Hebraic and Biblical Elements in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. was selected for inclusion in the Melville Society Archive Research Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in the Melville section.
Moby Dick symbolizes the prophetic journey of American industry to conquer the natural world with devastating results. In 1854 America with it’s beginnings of capitalism , Herman Melville, in Moby Dick warns, that if man does not respect nature and the environment, the end could be calamitous for man, if society continued to strive to dominate and subjugate nature oblivious of the cost.
HEBRAIC AND BIBLICAL ELEMENTS IN HERMAN MELVILLE’S MOBY DICK by Ed Rosenthal
This scholarly work entitled, Hebraic and Biblical Elements in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, was selected for inclusion in the Melville Society Archive Research Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in the Melville section.
“O Nature and O soul of man! How far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies!”
Man, faced with only nature as the ultimate truth, must realize that nothing created by man is ever lasting and mans’ ephemeral beliefs give no comfort into eternity, and rather only cause hatred and misunderstanding in the real world. Melville’s hope is the beginning of an age of spiritual cleansing, where all people exist in a fully interconnected world linked by the common need to survive in the natural world.
This is the message elucidated by Melville in Moby Dick which Melville wants us to hear in the naming of his only surviving character which expresses hope— Ish-ma-el— ‘God Shall Hear,’ a call for our wisdom to live in harmony with each other and at peace with our environment, the natural world.
Preface and Overview: The Argument
“O Nature and O soul of man! How far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies!” -(Herman Melville in Moby Dick p.248)
This thesis will consist of two parts. The first will review the work that has been done on mythological and religious elements in Moby-Dick. Melville’s knowledge of comparative religion has been well documented by writers such as Nathalia Wright, H.Bruce Franklin, William Braswell, Lawrence Thompson, and Dorothee Finklestein . By discussing the viewpoints of these critics, the first chapter will demonstrate that Moby Dick embodies a virtual encyclopedia of comparative religion. These critics share the common perspective of analyzing Moby-Dick in terms of Melville’s primary theme: man’s relationship to God, and His multitude of evocations, expressions and forms. H.Bruce Frankin, in The Wake of the Gods, discusses Melville’s particular interest in the theory, that all of the world’s religions including Christianity can be traced back to ancient Egyptian mythology. Textual evidence indicates that Melville, along with most contemporary students of comparative religion, understood the Hebrews to be the link between various pagan religions (including Egyptian and Babylonian beliefs,) and Christianity. In this context, use of Hebraic proper names and the language itself is significant.
For example, in the chapter entitled “A Right Whale Killed”, Melville ties the Judeo- Christian God; the God of the Israelites to what he believed was an Egyptian source. The sharks feeding on the floating carcass of a sperm whale, which had been earlier linked to the pyramid symbol of Egyptian mythology are likened to “the eager Israelites “who feasted on the “bursting fountains that poured from the smitten rock.” (Moby Dick p.275)
This reference to Moses and the Israelite stay in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, suggests that Melville considered the Hebrews to be the historical connecting fiber. Therefore, one contextual area of study to be discussed, will be Melville’s demonstration that the Old Testament of the Hebrews navigates the path between Egyptian mysticism and Christianity material.
References and uses of Hebraic names and language are therefore significant. In the second chapter the major focus will be the texts saturation with names and prophecies from the Bible. Melville’s use of Biblical Hebrew for seemingly prophetic purposes suggests a familiarity with the Hebrew language and the mystical connotations of some of its words. Although little direct evidence exists concerning Melville’s level of proficiency in Hebrew, this thesis will demonstrate on the basis of textual evidence, that Melville did know the Hebraic meanings of key words such as Pequod.
David H. Hirsch in Reality and Idea in the Early American Novel states, The pervasiveness of the Biblical – Hebraic influences in Moby Dick is beyond question. It should not be surprising then, that in his attempt to re-discover the substance of the old gods in their historical names, Melville happened to find his way back to a ‘reality’ essentially Hebraic and Oriental, a reality in which ‘words become flesh!’ (Hirsch p.217)
While admitting that Melville was not a Hebrew scholar, Hirsch cites several sources whereby Melville may have gained knowledge of certain Hebraic words and their symbolic significance. He cites the 1848 edition of Noah Webster’s An American
Dictionary, John Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, and John Gill’s Exposition of the Old Testament. Other writers have commented on Melville’s use of Islamic and Hebraic names for the purposes of creating characters and symbols. Dorothee Metlitsky Finklestein, in her study of Islamic influences entitled Melville’s Orienda, states that “Melville’s interest in the meaning of words also shows itself in his coinages from the Hebrew”(p.272), a related language.
This thesis will test the conclusions of such critics as Hirsch and Finklestein. An attempt will be made to determine, by means of textual analysis whether or not Biblical names such as Ahab, Ishmael, and Pequod, when studied in their Hebraic essence, prove significant in terms of the themes of the text. In the Etymology section of Moby Dick,
Melville writes of a pale usher “dusting his old lexicons”. One such lexicon would for example, reveal the concealed Hebraic meaning. Ishmael supplies the reader with a meaning for Pequod, that being the name of a tribe of Massachusetts Indians that had been annihilated. Superficially this explanation appears prophetic of the ship’s final destruction. However a closer study of the passage in which Ishmael’s explanation is offered the reader indicates that a further meaning does exist. After much prolonged sauntering and many random inquiries, I learnt that were three ships up for three-year voyages- The Devil Dam, the Tit Bit, and the Pequod. Devil Dam, I do not know the origin of; Tit-Bit is obvious; Pequod you will no doubt remember was a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct as the ancient Medes. (p.71) Tit-Bit, contrary to what is stated in the text, is not “obvious”in origin. Superficially this term may be understood as a dainty morsel, but etymologically considered the name contains the words Tit, a vulgarism for a woman’s breast, and Bit, short for bitch. Thus Tit-Bit, may be connected with the step-mother origin relationship which has scarred Ishmael. Devil Dam, which is supposedly unknown as to origin in the text, is the one name which is truly obvious. It suggests Ahab’s search for the white demon, and the theme of Calvinist man attempting to ‘dam the devil’, to externalize his own evil. Clearly, Melville undercuts the given meaning of Pequod by the association with the incomplete definitions of Tit-Bit and Devil Dam.
Of greater significance however is a fact disclosed by Louis G. Heller in an article in American Speech entitled Two Pequot names in American Literature. Actually Melville was wrong…Pequots… was the name given to the Mehhekans of Easter Connecticut and not Massachusetts. It is unlikely that Melville, a writer of such careful detail and knowledge, could have made such an error unintentionally.
It is important therefore in studying Lexicons written prior to the publication of Moby –Dick, to note references to Pequod and to a series of meanings which have import on the themes of Moby-Dick. Heinrich F.Gensenius wrote a Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament from 1815 to 1842. Printings of this work were published in 1829, 1835, 1839, 1840, and 1842. It was translated in America in 1824 (Andover) by Josiha W. Gibbs and by Christopher Leo in 1825 (Cambridge) and by Edward Robinson in 1836. This indicates that a work of the religious significance and magnitude of Gensenius’Lexicon was read by scholars in the highly theological atmosphere of New England in the early and mid nineteenth century prior to the writing of Moby-Dick. One can therefore presume that Melville as scholar and fascinated as he was with comparative religion, possibly came into contact with the Gensenius Lexicon and therefore knew the Hebraic meaning of Pequod. Pequod is one of the most importantwords in the original Hebrew version of the Bible. It is a powerful word with many levels of meaning.
The ship Pequod is the container of the mythic consciousness of man. Its decks are alive with the mythic creations of past civilizations and cultures. Gensensius’ Lexicon informs us that there were a people and a land called Pekod. There was a city in Babylonia called NeharPekod. Nehar in Hebrew meaning river- the river of Pekod. Pekod itself is the “proper name of the whole land of Chaldee or a part of it. As mentioned earlier, Moby-Dick is a text teeming with characters whose names aresymbolic and prophetic because of their Biblical counterparts. The name Pequod has been constantly ignored in terms of its Biblical significance .The Hebrew meaning of this word harks back to one of Melville’s most important themes, the transcendental belief in the presence of God in the natural world. Pekod occurrence in the Bible is directly associated with human encounters with their God, and with God’s presence and absolutepower. Pekod is a magically ambivalent word. It connotes both the terrible destructive vengeance of God, and the wonderful salvation of divine deliverance. The Hebraic meaning of Pekod ( PKD ), is a paradoxical sense of both deliverance and punishment.
