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Dumain Herman Melvilles Moby Dick and the Contradictions of Modernity
by Ralph Dumain [1] The Autodidact Project website
I see Melville as one of the most profound and prescient thinkers on the contradictions of
modernity, the impossibility of finding a coherent meaning and place in the modern world, the
struggle between the sacred and secular in bourgeois society, the modern in relation to the
primitive, and the emergence of a post-secular, post-empiricist, paranoid-fascist world view in
the person of Ahab, whose metaphysics is proto-fascist though he himself is not necessarily so.
Melville manifests a profound ambivalence and recognition of the multiple irresolvable
contradictions of his world leading to total destruction.
Moby Dick
I read this novel as a "nave" reader of the 21st century, innocent of the background assumptions
of Melville's original readership of 150 years ago, and without a background in Melville's other
works or life, or in the critical literature of Melville Studies. Aside from the ways in which
C.L.R. James prejudiced me to read this work [2], I have taken a few hints from Michael Paul
Rogin [3], D.H. Lawrence [4], and Clare Spark [5], but by and large my reading is my own. Thus
my reading is nave: you be the judge of how nave.
Moby Dick is and is meant to be an experience of the uncanny. The narrator Ishmael
ostentatiously confronts his landlocked reader with a reality vastly different from what his own
experience has taught him. Ishmael toys with his reader, but has no compunctions about
puncturing the reader's every assumption about his world. Life at sea is a journey into the
unknown, but Ishmael engages in a program of instruction, breaking every taboo to reveal its
reality. The assumptions to be overturned are both metaphysical and social. Melville makes this
as plain as can be: "in landlessness alone resides the highest truth." [chapter 23]
From the introduction of Queequeeg, to become Ishmael's fast friend, Melville rubbishes all
presumptions of racial superiority, "as though a white man were anything more dignified than a
whitewashed negro" [chapter 13], just to cite one of his bolder remarks. The white mans rule is
mentioned from time to time [e.g. chapters 27, 42], yet the symbolism of whiteness is subject to
major reversals.
Queequeeg, though characterized as a savage, is shown to possess the most civilized of personal
qualities, a nobility and generosity of character, a harmony of mind and body, that in its
unassuming reality far exceeds the pretensions of the Christian white man.
The narrator is relentless in ridiculing the presumed superiority of the Christian over the pagan.
Here are some choice pronouncements: "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken
Christian." "I'll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow
courtesy." "We cannibals must help these Christians." [chapters 3, 10, 13] Ishmael gives an
elaborate albeit ironic justification for participating in Queequeeg's "idolatrous" religious
ceremony as an act of Christian kindness. [chapter 10]

There is something of the fascination of the "noble savage" on the part of Ishmael. From opposite
ends of the ideological spectrum, C.L.R. James and D.H. Lawrence are highly suspicious of this.
It is worth keeping this in mind for later consideration. Ishmael is showing off to his reader, to be
sure, but in the process, his opposition to white racism and genteel society does not seem to
harbor ulterior motive.
In Melvilles "wicked book", once the Pequod sets sail, white supremacy, the rights of property,
bourgeois morality, and Christianity are tossed overboard in short order. Face to face with the
demands of basic survival, without the artificial supports of what is called civilization, the
pretensions of the white bourgeois Christian man melt away. Life at sea strips life down to its
barest essentials and strips the white man of all his idealist illusions. Ishmael plainly says that a
whale hunter is a savage [chapter 57] and a pagan too. The allurements of nature only cover the
charnel house it actually is. [chapter 42] Mans own feeding behavior is indistinguishable from
the sharks and cannibals. [chapters 64-65] We are all really pagans when push comes to shove,
and Christianity is a joke. Melville, via Ishmael, makes it plain that all the ideological
pretensions of his society are stuff and nonsense, and that there is nothing white about the white
man when you come down to it, not on the high seas, which cast aside all established landlocked
notions of caste and culture, and where all that matters is naked power.
The question naturally arises, to what extent is the social structure of the Pequod an analogue of
American society? I am unconvinced by a number of interpretations I have seen. For example,
there is a lot to be learned from the chapter of Michael Rogin's Subversive Genealogies on Moby
Dick, in terms of the ideological background for Melville, i.e. the religious and metaphysical
symbolism. Most instructive is the theme of the American obsession with primitivism, which
Americans adopt under rugged conditions even as they displace the people they term
"primitives". This also calls into question the relation between American and European culture.
