I'm currently working on producing my sequel to my comment on subculture through a critical reading of the Pet Shop Boys' 'In The Night.' However, I am currently in the second day of jury duty, and I am off to Berkeley for the weekend for the statewide membership meeting. As a brief interlude between that work and my reading of Sarah Schulman, I thought I would include one of my early efforts at literary criticism, my reading of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. This was produced at the end of my undergraduate work in the University of Minnesota, and has several of the flaws that can be found in that work, but it's still fairly interesting.
The voyage of the Pequod sets a powerful engine running. An increasingly quickening pace of crisis that can only end in catastrophe drives that engine. “Ship and boat diverged; the cold, damp night breeze blew between; a screaming gull flew overhead; the two hulls wildly rolled; we gave three hearty-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.” (Melville 104) We find the characters in a situation where every attempt to mediate the crises fails, and every failure makes the crises more explosive. Within that series of crises, the question of how the characters tie themselves into this cycle of failure upon failure becomes very interesting. This paper deals with three crises related concepts within Moby Dick: prophecy, fate, and a third only ever implicit term, desire. These three concepts tie into the different temporalities* in effect on and off the Pequod. The temporalities of prophecy, fate and desire are the modalities that the book’s characters use to explain, justify, and understand the ever-expanding crisis and their role within the cycle that leads to the final catastrophe.
The key terms, “crisis”, and “catastrophe” need to be defined in order for this logic to operate. Like Marx, Melville, through his description of the whaling industry, is trying to conceptualize the dynamics within this new system of industrial capitalism. He is attempting to produce the logic in which “crisis” and “catastrophe” are pulled into the heart of the system and are made productive for it.
There is an interesting parallel between the system as a whole and whaling as an element within that system. The system was going through an “unprecedented expansion” at the time of the writing of Moby Dick, and within the United States, whaling was the form of production that the United States excelled in. Moby Dick carries heavy implications to the collapse that would occur in both the economy and in whaling.
Casarino defines the world left after the shipwreck. “After the shipwreck of the Pequod and after the end of Moby Dick, one is left with a world that becomes permanent crisis. If it is the case that the “tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” it is precisely such an image and conception of history that surfaces after the sinking of the Pequod—along with regurgitated detritus and wreckage. Constant “state of emergency” and permanent crisis.”
The sinking of the Pequod only actualizes what is already in the air. Ultimately that is what fate is. It is the catastrophe in its latency, in its virtual state. It’s not the only ways that this is registered, but it is the one that ties in the characters to the cycle. Moby Dick is looking at a new world coming into being, a world built on permanent crisis. This particular reading resonates with the world that we live in today, the world of Empire, giving a genealogical coding to the reading.
The term “fate” is the most frequently returning of these keywords, and it is the most opaque. The term not only means different things when used by different characters, but these varying uses of the word come to layer on top of each other in an uncomfortable morass. The common usage of the word “fate” carries the implications of a powerful form of transcendence. Melville, however, invokes the word to a significantly different end. It becomes an attempt to grasp at a crisis and catastrophe that is immanent in nature. This attempt at semantic resequencing reveals itself in the very discomfort and ambiguity caused by the frequent use of the word: if through repeated usage, the word breaks loose of its traditional moorings.
This term fate is the prime focus of the present analysis. Fate needs to be discussed within its religious context, for Melville was operating within a heavily religious discourse, which clearly touches every page of the book. Literary and intellectual influences and precedences for Melville’s choice of this term also deserve attention: Emerson wrote on the subject, Shakespeare’s literary forms (particularly tragedy) as written about by F.O. Matthesson and Charles Olsen also revolve around issues of fate.
Through these influences, both religious and literary, Melville makes a series of conceptual leaps. What interests me most is the intuitive process that Melville is engaged in, interacting with and collapsing these philosophical, religious, and literary influences to try to arrive at a new understanding whose form and content are uncertain at the outset. He takes up the Bible, Shakespeare, etc. to grasp at something that cannot be described in the language of the day, the language of teleology, that is of transcendentalism, and Puritanism. The names taken from the Bible, the forms from Shakespearean tragedy, the transcendentalists, Milton and others become the “pasteboard mask” upon which something else is occurring. There are clearly moments of parody and satire when the book takes up these forms, but Melville uses these forms primarily as a set of tools. Taken out of their contexts and put into a new assemblage where nothing quite fits, these “term-tools” produce and are incorporated into the assemblage that acts as the description of the crisis and catastrophe.
