Moby-Dick, or the white whale.
A hunt. The last great hunt.
For Moby-Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is old, hoary, monstrous, and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked; and snow-white.
Of course he is a symbol.
I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.
—D. H. Lawrence
“…But as I was going to say, if thou wantest to know what whaling is, as thou tellest ye do, I can put ye in a way of finding it out before ye bind yourself to it, past backing out. Clap eye on Captain Ahab, young man, and thou wilt find that he has only one leg.”
“What do you mean, sir? Was the other one lost by a whale?”
“Lost by a whale! Young man, come nearer to me: it was devoured, chewed up, crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!—ah, ah!”
I consider Moby-Dick, written in the mid-19th century by an American fellow named Herman Melville, to be a book containing more profundity and genuine spiritual wisdom than many religious scriptures, including the Old Testament of the Bible. The novel could reasonably be called Upanishadic; or at least it could be called one of the most Upanishadic texts in all of American classic literature, especially in fiction. This is largely because Moby-Dick is a mystical text; an elaborate parable describing, in allegorical or poetical terms, the nature of “God,” or, if you prefer, of Ultimate Reality, the ultimate Kantian Thing in Itself, from which this apparent world we live in unfolds. Melville was a kind of transcendentalist mystic, which was somewhat in fashion in his day, and which is manifest in this his greatest, most acclaimed, and most analyzed novel.
So I suppose the thing to do here is to present my case.
One recurring symbol of the Divine Infinite in the novel is the sky, and, more particularly, the sun. For example in chapter CXVIII, “The Quadrant,” on a beautiful sunny day in the North Pacific, off the coast of Japan, Captain Ahab, in a fit of disgusted, rebellious impatience, suddenly decides to stop using his quadrant (an astronomical instrument used for determining latitude) for navigation, literally and symbolically refusing to look to the heavens for guidance any longer. He throws the quadrant to the deck, smashes it…and immediately afterwards commands the helmsman to steer toward the Equatorial fishing ground to the southeast, which is the white whale’s most likely location.
Another example: On the very same day that Ahab directs the ship toward the central ocean where Moby Dick awaits, a typhoon unexpectedly rises, shredding the ship’s sails, smashing Ahab’s whaleboat, gravely endangering the ship, and, with a kind of St. Elmo’s fire, causing the masts and rigging of the vessel to glow with a luminous electrical corona. The crew of course see this as a bad sign, with the usually carefree, irreligious second officer Mr. Stubb becoming unusually serious and downright frightened, so that he begins praying, essentially, with exclamations of “The corpusants have mercy on us all”—corpusants being an old-fashioned name for the luminous plasma discharge. So upon renouncing the guidance of the heavens and directing the ship in the direction of the white whale, the heavens themselves seem to remonstrate with the whole ship and essentially give fair warning of what they are getting themselves into.
Melville places more spiritual emphasis upon the sea, however; which is understandable when one considers that water is the universal symbol for Spirit. In the very first chapter of the book the narrator discusses his deep calling to go to sea, and he shares such ruminations as this:
Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happens to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.
Ishmael continues to make such watery, meditative statements throughout the tale, like, “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God”; and in a chapter in which he describes standing watch at a masthead on the lookout for whales, he becomes particularly poetically metaphysical:
…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form; seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.
At the conclusion of his biographical sketch of old Perth, the ship’s blacksmith, a man who ruined his own earthly life, lost his family in a horrible calamity, and turned to a life of the sea, the narrator strongly implies that becoming a whaleman is true renunciation; and we may surmise that, likewise, true renunciation is an essential step toward becoming a symbolic hunter of the Whale.
Before moving on to the obvious, most central symbol of the mysterious Divine, I will point out that the ocean seems more of a metaphor for the emptiness, the boundless, infinite field of being, from which manifestations of divinity arise, and not so much a distinct manifestation itself. In the jargon of the Hindu Vedantist philosophy, the shoreless sea would represent Nirguna Brahman, the unthinkable Ultimate Reality which bears no discernible characteristics. The aspect of “God” which is a manifested agent in our world, Brahma the personification of the highest reality, Ishvara the Lord of the Cosmos, the occasionally wrathful “God Almighty,” is the Whale.