Rogin suggests political parallels even while eschewing the readability of the novel as a
straightforward political allegory. However, the proliferation of political analogies does not add
up to a coherent picture. Does Ahab represent manifest destiny or radical abolitionism? Is Ahab
supposed to be John Calhoun, William Lloyd Garrison, Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson, or a
host of other political figures representing opposing political and sectional interests? [6]
Missing in all these political analogies is a hypothetical reconstruction of the logic that Melville
must have followed to transpose the social order of real society on land and that on sea vessels to
the surreal order of this sea voyage. The contrast between land and sea is essential to making
sense out of what is going on, for the world at sea distills and transmutes the social order on land
in decisive ways, recombines its social parameters and simplifies its complex of social problems.
Land and sea society exist in a relationship rather than being identical. One way to think of this
is that the Pequod is to the USA as the USA is to Europe. The Pequod transforms American
society as America transforms European culture. The Pequod represents the next stage of social
development. Ahab is confronting the unknown, the future.
In the Pequod, rougher even than the American frontier, traditional elitisms, established
hierarchies, and artificial divisions between peoples are irrelevant. Europe and New England lose
their authority. The variegated, deracinated crew exists in a state of de facto racial equality. The
most significant differentiating factor is the hierarchical chain of command, though the AngloSaxons still sit at the top of the hierarchy. The split is between the crew and the commanding
officers, headed by Ahab who determines the direction that the ship of state sails into the
unknown future. The harpooners, who represent the races now under the white mans dominion,
are actually an elite among the workers, certainly the most impressive figures. Ahab seems to be

largely devoid of racial prejudice, and in actuality shows more much affinity with the
harpooners, upon whom he has to rely, than anyone else. However, Ahabs need to befriend Pip
as he faces disaster [chapters 125, 127, 129] betrays a perverse dependency redolent of Hegels
master-slave dialectic. Moreover, there is a tacit compact with paganism, even diabolism, in
Ahabs relation to his non-white crewmen, suggesting a transmutation rather than elimination of
the racialist ideological structure of his civilization. [7]
The characterization of Ahab as totalitarian dictator is highly exaggerated. Ahab seems not so
much villain or hero as much as another person caught up in the maelstrom of a demonic world
from a particular vantage point. Ahab does not brutalize his crew as some other ship captains do
nor does he inspire the mutinies that occur elsewhere as a reaction to such mistreatment. While
nailing the doubloon to the mast, Ahab enlists the endorsement of the crew for his mission.
[chapter 26] Ahab relies on charisma and psychological manipulation, as the narrator makes
plain, but most of the time he is off by himself brooding and planning and determining the
direction of the voyage. Ahab is not a future Hitler or Stalin in his political practice, but only in
his metaphysics, as we shall see later. [8]
For a supposed adventure story, Ahab is irrelevant most of the time, connected with the activities
of the ship at crucial moments, but disconnected from daily concerns. The crewmen spend most
of their time engaging in their daily business, working and dealing with the immediate tasks at
hand. Melville describes their activities in the minutest detail, and enriches his narrative with
lengthy disquisitions on whales. The resulting picture is not altogether different from peoples
relation to leaders under any form of government in real life. The workers go about their daily
humdrum business, while their rulers remotely pursue their own schemes, steering society into
Melville contrasts the mentality and social relations of the officers from those of the crew: first,
the way they behave when they dine together; second, how they spend their free time. The
officers fall back on their private thoughts with dread about the future. The crew parties and
sings. C.L.R. James was right to make so much emphasis of this fundamental contrast. And it
seems true that Melvilles heart lies with the crew, as Ishmael says with sublime poetry:
If I shall touch that arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous
set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast
spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! [chapter 26]
In sum, the Pequod, even beyond the landlubber American frontier, simplifies the issues of
survival. All that ultimately matters is the hierarchy of command on board the ship, the fraternity
of the crew, and the conceptions that men live by.