The question of religion is a curious one. Clearly Moby Dick has been influenced by this discourse, for just about every name in the novel comes out of the Bible. These re-situated names leave traces of their original narratives within the text. Most significantly, the concept of crisis and catastrophe has an intense tie to the Bible and Melville is clearly aware of this overdetermination operating within these terms. This biblical material was certainly readily available to Melville given the devotion for the Presbyterian faith that his mother tried to surround him with.
The religious term of apocalypse gives Melville an opening into the understanding, which he is trying to reach. The catastrophe can therefore be viewed as what The Oxford Companion to the Bible calls the “cosmic cataclysm”: “the coming end will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first come into existence” (Dan. 12.1). Sometimes this is described in terms of political action and military struggle; at other times the conflict assumes cosmic proportions involving mysterious happenings on earth and in the heavens—earthquakes, famine, fearful celestial portents, and destruction by fire.” (36) Moby Dick works on both of these registers as well as another. One can see elements of the apocalypse work within the hunt for the whale. In this aspect, Starbuck acts as sporadic interlocutor, pointing in the direction that this operation is against God. One can find a number of “mysterious happenings”, including compasses reversing its polarity, and the images of lightning and fire. “All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tri-pointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.” (Melville 505)
It also relates to the engine of production that allows for everything else to occur. One can sense this mood within the description of the production of oil in the chapter “The Try-Works”.
“As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bones in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.” (Melville 422)
Within these examples, the images of fire, destruction, and devilry become the mediums in which the movement towards a catastrophe takes place. They are emotional registers that point towards collapse. The image of the ship in the “Try-Works” best captures this, when it says, “plunging into the blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.” The role that this new form of industrial production admittedly falls out of the purview of this paper, but it is clear that it is this production that allows for the sense of “fate” in both Ishmael and Ahab.
This notion of apocalypse has a strong literary tradition outside of the Bible as well. “The apocalypse is recognized by many scholars as a distinct literary genre expressing itself, as we have seen, in terms of divine disclosure, transcendent reality, and final redemption.” (Oxford 35) Thus apocalypse becomes yet another risk of flight into transcendence. But, the novel that Herman Melville wrote ultimately does not work within this genre. None of the three moments that are brought up by The Oxford Companion to the Bible, “divine disclosure, transcendent reality, and final redemption” works within the logic of Moby Dick. The use of religious discourse is an appropriation that occurs in order to reach the concept of the crisis/catastrophe. The apocalypse in its transcendent logic is inadequate to fully encompass the crises and catastrophe of Moby Dick.
To move from one inadequate term to another, the term “Fate,” as Melville commonly uses it, has a strong link to this new register of apocalypse. Perhaps it can be seen as a darker underbelly of Providence, the American trope of in inevitable positive future. When faced with an image of a glorious America, an America that will fulfill the desires of both the Puritan and transcendental narratives of the nation, the reverse, the looming apocalypse becomes a radical subversion of that narrative.
The terms of ‘fate’ and ‘prophecy’ that Melville draws from are not exclusively religious. He is also drawing from an atmosphere of a number of literary influences ranging from Shakespeare to Emerson. I don’t think that these influences draw us from the realm of religion although. quote. The various literary figures of the period tend to draw from the well of religion even when they don’t explicitly support official church doctrine.
Emerson wrote an essay entitled “Fate”. And although Melville had not read Emerson’s essays until after the Civil War, the considerable unease and frustration that he felt when he read the essays was already there after the attending one of his lectures. This is what initially kept him from reading his works. Also it is fairly clear that Emerson’s ideas were in the air so to speak. quote. So while one cannot say that Melville was responding to Emerson’s text on fate. It is clear that he was responding to the general tenor of Emerson’s ideas.
There is a strange tone of failure within Emerson’s essay on Fate. One can see this with some of his initial comments on “improvement”. “We are fired with the hope to reform men. After many experiences we find that we must begin earlier,--at school. But the boys and girls are not docile; we can make nothing of them. We decide that they are of not good stock. We must begin our form earlier still,--at generation: that is to say, there is Fate, or laws of the world.”
