Vengeance on a Dumb Brute, Ahab?: An Environmentalist Reading of Moby-Dick
Who shot him with his bow.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the
Ancient Mariner (1798)
pasturing freely where we never wander.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
to everything else in the universe.
—John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)
barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric
on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other
miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking
back in unexpected ways.
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)
quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of
all humanly ascribed qualities. . . . To meet God or Medusa
face to face, even if it means risking everything human in
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968)
—Annie Dillard in The Nature Reader (1996)
Let’s begin with Coleridge’s great poem of marine disaster. It can easily be seen as a fable of modern environmentalism, and I think Melville took it that way. For no good reason whatsoever the Ancient Mariner shoots the Albatross, the bird “hailed in God’s name” and fed by the crew, the bird who has rescued the ship from being crushed among polar icebergs and guided it to safety, taking up residence in its rigging. But the bird is killed, and the ship must now endure a voyage of nightmare—hellish sun, deadly calms, parching heat, baleful moonlight, ghostly spirit-spouts and shadowy submarine pursuits, slimy things crawling on slimy seas—“The very deep did rot”—followed by starvation and death, until the guilty narrator alone is left, haunted by the ghosts of his shipmates, all standing on the masts and spars and accusing him. Luckily, but again for no apparent reason, he looks down into the ship’s shadow on the water and sees the magical, unexpected beauty of the water snakes. A “spring of love” surges up in him, and he “blesses them unaware.” The curse is lifted, but a long ordeal of penance ensues, involving a final escape when the ship, “Stunned by a loud and dreadful sound” which “smote” the sky and ocean, goes “down like lead.” The narrator finds himself afloat like a man “seven-days drowned” and is rescued by a harbor Pilot’s boat:
Upon the whirl, where sank the ship
The boat spun round and round;
And all was still, save that the hill
Was telling of the sound.
When he ventures to speak, the Pilot shrieks and falls down in a fit, and the Pilot’s boy goes mad. So the Mariner must row the boat himself, knowing he is seen as the Devil, fearing that perhaps he is the Devil. He has failed to love “both man and bird and beast,” failed to recognize that he has no greater right to life than the Albatross, failed to see that its survival has anything to do with his own, failed to recognize any possibility of a spiritual connection between them.
It is striking to consider how much Melville drew upon Coleridge’s poem in Moby-Dick. The cabin boy who goes crazy, the whirling vortex of the sinking vessel with its sole survivor, the haunted and death-laden ship bearing half-acknowledged guilt and unrepentant hostility, the vacillations of beauty and terror, or serenity and nightmare, in the natural world, a sea voyage constantly verging upon allegory and sublime mystery. When the Pequod meets the Albatross (ch. 52) the strange ship is “bleached” and “spectral,” as if covered in hoar-frost, and its pallid crew is “forlorn-looking,” unable to speak or respond to speech. The rust-stained whiteness of the Albatross and its incommunicable story seem drawn directly from Coleridge’s poem. Likewise Pip’s madness: having drowned and “seen God’s foot on the treadle of the loom” and having “spoke it,” he returns to life unable to resume its discourse, unable to communicate his annihilating vision. In Ahab’s apostrophe to the whale’s head in “The Sphynx” (ch. 70), he is certain the creature is incapable of speech. Melville too seems to have thought whales were silent, as did Starbuck, who calls it a “dumb brute.” “Speak, thou vast and venerable head [says Ahab] . . . speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. . . . O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!” The moment occurs at noon, when “silence reigned over the . . . deserted deck,” and the atmosphere seems uncanny: “An intense copper calm, like a universal yellow lotus, was more and more unfolding its noiseless measureless leaves upon the sea.” The inspiration for this is again in Coleridge, when the ship is becalmed, without breath or motion, on a silent sea:
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand
No bigger than the Moon.
Whatever Melville adopted from Coleridge, he transformed; but surely its stimulus was vital. Mightn’t it be said that the poem’s deepest moral—not just the Mariner’s resistance to loving all creatures great and small, or his purposeless cruelty in killing the Albatross, but the arrogance that puts man first and subjects other creatures to his will—is the same moral carried over and writ large in Moby-Dick?
Toward the end of Walden in the “Spring” chapter, Thoreau said, “We need to witness our own limits transgressed.” The whole passage leading up to this has been of interest to conservationists from John Muir and John Burroughs at the turn of nineteenth century up to the present day. It remains a locus classicus for our National Parks system and its philosophy, for such organizations as the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club, for biologists and poets, for virtually everyone concerned with the preservation of species and habitat—forests, wetlands, shoreline, mountains—against the relentless encroachments of civilization.
