Why You Should Read Moby Dick[Trenchant Edges]
In which I passionately argue for a notoriously dense and awkwardly written book that took me four years of starting and stopping to finish
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes, 54 seconds. Contains 2781 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the weekday newsletter where we explore the vagaries of fringe culture and try and find the good, true, and useful among the shit.
I’m Stephen and I fucking love Herman Melville and Moby Dick.
The TLDR is that Moby Dick is a brilliant book and when its writing is on point, it stands with the finest attempts at expressing the transcendent humanity has yet accomplished.
It’s also pretty damn funny and hella gay. If you want to read it online, there’s no finer source than the University of South Florida’s Lit2Go version, which includes an audiobook with every chapter. The audiobook helps IMMENSELY with understanding Melville’s prose.
But wait, hold up, my sock puppet reader says, you said this was fringe culture. Moby Dick is one of the most beloved novels in the American canon. Quite literally the great American novel.
How can that even be fringe?
Moby Dick is the American recreation of Gnostic Christianity From First Principles
Editor’s Note: It’s impressive that Melville recreated a ton of the structure of Gnosticism without much access to primary sources even on later Gnostic movements like the Cathars.
Those first principles being the idea that
There is an omnipotent being we call god.
God is good
*waves hands dramatically at the evil in the world*
This is the three-legged stool of Theodicy, how can God be all-powerful and all good if there’s so much nongood in the world?
Mainline Christianity offers a lot of different answers to this and we don’t care about those.
Not even a little.
There’s a fourth option, one more fun than atheism, on the table: God is bad, actually.
This is the gnostic meme I was describing in the Far Right Propaganda newsletter. The inversion of a moral binary. For some people, it’s the only way to resolve the paradox after finding easier answers harder.
(There’s a fifth, more accurate, solution to this of abandoning moral binaries entirely, but we’re talking about Gnosticism here so we can’t actually pick the winning ticket)
I’ve known quite a few people radicalized into nazidom by discovering, for example, that the USA is wholly corrupt and irredeemable then asking themselves, “Well, if the USA puts out all this propaganda (true), then it all must be false (false), then all that stuff about Hitler being bad must also be false (false).”
This is why Moby Dick is relevant today. It’s about the Gnostic Meme.
Effective propaganda isn’t really about whole cloth lies. It’s about creating a messy tapestry of lies and truths. Half-truths aren’t enough. You want 83% truths, 93% truths, 51% truths, 100% truths, and a few well-placed 0% truths.
Moby Dick is about the protagonist (who wants us to call him Ishmael) watching a man who, through a brutal ordeal, had his face shoved right in the goddamn midst of these questions.
Who didn’t so much decide to fight a whale because it hurt him, but who discovered in that whale a doorway out of the muddy half-light of human consensus reality and asked himself if, knowing such a doorway existed if he could justify any other action that taking the shortest route possible to escape.
The answer, for sane Ahab was no. And Crazy Ahab, knowing the answer was obvious, murdered him and wore his past self as a disguise to get right the fuck back to that doorway.
Oh No, the Moby Dick Quotes Start Here
One of the reasons it took me four years to read Moby Dick is that every couple of chapters there’s a paragraph like the following which hit me like a goddamn truck and forced me to reread it again and again until I could actually parse it.
I’ve broken these up so if the wonky language Melville uses seems too extra, you can read my summaries.
The biggest of these trucks comes from Chapter 36: The Quarter Deck, where Ahab admits to his crew for the first time that he doesn’t give a shit about whaling and convinces them all to swear an oath to hunt Moby Dick.
“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 though the mask!”
Ahab is responding to his first mate, Starbuck, reacting to his true intentions. “Vengence on a dumb brute… To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
Ahab asks Starbuck to look at the world from a more subtle perspective. Everything we perceive with the senses is an illusion. Pasteboard = cardboard. And someone, some force is arranging the cardboard like this even if this the cardboard (profane matter) is itself inanimate.
If you’re thinking, “Hey, isn’t that the simulation theory?” You’re right. You’d be equally right if you said the Hindu or Buddhist concept of Maya, the Gnostic Black Iron Prison, or Plato’s Cave.”
This, all of it, is categorically bullshit.
But there’s some other place or thing that isn’t bullshit.
And so Ahab points to Moby Dick as a place where the walls are weak and, through mere human will, one might find out what’s on the other side.”
“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. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.”
Ahab does not know what killing Moby Dick will do. He only knows that Moby Dick is in the way of finding out. Ahab doesn’t give a shit about Moby Dick, oddly enough. He just wants to know if there’s more than naught beyond.
And it’s not even Moby Dick’s effects on him that bother him, but the sense of impossible to understand cruelty within it. Why does the cardboard arrange itself this way? Why is it so cruel?
If you’re wondering, “Hey, is Ahab talking about killing god?”
Yeah. Kinda. Somewhat.
More than killing god, Ahab is talking about discovering the reality on the other side of god’s corpse. Exploring not this world of base matter but the essential world many people have intuited but few have seen and none can exist within.
“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.
Now, depending on what is true about reality, this paragraph is telling us that Ahab is irredeemably insane and will just inflict the same inscrutable cruelty on everyone around him or it’s saying Ahab is actually sane and the world is, under all the noise, a nondual whole where every being exists at the center, peak, and valley simultaneously.
Where no hierarchy or order is possible because all things are a kaleidoscope of the real underlying thing. This view is generally called non-duality in the west.