This is prophetic of the ultimate fate of the Pequod, the symbolic container of all forms of myth and organized religion which is annihilated while Ishmael is delivered, reborn in symbolic terms from the womb of the sea. Pequod’s Hebraic meaning fits Melville’s thematic intent. The Biblical sense of Pekod represents the great attempt of the Hebrews to comprehend their universe. It defines the conspiring fearful Old Testament God, revengeful who, without reason could annihilate and destroy, while in the same instant offer peace and harmony. There is the same seemingly irrational super-human duality in the world of the white whale, and Ahab’s heroic attempt to comprehend it. Simplified, Pequod, means divine visitation. Its numerous appearances in the Bible all contribute to themes of Moby-Dick, Genesis, 1 Kings, 1 Samuel, Numbers, Jeremiah, Exodus and Job.
There is evidence based on the occurrence of Pekod in the above mentioned Biblical areas for one to infer that the Hebraic meaning of Pequod is the one Melville meant for his readers to find. Indeed Melville’s deliberate concealment of the true meaning of Pequod, that of annihilation and deliverance in one word is interesting .The Pequod was a ship burdened with the entire mythic consciousness of man. Its true meaning was disguised – that it was on a journey of apocalyptic deliverance to reach beyond the “pasteboard mask”, to meet the presence of God in the natural world.
In a note written on Moby-Dick, Rabbi William G. Brande asks: But why does not Melville say plainly that Pequod has an underlying Hebrew meaning? The answer may be in the structure of the novel. Even as Ahab conceals from the owners the presence of Fedallah and his companions, and as he conceals from the crew the main purpose of the trip, so also Melville conceals from the readers the secret and blasphemous meaning of the Pequod, that they not be shocked by the wickedness of the venture. (Explicator XX1, November 1967.)
From such a perspective we gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of Melville’s great work, much like a searching archeologist exploring the ancient historical strata where mystical Gods were formed in the minds of men. Melville’s metaphors penetrate levels of time and as the work moves from time to timelessness, from land to sea, from illusion to reality, from order to chaos, Melville links the Gods of Judaism and Christianity to the pagan Gods of earlier cults and civilizations. By concealing this purposeful linking of modern Christianity to various forms of pagan mysticism, only thru the use of the Hebrew/Egyptian historical reference and Hebrew names is the connecting matrix is revealed.
As mentioned, Ishmael grants the reader a prophetic definition of Pequod – annihilation. The Hebraic meaning however prophesizes Ishmael’s deliverance from the womb, ‘delivered’ only after the entire mythic consciousness of man is annihilated. There is substantial evidence to indicate that deliverance can be considered an appropriate theme for the naming of the ship. As previously mentioned, the appearance of Pekod in several passages in the Bible are all important to the themes of the text. This thesis will further detail the importance of deliverance as theme in Moby-Dick. It is only thru the context of the Hebraic- Biblical elements, that Melville’s dark vision of man imprisoned in webs of mysticism and religion , is revealed.
The Biblical, Hebraic World of Moby Dick.
The “linked analogies” referred to by Melville are the “inter-illumination of opposing values” (Baird). The linked analogies are brought alive by Melville in Moby Dick.. Melville’s metaphors penetrate the levels of time, into the Semitic biblical world where Gods were formed in the minds of men. This is the magical world of Moby Dick. It is what I refer to in the paper as the movement from time to timelessness, from land to sea, from illusion to reality, from order to chaos. In this magical world, Melville links the Gods of Judaism and Christianity to the pagan Gods of the earlier Semitic cults. Along the landscape of the whaling voyage, the vastness of the sea is the surface. Below the surface is hidden all the stuff of mysticism and history.
Picture the sea in a semi-circle, with the Pequod riding the most centered part. To the left of the semi circle there is the historical fact of the Egyptian captivity of the Hebrews. That would have exposed the Hebrews to the trilogy of Isis, Osiris and Horus. The Egyptians also had a period of a monotheistic God called Aton. Ra was the deity of the sun. Osiris of the trilogy is a resurrected God of fertility who was dismembered by Typhon.
Bringing the Egyptian mysticism to the Hebrews was Moses, who had Egyptian upbringing, and who became the deliverer from slavery. The Hebrews when they went into captivity in Egypt had the concept of a single God, Yahweh, who also became known as Adonai. Freed from slavery the Hebrews fought the Canaanites who were assimilated into the Hebrew nation. The Canaanites brought with them their fertility Gods such as Astarte and phallic worship. The following history has the Hebrews conquered by the Babylonians. During the time imprisoned in Babylon, the Hebrews would become exposed to Tammuz the resurrected God of the Babylonians. Tammuz was similarly to Osiris, a dismembered God associated with Ishstar in fertility worship. Within Babylon there existed the Chaldean magic rituals and when Babylon was conquered by the Persians, Persian magic also influenced the religion. Zoroastrianism or fire worship was also introduced in Babylon. The Hebrews had been exposed for generations to both the Egyptian and Babylonian ritual mysticism, As the Hebrews returned to freedom from both the Egyptian and Babylonian captivity, they now carried with them some exposure to Osiris and Tammuz as two resurrected Gods who were associated with a female Goddess of fertility, Isis in Egypt and Ishtar in Babylon. From this blend of the stern yet forgiving Hebrew single God Adonai, were added the resurrected Gods of Egypt and Babylon. The Hebrews eventually gave birth to Christianity, which would also have a resurrected God and a trilogy. It is within this mystical and historical framework, this semi-circle of Egyptian to Mesopotamian mysticism that the Hebrews link, and which the Pequod travels on its journey in search of the white whale in Moby Dick.
Historical Time Line Map of the Hebrews and relationship to Moby Dick
4000 BC – Popular account if creation “and the sea rolled on as it had for 5,000 years”
3000 BC – The Canaanites, Abrahams ancestors are nomads on the plains of Mesopotamia. In Egypt the old kingdom exists with its capital Memphis. In Mesopotamia, the Sumerians and Akkadians exist.
2000 BC- Abraham arrives in Canaan and the birth of Ishmael and Isaac occurs
1700 BC- Hebrew patriarchs arrive in Egypt. Egypt is in its middle kingdom period. In Mesopotamia the Akkadians publish their poems of creation, Enama Elish, and of the flood, Gilga Mesh.
1500 BC- The Habiru appears while in Egypt a new kingdom exists with a new capital Thebes.
1350 BC- In Egypt Aknaton introduces the exclusive worship of a single God – Aton.
1300 BC- The Hebrews or Habiru are enslaved in Egypt.
1250 BC – The Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Moses provides the law in Sinai, and
the worship of the single God, Yahweh or Adonai is reinforced
1200 BC- The end of the desert wandering. Joshua invades Palestine.
1100 BC- Canaanite people and their Gods assimilate into Hebrew nation.
1000 BC- David conquers pagan fertility nations, the Edomites, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. In Mesopotamia the civilization known as Babylon emerges.
950 BC- Solomon marries Pharaohs’ daughter and the building of the temple occurs.
930 BC- Jeroboam
900 BC- Massacre of the house of Jeroboam
870 BC –Ahab marries Phoenician princess Jezebel who worships at the temple of Baal.
The prophet of the time is Elijah who decries the corruption of the faith. In Mesopotamia the revival of Assyria occurs.
740 BC- Ahaz is King of Israel. In Mesopotamia the Great city of Nineveh is built and
the Chaldeans rise to power .The Chaldeans invade Egypt
721 BC – Israelite captivity in Babylon
671 BC- Israelite release from Babylon
622 BC- For the Hebrews, the prophet of the time is Jeremiah.
600 BC- The Israelite deportation to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar is ruler of Babylon.
590 BC- Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
555 BC – Daniel and Belshazzar and the writing on the wall.
538 BC – Cyrus of Persia invades Babylon
530 BC- Israelite freedom from Babylon by Persian Cyrus
486 BC- Xerxes is ruler of Persia.
458 BC- The Hebrews are under Persian rule.
331 BC- The end of the Persian Empire, and the beginning of the Greek Hellenistic period which influences the Hebrews.
OUTLINE OF THESIS
HEBRAIC AND BIBLICAL ELEMENTS IN HERMAN MELVILLE’S MOBY DICK
(A) Speculation as to Melville’s knowledge of Hebrew
(B) Prophetic Hebraic essence in names
(i) Pequod as deliverance
(ii) Ishmael’s deliverance.
– Biblical Outcast.
– Brotherly love relationship with Queequeg
(iii) Pagan fertility worship vs. Jehovah and His demi-gods.
