call ye assassins of as good a fellow as ever spouted up his ghost. For all that, I would yet ring glasses with ye, would ye but hand the cup! … A most mouldy and over salted death, though;–cherries! cherries! cherries! Oh, Flask, for one red cherry ere we die!”

FLASK: “… Oh, Stubb, I hope my poor mother’s drawn my part-pay ere this; if not, few coppers will now come to her, for the voyage is up.”

The voyage is up. Adieu.

Starbuck’s God does not save him, not in this life, and neither do the sun and moon offer cheerful Stubb a glass of wine, nor does he taste that smallest pleasure, a fresh cherry, which is less than a bite, again. Flask’s Mother gets no pay.

But of course you want to read Ahab’s last words, do you not, dear reader? “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.”

(Sound familiar? It is from STAR TREK WRATH OF KHAN. Khan quotes it to Captain Kirk as he sets the timer on the Genesis bomb meaning to destroy himself and his foe in one blast. Who says media SF ain’t got class?)

Finally: “…down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her … Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”


The only survivor is Ishmael, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin. Ishmael is named after the bastard child of Abraham, leave to die in the wild, and saved by the intervention of an angel.

By one of those supreme ironies in which Melville’s dark heart delights, he is rescued by the RACHEL, a vessel that the Pequod refused to aid in her lonely search, for the Rachel was sweeping the seas looking for that captain’s lost son.

So was the work actually evil? I cannot call it so. To be sure, Melville pauses from time to time to mock orthodoxy and common decency, and man’s high flown notions of life and death and meaning. Certainly the author mocks the White Man’s pretensions of supremacy, since the tattooed black cannibal Queequeg is the perhaps the noblest character of literature, and the most solid and friendly in his affections, the very image of Aristotle’s Great-Souled Man. Melville has something of the bitter smile of a Mark Twain about him. The scene where the ship’s cook, at the command of Stubb, preaches to the sharks (for the great commission of Christians is to preach to all creatures) is simply hilarious, as well as deeply blasphemous. Or here: “as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held. There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There’s orthodoxy!”

I think the difference between a great book and a good one is that good books mock at merely parochial and topical things whereas the great books mock at eternal things, puzzles of the Human Condition will never solve: death, judgment, hell, heaven.

To be sure, the book is not Christian in outlook. The theme is the indifference of heaven to the suffering of men. When Ahab sees the boy Pip, who has lost his wits, he laments: “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.”

And yet, what do you make of this passage? It sounds modern and conciliatory in its tone, as of a man who mocks things he cannot fully reject, and sees the good even in this he knows he should reject as absurd: “…rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, 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. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.”

Whatever this great white whale of a book might be, Christian or pagan, this is certainly is: The work plucks at the very heart and center of human suffering. Once only, does Ahab hesitate in his mad, doomed quest, the huge white Death he is seeking, for a mild day causes him to remember his wife and child waiting back in Nantucket for him.

Starbuck pleads with him to turn again. To repent. For Starbuck has loved ones too: his wife promised that his boy, every morning, should be carried to the hill to catch the first glimpse of his father’s returning sail.