Weird Science, Weird Metaphysics
The reversal of perspective at sea encompasses science, metaphysics, and religion. The whaling
industry, not customarily associated with glamor, is shown to be central to civilization. Whaling
lore displaces the authority of received notions of culture. Melville shifts the focus to cetology, to
labor and practical knowledge. For Ishmael, "a whale-ship was my Yale college and my
Harvard." [chapter 24] There is weird science aboard the Pequod. Ishmael combines the
encyclopedic knowledge of cetology recorded in books circulating on land with the living
knowledge of first-hand experience at sea, which captures aspects of cetology unknown to the
landlocked dissection of lifeless specimens. [chapter 32]
In addition, it is impossible to retain pure scientific rationality on the ocean. Its mystery, coupled
with the unbuffered proximity to the vastness and violence of nature, fosters superstition and
primitive animistic tendencies. [chapters 41, 59]

The narrative abounds in metaphysical speculations of all kinds [e.g. chapter 35] (with enigmatic
references to Platonism, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Bentham, Bryon, Coleridge, Descartes), and the
whale becomes a master metaphor for the understanding of the universe, of metaphysics, and
religion. The narrative from first to last freely plays with symbolism in a manner that suggests
the arbitrariness as well as the fruitfulness of symbolic analogies. Whiteness itself becomes a
variable symbol [chapter 42], inspiring terror and thoughts of the demonism of deified Nature as
well as thoughts of Christian purity. White is even the color of atheism. The prophet Elijah on the
docks is treated as a humbug. [chapter 19] Omens are treated in a highly contradictory manner
throughout. The significance of Queequeegs tattoos are unknown even to him. The doubloon
[chapter 99] is subject to a variety of interpretations, none authoritative, though "some certain
significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an
empty cipher" All this suggests distance and skepticism as well as intimacy with symbolism.
And of course, what does the whale signify, if anything other than a natural object?
Enlightenment and Paganism
In religious matters, too, Ishmael shows himself to be a freethinker. Ishmael preaches tolerance
of all religious beliefs, taking none too seriously, gives his own seat-of-the-pants history of
religion, advocates for Queequeeg and criticizes Queequeeg only for injurious ritual fanaticism.
[chapters 17, 18] Ishmael asserts: "Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things
heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards
them both with equal eye." [chapter 85]
Christians are ridiculed and parodied throughout the whole book. There are sanguinary Quakers
with a vengeance [chapter 16]. The whale must be savagely murdered "to illuminate the solemn
churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all." [chapter 81] Christian art looks
weak compared to pagan art as well as the divine physical presence of the whale. [chapter 86]
The mincer is as good as a Pope. [chapter 95] Queequeeg doesnt care whose God made the
shark: He "must be one dam Injin." [chapter 66] Forget about St. Peters: "model thyself after the
whale!" [chapter 68] Real orthodoxy comes from the obstinate persistence of old sea beliefs and
traditions. [chapter 69] The black cook preaches a sermon on man as shark, and the bemused
Stubb cries "thats Christianity!" [chapter 64]
In short: while the novel sustains Christian symbolism, above all of the Leviathan, Christianity is
essentially a dead letter. The only tendencies that matter are Enlightenment rationality and
paganism, and paganism ultimately wins.
The Secular and the Sacred
Absolutely central to the thematics of Moby Dick is the manifest conflict between sacred and
secular understandings of the universe; with that, the struggle over the meanings of human
interaction and interaction with nature, and the multi-tiered nature of ideology and mystification
that permeates the relations between men and between man and nature all the way through from
primitive man all the way up to Captain Ahab. I see Melville struggling with a four-tiered
historical ideological progression: (1) primitive religion, (2) Christian civilization, which now
co-exists in a contradictory unity with (3) the secular positivism and rational calculation of
modern bourgeois society, and finally (4) the emergence of Ahabs world view.
The conflict between Starbuck and Ahab defines the issue. [chapter 36] Starbuck is the
embodiment of the Christian-bourgeois world view. Starbuck is only interested in the pursuit of
whales for profit. He is not interested in vengeance. He stands by the watchword of bourgeois
relations: nothing personal. Yet Starbuck goes further: "Vengeance on a dumb brute!", "that
simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain

Ahab, seems blasphemous." The injection of blasphemy into the argument disturbs its logical
flow. How can there be blasphemy in an impersonal universe?
Ahab wont have any of this: "Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; Id strike the sun if it insulted
me." And "Whos over me? Truth has no confines." This is freethought, the Enlightenment and
individual freedom, the revolutionary pursuit of justice and truth wherever they lead. But Ahab
also attacks Starbucks mundane perspective: "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard
masks." This is not empiricism. Ahab takes the cosmos personally; he wants to know its secret,
and he feels the malice of its creations. This is both a reversion to primitivism and a step beyond
rationalism. This is a new stage of myth-making, post-secular and post-empiricist. And this is the
step, which, when taken in the 20th century, constitutes the paranoid epistemology and
metaphysics of fascism.