An obvious case of whale as God is Melville/Ishmael’s mention of “Vishnoo,” the divine sustainer of the cosmos in Hindu theology, in his first earthly avatar manifesting himself as a gigantic fish—with, it should be remembered, the 19th-century narrator considering whales to be the biggest kind of fish. So Vishnu first appeared in this world as Leviathan. Also, of course, whales in general are referred to as Leviathan repeatedly in the novel, which lends some Christianity to the god-as-fish motif. When Ishmael first sees Moby Dick swimming majestically through the sea, he compares him to the great god Zeus (alias Jupiter) after He assumed the form of a white bull, swimming from Phoenicia to Crete carrying the beautiful maiden Europa. And the most blatant, unignorable instance is the case of “Gabriel,” a crazed whaler turned prophet aboard the whaling vessel Jeroboam who insists that Moby Dick himself is none other than an incarnation of God Almighty. Towards the end of the story Moby Dick is called, flat-out, “the grand god,” and the body of the ship after being rammed by him the “god-bullied hull.” As early as chapter I of the story, when Ishmael is receiving his call to the sea in his dreams, the White Whale is there, lurking in the deep shadows of his subconscious mind:
By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.
And this was before he had ever heard of the white whale Moby Dick.
At this point it is expedient to mention a certain feature of the novel that many readers and critics have disliked since its publication; and that is a great number of chapters (no fewer than 37 of them) that are straightforward discussions of whales and the whaling industry that do not necessarily make any direct contribution at all to the plot. There may occur as many as five of these chapters in a row, which I must admit distract from the story and can get a little tedious. They discuss every possible angle the author could think of regarding whales and the hunting of whales. But there are two symbolic reasons why these seemingly extraneous chapters are included; and one of them is to provide hints at the divinity and divine wrath lurking within whales in general, and in the White Whale in particular.
Consider: Ishmael mentions that the whale is the greatest being of all, the greatest that has ever lived, with the sperm whale being the largest species (this being due to the fact that larger whales like blue whales and finbacks were too fast and elusive for sailing ships and rowboats in those days to come anywhere near them), with Moby Dick implied to be the largest sperm whale of them all. Whales have existed since immemorial time: “I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over.” The sperm whale in particular is called the terror of all other sea creatures, with most human whalers not daring to hunt it.
The whale is implied to be formless, as we cannot see its shape when it is covered by water, and when killed and pulled out of the water it loses its true shape. And if we fall into the water and come near enough to see it as it is, we die. Furthermore, the narrator emphasizes that the sperm whale has no face: if you look at it from the front all you see is a blank wall, with its eyes, nose, and mouth all located elsewhere.
But in that great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature. For you see no one point precisely; not one distinct feature is revealed; no nose, eyes, ears, or mouth; no face; he has none, proper; nothing but the one broad firmament of a forehead, pleated with riddles; dumbly lowering with the doom of boats, and ships, and men.
It does, however, show off its tail, thrusting its flukes high into the air whenever it dives; and Ishmael compares this to the LORD who may show his hind parts to an Old Testament prophet, but will show the glory of his face to no one.
It is emphasized that Moby Dick is also colorless, being white; and in the noteworthy chapter XLII, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael points out not only that whiteness is associated with purity and supernaturalism, but that according to science, everything as it really is could be called white in the sense that it is ultimately colorless, color being a perceptual construct of the human mind, not something truly inherent in nature.
The whalers, those symbolic renunciant pilgrims of Spirit who seek the greatest Mystery, have evolved many legends concerning the whale Moby Dick—those who believe in his existence, that is, as there are many who haven’t heard, or if they have heard do not believe. The legends suggest that Moby Dick cannot be killed, and is immortal. Furthermore some sailors maintain that he can appear in more than one place simultaneously, making him ubiquitous if not omnipresent (with immortality being a kind of ubiquity in time).
Then there is the gold doubloon which Ahab has promised to the first sailor who spots Moby Dick on the day that he spouts red gore and is slain. This coin is the symbol, the representative, the “talisman” of the white whale aboard the Pequod. The coin was minted of “purest, virgin gold” in Ecuador, a country lying on the Equator and thereby situated, in a sense, in the middle of the world. The doubloon is covered with images and rune-like symbols with each person looking upon them interpreting them differently, and with the most mundane minds interpreting them most mundanely.
Moby Dick himself is finally located at the Equator, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which Ishmael asserts is the center of the world map, with the Atlantic and Indian Oceans being mere arms to the Pacific.
Put all this together and we have Moby Dick the white whale as a vast, timeless, immortal, unkillable, supernatural, all-powerful, ubiquitous being with no discernible form, no face, and no color; which is found in the center of the world, in the center of all things, at the heart of Reality. And that, my friends, to a theistic mystic at least, is “God.”