(iv) Ahab – loss of essence
(C) The ship of Deliverance
(i) As container of the mythic consciousness of man
(ii) Suspension of time
(iii) Alternate dimension of supernatural life
(iv) Archeologist descent
(v) Linked analogies
– Egypt/Hebrew relationship
– Link to Christianity
(D) The frightful God of the Desert
(i) The unspeakable God of the human imagination
(ii) Ishmael’s name- the internal quest
(E) Biblical Prototypes
(i) Ahab as enemy of jealous Jehovah
(ii) Jonah’s God vs. Job’s whale
(iii) Mapple, Bildad and the externalization of evil
(iv) The Loom
(v) Revelation and Apocalypse
(vi) Perception to symbol
HEBRAIC AND BIBLICAL ELEMENTS IN HERMAN MELVILLE’S MOBY DICK
The sheer magnitude of the subject matter of Moby Dick offers a multitude of explanations. To study Melville’s text, I have chosen to use a Hebraic, Biblical approach which I hope will offer insights into the author’s overall vision and thematic intent. Given that Melville was interested in comparative mythology and that he uses Biblical names in abundance in the text, and since he turns to the true Biblical language – Hebrew, we should ask whether or not it could have bearing on the themes of Moby Dick. This is worth the study since Melville does use some Hebrew words and letters, perhaps a closer study of these elements would lend insight into Melville’s overall vision and thematic intent. Indeed his main characters and the ship he chooses for the voyage all have Biblical Hebrew names. “…the name and essence bears a necessary and internal relation to each other, that the name does not merely denote but actually is the essence of the object….” Ernst Cassire, Language and Myth. Moby Dick is saturated with quotations, titles, names and prophecies from the Bible. Had Melville been familiar with the Hebrew language and the mystical connotations of some of its words, then his use of Biblical Hebraic names would take on a prophetic meaning within themselves.
To attempt to prove any level of proficiency on Melville’s part would be folly on mine. However, in reviewing some of Melville’s texts a certain pattern does emerge. In Mardi, a book published prior to Moby Dick, Melville uses several Hebrew words to denote a sacredness, or mystical level to a place or thing. There is, for example, the “lake of Yammo”, with Yam being the Hebrew word for sea. Also, when Babbalanja dreams of the divinity, it is described in an unmistakably Hebraic mystical manner. “An awful glory, sphere in sphere it burned- the one Shekinah! The air was flaked with fire – deep in which fell…tears…”
The Shekinah is a Hebraic mystical word standing for the presence of God in the natural world (Fiedler p.388). Although the word Shekinah is not used in Moby Dick, its connotations certainly offers comparisons with the world of the white whale. Ishmael’s salvation after the destruction of the Pequod, is seemingly the mystical concept of Shekinah, of man in harmony with Omni-present God in nature “unharming sharks “ with “ padlocks on their mouths” and “savage sea hawks have sheathing beaks”
Needless to say, Melville was aware of the sacred tone of Hebrew, it being the original language of Biblical literature. Therefore, certain Hebraic words, or ‘Hebraisms’ may have become part of the nineteenth century vernacular of Calvinist New England. In a highly religious community engaged in constant theological discourse, Hebrew words such as Shekinah could be used to describe mystical Biblical occurrences which the bare English could not offer. The Oxford English Dictionary confirms this hypothesis, listing Shekinah as the descriptive metaphor of the sky at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion, with the word having been incorporated into theological terminology in the seventeenth century.
There are uses of Hebrew by Melville in other texts, which by virtue of their existence alone seem to indicate at least some desire on his part to use Hebrew names for their mystical, symbolic content. In Clarel, he speaks of dead Judea, the Maccabees and sings of “damsels of Shushan” The name Shoshanah in Hebrew means a rose, a meaning Melville was aware of, foronly in this way does the name Shoshana- Rose link up to the sub-theme of Persian mysticism, where wine and roses are of particular import. As a matter of emphasis he compares the Hebrews and the Parsees, “the Hebrews and their lot…” “After all, the Parsees are an odd tribe too.” In Clarel, Melville uses the word “Edom” to describe the mountains of the holy land, a word denoting redness; he writes of the ‘Horim”, the Hebrew word for the cave dwellers, the race which preceded the Edomites in the mountains surrounding Petra.
In surveying the reading Melville had done, it is difficult to determine from where his knowledge of Hebrew was taken, or to what extent he dabbled in it. However, he had read Stanley’s Sinai and Palestine which is, as the title indicates, a description of a voyage to the Holy Land, a journey Melville was to make himself later in life. From this work he may have gathered some of the knowledge of Hebraic root words; but Nathalia Wright in her book Melville’s Use of the Bible makes a key point. She states that Melville was concerned with “Jewish history “and that he had read “rabbinical and medieval religious lore.” The reading would have given him insight into various mystical Biblical words which had lost their power when translated into Latin and English over the centuries. Dorothee Finklestein, in her book, Melville’s Orienda, supports the theory that Melville had a particular interest in the fate of the Hebrews, as though their exiled wanderings were the exiled wanderings of all mankind. “His intense preoccupation with the character and destiny of the Hebrews is attested in the space he devoted to the ‘Jewish question ‘in Clarel.”
In Moby Dick therefore, Biblical names such as Ahab, Ishmael, and Pequod, when studied in their Hebraic ‘essence’ should prove prophetic when applied to the themes of the text. One of the words which contain a strong mystical charge is the name applied to the ship which makes the journey in search of the white whale. The name Pequod is equivalent in guttural Hebrew, lacking any significant vowel sounds to P e K o D. (there is not any letter Q in Hebrew). If Melville was aware of the exact connotation of this magical word, just as he was aware of the Shekinah, the only way to determine this is to study its occurrence in the Biblical passages and to evaluate the importance of these areas to Melville.
Melville’s Biblical Ishmael, prototype exile and outcast, is mentioned in Genesis 16.The miraculous Pequod occurs in Genesis 20. The historical period when God visited the children of Israel with a Babylonian conquest, gives Melville several of his symbolic characters. During that juncture in time, Jonah was swallowed by the whale; Rachel appears crying from her tomb for her imprisoned children; Ahab was a king of Israel prior to the imprisonment by the Babylonians. This era concerns the prophet Jeremiah, the man divinely appointed to a specific task—against his will, he was to prophesize the apocalyptic end of the temple of Solomon and the slavery the Israelites were to suffer at the hands of the Babylonians.
Within his verses, within that important Biblical time period, Pequod occurs three times. According to the ‘Evan Shushan’ Biblical Dictionary, PeKoD is an ambivalent word having several meanings. It means to give an order; to take a military roll call; to be appointed to a certain task. It has the sexual connotation of know one’s wife and the negative meaning of to be missing. It’s relation to the divine indicates a paradoxical ambiguity within itself, meaning God remembering favorably or God remembering unfavorably. Above all, it mentions Sarah, the wife of Abraham, the cause of the expulsion and exile of the Biblical Ishmael. In her instance the word denotes a remembrance, a sense of deliverance in a divine miraculous manner, for God in Genesis 21.1, remembered Sarah, and through PeKoD, divine grace, a ninety year old childless woman was impregnated. The Hebraic meaning of Pequod, when applied to the text of Moby Dick, appears to fit into Melville’s thematic intent. The ambivalence of a God remembering in a negative or positive manner within a single word implies a superhuman disdain for the mortal world of man. It also carries with it the suggestion of man’s inability to comprehend the wisdom of the divinity, the seemingly heartless manner in which the hopes, creations and structures of man were destroyed.
This is clearly evidenced in Ahab in Moby Dick. Pequod, in the biblical sense, seems to represent the great attempt of the Hebrews to understand their universe — this fearful Old Testament God, revengeful, conspiring,- who could without reason annihilate and destroy and then in the same instant offer peace and harmony. There is this same seemingly irrational, super-human duality about the world of the white whale, black and white, good and evil, life and death.
“ Judge then, to what pitches of inflamed distracted fury the minds of his more desperate hunters when among the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades ,they swam out of the white curds of the whale’s direful wrath into the serene exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal.”