While I effectively believe it, I rarely speak about it because it’s toxic as a social organizer and absurd to talk about. If someone gets the sense from this that I think Ahab is a good guy, well, kinda. I once wanted to play that role myself but my courage failed me and Sane Steve and Crazy Steve exist in detente.
Now, my own transcendent experiences are no proof that Ahab is right here. And this isn’t about me. It’s about why you should let the virus in Moby Dick infect you. :-D
And you shouldn’t take anything I say or anything Melville says as gospel. We’re just more hearsay in this world of gossip.
A few chapters later in CH41, Ishmael unpacks the gossip around Moby Dick and Ahab circulating amongst the crew.
“Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.”
This part is more straightforward. Everyone kinda gets that Ahab blames Moby Dick for all his personal failings.
“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it.”
The crew of the Pequod understands that Ahab thinks that Moby Dick is a representation of the source of evil in the world. Murdering the devil seems pretty OK.
“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. 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; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”
And here we have the crux of the convolution of Ahab’s relationship with Moby Dick, a kind of cartoonish game of Marry, Fuck, Kill where Moby Dick is the answer to all o those.
Ahab is obsessed with the white whale as a means of personal and perhaps even universal salvation. It might only be a door, but it’s the only door Ahab knows about. And having come so close and been so easily thrown aside adds another level of pain and drive to his work.
“His three boats stove [wrecked] around him, and oars and men both whirling in the eddies; one captain, seizing the line-knife from his broken prow, had dashed at the whale, as an Arkansas duellist at his foe, blindly seeking with a six inch blade to reach the fathom-deep life of the whale. That captain was Ahab. “
During their first fight, something snapped in Ahab. And, importantly, it snapped before Moby Dick took his leg in the next sentence.
Ahab was a captain with decades of experience who must have been in similar situations dozens of times. Something changed. Something about the whiteness of Moby Dick and the unusual cruelty he would inflict on humans who thought killing him was a good idea.
But what was the nature of that shift? Did he see everything he explained to the crew at that moment with the line-knife?
“It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment. Then, in darting at the monster, knife in hand, he had but given loose to a sudden, passionate, corporal animosity; and when he received the stroke that tore him, he probably but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more. Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape; then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad. “
After being rescued, Ahab had to be seriously restrained in a straight jacket because he was a raving mess. He spent months and months struggling with something only he could even parse and screamed incomprehensible noise at those who tried to help him.
He was, in short, in something of a dire spiritual crisis. The universe said hello and Ahab was demanding what the fuck was that about.
“Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab’s full lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object.”
As Crazy Ahab slowly began to win over Sane Ahab, his self was transformed from a person with lots of interests and wants and relationships and skills and whatnot into a singular weapon, a ram to break down the siege gate of Moby Dick.
Breaking into heaven, perhaps? Or perhaps merely outside the world.
Or maybe Ahab was just nuts and Moby Dick was just another fish and all the harm his actions created was because he let a delusion take hold of his own being.
If you’re thinking about the parallels of radicalization, extremism, and paranoid ideation, well, good.
No one can do what Ahab wanted to and remain human in the social sense. Ahab wore his social role as a mask to get the resources (men, money, ship) he needed to hunt Moby Dick.
And at the end of his journey, he ceased being human altogether. Perhaps this is a dire warning or a promise.
If we go back to our claim that civilization is a kind of cyborgification of humanity, Ahab represents a possibly false promise of a spiritual escape from history and gossip. A way to find, perhaps, the light of absolute truth Plato promised. The same kind of escape Terence McKenna’s Timewave promised.
This whole field and its dangerous mess of backdoor delusions, abusers, cult promises, and worthless seminars to go to is certainly more trap than an oasis. And regardless of if Ahab’s quest was worthy or worthless, Moby Dick is a staggering vision of the harm taking the world seriously can bring on people. Even if Ahab was right, all the harm he did was as real as it gets in this world.
See how Sane Steve declaims Crazy Steve? Nothing to see here folks. I picked up this trick from the character of King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew bible.
So, Moby Dick.
Moby Dick is an important book.
It’s about how our highest aspirations can cause more harm than good. About how the desire to escape uncertainty is a death cult and can never be anything else.
We reject that search for absolute clarity and purity.
But that search must be understood before it can be rejected. And Ahab is an excellent case study of the dangers of excessive belief.
You should read it, there are so many masturbation jokes. And like a third of the book is lampooning 19th-century high modernist scholarship. It’s a goddamn delight.
Anyway, there’s so much I haven’t gotten into. Ahab’s calling God out as a lover/enemy to whom, “The only right worship is defiance”, the book’s motto (translated from Latin), “I baptize you not in the name of the father but in the name of the devil”, and the fascinating line he sent in a letter to Nathanial Hawthorne: “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.”
Shit, I haven’t even mentioned most of the characters. Who writes about Moby Dick and doesn’t even mention Queequeg or Pip or Stubb? Or Father Mapple’s Sermon.
To say nothing of Meville’s own biography which is its own fish story (let’s just say he didn’t dedicate Moby Dick to Hawthorne because they were roommates), the real incidents that influenced it, or dozens of other rabbit holes tying into this book.
Anyway, it’s a book that I could keep writing about indefinitely.
But instead of that I’ll just say we’ll see you back tomorrow. ;-)
It’s more McLuhan, if you’re worried I’m going to start demanding you read anything else. :-P