By moving to the term “fate”, it seems obvious that Emerson is making an attempt to reconcile his views of optimism about the American sphere with the abysmal failures that have occurred during his time. The utopian communities from Fourierism to others have collapsed. There is an increasingly large permanent and impoverished proletariat, and the civil war would begin within months of the publishing of the essay. “Fate” becomes the limitations that Nature puts on the efforts of progress through the term “providence.”
These rules that Emerson sets up have a teleological logic built into them. When Emerson operates within the term “Fate” he means it as a limiting factor to progress and “providence”. Providence acts as the counter to “fate”. “Providence has a wild, rough incalculable road to its end, and it is of no use to dress up that terrific benefactor in a clean shirt and white neckcloth of a student of divinity.” Fate holds simultaneously a sense of historical, environmental, and biological determination within it. It refers to “At the corner of the street you read the possibility of every passenger in the facial angle, in the complexion, in the depth of his eye. His parentage determines it. Men are what their mothers made them.” The emphasis lies within this register, still a historical element can be seen when he quotes the Hindu proverb, “Fate is nothing but the deeds committed in a prior state of existence.” Also this occurs on the register of the environment, in the case of floods and earthquakes, as well as “the cholera, the small-pox [that] have proved as mortal to some tribes as a frost to the crickets.”
After looking at this theme of fate as limit, he then moves into the intellect and other questions on that register, and returns to the question of fate within another sense. “We stand against Fate, as children stand up against the wall in their father’s house and notch their height from year to year.” A paragraph later he makes the statement that “Fate then is a name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought; for causes which are unpenetrated.” The trope of Fate then is the mask that must be broken through to grasp at the true nature of things.
This sense of fate that we will later call in Spinozist terms, ‘an inadequate understanding’ (although when Spinoza describes it there is no sense of inevitable telos) can be found within the character of Ahab. “In projecting the character of Ahab, he concentrated on the obverse side of the transcendental dream. Emerson would have agreed with the captain that ‘All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks’; but he felt none of Ahab’s torments at the demonic element in the unseen, at the hidden malignity which caused him to break out: ‘That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the White Whale agent, or be the White Whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.’” (Matthiessen 406)
This critique of transcendentalism that is implicit within the character of Ahab will be taken up later, but for now I want to move onto another point that Matthiessen makes.
F.O. Matthiessen spends a good period of time in his book American Renaissance, reading Moby Dick through a particularly Shakespearean lens. He makes a detailed search through Melville’s notebooks, library, and text to bring this out. He points out how Ahab’s speech can be broken down easily into the blank verse of Shakespeare. The book also takes many of the forms of Shakespearean drama. We find set directions throughout the book.
This can be seen in Ishmael’s introduction in the first chapter.
“Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces—though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet now that I recall all the circumstances which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgement.” (Melville 6)
This passage is extraordinarily complex. It’s ambiguities primarily radiate out of the concept of “the Fates”. This would be in no way something that would feel out of place in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. We are introduced to the narrator Ishmael who will guide through the journey of the tragic hero, Ahab. This role on the ship and as narrator is an ambiguous one. After all he is not part of the “high tragedy” of Ahab, nor is he placed in the small comedic role of one of the ethnic stereotyped sailors in chapter 40. He plays something different than both, a role much less set, and one that is much less comfortable.
Ahab, most of all, is overdetermined by this recall to Shakespearean tragedy. The traces to King Lear are clear within his madness. F.O. Matthiessen follows this logic. “When the terror of the storm scenes is re-enacted on the Pequod, Ahab’s fierceness owes something of its stature to Lear. Moreover, one of the crucial elements in the evolution of the old captain is his relation with Pip, a relation that, in the interplay of madness and wisdom, is endowed with the pathos of the bond between the King and his Fool.” But the tragic logic of this isn’t seen through in Moby-Dick, as Matthiessen points out, later. This relationship doesn’t lead to any realization in Ahab. “He perceives in Pip’s attachment the quality that might cure his own malady, but he refuses to be deflected from his pursuit by the stirring of any sympathy for others.”
The form of fate as tragedy is evident throughout the beginning of the book. It allows for the crisis and catastrophe to already exist within the beginning of the book. Tragedy in this sense can operate to some extent as a front in order to engage in the experimentation that he wanted to. It was a way of circumventing the “linear narrative syntax privileged and demanded by literary America.”