The sea, the natural world, where its God-like inhabitant, the white whale lives, knows no moral rationalization. It exists in “universal cannibalism” with its power being the simple, elemental fact of its existence. The Pequod of God remembering unfavorably occurs in Jeremiah (9:8 – 9:18 and 44:13). As previously mentioned, the Book of Jeremiah is concerned with the historical time period of the Israelite imprisonment by the Babylonians, which Jeremiah was chosen to prophesize. Within his verses Rachel appears, the spiritual mother of Israel; she weeps for her children as they march before her tomb off to slavery. It is a ship called the Rachel, referred to as a mother ship looking for its lost child, which rescues the resurrected Ishmael. Thus, within the Book of Jeremiah, the unfavorable wrath of Jehovah, the power of the supernatural father-being, and the saving grace of the spiritual mother of the human world occurs. It is a theme which runs throughout Moby-Dick – the angry, masculine, revengeful, Hebraic God, the “fiery father” Ahab searches for, as opposed to the mother image, the maternal womb, symbol of rebirth. The maternal womb image is, in Melville, represented by the sea, from where Ishmael is symbolically reborn. Therefore the air and fire world of Fedallah and Ahab, the “fiery father”, the “blood against fire”, is opposed by the Ishmael / Queequeg relationship, the human womb world of earth and water (Fiedler p.370).
In the Biblical tale it is ironic that the female Sarah, the one whose womb was opened by God’s ‘Pequod’ or deliverance, is also the person responsible for the out casting of Ishmael. Ishmael, illegitimate son of Abraham and Hagar was exiled with Hagar, to the desert wilderness at Beersheba, where only through the miracle of God directing them to water were they saved. Therefore Melville draws upon the Biblical tale where God delivers an old woman from the barrenness of sterility and then delivers Ishmael, essentially Sarah’s step-son, from the desolation of the desert wilderness, both resulting from the PeKoD of God. Melville applies this sense of deliverance and resurrection throughout the entire novel. Ishmael is delivered from the womb of the sea, saved by Queequeg’s coffin; Queequeg is described in obstetric terms when he ‘delivers’ Tashtego from this watery/whale tomb; and of course there are references to the deliverance of Jonah from the stomach of the whale. Queequeg is closely related to the theme of deliverance and rebirth in the novel. His relationship with Ishmael is a redemptive submergence into lower elemental nature, into sperm- which counters the destructive immersion into the fire and blood of Fedallah and Ahab ( Fiedler p.370) The relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael, the brotherhood, man to man love they possess, has a Biblical similarity to a passage marked in Melville’s own Bible. In Samuel II there is a verse concerning David and Jonathan : “ Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” ( Fiedler p.370) Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship is prophetic from the beginning,” Coffin, Angels, save me.”, which is the deliverance which occurs. Their relationship draws the reader back to the abominations so hated by the fiery, jealous Jehovah which is mentioned in the book of Jeremiah and elsewhere in the Bible. Their symbolic marriage refers to primitive man worshipping the source of life, the elemental, pagan concept of love. Ishmael the Christian, kisses Yojo, the phallic idol ofQueequeg, which links back to the primitive religions of man which worshipped the primary world of fertility. Jehovah, or his demi-Gods interpreters such as Christianity or Judaism , demanded that the love and worship of man, be exclusively thrown upon a spiritual all –powerful being. For Melville however, natural primitive man who worshipped the phallus, the elemental seeds of procreation , sexuality, and masculinity, were closer to the joy of simple nature. The demi-Gods of organized religions represented by the jealous Jehovah, considered the phallic rites as abominations as “what is referred to in the fifteenth chapter of the first book of Kings .” There, Queen Maachah practiced orgiastic rites before a phallic idol and “it was burned as an abomination”(Fiedler p.372) The primitive phallus worship for Melville, opposed Christianity with male sexuality, the element of deliverance from the sterile world of organized religion. In the chapter, The Cossack, the whale’ phallus is as “ jet black as Yojo the ebony idol of Queequeg,” which is counter posed with the “Archbishopric,” the symbol of the Christian demand to worship only the spirit of God.
Melville makes this point excruciatingly clear as Queequeg and Ishmael form the salvation, the deliverance, the only potential promise of psychic redemption in Moby- Dick. The Biblical tale of Sarah receiving deliverance from God is inverted in Moby- Dick, to man, regaining in a brotherhood man to man relationship, his potency. Sarah and the deliverance of God become as the step- mother world of demi -God institutionalized religions; this is replaced by the human element of deliverance. The demi -God world of Christianity is depicted as a destroyer of male potency when Ishmael, lying in Queequeg’s arms remembers his childhood, the “sixteen hours before I could hope for a resurrection.” Queequeg dies for him – Ishmael is reborn on Queequeg’s coffin- it is the love which conquers death, the redemptive love of man to man, which transfers the supernatural ‘ deliverance’ of God , to the natural world. Melville emphasizes this in the fantastic image of submergence into the sperm of a creature, the simple “physical sensuousness” of love of fellow man; of squeezing “ universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.” Ishmael’s salvation is brotherly love, and it cleanses him of his oath to Ahab to pursue and to destroy the white whale. Brotherly love is what Ahab lacks. He is so far immersed into the search to destroy God, symbolized by the white whale, that he loses in his hatred, the potential joy in the natural universe. It is Ishmael who is resurrected – Ahab dies forever. In a sense, Ishmael survives by virtue of Ahab’s death.
The ironic Hebraic meaning of Ahab’s name is AH, which means brother and AB, which means father (AHAV in Hebrew, the V and B are interchangeable). Ahab is given the potential by Melville in his name. Ahab however throws away his pipe, the symbol of domestic happiness and he loses his soul to satanic Fedallah. Ishmael becomes the ‘other’ alter-ego to Ahab—he survives by the ironic virtue of Ahab’s name, by his brotherly-love relationship with Queequeg. Ahab had become so blinded by his hate for the white whale that he no longer knew himself. Before Ahab loses his hat, prophesying his doom- he had already lost his name. In other words, he had ceased to exist the moment he devoted himself to pursuit of the white demon; he had lost his “essence.”
The Pequod is much more than an American ship on a whaling voyage – it is the ship of deliverance, containing all the myths and religions of man, on a journey to an apocalyptic confrontation with God, symbolized in Ahab’s mind by the white whale. It contains therefore the germs of mankind’s deliverance itself— the Ishmael / Queequeg lesson— the natural impulses of primitive man. All other forms of organized religions, of structured beliefs represented on the Pequod are destroyed. Therefore, Moby Dick is Herman Melville’s vision of rational man existing in an irrational universe – when the veneer of civilization is ripped away through a collision of the forces of social order and universal chaos, a terrifying grip of nihilism takes hold. Melville pits the apparent reality of the social world against the seemingly chaotic realm of the sea and the white whale. Man’s reality however, becomes illusory in the wake of the cosmic forces, of the power of the physical universe, moving in its unseen “careful disorderliness.”
To achieve this , Melville incorporated every conceivable mythology and organized religion into the text—from the tree and fertility Gods of primitive man, to the phallic Gods of Canaan, the Baals and Bels of Phoenicia , to the mythic God- creatures of ancient Egypt, to the fire –worshipping Zoroastrians, to the omni- powerful desert Lord of Judaism and the resurrected God of Christianity . By destroying the Pequod, the symbolic container of all forms of myth and organized religions, Melville incorporated a greater sense of deliverance into his work. Ishmael, the survivor, reborn from the womb, from the “creamy pool”, the “closing vortex” of the sea, is the “orphan”—all forms of structured dogma and the entire mythic consciousness of man have been destroyed, lifted from him, and he is reborn as a symbolic child. This imagery of rebirth in the epilogue is clearly sexual- ejaculation and birth, a combination of two elements male and female. Thus man is delivered , symbolically born free of his mythic racial past. Moby Dick therefore, is a sweeping chronology of pagan ritual, a cloak of ancient cultures—the evolving drama of man’s faith, the probing into the mythic roots of time. Melville delivers man from time itself. The reader is drawn into remote lands, lost cities, floating in the time continuum of the sea, in another dimension.
Melville’s images and metaphors serve as a camera’s eye, focusing on the vast landscape of the sea, then magically, metaphorically , another world, another time is brought into view. All the levels of man’s interwoven mythic history are seen simultaneously. Semitic tribes move with their Gods- Melville’s vision of the coalescing fabric of the old eastern world. Images from the Biblical Book of Daniel, link the Hebrews to the Babylonians and their fertility Gods. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Gabriel of the Jeroboam, as well as the prophetic writing on Belshazzar’s wall— all these serve to metaphorically open another door of time—Queequeg is a “dying Chaldean”, the whales on the Pequod are “like an old Mesopotamian family.” The Semitic Hebrew relationship to the Egyptians and that world of time is evoked in Ishmael feeling “like Abraham” and the whale becoming an “ Egypt” of past civilizations—the religious past of man.
