A White Whale: Moby-Dick as Melville’s Postmodernism

from my english course:

“Call me Ishmael.” With this sentence, Herman Melville began writing his ambitious novel that forever left its mark on literature. One might claim that Moby-Dick is in lineage with the great epic works of Homer and would certainly be able to hold their ground. The book has since been subjected to critics of profession or of the avid leisurely reader alike. It is appropriately appraised as a classic. What is it about this work that has been so enduring, as in the fact that so many writers of all factions have frequently alluded to some theme, metaphor, or even directly quoted from its pages? The more than typical approach to analyzing any work in literature requires more than comprehension of the plot; it involves investigating what underlying themes, moods, and symbolism the author implies. The reader has to employ in hermeneutics to interpret the mind of the writer and to read-in-between-the-lines. In order to give this analysis justice, we have to enter the mind of Melville. For clues, the reader can look to the narrator Ishmael; through his perspective of the events some characteristics, style, themes, and philosophies can be inferred. Through the tone of the words and the way the events of the plot are written out, notions of ambiguity, relativism, indifference, and moral angst can be extracted. Not only in analyzing the book, but drawing from other sources will help to trace these patterns of thought. These ideas and attitudes are perhaps those in which Melville had in mind consciously or unconsciously while writing the book. This essay will seek to flesh-out in what ways these ideas and more are symbolically intuited in the book as a way for Melville to symbolize his preliminary postmodern thoughts.

A good place to start would be to look at the cultural context in which the book was written. There was a flourishing in the realm of aesthetics as this time was the height of Romanticism. Writers of this time, it could be argued, were reacting against the notion that all knowledge of reality and the individual could be subjected to the rigor of scientific understanding or critical philosophy; this line of reasoning stemming from the Age of Reason. Romantic writers combated this concession by turning their attention toward aspects of the individual that are less formal and systematic in order to re-enchant the human spirit into society by way of feelings, intuition, art, and imagination (Moby-Dick fits this description). Melville’s book is extraordinarily artistic and imaginative; his descriptions of the characters, setting, and much of the architecture in the plot are stark contrast to the approach to nature in that of Modernism, as an impersonal machine. A comparison can even be drawn in classical times when participants in mystery religions were concurring with sophists and secularists but refused to conform. This loss of conviction of Melville in reason to achieve certainty is portrayed symbolically all throughout the plot (this will be addressed later). The author Shawn Thompson has addressed romantic elements in Melville in his book called “The Romantic Architecture in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.” Thompson elaborates Melville’s skepticism about philosophy:

“Melville’s anxious attraction to the Liverpool docks underlies his disavowal of Classical idealism for its rigid pronouncement of an incorruptible order and clarity. The “universal stir” cannot be understood as it happens. Melville experiences a disturbance that cannot be accounted for by Classical idealism; the dizzying experience of being swept up by the flux of things and the attempt to form some ordering of this experience are the major encounters of Moby-Dick.”(p. 28)

Romanticism is the paradigmatic shift in the will of man out of this quest for certainty into the realm of the imagination. However, Melville’s conviction in aesthetics as a path might not be as clear. Thompson continues, “Yet Melville is also critical of Romantic gestures of self-aggrandizement and acts of singular self-absorption.” This instability of structure is a key characteristic of postmodern and post-structuralist ideas.

Shifting the context from the cultural movements of the time to Melville’s personal life, more clues can be found in the development of his relativism. His religious life is of the particular interest here. In time prior to the book, he had conflict in interpretation of doctrine in orthodoxy and was dubious about the thought of God pre-determining man’s salvation. “As a consequence he began to doubt his Calvinist heritage, longing for a God that was more benevolent and a personal source of truth.” (Rhee) It is indisputable that the book contains symbolism and reference to religion whether it is in the characters, the chapter “The Sermon”, or even the name “Ishmael” itself. This amount of text dwelling on the search for the true meaning of God, which does not relay much importance on the surface of the plot, reflects how much instability Melville had in his religious life. This instability becomes evident when analyzing the nature of the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Ishmael as a character that is Christian happens to meet a stranger that has undeniably contrasting customs in practice as a pagan. Ironically, these two end up becoming best friends and seek out adventure on the Pequod together. This type of irony is reflective of the notion of cultural relativism in post-structuralist philosophy, which is the idea that there is no standard of morality or religion but rather it is relative to the customs of a particular culture. Whether Melville was aware of this intentionally or indirectly is unclear, but that he did have these views is apparent. His dubious religious inclinations shine through in the text.