But the book simply isn’t a tragedy. Casarino states this within his Modernity at Sea, “…when the long-expected catastrophe does arrive, one is left with a sensation of excess of crisis. The sinking of the Pequod somehow does not safely exhaust and account for the intensity of all the delirious foreboding and visionary force that the novel had carefully built up and built itself upon… In the end, there is no anagnorisis and no fulfilling catharsis, but only a dangerous surplus of crisis.”
Spanos makes an interesting argument that mirrors Matthiessen’s arguments around the issues of transcendentalism and the use of Shakespeare. “I want to suggest provisionally, then, that Melville overdetermines the “tragic vision” as a ruse constructed by metaphysical confidence men (and thus, as a more subtle form of the blindness he finds in the “optimism” of the legacy of Emerson and Thoreau to the unequal, historically specific, lived experiences of men and women).” In the way that the death of Ahab is left without as sense of catharsis, the tragic hero is seen as the flip-side of the coin to the optimistic hero. Both are blind to the implication of what is to come.
We see how each of these forms is responded to or taken up and transformed, it is now necessary to move into the ways that Melville uses the term “fate” in the text as well as prophecy. It will deal with the characters’ recourse to the term “fate” as the result of an inadequate understanding of the forces that pull the various parts into the vortex of the crisis. Paradoxically however, fate in Moby Dick is also the desire to move towards that vortex. The concept of prophecy, meanwhile, will be seen to operate as a sympathetic corollary to that of fate. These terms will tangle with each other uneasily, overdetermine each other, and at times, collapse into each other.
Moby Dick, in effect takes from both biblical language of the apocalypse and Shakespeare’s tragedy, a sense of looming and a sense of impending peril and doom. One can see both operating in the following paragraph. “Ship and boat diverged; the cold, damp night breeze blew between; a screaming gull flew overhead; the two hulls wildly rolled; we gave three hearty-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.” (Melville 104)
But what Moby Dick rejects is pretty much the same thing with both sources, and that is any sense of resolution.
Each of these forms is taken on and transformed with the complex structure of the book, and having dealt with those issues, it is now time to deal with the way that “fate” and prophecy work within the novel. The notion of fate as an inadequate understanding will be dealt with first. Then the notion of fate as desire will be examined. Although we will begin with the terms separate within the explanations and initial examples, this separation only operates within the initial analysis. The paper will then look how both Ahab and Ishmael operate on the terrain of both desire and inadequate understandings of the world within their uses of the word. However, they are not operating at the same register when they are using those terms, and those differences will be explored.
The notion of fate as an inadequate understanding of the world is a particularly Spinozist notion. It is the moment that someone has an understanding that the forces that determine them are far more powerful than what they do to those forces as a determining force. However, it is a “mutilated” understanding of the way this works. The various images that make up the determining force coagulate together into a form of transcendence.
Within the first Scholium to Proposition 40, in his discussion of the question of transcendence, Spinoza brings up an especially relevant moment for the differences between Ishmael and Ahab concerning “fate”. “So also concerning the rest: each person, in accordance with the disposition of his body, will form universal images of things. So it is not strange that so many controversies have arisen among philosophers who wanted to explain the natural things solely by the image of things.”
Both Ahab and Ishmael react to the crises and impending catastrophe within the terms of fate, but the way that they construct that maneuver makes a profound comment on the way that they interact with the elements that make up the crisis/catastrophe. This essay will show how these reactions make significant commentaries on the sort of subjectivity that can move towards grasping this new system and surviving it.
The last sense that comes up in the book is the sense of desire. Casarino within Modernity at Sea points out that when Ishmael invokes “the invisible police officer of the Fates” he is admitting a form of desire. “For Ishmael, fate is produced both as the materialization and as the displacement of a desire too great and unconfessable to be made manifest [in] any form other than a policing exteriority.” This sense of fate as desire is also evident in Ahab’s discourse of fate within the novel as well. However the desire that Ahab cannot express is one for his own death. Ishmael’s fate is one aspect a similar veil, but simple of different desires. His desires are not precisely the crew’s desires, but they aren’t the desires of an “intellectual Ahab”, as C.L.R. James wants to state.