So the Pequod surges from time to timelessness, from land to sea, from order to chaos, from illusion to reality, moving in a Danti-esque descent into the murky spheres of time.
The journey is a supernatural one—the world of the shore is left behind. The inhabitants of the Pequod are angels and demons—Fedallah seems “flesh – formed of air” a reference to the Gnostic magical creation of Simon Magus .They are in search of the “ungraspable phantom of life” and to find it they descend into the grand masquerade of mortality “ ( Melville’s Journal) . This is the theme of deliverance once again- Ahab feels “bowed and humped as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since paradise.” The whaling captain is an incarnation of prophets, kings and conquerors of the Biblical east. He is weighted down with all of their demi – Gods—all the codes and mythic structures of organized religion. Ahab’s attempt is to know the true God, to break thru this “pasteboard” mask of myth. In this sense, the decent into the past is similar to an archeologist’s descent into the earth, in quest of man’s inextricable link to his history. Archeologists do populate his work, Belzoni, Champollion, Layard — Melville’s vision of Ahab’s quest to go beyond the symbol, to find the true and the real. He refers to the “temple at Denderah ,” looking for traces in “ stereotype plates of nature”. Ahab is penetrating these same layers of lived human experience. It is, as Melville’s images indicate, a purgatorial burning– the cleansing of false beliefs, comparable in stature to Biblical Satan’s assault on heaven. It is the search for the mythic God head itself. The levels of time become a chronological recapitulation of myth and religions which existed in previous eras. All levels of time become inextricably linked to each other.
“O, nature and O soul of man. How far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies.”
In Walden, Thoreau refers to “linked analogies” as the “kindred principle at the bottom of all infinities.” Baird in his book Ishmael, calls it the “inter-illumination of opposing values.” Melville’s suggestion of the supernatural aspect of history evokes the existence of a miraculous alternate dimension of suspended time, populated by mythic creatures of all cultures, where the “linked analogies,” that which is “beyond utterance,” beyond the capacity of mortal man’s comprehension, abides. The inter-relation of the Hebrews and the ancient Egyptians certainly seems important in analyzing this fantasy realism. If it was Melville’s purpose, as Newton Arvin claims, to link Christianity to various Eastern pagan cults, then his concentration would fall on the Hebrew/Egyptian historical confrontation.
The whales, linked to man’s mythic historical consciousness in the extracts and etymology, are in the text, described in Egyptian mythological imagery. The sperm whale is like “the elemental pyramids,” whales have “mystic hieroglyphics upon their backs”, and their “blood is older than the pharaohs.” Melville writes in his journal, “Pyramids still loom before me – something vast, undefiled, incomprehensible and awful… It was in these pyramids that was conceived the ideas of Jehovah. Terrible mixture of the cunning and the awful.”
Melville gives the world of the white whale the inscrutability of the pyramids, an image which evokes in his mind antiquity, immortality and the awesome. In Moby Dick he unquestioningly ties the Israelites fearsome Jehovah to what he believed was an Egyptian source. Sharks feasting on the floating carcass of the sperm whale, which had been previously linked to the pyramid symbol of Egyptian mythology, are described as “the eager Israelites did at the bursting fountain that poured from the rock.” This reference to Moses, links the Israelites stay in the wilderness where their “ghastly theology” was formed, to an Egyptian source. There is a further reference to the of levels of time recapitulating the myths which existed before, when Melville refers to “that Egyptian mother who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb.” This is a clear reference to the Isis/Osiris myth, an imagistic pattern, H. Bruce Franklin in his book, The Wake of the Gods, has used to interpret the entire novel, with Ahab as Osiris and the white whale as Typhon.
As much as this works satisfactorily in interpreting Moby Dick, my purpose, and I believe Melville’s, was to recreate the “linked analogies” of religious myth. In this sense the Egyptian mother giving birth to offspring already pregnant, could refer to the exodus of the Israelites, with a “cunning and awful” God already embryonic in their minds, as a result of their stay in Egypt, and the Egyptian upbringing of their prophet Moses. In this sense the Osiris/Christ analogy links Christianity, through the Hebrews to the Egyptians, giving the belief in the resurrected Christ a sense of inscrutability and historical placement, in that the entire Easter tale may have been a mere re-telling, or reenactment of the Egyptian myth. In any case, the Egyptian world is the “step-mother” which cares for the Hebrew prophet (Moses) who was to personally know the fiery Jehovah. Newton Arvin comments, “Moby Dick…does not reassuringly and finally symbolize the Christian God, transcendent and absolute and however mysterious in his workings, a God of absolute love and justice and truth.”
In other words, Melville is in a sense delivering man from Christianity as well as all other forms of mythic structures and re-uniting man with the natural world of creation itself. Egyptian mythology was in Melville’s mind the source of much mystical and fearful theological discourses into the nature of God. The Hebrews looking back into Egypt are envisioned in Moby Dick, penetrating the wilderness of the desert much as the Pequod floats in the desolate world of the sea. The Hebrews experienced the chilling fear of nihilism, of being alone in a vast, predatory, harsh world, the same fright felt by the crew of the Pequod. “Preternatural terrors rested upon the Hebrews, when under the feet of Korah and his company the live ground opened and swallowed them up forever; yet not a modern sun set, but in precisely the same manner the live sea swallows up ships and crews.”
It is an accurate prophecy of the end of the Pequod. It is in this atmosphere of fear, of threatening annihilation, of apparent meaningless, where the fearful God brews in the minds of men. Writes Melville, “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seemed formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” For Melville the desert and the sea are interchangeable symbols of a vastness, a harsh reality. The desert wilderness is where the Hebrew God appeared on numerous occasions in miraculous apparitions such as the burning bush and the pillar of fire. This is equivalent in Moby Dick to Ahab’s non-consuming fire which burns within him – the Israelites exalted perception of Jehovah within their wilderness is equivalent to the exalted, rightful perception of the white whale by Ahab and his crew. “…half-formed foetal suggestions of supernatural agencies which eventually invested Moby Dick with new terrors unborrowed from anything that visibly appear.”
Milton Stern in his book The Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville labels the process of myth or the formation of a God as the “product of , not the producer, of a body of experience.” The white whale becomes the symbol of the human imagination’s projection of evil onto a visible natural creature. The creation of a great mystery is simply the power controlling man through “invisible spheres” of “fright”. The creation of myth therefore can be construed as the unfolding of speech. The divine being cannot be expressed, all that can be expressed are his symbols. The white whale is both “colorless” and “all colour of atheism”, which is nothingness.
Linked analogies are “beyond utterance”, Pip sees God’s foot on the pedal of the loom, the symbol of threads of “universal cannibalism”, and because he “spoke” it, he was considered mad. Spoke in this sense cannot mean the verbal communication of that which is unknowledgeable, “unutterable”, beyond the very powers of our language itself. Spoke in Pip’s sense is the inner thought recognition of a universal truth, the “woe that is madness.”
Melville is doing something very interesting here. All speech according to the Old Testament is anticipated by God, who knows all and sees all. Thus the very thought processes, the inner and inaudible word, as well the audible word of speech, are all part of the divinity. Melville inverts the Old Testament; the Godhead remains unspeakable, unknowable, but it is the divinity which is anticipated by the inaudible thought process of man. This is supported by the “new terrors unborrowed from anything that visibly appears,” and the “invisible spheres formed in fright” as well the “beyond utterance” and “Pip spoke it” reference to the foot of God upon the treadle.
The first words of the novel, in the chapter called “loomings” are an interesting circle of inaudible or unconscious thought and audible language. “Call me Ishmael”; Ish-ma-el in Hebrew means ‘God shall hear’ and it is prophetic that both the Biblical and American Ishmael are saved from death by nothing less than a miracle. The sentence is therefore, a calling and a hearing, a word play between the audible and inaudible worlds similar to the play between the visible and invisible worlds which occur throughout the novel. Technically the “calling and hearing” is the speaker hearing his own subconscious mental echo. Ishmael’s opening statement to call him the symbolic outcast, on a journey to the sea to commit symbolic suicide, to lose himself, is a call to engage in an inner spiritual search. His search is opposed to Ahab’s external quest for the demon God. Ahab indeed fulfills Ishmael’s biblical description in Genesis 16:12 “And he will be a wild man his hand will be against every man and everyone’s hand against him.” Ishmael’s “God shall hear” signifies man’s embarking into the deepest understanding of his own self. Ahab, on the contrary, is on an external search through spheres of time and experience.