Characterizing Ahab, Melville has hit upon the central philosophical conflict of modernity: "all
my means are sane, my motive and my object mad." [chapter 41] What moved Melville to write
this 80 years before Hitler's rise to power?
Ahab on the one hand is scientific, as epitomized by the Chart he has [chapter 44] that allows
him to map the movements of whales around the globe. Yet his metaphysical ponderings rise to
the level of the bizarre the closer he gets to the final confrontation. A mind-body dualism
emerges. He compares the painful sensations of his lost leg to the "fiery pains of hell"
experienced bodilessly. Ahab is "impatient of all misery in others that is not mad." [chapter 113]
Summoning the "pagans", Ahab initiates a demonic baptism in blood of his harpoon. [chapter
113] Later Ahab refers to the "dark Hindoo half of nature" [chapter 116] Ahab misinterprets the
Parsees prediction of Ahabs death by hemp as Ahabs immortality [chapter 117] Ahab smashes
his quadrant and shouts "Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy" [chapter 118] Ahab, enraptured,
mystifies the superstitious crew as a magician, a personality mastering the "personified
impersonal". [chapter 119] But for a moment the crew panics after Ahabs harpoon flames and
Starbuck cries out "God, God is against thee, old man " God or no, Starbuck can not rebel.
[chapter 123] While the harpooners are unimpressed with Ahabs feats with the reversed
magnetization of the compasses, Ahab resorts again to the mystification of scientific facts as
magic in order to snow the sailors. [chapter 124]
Ahab soon descends to sentimentally befriending submissive Pip as an antidote to his total
isolation. Pip becomes his spiritual pipeline to the world. [chapters 125, 127] The Christians and
the pagans diversely interpret omens. Ahabs dualism re-emerges: "Oh! how immaterial are all
materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts!" [chapter 127]
Throughout the voyage, the Pequod encounters a number of ships, each embodying a particular
condition or way of being. Ahab is interested only in news of the white whale. The penultimate
encounter is with a ship so joyous in temperament, The Bachelor, its captain shrugs off his own
experience of being mutilated by Moby Dick. The encounter with the Rachel is the last: Ahab
refuses to help the captain find his son, thus severing his final moral connection to humanity.
[chapter 128] Not long after, Ahab cries over his abandoned family, admitting his foolishness.
[chapter 132] Humped like a deformed whale, Ahab feels as if "staggering beneath the piled
centuries " Starbuck vainly pleads again.
Ahab scorns Starbucks ill omens. He thinks Starbuck is small and childish:
Omen? omen?the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably
speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives darkling hint.Begone! Ye two are
the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two

are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor Gods nor
men his neighbors! [chapter 133]
Finally, Ahab vacillates between his total sovereignty and total passivity:
Nor white whale, nor man, nor fiend, can so much as graze old Ahab in his own and proper
inaccessible being. [chapter 134]
Starbuck pleads again in Jesuss name [chapter 134], against Ahabs impiety and blasphemy.
Ahabs final rationalization is this:
This whole acts immutably decreed. Twas rehearsed by me and thee a billion years before this
ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou
obeyest mine. [chapter 134]
This is the conclusion of Ahabs contradictory disintegration. Nobody will go as far as Ahab in
the final stretch: he confronts the terrible secrets of the universe alone. Under the weight of
converting a common social need into a purely personal goal, Ahabs world view disintegrates
completely. This, and not Ahabs extremism, is his downfall. Ahab is no extremist; life at sea is
itself extreme. Ahab allows himself to be defined by what he opposes, and so he drags himself
and his microcosm of society to its doom. Ahabs passive-aggressive metaphysicsselfdeification and abject submission to a postulated destinyis instantly recognizable in the 20th
century. It was described in Erich Fromms Escape From Freedom. This is the metaphysics of
Summing Up
Ahab is neither purely totalitarian villain nor radical abolitionist hero, but profoundly conflicted.
He shares qualities with his crew and his fellow officers, but he subordinates the former to a
personal goal and rebels against the latter, who are representatives of the competing bourgeois
ideologies that seek to reign in Ahab's wild quest into the unknown in order to preserve order,
based on either pragmatic, secular or religious justifications.