Melville/Ishmael makes many other statements suggesting that whales in general, and the white whale in particular, are God, or at least divine instruments, occupying a broad spectrum, with one end of the spectrum fading out into such subtlety that the symbolism is very vague and questionable. But some of the more obvious miscellanea that support the thesis are: There are at least two mentions of religious temples or shrines made from the skeleton of a whale, with the dimensions of one of these carefully tattooed on Ishmael’s arm (along with many other tattoos, causing Ishmael’s symbol-covered body to be reminiscent of Parker in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back”); Moby Dick’s lower jaw is bent into a sickle shape, allowing associations of a Grim Reaper wielding his fateful scythe (and actually it is not uncommon for old bull sperm whales to have twisted or otherwise deformed lower jaws, as they use them in combat amongst themselves in fights over females); the harpooneer Queequeg—a purplish yellow South Sea Island cannibal with his teeth sharpened into points—at one point declares that mere sickness does not have the power to kill him, but only, in Ishmael’s words, “some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer,” like a whale or a storm at sea, for instance; and it is mentioned again and again in the story that the ship Pequod itself is plentifully inlaid with sperm whale teeth and bone, Ahab’s stool or “throne” is made of whale bone, and even Ahab’s peg leg is composed of sperm whale bone—hinting that the world of the ship itself and even “God’s” most bitter enemy contain “God” in their composition, like Emerson’s omnipresent Brahma:
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
It may as well be noted that the main reason why Ahab stayed in seclusion before and shortly after the beginning of the Pequod’s voyage is that his whale bone leg suddenly snapped while he was walking near home, with the jagged end stabbing him in the groin, seriously injuring him; so Ahab’s sworn enemy and reputed cause of all his suffering, the whale, continued to task him even when he was on dry land. (It also is significant that Captain Ahab has a white scar, a streak of Moby Dick’s whiteness, reputedly running the entire length of his body, which evidently was caused by him being struck by lightning while participating in some kind of pagan ceremony.)
As the sun is to the sky, so the white whale is to the ocean; yet despite all this, as is proper for a mystical text, there is also a fair amount of hinting that the whale is merely a phenomenal agent or manifestation of the world-transcending emptiness of God, as is everything else really, including Ahab himself and his tempter the fire-worshipping Zoroastrian Mephistopheles. I am reminded of a passage in the Old Testament, I think in the book of Isaiah, in which the evil king of Assyria is declared to be, despite his personal belief that he is working out his own selfish ambition, an instrument or agent of God in unleashing His divine vengeance upon the rebellious people of Israel. But Moby Dick, though monstrous and fierce in his wrath, is never really portrayed as evil. He fights only in self defense or in defense of his own kind, and mainly just minds his own business. In the final chase of the white whale he is apparently in mid transit from one place to another and continues to follow a straight line, ignoring the ship, until the boats are lowered after him with lethal intent. And even then he gives fair warning before committing to the final onslaught. So Moby Dick is not exactly the Godhead, but is more like God’s left fist.
One recurring theme supporting the idea of whale as servant, agent, or instrument of God is the continued comparisons to the great fish or whale or Leviathan that swallowed the prophet Jonah in the Bible. The whale performed God’s will, but wasn’t exactly God. And Ishmael wasn’t exactly Jonah either of course, but was indeed a spiritual fugitive who defied the great power, and was punished by it, but was eventually spared for a higher purpose.
One odd borderline case concerns the fact that the white whale’s body was fouled with old, bent harpoons, lances, and ropes tangled together from many previous attempts on his life. (This apparently was not extremely uncommon; for example the non-fictional whale Mocha Dick, on which Moby was largely based, allegedly had nineteen harpoons found embedded in his body, most of which were presumably relics of earlier, less successful attempts to kill him.) So the image is of a formless, colorless, faceless entity which bristles with the outward appearance of the results of human actions. These human artifacts which protrude in a tangle from its body lend the inscrutable being a perceptible, recognizable outward shape and color, so to speak.
I mentioned above the multitude of seemingly extraneous chapters describing everything Ishmael could think of concerning whales, including cetacean taxonomy and physiology, whales in art and legend, and how to cook whale and what it tastes like, much of which information has nothing obviously to do with the actual plot of the story; and I mentioned that the first of two reasons for these chapters is to drop symbolic hints about the mystic identity of the Whale. The other reason is this: Ishmael was the only person on board the Pequod who wasn’t simply trying to kill Moby Dick, or simply trying to make a living as a whaler without deep reflection on what his profession was all about. He deeply wanted to understand the whale as perfectly as he could. In chapter CIV, “The Fossil Whale,” Ishmael says, “Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels.” This is why he is the sole survivor of the ultimate oceanic spiritual quest, and of the divine apocalyptic wrath finally poured upon the world of the Pequod, the only one found worthy of salvation. He is a jnani, one who attains the ultimate good through knowledge. He is the only one who yearned to know the highest being face to face. But of course he has no face.