The Bible offered Melville a wealth of characters to choose from in naming his questor in search of universal truth. His choice of the biblical Ahab as his prototype is prophetic in the sense that Ahab was the king against whom jealous Jehovah himself conspired. Ahab’s quest is thus doomed from its very inception – he is struggling against creation itself. Ahab is likened to the man who’s blood was “licked by dogs”, the ship is the “ivory Pequod” a direct reference to the biblical ivory palace built by the seventh king of Israel. King Ahab worshipped false Gods and Ishmael remembers him as “vile” and “wicked”. Melville’s Ahab is also an enemy of the “Godhead” – he is called “infidel”, “impious”, “diabolic” – he adores the sun and the stars, invokes fire, tempers his harpoon in pagan blood, in “nomine diaboli”. However, the American whaling captain differs from his biblical counterpart in that, it is of his own choice that he curses God, and becomes an enemy of God. Whereas King Ahab was destroyed by false prophecy, four hundred divinely inspired liars, who promised victory in an upcoming battle, Captain Ahab disregards all creation, the pleadings of Starbuck, the calamities which had struck the ships which had already encountered the whale, and heeds only Fedallah. Fedallah in this sense is the false prophet, the destroying angel sent to kill Ahab. Ahab confident of success, becomes as a God – and perishes because he is not God. His quest is to look beyond the veneer of the demi -Gods which had usurped the power of true reality. As the day of confrontation approaches however, the evil is Ahab, not the white whale, the physical representative of the great mystery which is God. The whale is in his “gentle joyousness,” his “mighty mildness of repose”.
This is surely not the biblical Ahab’s God of revenge, of conspiring fates, the jealous one who destroyed Ahab. In Moby Dick the white whale is the absconded God, bored with man’s trivia, with his false absolutes, his rationalizations. Melville has inverted the biblical tale – in Moby Dick, it is not God who conspires against Ahab, but as Starbuck says “Thou, thou that madly seekest him.” The evil is not in nature but in the demi-God substructures man himself has created to control the universe and which now control his mind.
There are many characters in the text which have biblical counterparts. Tishbite the prophet who denounced King Ahab, is the lunatic, the divinely inspired Shakespearean irrational man, who prophesizes that the entire crew of the Pequod will never return. Ishmael calls him “prophet” and “Elijah”. This recalls the actual words of the biblical Elijah to King Ahab. “God will make thine house like the house of Jeroboam.” The Jeroboam is the name of one of the ships the Pequod meets. Jeroboam was a king prior to Ahab, who made sacrifices to a false God, which links once more to pagan ritual and the wrath of Jehovah. The revengeful Hebrew God swore to destroy the dynasty of Jeroboam and had his son killed. The sequel to the Ahab tale is the Babylonian captivity of the Israelite, which as previously mentioned evokes the biblical Rachel – the ship which rescues Ishmael is the Rachel, pictured as a mother who had lost her child. “She was Rachel, weeping for her children because they were not.” Thus Melville’s Old Testament – named ships, form a trilogy concerned with the loss of a child. The Jeroboam, the masculine biblical king who lost his son to jealous Jehovah, the Rachel the symbol of maternal love, which lost a son in pursuit of the white whale, and the Pequod, which through its destruction and what it represents, gives symbolic deliverance to the “orphaned” child Ishmael. The internal learning experience of Ishmael, the knowledge he develops through the cetology chapters, the love he is taught by his “brotherly love” relationship with Queequeg, allow him to survive and to be symbolically reunited with the maternal, with the female – all of which is prophesized by the biblical naming of Melville’s characters and objects. The element of the prophecy motif is one of the most important literary devices in the book. Prophecies and prophetic names abound – in the name of Peter Coffin, of Ahab, of Ishmael, of the Pequod; Ahab’s loss of his pipe, the mysterious squid, the Jeroboam, Fedallah standing in Ahab’s shadow – the naming of Elijah, Gabriel – one could say that the entire tale of Moby Dick is the fulfillment of prophecy.
The whaling voyage itself links us to biblical areas where the whale symbol occurs. By studying the varied portraits of the biblical duration and their differences in Moby Dick, insights into Melville’s view of God can be achieved. In Father Mapple’s sermon Jonah is invoked through quotations such as “cast him forth”,and “spoke unto the fish”. The language of the biblical tale of Jonah is paraphrased in “allthe waves of the billows of the seas”, which in its biblical source is “all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.” Jonah’s deliverance from the stomach of the whale is equivalent to Tashtego being pulled from his whale tomb by Queequeg. However, Jonah and his whale in chapters such as “The Honor and Glory of Whaling” and “Jonah Historically Regarded”; are satirized in a mock heroic manner. Jonah’s whale is simply God’s instruments for the punishing of the unwilling prophet. The God of Jonah was capable of sparing the entire populace of Nineveh, the city he had threatened to destroy. In Jonah, God’s heart is soft and forgiving – the whale is simply a large sea creature capable of swallowing a man. The Leviathan of Job however is inscrutable, the creature who would never make a pact with man, who can never be questioned and never be caught. “Here then was the grey headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world…” Ahab cannot accept what the Biblical Job had learned – that the wisdom of God, of that other infinite realm cannot be reconciled to man’s world. There are a series of reference to Job and his Leviathan. In The Advocate, Job is said to have written “the first account of our Leviathan”. Ishmael paraphrases from Job;
Job 41:25 “What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this Leviathan!”
Job 41:28 “Will he make a covenant with thee behold the hope of him is vain.”
All of which is attempted by Ahab – to apply man’s moral absolutes on a universal level, to that which has no absolutes—it just exists.
In other words, the potentially forgiving God of Jonah is the New Testament God, a God blessed with man’s morality, with a sense of good and evil. But Melville’s “God” is not “blessed” with man’s rationalizations. Bildad the Shuhite, one of Job’s friends appears as Bildad the Proprietor in Moby Dick. A reader of the scriptures, he argues that only the evil are punished by God while the good prosper. In the Bible, Job disputes this – in Moby Dick, Melville destroys this. Father Mapple’s Calvinist sermon is equivalent to Bildad’s belief in the universe as a moral creation, with absolutes of good and evil, constantly engaged in struggle. Ahab is the personification of this philosophy. He refers to the white whale as “that intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one half of the world…”
Ahab has externalized evil onto a natural creature of the sea. However, on the day of confrontation, one remembers the white whale in its “gentle joyousness”, the “mighty mildness of repose”, while Ahab burns with fury. Beyond the veil of the natural scene exists the deity, shorn of man’s false standards, it is inexorable, unknowable, unrecognizable.
In the Book of Job the question is asked, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” “…neither is it to be found in the land of the living.” This appears to be the “wisdom” which Pip has learned – that social civilized men cannot survive in the primal wilderness, the kingdom of God, where “God” is heartless and cruel and then joyous in one instant.
The loom image of Job is used by Melville to describe this sensation of amoral intelligence, a mighty mystery existing for its own sake. In the spinning loom, the labyrinth of life, the maze of existence, Pip sees, through the “miser – merman wisdom” and experiences the “woe that is madness”. “…God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom and spoke it, and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is Heaven’s sense.”
To rip away the illusionary veils of rationalization that man has applied to the reality of the universe, is to come face to face with the frightful, nihilistic truth, the ecstatic masochism of that Melville has labeled “universal cannibalism”. Pip “spoke it” and was called mad, again an indication that the truth is finally not only colourless and unknowable but voiceless and unspeakable as well. No language of this earth could describe the truth Pip saw, the horror which Ahab feels as a result of his initial contact with the white whale.
The loom spinning inexorably refers to the “weaver’s shuttle” in Job 7:6, and it is used by Melville to determine man’s relationship to the loom of God. In the “Mat Maker”, Ishmael uses his hand as a “shuttle”, Queequeg’s sword sounds “like the loom of time” and Ishmael is a “shuttle mechanically weaving away at the Fates.” The loom of Job is used here in a discussion of free-will, destiny and necessity. They are symbolically woven together indicating the illusionary aspect of man’s freedom. Man is a mere part of God’s loom – but by creating his mat pattern, he weaves away his “natural” freedom into the necessity of understanding, into the creation of institutions which attempt to limit, confine and define the world. Job, his body aching, stripped of all material wealth, his family annihilated without reason, screams that the world is a “marvel beyond me”. It is this realization which is reborn with Ishmael. Thus he closes with a paraphrasing of the words of Job’s servant “and only I am escaped to tell thee.” Ahab who had made himself as a God dies because he is not a God – Ishmael realizes as he quotes Job, that no man of this world can catch Leviathan – that is reserved for the Messiah in Hebrew tradition. On the Day of Judgment, at the end of the world, the Messiah Himself would come down and distribute the flesh of the great fish Leviathan among the faithful. In this sense Melville’s white whale is the unknowable, inscrutable Leviathan of Job and the creature of apocalyptic lore, of St. John the Divine’s vision in the Book of Revelations. In the chapter, the Whiteness of the Whale, Melville cites the “twenty-four elders” clad in white who stand before a majestic throne on which sits the “lamb white as wool.” Moby Dick is referenced to as “fleecy”, “white wool” – his whiteness is equivalent to the vision of the lamb on the throne of God. Ahab’s cosmic quest draws man to the apocalypse, to the unveiling of the true Godhead. The unveiling of the true nature of the divinity is an infringement on the world of reality by the illusionary ordered world of man. This results in the destruction of the false absolutes man had created for himself. The destruction of the Pequod is equivalent to the end of man’s world.