Ahabs disintegration reveals the depth of Melvilles genius. Ahab manifests this final stage of
bourgeois ideology: Ahab bypasses Christianity, exploits primitive magic in order to control the
non-western "savages" on board accompanied by a superior grasp of modern scientific
understanding, but in his desperate quest for meaning and relationship to the cosmic order finally
succumbs to the paranoid-fascist conception of submission to fate and destiny, as well as
paranoid post-secular occultism, according to which phenomenal appearances are but pasteboard
Again, the big picture: the crew, deracinated individuals who happen to embody variant cultural
lineages, thrown together, bringing their conceptions and experiences of social organization and
human relations out to life at sea with its unknown indeterminate possibilities, away from the
relative stability of organized societies, have to collaborate and survive under conditions of
alienation, the fundamental alienation being not only the command structure of the ship, but the
violence and mystery of nature itself, to which myth and magic form the conceptual response.
The sacred, the secular, the quest for meaning, modernity, and alienation, are all of a piece. The
bizarre, interdependent duality between Puritan Christianity and secular commerce, and between
both of these and paganism, the airy pretensions of the white man vs. the sensuality of colonized
peoples, linked to the numinosity and violence of nature itself, are all tied together in a unified
package. Melville himself, experiencing severe doubt about his own civilization but not knowing
which way to go, can only careen the Pequod to its doom.
Melville the American autodidact should be seen as one of the most prescient and brilliant
theorists of modernity, revealing its irresolvable philosophical contradictions. The whale means

anything and everything, but in the end it is just a huge mammal. The real question is: what do
men live by?
[1] This is an adaptation of excerpts of the Introduction and Part One of the draft of my paper
"C.L.R. James, Herman Melville, and Modernity at the Breaking Point", delivered as part of a
conference, "Mariners at 50: A Symposium", at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, April 5-6,
2002. My analysis of Moby Dick will probably be cannibalized for the forthcoming published
version of the paper and will not appear in the form published here. [-> main text]
[2] C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the
World We Live In, with an introduction by Donald E. Pease (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College:
University Press of New England, 2001). In my full paper I sharply critique this book and
examine James's other writings on the subject, especially American Civilization, edited and
introduced by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart with an afterword by Robert A. Hill (Cambridge,
MA; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993). [-> main text]
[3] Michael Paul Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (New
York: Knopf, 1983). [-> main text]
[4] D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: T. Seltzer, 1923; New
York: Viking Press, 1964). Lawrence writes like a blood-and-soil fascist, a British Spengler,
sadomasochistically revelling in the destruction of white civilization while upholding white
supremacy. The theoretical viciousness and unsentimentality, the scorning of all idealsthis is
the mark of the fascist who rediscovers the Body, the intellectual social type who transmutes and
immolates his own idealism in the worship of naked power. Lawrence's treatment of Melville is
not highly informative, but his cold-blooded cynicism alerted me to some peculiarities in
Ishmael's admiration for Queequeeg. Lawrence's obsession with the white man's sickness over
his own civilization and his need to escape its confines pushes the envelope in thinking about
Melville, and confirms in its own monomania my conjectures about the importance of the
relation of Melville to "modernity." The substance in Lawrence's treatment of Moby Dick is this:
But he was a deep, great artist, even if he was rather a sententious man. He was a real American
in that he always felt his audience in front of him. But when he ceases to be American, when he
forgets all audience, and gives us his sheer apprehension of the world, then he is wonderful, his
book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe.
In his 'human' self, Melville is almost dead. That is, he hardly reacts to human contacts any more;
or only ideally: or just for a moment. His human-emotional self is almost played out. He is
abstract, self-analytical and abstracted. And he is more spell-bound by the strange slidings and
collidings of Matter than by the things men do. In this he is like Dana. It is the material elements
he really has to do with. His drama is with them. He was a futurist long before futurism found
paint. The sheer naked slidings of the elements. And the human soul experiencing it all. So often,
it is almost over the border: psychiatry. Almost spurious. Yet so great.
It is the same old thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on,
and an old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things. There you are: you see
Melville hugged in bed by a huge tattooed South Sea Islander, and solemnly offering burnt
offering to this savage's little idol, and his ideal frock-coat just hides his shirt-tails and prevents
us from seeing his bare posterior as he salaams, while his ethical silk hat sits correctly over his
brow the while. That is so typically American: doing the most impossible things without taking
off their spiritual get-up. Their ideals are like armour which has rusted in, and will never more

come off. And meanwhile in Melville his bodily knowledge moves naked, a living quick among
the stark elements. For with sheer physical vibrational sensitiveness, like a marvellous wirelessstation, he registers the effects of the outer world. And he records also, almost beyond pain or
pleasure, the extreme transitions of the isolated, far-driven soul, the soul which is now alone,
without any real human contact.