We need the tonic of wildness,—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary bowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
Note the progression from wading and listening and savoring the tonic of wildness to watching its Titanic forces at a safe distance and feeling “refreshed” when it reminds us of our limits. Thoreau never encountered anything Titanic on the waters of Walden Pond, nor does he register any real transgression. Now consider Moby-Dick, where Ishmael meditates on the “everlasting terra incognita” of the sea (“Brit,” ch. 58):
. . . though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continued repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.
Here indeed is transgression. In face of the full “awe-fulness” of the sea, baby man will be insulted and murdered, his puny efforts pulverized. Ishmael goes on to even darker recognitions: the sea destroys not just man but its own most powerful creatures:
Like a savage tiger that tossing in the jungle overlays her own cubs, so the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships. No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe.
At the same time that Darwin was propounding his frightening new theories of natural selection and Tennyson was appalled by visions of Nature “red in tooth and claw,” indifferent to the survival of whole species, Melville saw “the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.” Or again in “The Funeral” (ch. 69) when the rapacious sea-vultures descend on the carcass of the whale, joining the hungry sharks from below, Ishmael exclaims, “Oh, horrible vulturism of earth! from which not the mightiest whale is free.” But Melville’s purpose in these grim formulations is not to lament a godless universe. It is rather to restore a vision of both the grandeur and the ultimate, overmastering power of Nature—Edmund Burke called it “the Sublime” in his 1756 essay—an “awefull” power that “aboriginally” belongs to the sea, a power that will transgress our egotism, our pride, our excessive faith in science and ourselves. “Who’s over me?” says Ahab, to which the novel responds, the very nature of Nature. We all, says Ishmael, hover over Descartian vortices, which are utterly indifferent to our survival. Mother Nature is not “there for us.” “Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”
Yet the ocean in Moby-Dick—Nature itself—is not just a sublime and masterless antagonist, either for “baby man” or for its Leviathans. In a multitude of ways, the novel suggests, we are enmeshed in it, along with other creatures, and these vital interdependencies commonly go unrecognized. I want to suggest, in other words, that Moby-Dick anticipates a modern view of ecology, even when—especially when—that view of interdependence is violated. John Muir’s oft-quoted remark, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” could not be more Melvillian in the sense that any prosaic thing in the novel—a fast fish or a loose fish, the head of a harpoon, masthead standing, bailing the tun—might lead us to Plato or Egyptian pyramids or the French Revolution or to any number of expanding metaphors and abstractions. As Ishmael puts it, “O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies!” John Muir was thinking about his own wilderness experience in the Sierras when he declared that everything was hitched to everything else. He was among the first modern ecologists, if by that we mean ecology as a human science, not just a biological one. The term ecology, from the Greek for “home” + “study of,” was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haekel, but the idea goes back through Linnaeus in the eighteenth century to the ancient Greeks. Darwin certainly understood it in 1859 when he wrote in the famous conclusion to The Origin of Species,
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
Here is a recent definition of ecology from E. O. Wilson’s The Future of Life (2002):
Every species is bound to its community in the unique manner by which it variously consumes, is consumed, competes, and cooperates with other species. . . . The ecologist sees the whole as a network of energy and material continuously flowing into the community from the surrounding physical environment, and back out, and then on round to create the perpetual ecosystem cycles on which our own existence depends.
Consider now some images in Melville’s novel that a modern ecologist would seize upon. The “universal cannibalism of the sea” would be no more than interdependencies in the food chain; “the vulturism of the earth” would be merely nature’s economy—who wishes to do without those notorious cleanup crews, the crows, ravens, turkey vultures, and condors? Consider too the way humans are included in Melville’s ecology. In “The Shark Massacre” (ch. 66), the whaling-spades and mincing knives used to slice away the whale’s blubber compete with the sharks— requiring an “incessant murdering” of the foe—in their appetite for whales. Queequeg says that “de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin.” But which creature conducts the Indian massacre, sharks or men? Surely that linked analogy tells us something crucial.
Consider again, in the same light, the “cannibalism of the sea.” Melville makes much of the ferocity of the sperm whale, particularly its teeth. It was thought in his day to be the largest carnivorous whale species, and we now know its deadliest enemy (apart from man) is the giant squid, which it preys upon. But is not The Pequod a carnivore too, with its ancient array of long sharp whale teeth, used for belaying pins, and its huge jawbone tiller? “A cannibal of a craft [says Ishmael], tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.” “Stubb’s Supper” (ch. 64) dramatizes the analogy again, when the second mate insists that a steak, cut from the whale he has just killed, be grilled for him:
Nor was Stubb the only banqueter on whale’s flesh that night. Mingling their mumblings with his own mastication, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead Leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness.
