Book Review: The Ambiguous Moby Dick

On July 25, 2018, Posted by , In blog, With No Comments

The novel Moby Dick is indeed, as the above quotation suggests, ‘inconclusive’ in the sense that it seems to be both about a sort of indefiniteness, and indefinite itself in its conclusions or ‘message’. Melville’s masterpiece leaves us with no readily discerned moral, no easily grasped quarry, no matter how hard we look. In fact, in the pursuit of fixed meanings of this kind, we are apt to follow Ahab in his catastrophic monomania: we may well follow our wily prey down to the dark depths of oblivion. What the novel does give us, however, is a powerful impression of ambiguity, of uncertain meaning in the face of an uncertain universe too canny and implacable to explain itself in simple or singular terms. If the book is ‘about’ anything, it is just this: the equivocal nature of our human efforts (whatever they may be), the elusiveness of value, the tentative import of all human endeavour.

Ahab’s quest for Moby Dick is not, obviously, a matter of straightforward revenge. The idea itself – of revenging oneself upon an animal, indeed an animal that one was trying to kill in the first place – is preposterous. There is much more to the epic quest than seeking vengeance for a missing leg. If there were not, Melville’s theme would be trivial, his book forgotten. What Ahab is actually seeking is something far more subtle, more complicated. He is navigating his boat and crew across the world in defence not simply of his own wounded honour and physical integrity, but of a profound principle, one that strikes deep into the heart of human psychology. The great whale, in all its mysterious whiteness, has a monumental symbolic meaning that can, roughly, be defined as the principle of uncertainty, of indefiniteness in the world itself. What Ahab is seeking to do, in fact, is track down and eliminate the existential abyss itself, the ‘nothingness’ or void that confronts man as a conscious living being. To kill the whale would mean controlling the indeterminacy, the randomness, the very blankness of the human condition.

The connection between Moby Dick and its symbolic meaning is made abundantly clear in the novel. Melville repeatedly tells us why Ahab must complete his task, and how the whale has come to mean much more to him – and hence to the reader – than simply a specific sea creature. The following magnificent passage from Chapter 42 of the novel offers a stunning appraisal of the weighty symbolic meaning of Moby Dick’s whiteness:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? … and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt? (Melville 212)

“Whiteness” stands, as Melville tells us, for “heartlessness”, “annihilation”, “atheism”. The whale is no mere creature — he is a symbol of the most fundamental absences that we can possibly face, the lack of any ultimate authority available to us that can, indisputably, grant us certainty or uncontested, definite meaning.

In his marvellous essay, “The Two Principles”, D.H. Lawrence alludes to the meeting between nature and man that Melville enacts in his fictional work. What the American author accomplishes, Lawrence deftly explains in his idiosyncratic but very charming style, is an exploration of man confronting an elemental part of nature that is absolutely ‘beyond’ him, that cannot be reduced to something ‘personal’ or ‘human’. Ahab grapples not with some human foe, but with something completely external to him, an aspect of nature itself:

[In] Herman Melville the human relationship is no longer the chief interest. The sea enters as the great protagonist.

The sea is a cosmic element, and the relation between the sea and the human psyche is impersonal and elemental. The sea that we dream of, the sea that fills us with hate or bliss, is a primal influence upon us beyond the personal range.

We need to find some terms to express such elemental connections as between the ocean and the human soul. We need to put off our personality, even our individuality, and enter the region of the elements (Lawrence 227).

Entering the region of the elements is exactly what Melville has his protagonists do. The elemental principle of nothingness, of oblivion, takes Ahab (and others, of course), right down into the mysterious voids underneath the known surface that, as human navigators on the sea of existence, we seek to survive upon. Moby Dick is frankly about this indefiniteness, this ambiguity in the human condition. It does not hide from us the fact that there are no real certainties for us, that we face questions we cannot answer, that there is an emptiness we cannot fill.

But Melville’s novel is also, in itself, an example of ambiguity, of indefiniteness. As Andrew Delbanco explains in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the work, the novel’s construction, in a number of ways, contributes to its tentativeness, its ambiguity:

Moby Dick is simply too large a book to be contained within one consistent consciousness subject to the laws of identity and physical plausibility. The narrating mind (called Ishmael at first) hurtles outward, gorging itself with whale lore and with the private memories of men who barely speak. Sometimes this narrative voice breaks out into choral effusion or splinters into the competitive chatter of the sailors. Yet the compositional principle of Moby Dick is more than a whim; it is as if Melville creates Ishmael in the image of his earlier versions of himself and then invites us to share the excitement of his self-destruction (Delbanco xvii).

The book’s playfulness, its endless digressions, its refusal to be bound by conventions, contribute to the difficulty it presents to interpreters. We simply cannot pin it down easily. It eludes us in spite of all our best efforts. In this way, style and substance truly merge in the novel. Melville writes of indefiniteness and ambiguity in a manner suggestive of these things themselves. The two reinforce each other, in fact doubling the intensity of the dramatic effect, so that a work of uncommon and enduring literary power is produced.

Indeed, no conclusion about Moby Dick can be final, just as no resolution can be made of the stark fact of the void at the centre of the universe. We simply cannot get answers of that kind. This is frustrating, of course, from a strictly epistemological perspective, but liberating and creatively inspiring in terms of literary power. The text’s digressions, and the narrator’s unwillingness to be bounded by anything in his pursuit of questions relating to the void, make for a highly dynamic result. Despite its daunting length, the novel has the ability to hold us rapt, to keep us wrapped up the protagonists’ elemental quests for meaning. We cannot be absolutely sure about Melville’s classic when it comes to pinning its ‘message’ to us down. But we can be sure about how great a work of fiction it is, how enduring is its textual journey for humans in a world where the void is the only thing of which one can be positive.

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  • Lawrence, D.H. “The Two Principles”. Phooenix II. New York: Viking Compass, 1972. Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

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