The first days in New Bedford introduce the only human being who really enters into the book,
namely, Ishmael, the 'I' of the book. And then the moment's heart's-brother, Queequeg, the
tattooed, powerful South Sea harpooner, whom Melville loves as Dana loves 'Hope'. The advent
of Ishmael's bedmate is amusing and unforgettable. But later the two swear 'marriage', in the
language of the savages. For Queequeg has opened again the flood-gates of love and human
connection in Ishmael.
"As I sat there in that now lonely room, the fire burning low, in that mild stage when, after its
first intensity has warmed the air, it then only glows to be looked at; the evening shades and
phantoms gathering round the casements, and peering in upon us silent, solitary twain: I began to
be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and
maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it.
There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized
hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel
myself mysteriously drawn towards him." So they smoked together, and are clasped in each
other's arms. The friendship is finally sealed when Ishmael offers sacrifice to Queequeg's little
idol, Gogo.
"I was a good Christian, born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How
then could I unite with the idolater in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship?to
do the will of Godthat is worship. And what is the will of God ? to do to my fellow man
what I would have my fellow man do to methat is the will of God." Which sounds like
Benjamin Franklin, and is hopelessly bad theology. But it is real American logic." [pp. 146-8] [> main text]
[5] Clare L. Spark, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival
(Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2001). While I do not share Spark's evaluation of
Ahab as hero, I learned of the need to distinguish the basis of my analysis from the organic
conservatism rampant in Melville criticism that fears Ahab's untamable Promethean
individualism. [-> main text]
[6] Boiling down the symbolic-mythic universe of Melville's society that Rogin describes, we
could focus on the metaphysics of Manifest Destinya phenomenon of modernity confronting a
primitive social environmentas the precursor of the American Rights metaphysics of fascism
in the 20th century, predicated on the reading of religious or cosmic meanings into secular
economic and imperial undertakings. The 19th century is not the 20th, to be sure, and it has been
argued that the whaling industry by and large predated the modern form of industrial
organization, but a linkage on a more abstract level can still be pursued. The contradictions of
modernity and its material basis in technology and the capitalist organization of commerce and
industry determine the plausibility of political analogies based on Ahab as proto-totalitarian. [->
main text]
[7] While I see the novel as inherently subversive, it is organized in a symbolic economy which
contains its obviously subversive content and allows an escape hatch for the conservative reader
to neutralize its subversive nature. How so? In brief: the vision of life at sea reverses the usual
valuation of white/nonwhite, Christian/pagan, etc., but preserves these various dichotomies in

some form rather than destroying them. How so? Because the ocean voyage can be seen as a
journey into the pagan/demonic, and because it ends in disaster, the conservative reader always
has an escape hatch to say: well this is the godforsaken, demonic, fallen world of nature, so what
do you expect? As anti-Christian and anti-white as the novel is, it is still cast in a dichotomy that
preserves the mystique of the pagan and the exotic and the noble savage, and while temporarily
reversing the valuations of these terms, permits the continuation of all the customary valuations
and connotations. I don't know enough about Melville to know how he himself thought, but it is
likely that his symbolic economy (through Ishmael, his mouthpiece) reflects his own
ambivalence, in spite of his obvious sympathy with the lower orders. In sum, this "wicked book"
can be read through the lens of the "demonic", which may alternatively value the "demonic" or
the Christian in the final analysis. I think this interpretation is amply supported by the text itself.
The taxonomy of the Christian/pagan (Godly/demonic) only makes sense from the standpoint of
the (Judaeo-)Christian paranoid standpoint that suppresses certain aspects of reality in order to
illegitimately cast itself as morally superior. Hence from its standpoint anything that reveals the
reality it has suppressed is by definition demonic. The next stage would be to transcend this
dichotomy altogether, say from an Enlightenment perspective that transcends culture as the
fundamental category, as Marx in fact did by finishing off the notion of volksgeist through the
concept of historical materialism. [-> main text]
[8] The murkiest political question in the book is, in my view, this: what is the relationship
between the crew and Ahab's quest for individual freedom (rebelling against the forces embodied
in Starbuck)? After doing my work to put this essay together, I discovered Donald E. Pease,
Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context (Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press, 1987), chapter 7: Melville and Cultural Persuasion, pp. 235-275. Pease
addresses the quintessential American problem: how does the valuation of individual freedom of
the heroic individual (entrepreneur?) get converted into a mechanism for suppressing the
freedom of masses of people? [-> main text]
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