Moving into the discussion of Ishmael and Ahab and the way that they tie themselves to the crisis with the terms of “fate”. Ahab, as I said earlier, acts as a sort of critique of Emersonian beliefs. The truth is that Ahab acts as a sort of Emersonian hero. In relation to “fate”, “Emerson’s hero is the man of will who moves forward by it, since ‘the direction of the whole and of the parts is toward benefit.’ But Melville’s hero of formidable will swept his whole crew to destruction.”
Ahab is continually described within terms of a sovereign. He himself describes himself in the following terms. “The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too is Ahab; all are Ahab.” (Melville 431) Ahab at these moments is described as the sovereign above all
The name Ahab has a particularly religious weight to it. The reference to this doomed king is so heavy that it cannot remain unremarked upon within the text. quote. This marks out Ahab from Ishmael and the others whose names’ traces that are left without comment. Why is this? Ultimately, it ties into the particular role of Ahab as that what is most ancient as well as what is most modern. Within his character, the king that commands all collapses into the modern man who tries to master the chaotic phenomenon within him.
“What is it, what nameless inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? 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 the world, like yonder windlass and Fate is the handspike.” (Melville 545)
When is caught up in those moments when he feels “fate” as a type of inadequate understanding the mode that it takes is particularly extreme. “Fate” is no sense of misunderstanding or confusion, instead it acts as “a cruel, remorseless emperor”. Events coagulate themselves into the mirror of the image of how Ahab imagines himself at other moments. Ahab’s logic works within a particularly modern register where he can only play the role of master or slave.
Although Blanchot makes a case to some extent for Ahab in the “Song of the Sirens”, in a relation between Ulysses’ instrumental logic and Ahab’s logic Blanchot makes the following comment, “We cannot deny that Ulysses understood something of what Ahab saw, but he stood fast within that understanding, while Ahab became lost in the image. In other words, one resisted the metamorphosis while the other entered it and disappeared inside it.” I ultimately I am not compelled by this. Ahab is always working within some form of transcendence when pondering the state he finds himself in. As Casarino states about the same passage, “Ahab’s failure was a failure of imagination: he had learned so well the lesson of capital and had absorbed so completely its logic of exteriority that, when he attempted to trace his own line of flight, all he was able to see was the path traced and retraced by capital in its continuous attempts to transcend itself and its own contradictions, namely, the path delimited by the constant displacement and repositing of outer limits.” His response to this transcendence swings on a pendulum from absolute exultation to absolute despair, but he never questions the notion of that transcendence itself.
Perhaps the moment that he comes closest is in one of his monologues that is contained in a conversation with Starbuck. His conversation doesn’t touch on the obsession with the whale, just years of labor, command and exhaustion.
“On such a day—very such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooner of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of these forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without—oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!…Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool and palsy the arm at the oar, and the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? Behold. Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out of ashes! But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise.” Melville 544)
Ahab is simply exhausted of being the modern King Lear, exhausted of his role as the modern surveying sovereign who must master the chaos surrounding him into an order. He senses what this instrumental reason has done to his relations with the world. However this dissolves quickly. He cannot give up the role that he has taken up, and he returns to the realm of transcendence in the remarks he made after this soliloquy.
As I have stated before, I don’t find C.L.R. James’ assessment of Ishmael as an “intellectual Ahab” to be particularly compelling. Ultimately, Ishmael isn’t interesting in following Ahab so much as he feels drawn to him as he is drawn to all other things. Still the connection is an interesting one and we find moments when Ishmael sympathizes with and ventriquizes Ahab’s thought. “A wild mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless Feud seemed mine.” (Melville 179)
There are even moments when the desire for the catastrophe comes out within Ishmael’s own understanding of why he is going on the voyage. quote Edwin S. Schneidman points this out in his essay, “Melville’s Cognitive Style”.
“The argument can be restated this way: When my bodily humors (hypos) are such that they make me feel like committing murder, I…, instead, commit a partial or symbolic suicide by burying myself for an extended time in a ship at sea. Furthermore, by a subtle process that intermixes fate (or chance) and my conscious (and unconscious selections) selections, I make this egression on a ship that is ruled by crazy captain-monarch whose madness takes the form of a monomaniacal murderously revengeful impulse that is coupled with a self-destructive capacity to destroy not only himself but all his crew around him, myself included.”