“In Moby-Dick, Melville exposed his own personal religious crisis and thus his own search for a just God as well as the crisis of his Age by internalizing the conflict between the two religious camps: the more liberal Unitarians and the orthodox Calvinists.”(Rhee)

Doubting modernity’s ability for certain knowledge and ethical grounds for secular progress can of course bring about ambiguities. In questioning belief in God however, this can potentially bring one to the state of the character Ahab. Symbolically in the characters of the plot, this groundlessness opens up an extravagant search for signs of truth which can be intuited in the source of the book itself to which this insight will now turn to.

The narrator of the book is Ishmael. What is strikingly interesting right away when analyzing his character is the fact that he plays a rather minuscule role in the major events of the plot. Ishmael has the unique quality of continually being perpetuated towards all action and drama in the plot and yet pertains the feeling of being undeniably distant. This passivity that Ishmael constitutes infers his significance as a subtle attempt to pass off as an objective point of view. His adventurous curiosity and exploration into the unknown and the indifferent approach to anything that he might find symbolically exhibits the postmodern attitude. The subtle attitude of objectivity and the simultaneous position of being contextually axiomatic is the type of contradictory criticism that postmodernism exuberates; in the book Melville creates a symbolic embodiment of this attitude through the character Ishmael. Another way to demonstrate the relationship between Ishmael’s character and the postmodern attitude would be to relay attentiveness to the way he describes scenes, characters, objects, and ideologies. He exhibits the persona of a Renaissance-man – a type of individual that expresses the capacity of a large quantity of information that disperses through many different fields of knowledge. Whether poetically describing a scene in referencing history or engaging in scientific descriptions (genus of the whale), Ishmael demonstrates his keen awareness of various ideologies from history – scientific, religious, philosophical. This quality is highly characteristic of the method of postmodernism, which speculates in relativity with contextual awareness of culture, history, economics, media, and symbols alike. The critical method of postmodernism disrupts any grounds or absolutes that are self evident in order to elaborate on its relativity to a specific context instead. The pursuit lies in continually searching for absolute truth only to find more symbols or “shadows.”

“Thus although Ishmael declares in Chapter 23 (“The Lee Shore”) that there is no absolute truth – no ‘land’ – available (“in landlessness alone resides the highest truth”), Ishmael nonetheless seeks continually for a ground of belief. This search takes him through the whole range of possible outlooks, extending from Father Mapple’s orthodoxy at the one extreme to the contemplation of atheism at the other….Ishmael even subscribes for a time to Captain Ahab’s Romantic belief in Man as Supreme Being. But finally, unable to choose between these conflicting modes of belief, he embraces all possibilities alike.”(Strandberg)

Relativity shines through in Ishmael’s character. However, it can also be seen reflected in other characters relationship with the venture of capturing the white whale.

One of the exciting aspects of the book is the range of diversity among all of the characters. It is the picture of several individuals with different cultural backgrounds and personal goals meshed together on one ship, whaling. Each character exhibits a unique feel and mood to the story. In accordance with the actual quest to capture Moby-Dick, each whaler has his own version of what the white whale means to them. Perhaps the main character in the story is Ahab. Particularly, his own strivings behind the quest is in the fact that he wants revenge on the whale for taking his leg. However, there is likely more depth behind the reason for Ahab’s persistent madness. If the whale that took his leg would have been any generic one, he would not be so persistent; but because this was an untypical type of whale, this drives Ahab to madness. The fact that the whale is white is significant in that it symbolizes the unexplained anomalies in nature represents the embodiment of uncertainty. Ahab and the others on board are all trying to grasp uncertainty in search for the anomaly. This is symbolic of any attempt at ascertaining absolute truth will end in failure and will result in either embracing uncertainty (Ishmael and postmodernism) or driving oneself mad and creating his own absolute (Ahab).

