Metaphysical Romance: Moby-Dick

Here are some books which strike me as having metaphysical themes. The older works are in the public domain and readily available online.

I will discuss this other works in later columns, time permitting. For now, I wish only to mention the first, and that briefly.

Let no one be surprised at the inclusion of MOB Y-DICK on this list. Before mainstream of literature was drained of fantastic elements by Socialists at the turn of the Nineteenth Century,  events as fantastic as the witches, ghosts, or magicians in Shakespeare plays, the infernal or celestial voyages of Dante, or Odyssey were commonplace.

Herman Melville, with wry humor, retells a biblically-themed tale of tragic hubris, with Nantucket whalers playing the parts of cursed pagan heroes, not unlike the men who follow Odysseus, never to see home again.

The opening:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

“Hypos” in the paragraph above refers to fits of hypochondria, the false belief of a healthy man that he is sick.

Noteworthy allusions run throughout.  These eluded me in my youth when first I read this book, and was unaware of its morbid gallows’ humor. As an intellectual myself, I was equally unaware of its nihilistic intellectualism, akin to the monologue of Hamlet.

First, Ishmael is known for many things, but foremost for being exiled by Abraham with his mother, fated to die in the parched waste, until an angel brought food, drink, salvation. The protagonist is an forsaken soul.

Second, after admitting his fascination with death and disease, he explicitly says he takes to sea as a substitute for suicide by sword or pistol, and morbidly adds that most men feel this way at one time or another, namely, suicidal. The author is too wry and sly to say such an outrageous thing outright: such is the nature of art.

The White Whale, among many  things, is a symbol of death. The journey of the Pequod, as is the journey of all men, is headed toward death. Only the savage Queequeg of Rokovoko (of that cannibal island paradise that, famously, is not down in any map, as true places never are) has the foresight to prepare his coffin during the toil and tedium of the long days.

The Pequod is named after a tribe that was wiped out in a war after a Connecticut colonist was killed, the survivors sold as slaves to Bermuda, or take as prizes by the Mohegan and the Narragansett — and treated so cruelly that the colonials, not known for being a soft or sentimental people, intervened. The episode shocked and shamed the men of the day as an example the brotherly spirit of Cain. The ship itself is described as adorned with whale bone, decked out like a cannibal in the bones of his victims .

Th description is a verbal tour-de-force, hence worth repeating in full:

She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull’s complexion was darkened like a French grenadier’s, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts… stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne.

The Three Kings of Cologne refers to the Biblical Magi, that is, a reference to the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral, Germany.

Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Beckett bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvelous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed.

She was appareled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.

All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe.

…A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.

The ramifications of that would require a treatise to explore, written with the aid of a flotilla of industrious undergraduates,  and so is beyond my grip and scope here.

But should any man ask whether Melville is writing on metaphysical topics, let us consult another Biblically named character in the work, one of the most famous in the commonwealth of American letters, Captain Ahab.

A quote from Captain Ahab:

“Hark ye yet again … All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough.”

There is deep meaning here beyond my fathoming, but, were I to venture a guess, it seems Ahab, a maimed soul on a boat of death, seeks a corpse-pale monster, that fish most like unto God, as the wall of his life through which he must break.

And beyond the walls of death, beyond the limits of life, there lurks the truth of the matter, perhaps and answer what man’s life is, and what his journey means — but Ahab expresses no hint of hope for an afterlife.

I categorize this as metaphysical because it addresses what is meta-physis, that is, beyond the physical world, beyond nature. Nature itself, in the form of the White Whale, destroys those who seek answers, and so is the wall that must be crossed to find the truth. Ahab seeks of his own power to pierce the wall by main force: an act of overweening pride that dooms him.

Left unaddressed is whether some a power or principality or person beyond the wall were able to cross to our side, and dwell among us. That question requires a humbler soul to ask, and true humility is as rare as finding a virgin who births a son.

The book is sardonic, dark and splendid, but too sour and salty to appeal to a man of healthy palate. It is book for those growing grim about the mouth, and feel the damp and drizzling November drenching their soul.

But the work is oddly funny, or, at least, ironic, perhaps to allow those grim mouths a gallows’ humor grin.

The metaphysical outlook explored here is perhaps more suited to the current generation than to Melville’s, since, in a word, it is nihilism, that is, the metaphysical stance that no metaphysical stances can be sure. We tread on a sea of doubts, seeking answers and finding death, with no hope to serve as anchor, no firm rock on which to stand above the waters.

Ironically, the next book listed above, written in the same decade, is equally mysterious, but represents a more developed and honest outlook. A future column will turn toward PHANTASTES  by George Macdonald — but your humble servant needs must reread it first, lest he rely on the infelicitous stepdaughter of memory.