Obviously there are some problems with this narrative with the voyage, with all its attempts to replicate a vernacular. Particularly, I find the separation of Fate from the discussion problematic. However, the driving point of the characterization holds true. One can see this particular drive (perhaps conscious, perhaps not) in his choice of locations to find a boat (as well as obviously in the choice of one of the most dangerous forms of employment on the sea.
“For in my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me. Besides though New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling, and though in this matter poor Nantucket is now much behind her, yet Nantucket was her great original—the Tyre of this Carthage;--the place where the first dead American whale was stranded. Where else but from Nantucket did those first aboriginal whalemen, the Red-Men, first sally out in canoes to give chase to the Leviathan?” (Melville 8)
This passage makes an interesting tie in with the earlier discussion of Ishmael’s hidden desire within the framework of fate. Not only does Ishmael’s desire move him to join the crew of a whaling vessel, but it draw him to an industry that is slowly being destroyed in its location. The language that he uses to describe this attraction ties not only in with the collapse of the current industry, but it also hails back to the ‘extinct’ “aboriginal whalemen.”
There is a certain logic that is operating on the level of temporality as well as on the subjective level. The temporal logic has the pattern of an ever-expanding spiral of destruction and creation that is the logic of capital. The destruction of the “aboriginal whalemen” allows for the creation of the expanded Nantucket market, and its destruction allows for the creation of yet another market in New Bedford. There is an implied that the New Bedford market will fall, too, and perhaps the industry of whaling itself.
Within that logic, it’s significant that Ishmael chooses to go on the voyage of a collapsing industry, and that his attraction to it is precisely because of that. There is a clear mark of nostalgia within this that marks a significant portion of Melville’s stories around the sea, but I think that the penchence for nostalgia is overwhelmed by the image of extermination held in the figure of the “aboriginal whaleman”.
But Ishmael’s self destruction is simply not Ahab’s self-destruction. The suicide that Ishmael seeks is one of dissolution. This tone is capture in Paulo Virno’s essay “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment.”
“A person stands at the edge of the sea, intent upon nothing. He hears the sounds of the waves, noisy and continuous, even though after a certain time he is no longer listening. That person perceives, but without being aware of it. The perception of the uniform motion of the waves is no longer accompanied by the perception of self as perceiving subject. This perception is called apperception, or the consciousness of being in the act of perceiving. At the graying edge of the waves, the person standing there absorbed is one with the surrounding environment, connected by a thousand subtle and tenacious threads. This situation, however, does not pass through the filter of a self-reflexive “subject.” Rather, this integration with the context is that much stronger the more the “I” forgets itself. Such an experience, however, clashes with what has become the point of honor of modern philosophy, that is to say, with the thesis that perception is inseparable from apperception, that true knowledge is only the knowledge of knowledge, that reverence to something is founded upon reference to oneself. The experience of the person at the beach suggests, rather that we belong to a world in a material and sensible way, far more preliminary and unshakable than what seeps out from the little we know of knowledge.”
This sense of dissolution is captured by the description of the peers at the beginning of Moby Dick. It operates on the level of the social, although. “But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive.” They do this because meaning found in the sea. “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this the key to it all.” (Melville 5)
So when he invokes “the invisible police officers of the Fates” who survey and influence him for the reason that he went on this, the most destructive of voyages. The death that he desires is not the death that Ahab desires. It is the death of the self of apperception.
There is a second element, that of prophecy. Prophecy can be seen to tie into the ways that Ahab and Ishmael relate to the crisis. The prophecies that occur are interpolated through one of the two. The prophetic element of the book is incredibly complex, and I don’t think that the discussion around Ahab and Ishmael comes close to defining their meanings, but I’m going to limit the discussion to the ways that the two characters see their position within the crises. The prophecies of Elijah and Father Mapple are read through a relationship with Ishmael, just as the prophecies of Fedullah operate through a relationship
These complexities are often hidden behind the blank wall of fate. And the terms are not as separate as set in the earlier discussion particularly in the case of desire and inadequacy within the realm of fate. The prophecy discussed above also cannot be extricated from the other three. Ultimately the concepts tie into the multiple temporalities of crisis contained in the book.