As Ahab draws the Pequod deeper towards the “vital center”, prophetic signs of the upcoming catastrophe appear. Whale smoke “smells like the left wing on the day of judgment”, the white whale is “the holy one that sitteth there white as wool.” The power of God is apocalyptic – it is the fulfillment of prophecy, it is the “wisdom that is woe” and the “woe that is madness.” The spinning vortex at the end of the novel from which Ishmael is reborn, is therefore the end of time, an epoch of time – from genesis to revelations we have moved, and returned to genesis once again – a new child is symbolically reborn.
The apocalyptic end of the Pequod had been predicted when the Jeroboam was met at sea. Gabriel is associated with St. John’s apocalyptic lore by his carrying of the seventh vial of God’s wrath, the earthquake, in his vest pocket. Also on the Jeroboam there is a sickness, a plague – the reference to the biblical plague which when released from its vial would destroy the heathen world, those who worshipped the beast with seven heads. This is equivalent to saying that Ahab’s Pequod in pursuit of the white whale is doomed. The white whale, the whale of revelations, the “beast with a man’s name” is Ahab’s quarry. He has thus ignored the wisdom of Job and the divinely inspired prophecy of St. John – he is the “grand ungodly, godlike man” – he is a false Messiah, attempting a role reserved for the second coming of Christ. Where previously, as alluded to in the many references to Revelations, man’s vision could go no further than to the perception of glory, of His appearance on the throne.
Ahab’s quest is to see beyond the glory, to lift the veils, to see the chilling truth which lies beyond “the white lamb”, beyond the “twenty-four elders”, beyond the divine emanations, to awaken “God” from his self-contained repose. The symbol of this mysterious life, is the white whale – the mysteries of creation reflect the pulsation of divine life. Ahab’s cognition of God, of the white whale inverts the universe for him. In search of God, the Pequod symbolically descends – into time, into man’s mythic consciousness.
The world of the whales in the Grand Armada episode is likened to a heavenly household. The journey of the Pequod takes one through spheres of belief, through spheres of divine attributes, arriving at the celestial throne of Revelations. For Melville, the cognition of God, is related to the deepest sense of a mystical reality, an alternate sphere to the world of man, and can be visualized only in a symbolic way. This remote, hidden world is a world where the radiance of divine light is mysteriously refracted in itself – it is “colorless and all color” removing white from its archetypal association of light and good.
It is within itself – neither good nor evil – it is – simply and purely. This signifies the return to the original perception of man, born from deep meditation on every given mode of reality; a symbol is perceived, externalized and eventually transformed into mere book-learning. The symbols lose their tremendous import, their reality – myth fills their empty space, connecting the original perception through myth and allegory to the subsequent layers of history. In Moby Dick, man has returned to the original perception, to creation itself. “and the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
The guardians of man’s soul are those which raised him above the level of animal by burying him in successive new layers of Gods. The white whale is the symbol of the hidden God, the innermost being of the “divinity”, for the Pequod is moving with Ahab through time, and with Ishmael through the perceptive soul of man. Moby Dick is infinite, the symbol of the forming world, the most deeply hidden of all, which remains insensible and unintelligible to all but “God”. The various phases of history are but as a manifestation of the perception of the “divinity”.
Thus man’s world for Melville, is naught more than an entirely mystical system within various time periods of history, within frameworks of tradition. In this system, nothing exists but the symbol; the creature or thing is real in its existence yet is meaningless independent of the symbols man has made manifest in them.
Ahab is attempting a meritorious deed – to reveal the mysteries, to destroy the white demon of myth is in essence good. However, Ahab’s affiliation of the Calvinist preaching of Father Mapple, the externalizing of absolute evil onto a natural creature of the sea, places him in defiance of the true reality of nature – as opposed to the false reality of myth.
Thus, amidst death, blood and gore in the Grand Armada episode, Ishmael feels protected, and within the huge bodies of the physical whales, hidden from the storm of destruction, he finds “dalliance and delight”. This is not the “delight” of Father Mapple’s sermon, that delight is Ahab’s, the fire-spewing, burning quest of pious Calvinistic man to destroy evil as though it were a living being. Ahab’s search to destroy sin ironically robs him of his soul and being, for as Fedallah stands in his shadow, he becomes as
Satan, an alter-ego to the fire worshipping Parsee. There is a ship named the Delight. This ship’s physical deterioration indicates that the delight which Ishmael feels belongs to another realm, another reality – the true delight of nature.
Only Ishmael, who feels this delight, who through the Cetology chapter had developed insights into the truth of the reality of the whales as physical creatures, survives the apocalyptic confrontation. Washed of guilt and revenge, he is thrown up from the womb of the sea – he remains however an “Ixion” , a Greek mythological character who was condemned to spin eternally on a wheel.
Melville’s man is condemned as “Adam weighed down” with the myths and structural religions of centuries of time, to spin, as Ixion, in the cyclical processes of time. For deep within the “creamy pool”, “the vortex” of man’s mind, another mythic God brews to be born, to rule the universe, applying rational order where it cannot be applied, and to be logical in a realm of apparent mad contradictions. These are the pseudo-religious creations of man, his step-mother, the caretakers of man’s fearful soul, which make him an outcast from the realm of nature itself.
The apocalyptic chaos impinges, hangs as a threat evermore, existing in a constant mirror dimension – where our reality reflected against the truth becomes a shadow and cannot survive. The “grand masquerade” will, of course continue. Ishmael in his internal, personal search survives – he perceives the real as well as its symbol. However, the universal quest of Ahab and the Pequod, fails. Deliverance, the re-perceiving of man’s individual place in the loom-scheme of nature can succeed only on an individual basis – but not on a universal level. It is symbolic of man’s social world continuing to delude itself, losing the real in a maze of symbols, failing to arrive at the ultimate truth. For Melville there is no final deliverance for man – not from himself, not from his worlds.
Job 11: 7 & 8 Zophar asks: “Canst thou by searching find out God?”
Job answers: “It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? Deeper than hell, what canst thou know.”
Melville in the Try works chapter says that; “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”
In my opinion, the text of Moby Dick represents a catharsis that Melville suffered in his effort to reconcile the religious dogma of Calvinist New England in the mid nineteenth century, when compared with transcendentalism. With transcendental thought, or mans relationship to nature as the ultimate truth, permeating the spiritual thinking of the time, Melville came to understand that the organized religion of his community, separated man from nature rather than link him to it. Behavioral demanding religious superstructures promising eternal life thru the resurrection of God as man, took precedent over mans relationship to nature. What Melville concludes in Moby Dick, is that the religious superstructures and dogma of man, which were created to understand God, failed to comprehend the true transcendence, which was mans relationship to nature.
The brotherhood between fellow man as demonstrated by the Ishmael/ Queeequeg relationship, as well as understanding of mans inextricable link to nature was the transcendence. If man failed to respect his relationship to nature, the result could be an apocalyptic end to man’s existence, as the natural world would eclipse man from the earth, such as what occurs to the Pequod in Moby Dick. To Melville, there was no resurrected God who could, in reality, supplant or interfere in this ultimate natural fact, and thus the Pequod, as the symbolic container of all organized religion, is obliterated by the symbol of nature, the white whale.
The theme of demonism of this natural creature as developed by Ahab and Fedallah in Moby Dick, represents the superimposition of mans fears and delusions rampant in organized religions onto a natural creature. Such demonism of a natural creature ultimately destroys the Pequod. It is clear that Melville is warning, that if man does not respect nature and the environment, the end could be calamitous for man.
