A Whale, by any other name: moby dick or MOBY DICK

by Ezekiel Fry

How do we get to the center of THE WHALE? Can we? Or, perhaps more appropriately, should we? Through the voice of Ishmael, Melville repeatedly hints at the unknowable nature of the creature. It might end up being nothing more than an exercise in chasing the tail (pun most assuredly intended), but I wish to discuss here some of the angles that I have taken in an effort to gain a firmer understanding of Moby Dick, within Moby-Dick. But then again, as my father has asked me time and again, “I thought that book was about hunting a whale?” It most assuredly is, and that is what makes it so wonderful. A Whale, by any other name.

Beginning with the foundational section entitled “Etymology” Melville creates a universal understanding of the whale itself. By presenting both definition and spelling from a handful of diverse languages the whale becomes globally known. It may very well be that each culture has a slightly different way of viewing—or defining through speech—the whale, but the whale itself unchanged. The image, which will become further established in the “Extracts” section, is in place. Whether the whale be viewed from the perspective of Queequeg, Tashtego, or Ahab, its surface—the fundamental nature of the thing—remains unchanged. This universality of substance and difference of perception is a theme repeated time and again throughout the book. With his great declaration upon the quarter-deck, Ahab voices this theme, stating:

Hark ye yet again,—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. (Melville 140)

Here we see Ahab’s conception of the divine in full force. The universal “visual object” functions as a mask, the word “whale” cloaks the true meaning of that which lies beneath it. The naming of the thing is its mask in this sense, and only through pushing aside the illusory outer world, “strik[ing] through the mask”, can the profundity, the personal perception, of the thing be attained. For Ahab the thing at the heart of it seems to fluctuate, the whale—Moby Dick himself—remains a representative of that “still reasoning thing” that peeps out from behind its earthly disguise, but there may very well be “naught beyond” that. In this way Ahab’s belief structure and his compulsion—along with that of his crew, in all their various masks—are distinctly accounted for. There is either something vaguely knowable, yet malignantly disinterested, beyond this illusory world, or there is simply nothing at all. There is a mask, Ahab seems to say, but what lies beneath is any man’s guess. Whatever that thing may be, it is clear to see that Ahab does not view it as anything less than vengeful.
Ahab’s perception of that wrathful something which lies behind the mask is also influenced by the Calvinistic interpretation of God, T. Walter Herbert, Jr. asserts. Calvin’s reading of the biblical Ahab was a touchstone for Melville in the writing of his own Ahab, Herbert continues, and “Melville was familiar with a traditional form of attack on Calvinism in which Calvin was accused of having envisaged a God who is a brutal monster” (1613). Herbert sees Moby Dick as an agent of the Calvinist God, set forth for vengeance, much like the whale in the book of Jonah. While this is certainly valid, the question remains whether or not Ahab sees Moby Dick in this manner. From the aforementioned passage of the mask onwards the view behind the visual object is blurred. Ishmael’s belief is rarely shaken, but Ahab, upon whom the weight of the narrative is thrust, wavers from pure faith, to atheism, to heresy, and back again, several times throughout the book. This theologically complex character sits not looking so much at the hand of God lurking behind the movements of Moby Dick, but in the confused position of not possessing any other conceivable object upon which to heap his monumental woe. Moby Dick is not God, or his agent, specifically, he is, more appropriately, as Ishmael hints and Ahab solidifies, Ahab’s universal millstone. Melville writes of Ahab’s belief, “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down” (156). Ahab sees Moby Dick as the mask, perhaps it is God—a specifically Calvinist God—that “puts forth the mouldings of its features”, but perhaps there is nothing behind the mask at all. Either way it seems that the most appropriate way of viewing Ahab’s God is displayed in microcosm by Queequeg’s Blake-like comment concerning sharks. Melville writes, “Queegueg no care what god made him shark…wedder Fejee god or Nantucket god; but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin” (243).
In this regard we see the possibility of a Prime Mover working within Moby-Dick. The appearance of the whale, the necessity of Moby Dick himself as an object of scorn—a replacement for God—supports this conception of an absentee God. Time and again Ishmael and Ahab are found musing at the mysterious workings of the universe, the seemingly absurd nature of the world. Ishmael hints at this world view:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. (Melville 188)

Here we see the doubt that creeps into not only Ahab’s soul, but the souls of those who follow him. The workings of the trick are beyond his comprehension, but he knows that the trick exists, that the jokester is quietly laughing somewhere indefinable. This, by itself, returns to Herbert’s concept of a Calvinistic God, but we see a much clearer indication that the joke was played and continues to play out. The prankster may have set the board in motion, but the events, as they exist now, are quite independent from that mysterious hand. God sits aloof, but is he not, in the creation of the joke, truly responsible? There are other passages which show, in Ishmael (and therefore in his creation, Ahab), a questioning of the veracity of God’s creation. Perhaps most glaringly in the passage concerning the true nature of the whale’s skeleton in the chapter “Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton”, where Melville writes, “Thus we see how that the spine of even the hugest of living things tapers off at last into simple child’s play” (348). This statement, when connected back to the view of the universe as “practical joke”, further draws attention to the deficit of foresight that God displayed in the forming of his universe. If even the largest being upon the planet is merely a whim of the creator then it stands to reason that the motley procession, the grand joke of all creation from top to bottom, would resound with the mocking laughter of the hyena.
The complexity of this theme of a capricious prime-mover is further demonstrated in Ishmael’s treatise on whiteness. Moving through the traditional dualities inherent in all things, Ishmael arrives at the innate fear of destruction within all living things, “the instinct of the knowledge of demonism in the world” (Melville 164). He then applies this preternatural knowledge to both himself and a colt, leading to this statement:

Though neither knows where lies the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me, as with the colt, somewhere those things must exist. Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright. (Melville 164)

In connection to the earlier passage concerning the knowledge of evil in the world, this statement further muddies the philosophical waters, but also helps to illuminate the pervading theme of the visual object of the mask. What is felt, what lies beneath, is often very different from what is actually seen. The world, as we see it, “seems formed in love”, while “the invisible spheres were formed in fright” (my italics). The knowledge of evil is present at all times, and although it cannot be seen, the realm beyond—that which lies behind the mask—is assuredly something horrific in nature. In Ishmael’s wording we see that which is concrete, and that which is doubtful, in the seeing, and that which is doubtful in the seeing and concrete in the feeling. Each visual object, much like the doubloon that Ahab nails to the mainmast, appears in vivid reality to the eye, but what the mind—the device which “gives forth such hints”—does with the corporeal image is something else entirely. Speaking on the subject of the doubloon Ishmael puts this concept into words, “And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher” (Melville 331). This possibility of nothingness, of a world devoid of an active deity, is a real possibility, and the desire to understand this truth continually places Ahab in a position to fall, to push against the wall and attempt to look God in the eye. To stand face to face with either the creator—be he malignant, absentee, benevolent, or otherwise—or stare into the nothingness of the void and face the “colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink” (Melville 165). In either event, the visual image—the earthly representation—of God or Chaos, is, for Ahab and his crew, the white whale—Moby Dick. With this idea firmly in place Ishmael’s question, or declaration of purpose rings even more ominously, “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt” (Melville 165).