“Those who do this are like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick, who transfers all the ‘intangible malignity’ he perceives in the world to a white whale. Having posited a visible personification of the demonic, he commits his vast knowledge and expertise to the attempt to overcome what he cannot bear. To justify his maniac pursuit, he must project his own reality, impose his own created truth.”(Greene)

Ahab’s pursuit in turn affects the direction of the rest of the crew. To further emphasize the different meaning of the whale for each whaler, Melville introduces the “gold dubloon” for which anyone that spots the whale will be awarded by Ahab.

“The whale hunters aboard the Pequod and on other ships have different opinions about the meaning of the whale. Although many whale hunters on the pequod are hypnotized by Ahab’s ‘invocation’ of evil (ch. 36 p. 140) into accepting that the whale is ‘in some dim, unsuspected way the gliding great demon of the seas of life,’ (ch. 36 p. 141) yet there remains unchanged the plurality of meanings, which is indicated by the unchangeablility of the meaning of the gold dubloon.”

These dilemmas further symbolize the atmosphere of relativity in the book. Melville puts emphasis on the search for absolute truth or God will result in subjectivism which characterizes the postmodern perspective.

Perhaps an even more compelling expression of the elements of postmodernism in Melville would be to entertain the idea of the entire book as a meta-narrative. This would be to comprehend Melville’s work as a commentary on symbolism and metaphor in the book itself. In awareness of the reader’s desire to explore the possible symbolic significance in the book, Melville explicates elements such as the metonym of the “white” of the whale. It was established that the whiteness of the whale holds different meaning for each whaler. The deviation of the basic narrative of the story into this metonym transforms the symbol into a fabrication; it becomes a simulation of symbolism but is deprived of an original source of context. This introspective style of writing in Melville exhibits characteristics of what Jean Baudrillard calls “simulacrum”. Baudrillard elaborates on the overlapping nature of contextually rich symbolic simulation in his book “Simulacra and Simulations”:

“Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation develops the whole edifice of representation as itself simulacrum. These would be the successive phases of the image:

1 It is the reflection of a basic reality.

2 It masks and perverts a basic reality.

3 It masks the absence of a basic reality.

4 It bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

In the first case, the image is a good appearance: the representation is of the order of sacrament. In the second, it is an evil appearance: of the order of malefice. In the third, it plays at beaing an appearance: it is the order of sorcery. In the fourth, it is no longer in the order of appearance at all, but of simulation.”(170)

The idea is that a simulacrum is so contextually rich that it becomes difficult to find the right path to the original source of meaning; so much so that it “simulates” its own reality. This becomes evident when interpreting the metonym of “white”. Melville leads the reader in to thinking that there is an underlying significance behind it, but discloses it as a web of symbolic ambiguity. The symbolism of it would not be uncertainty, racism, or God. Rather the symbol would itself be symbolism. Melville fleshes-out this simulation of meaning in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale”:

“Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?”(165)

The paradox of this simulacrum is the realization that white is void of color (meaning) and yet contains all colors. The metonym is a simulation of symbolism and in turn constitutes its own reality that enters into the fourth stage in Baudrillard’s theory – becoming a simulacrum of itself. This is a very radical postmodern theory and to see the preliminary mappings of the concept in the format of Melville’s novel is intriguing.                        Through investigating the various contexts of Melville and Moby-Dick, any reader or critic can extrapolate elements of postmodernism in the work. Whether analyzing the cultural background in which the book was written, examining the author’s character, or exploring the characters and themes of the plot, these elements can be traced out. The amount of symbolism discussed in this essay alone reflects the ambiguity and relativism of the text. The idea can also be explored that the text is in fact a meta-narrative commenting on its own symbolic references, exhibiting the concept of simulacrum. In its many aspects and perspectives, Moby-Dick is essentially postmodern.


~ by loganinman on October 16, 2012.

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