It appears Melville did believe that original organized religion was meant only to be a construct of behavior, and that the Hebrews had it right initially. But somehow along the road of time, the trappings of superstition, the mythic constructs of pagan resurrected Gods, entered the subconscious of ancient Hebrew thought. The resurrected God of Christianity is born from Judaism. The Christian thought process was a fundamental shift to a resurrected man in God’s image, which changed the world. Now man himself could be resurrected as long as his behavior was approved by an institution or church. How such a resurrected God myth permeated into Judaism is thought to have been as a result of exposure of the Hebrews to the resurrected God myths of Osiris in Egypt and Tammuz in Babylonia. This underlying pagan mysticism eventually gave birth thru Judaism into the resurrected God of Christianity. The Hebrews long imprisonment in slavery in Egypt, and then Babylonia, had to reasonably alter their religious thought, as the enslaved Hebrews made accommodations to survive in captivity.
In my opinion, organized religion truly begins in history with the focus on how to take control of the self – how to achieve mastery over conflicting emotions and how to liberate reason and self-discipline. While man may not control the events that impinge on his daily lives, how he responds to them is within his power. Difficult though it may be when faced with a challenge of faith, a human being can choose how to react.
Thus blessings could result from the making of the “correct “choice in relationships to fellow man and nature. This influential Hebrew model presupposes that all men have a choice in life, either to follow the law or not follow the law. One is the way of life, the other of death. The choices were stark, but, nonetheless, they at least represented a choice in the wake of seemingly irrational behavior by the divine powers. If God were beneficent how could terrible events occur. The original Hebrew religion offered that the reason for calamities was that our behavior had somehow offended God and, as such, a change in the moral fabric of our personal lives would assuage the super powers. Such thinking of God became incomprehensible, and gave birth to the basic covenant and law between God and the Hebrews to offer some logic to the apparent haphazard nature of life.
The covenant, or The Torah, is the means by which a relationship between God and man is expressed, like a contract. The Book of Deuteronomy proposed human freedom as a right to choose .It is the first document in Western Civilization that advances this point of view. As Deuteronomy portrayed it, the choice before man is clear. By deciding to keep the law, a person could choose the path of righteousness. This choice would have beneficial consequences, as God fulfills His part of the contract. Collectively so believed the Hebrews, that God would ensure that the Hebrews have the land of Israel, while individually, righteous people would enjoy such blessings as long life, health and happiness. This was positioned by the Hebrews as the way of life and prosperity.
Therefore the Books of the Torah recited that long life, good health, and happiness were the blessings that were rewarded for being righteous. The image was one of a rich and rewarding life, seeing not only one’s children grow up but their children as well, living in the land God had given. This belief eventually came to include eternal life for the righteous, with an expectation that eternal life would take place on this planet, on a recreated earth some time in the future. The concept was temporal – eternal life occurring at some future point in history. It was therefore not an otherworldly view that involved the soul’s relocation to a supernatural place or dimension- to a heaven or hell, for instance – upon death. The Hebrew view of eternal life did not represent a spatial notion. The Hebrew view was fundamentally different. When God brings about his rule upon earth, and all humanity comes to worship the one God in purity and truth, then at that point in time, those who are righteous will receive the divine gift of eternal life. At the same time, the righteous dead will be resurrected by God and will live eternally. Therefore eternal life would not occur immediately, but at some future point, at the end of history, in a much different transformed universe. Therefore only God could grant life to the dead, a view that said, not that people had an immortal soul that continues on immediately after death into another realm, but that the dead are truly dead, and only God alone will determine who gets resurrected and when.
The Hebrew view was a “contract” Melville could advocate for. At its very essence the “law” embodied a distinctive lifestyle. The Torah was in fact the Hebrew constitution and Melville found the similarities to the American constitution compelling. It expressed ethical ideals to live up to, and an annualized ritual for forgiveness if one failed to uphold the principles. A strong relationship with God and nature was not just a cozy feeling, or an ecstatic out of body experience, but a mental state, an inner faith, a transcendental belief in the relationship between man and God, which could be found in every aspect of nature.
In Moby Dick, call me Ishmael” is the opening of the novel; Ish-ma-el in Hebrew means ‘God shall hear’ and it is prophetic in the sense that both the Biblical and American Ishmael are saved from death by nothing less than a miracle. This is important because historically, Christianity found the stereotype of Hebrew observance to be too strict, and replaced the ethical precepts with the ability of the church to forgive sin and contrition. This took the importance to choose out of the domain of man and absconded the individual right to choose to the church or mosque. The word cabala is used several times in Moby Dick. For example, Ahab’s coat is “cabalistically cut”. The Cabala is the Hebrew mystical oral tradition which was whispered into Moses ear by God at Mount Sinai. The oral tradition had the answers to the questions of all the mysteries in the world. But it was too powerful, too profound, so that Moses could not understand the meaning of what he had been told. As a result the cabala became the oral tradition of Hebrew mysticism translated over time into symbols as a means of interpreting Gods ultimate mystical wisdom. When Ahab coat is “cabalistically cut” what does this mean for the captain of the Pequod in search of the white whale, of God itself in the natural world.
The cabala produced many powerful symbols for the Hebrews to understand themselves and their universe and their relationship to God. One of the most powerful symbols is that which has been called the Star of David. The Star of David is a very complex cabalistic symbol, that of the combination of the spiritual and physical world illuminated by the spirit of God. The cabala portrayed ‘Adam Kadman’, primeval man within an egg shaped sphere where two linked diamonds were formed. From today’s vantage point it appears to be the fertilizing of an egg, subdividing into multiple calls upon insemination. Above the spherical egg, there is an arrow called the ‘Ein Soph’ (endless light), which penetrates the egg sphere as a sperm and begins the process of cellular division. The endless light begins the process, and two diamonds form within the egg, which are in turn subdivided into four triangles. When the triangles are superimposed upon one another, the Star of David symbol is formed. The two diamonds represent the spiritual and physical worlds of man which are both illuminated by the spirit of Gods wisdom, the ‘Ein Soph.’ Each point on each diamond represents a point of significant importance in mans world from reproduction, to intelligence to love to strength to fear. Together the points create the world in which all men live. The fact that Ahab’s coat is ‘cabalistically cut’ means that Ahab has forgotten the importance of Gods light in the natural world, even though he wears the coat which is cut cabalistically, his actions are the opposite of that which the spiritual and physical union would envision .
In other words, Ahab like many others of that time had forgotten their true essence and only “wear the clothes” without understanding the meaning of the symbols.
For the Hebrews as well as Melville, the “delight” verbalized in Moby Dick indicates that the observance of ethical natural law was happiness. Goodness between fellow man and a respect for nature were the critical components.
In conclusion Melville found that God is to be loved, but such a love is expressed through behavior, that emanates from a right attitude that maintains the love between fellow man, and the natural world. In this case, for Melville, the belief in God goes beyond a mere mortal dimension, ‘beyond the linked analogies”, and encompasses a greater respect for all living things, into the transcendental healing power of nature itself.
Such behavior involved actions, a return of choice to man himself, understanding that man’s well being is to keep Gods laws as ethical precepts of behavior, and not controlled, or usurped by the many Demi-Gods of organized religion. Individual people are the decision makers and they alone can choose their path of life which can lead to happiness. Ultimately the decisions that people and communities make are the facts which affect the outcome of history. Such is democracy, and ultimately the Hebrew concept of free choice is the bedrock upon which America is conceived. All human beings are equal, and none of us should be dissuaded by the Ahab’s of the world, who, from time to time in history launch their crusades or quests, with their false prophets at their side, to control that which is uncontrollable, such as the white whale in its great “repose’, the natural symbol of God in nature, which is neither good or evil, but simply exists in its own essence. When such knowledge is applied to any religious constructs, whether Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Hebrew, or Zoroastrian — the religious constructs all collapse in a fruitless effort to explain the universe.
When all religious faith itself is so challenged, it becomes the “wisdom that is woe; but here is a woe that is madness” in Moby Dick. Man, faced with only nature as the ultimate truth, must realize that nothing created by man is ever lasting and mans’ ephemeral beliefs give no comfort into eternity, and rather only cause hatred and misunderstanding in the real world.
Melville’s hope is the beginning of an age of spiritual cleansing, where all people exist in a fully interconnected world linked by the common need to survive in the natural world. This is the message elucidated by Melville in Moby Dick which Melville wants us to hear in the naming of his only surviving character which expresses hope— Ish-ma-el— ‘God Shall Hear,’ a call for our wisdom to live in harmony with each other and at peace with our environment, the natural world.
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