I also want to delve into the strange role of the prophet Elijah. His words initially appear as incomprehensible, and while they leave Ishmael uneasy, he also quickly dismisses them as humbug. It’s with these lines that he becomes most comprehensible. “But nothing about that thing that happened to him off Cape Horn, long ago when he lay like dead for three days and nights; nothing about that deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa? Heard nothing about that, eh? Nothing about the calabash he spat into? And nothing about his losing his leg last voyage, according to prophecy? Didn’t ye hear a word about them matters and something more, eh? No, I don’t think ye did; how could ye? Who knows it? Not all Nantucket. I guess.” (Melville 19) In his second meeting with Ishmael (this time with Queequeg) he predicts their deaths “Good bye to ye. Shan’t see ye again very soon, I guess; unless it’s before the Grand Jury.” (Melville 99)
It’s only with Ishmael plunging into the voyage that his words make any sense. They lay latently within him as he begins the journey. “Every time I ascended to the deck from my watches below, I instantly gazed aft to mark if any strange face were visible; for my first vague disquietude touching the unknown captain, now in the seclusion of the sea, became almost a perturbation. This was strangely heightened at times by the ragged Elijah’s diabolical incoherences uninvitedly recurring to me, with a subtle energy that I could not have before conceived of.” (Melville 122) In effect, what he dismissed earlier begins to hold meaning when he finally begins the voyage.
This point of prophecy acts the same as fate, as pushing a type of grasping what is going to occur to the level of the transcendence that is as inadequately. The intuitive grasp that Elijah has made is clearly made with information that is not available to most people. He knows about certain views that Ahab has towards religion, his explosive temper, and the impact of his injury. He takes this information, a few superstitions, and pushes it towards an intuitive grasp of the future.
Ahab has his interactions with prophecy as well, and rather than acting as an inadequate form of knowledge, it acts as a way of enabling his desires. This can be seen both in the prophecies he himself makes, and the role that Fedallah’s prophecies in the way that Ahab acts. It ties into the construction of himself as sovereign.
This is especially evident within his own prophecies. There is a moment where he comments on the prophecy that predicted the loss of his limb, and made his own prophecy. This prophecy concerns his goals to hunt the whale, and prophesizes that he will succeed in his goals. In this we can see, Ahab as the ancient sovereign as discussed above, as well as the modern subject that is devoted to controlling the chaos of the world.
There has been a lot of writing describing Ahab as being under the spell of Fedallah, but I don’t find that this works within the text. His initial text makes these comments about him. “Whence he came in a mannerly world like this, by what sort of unaccountable tie he soon evinced himself to be linked with Ahab’s peculiar fortunes; nay, so far as to have some sort of a half-hinted influence; Heaven knows, but it might have been even authority over him; all this none knew.” (Melville 231) There it seems, the influence over Ahab, even slight, is unknowable. At this moment it is possible that the same thing influences both of them. It is even possible to read the relationship as dominance of Ahab over Fedallah. The moment this becomes most clear is when Fedallah stays bowed before the fire while Ahab stands and delivers his contempt towards that fire.
The prophecies that Fedallah makes in part allow for him to go on the voyage that he wants to go on. F.O. Matthiessen writes on this.
“Fedallah’s elaboration of the seemingly impossible things that must happen before Ahab can die is reminiscent of Birnam wood and Dunsinane. Ahab feels assured for this voyage when he is told that the Parsee will perish before him, and will appear again after death, and that ‘hemp only’ can kill Ahab. But it turns out that Fedallah, who is drowned by Moby-Dick’s onslaught on the second day of the chase, is seen again, pinioned incredibly in the entangled lines on the whale’s back. It also happens that in Ahab’s final darting of his harpoon into his enemy, the line runs foul, catches him around the neck, and propels him instantly to his grave.”
Fedallah allows for Ahab to ignore the fact that it is in fact his actions that are pushing the Pequod towards the catastrophe. The signs are there. There is the lightning strike that has already been discussed in the section on apocalypse. Starbuck also notes this, “God, God is against thee, old man; forbear! t’is an ill voyage! ill begun, ill continued; let me square the yards, while we may, old man, and make a fair wind of it homewards, to go on a better voyage than this.” (Melville 508)
In the end, Ahab perishes, and Ishmael survives. The question of what this means relates to the society created after the crisis. Ishmael’s flexible subjectivity allows him to survive the catastrophe, while the strong modern subjectivity of Ahab causes him to crash into the sea. The term of “fate”, and also of “prophesy” gives us some insight into this process. It shows Ahab’s conception flying always towards the transcendent. While ‘fate’ in Ishmael’s terms is also a transcendent, it is a transcendence that is based in the rather modest lack of understanding, rather than the arrogance of a sovereign god-man.
Moreover, Ishmael is able to include some of Ahab’s attempts at comprehension. He fits the definition Virno’s ‘opportunist.’ He is able to work within the ever-changing arbitrary rules of this new world. He can sympathize with Ahab, then the crew, and then the whales he his hunting. His sense of fate contains this sense of flexibility. Unlike Ahab, it is puzzled, moves from place to place, and often has a conscious comic sense of inadequacy to it.
When push comes to shove, both Ahab and Ishmael are made productive for capital. Ahab however is completely unaware of this. The catastrophe that he creates allows for the system of capital to rise up again as an even more powerful force. Ishmael is precisely the subjectivity that can work within that new capitalism. However, it is within his subjectivity, that a genuine ‘line of flight’ can be drawn.
To capture this point, I think that the notion of “fate” as slavery, a slavery that is utterly individualized and alone, can be counterposed with an image of slavery that calls on in the beginning of the book, in his explanation for his desire to go out to sea.
“Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else in one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed around, and all hands rub should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.” (Melville 6)
Ishmael responds to slavery (wage slavery) not as an individualized form of suffering, but a possibility for a new form of community, a form of community that goes beyond even the possibilities of the industrial proletariat, and instead moves straight to the multitude. This is the only form of possibility to make new possibilities in this new world of disenchantment.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Fate”. In Selected Essays. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1982.
Matthiessen, F.O., American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman.
London: Oxford University Press, 1941.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: or The Whale. Chicago: Northwestern Press and The Newberry Library,
Ed. Metzger, Bruce M. and Coogan, Michael D. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1993
Shneidman, Edwin S. " Meville’s Cognitive Style: The Logic of Moby-Dick”. In A Companion To Melville
Studies, Ed. John Bryant. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Spanos, William V. The Errant Art of Moby Dick: The Canon, The Cold War, and the Struggle for
American Studies. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1995.
Spinoza. Ethics. Ed. and Trans. H.R. Parkinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Virno, Paulo. “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment”. In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics.
Ed. Paulo Virno and Michael Hardt. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
 Cesare Casarino, Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad in Crisis (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press), pg. 162
 Parody can be seen in a number of moments within the book. They primarily occur within Ishmail’s descriptions of events and people. We can see it in the description of the prow that acts as a pulpit within Father Mapple’s church. Fate itself becomes a comic trope at the moment that it acts as a sort of police force on Ishmail. It also occurs within the descriptions of scientific, historical and cultural data on the whale.
 Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) pg. 36
 Ibid., 35
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Fate” in Collected Essays (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1982), 362.
 Ibid., 365
 Ibid., 366.
4This is a particularly interesting moment within Emerson’s essay. The first thing that one can remark upon is that like the tribe of the Pequod in Moby Dick, the extermination of the native people is covered up under the natural phenomenon in this case the ‘frost to the crickets’, in the case of Moby Dick’s Pequod ‘extinction’. The second thing that can be noted is that this destruction is never linked to the concept of Providence or manifest destiny, rather it s is linked to nature and fate. In effect, there is a double disavowal of the extermination.
 Emerson, “Fate” in Collected Essays, 379
 F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941). pg. 406
 Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance, pg. 434
 ibid., 451.
 Casarino, Modernity at Sea, x.
 Spanos, The Errant Art of Moby Dick: The Canon, The Cold War, And the Struggle for American Studies (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1995), pg. 60.
 Spinoza, Ethics. Ed. and Trans. H.R. Parkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pg. 148
 Casarino, Modernity At Sea, 167
 Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 454
 Maurice Blanchot, “The Song of the Sirens: Encountering the Imaginary” in The Gaze of Orpheus, trans. Lydia Davis (Barrytown, N.Y., 1981)
 Casarino, Modernity at Sea, x.
 Schneideman, Edwin S. Cognitive Style: The Logic of Moby-Dick”. In A Companion To Melville Studies, 544
 Paulo Virno, “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment”. In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Ed. Paulo Virno and Michael Hardt. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 29
 Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 432