Notice who in this ecology is at the top of the food chain. When men kill men in the throes of a sea fight, Ishmael observes, “sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved. . . .” In the pseudo-comic interlude that follows, Stubb mercilessly teases Fleece, the old black cook; but Fleece gets the last word as he limps away: “Wish, by gor! whale eat him, ’stead of him eat whale. I’m bressed if he ain’t more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself.” In the next chapter (“The Whale as a Dish”), Melville is still thinking about human carnivorosity and our reluctance to admit it:
Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? . . . Look at your knife-handle, there, my civilized and enlightened gourmand dining off that roast beef, what is that handle made of?—what but the bones of the brother of the very ox you are eating?
The terms here are striking: the ox is a brother, and the meat eater is a cannibal. We consume the flesh of our brothers, our fellow creatures. Ishmael is not saying we should stop murdering whales, not here anyway. In Melville’s ecology we are fatefully bound to other creatures, whom we consume, with whom we compete, some of whom may consume us—in which case we call them monsters.
Another image of interest to a modern ecologist might be traced from the pastoral serenity of Right Whales in ch. 58, grazing on brit “like morning mowers [who] seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads,” to the horrific apparition of the giant squid (ch. 59) which arises from the deep, mistaken at first for Moby-Dick. It is of course disturbingly huge, faceless, formless, and white. But its one distinguishing feature tells us it’s no placid vegetarian: “innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach.” What if Coleridge’s Mariner had seen this instead of those pretty little water snakes? No chance of blessing unawares these giant anacondas. Yet Ishmael calls it an “apparition of life,” not of death. And he indicates that we are connected with it, even bound to it, in the next chapter (“The Line”) by means of the imagery. When the whale is about to be harpooned,
the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction. All the oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions, so that to the timid eye of the landsman, they seem as Indian jugglers with the deadliest snakes sportively festooning their limbs. Nor can any son of mortal woman, for the first time, seat himself amid those hempen intricacies, and while straining his utmost at the oar, bethink him that at any unknown instant the harpoon may be darted, and all these horrible contortions be put in play like ringed lightnings. . . .
And the chapter concludes, “All men live enveloped in whale-lines.” Melville’s images may seem extreme, but that is only because he wishes to convey the disturbing complexity of the life-lines we are entangled in, “twisting and writhing around [us] in almost every direction,” “intricacies” and “horrible contortions” upon which our lives depend, complexities we may dismiss or ignore, but which reach out and grasp us like anacondas nevertheless. Everything is connected. Ecologists today may speak with equanimity about diversity of species, about the harmony and balance of healthy ecosystems, but they are just as anxious as Melville was to warn us of how fatefully these intricacies either sustain or destroy us.
Modern ecology got its biggest boost from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962; after its publication, everybody knew the term. She saw the “chemical barrage [of pesticides] hurled against the fabric of life” as warfare doomed to failure. “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.” Virtually every other contemporary environmentalist agrees, both with Carson’s warfare image and her apocalypticism. In Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968) it comes in the form of “industrial tourism,” destroying the wilderness with roads, cars, and crowds. In Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America (1977) it comes in the form of “agribusiness”—huge machines and corporations laying waste to the small farms and agrarian communities that used to sustain us so well. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s prophetic novel Ceremony (1977) and in Terry Tempest Williams’ ecofeminist narrative Refuge (1991), it comes in the form of nuclear weapons designed—unless we do something about them—to destroy us all. In organizations like Earth First! and Greenpeace it comes in the form of warfare—or at least violent resistance— against those who, pretending not to, wage war on the earth.
But is warfare against the earth the right metaphor for Moby-Dick? Doesn’t Melville celebrate whalers and whaling? In “The Advocate” (ch. 24) Ishmael argues that whale-hunting is not mere butchery; it requires greater courage than warfare, and has far nobler purposes:
For many years past the whale-ship has been the pioneer in ferreting out the remotest and least known parts of the earth. . . . If American and European men-of-war now peacefully ride in once savage harbors, let them fire salutes to the honor and the glory of the whale- ship, which originally showed them the way, and first interpreted between them and the savages.
Ishmael even claims that whalemen made possible “the liberation of Peru, Chili [sic], and Bolivia from the yoke of Old Spain,” and the “establishment of the eternal democracy in those parts.” Australia was rescued from savagery and “given to the enlightened world by the whalemen.” In the islands of Polynesia the whale-ship “cleared the way for the missionary and the merchant,” and even in “that double-bolted land Japan,” Ishmael claims, the whale-ship will soon cross that threshold and make the nation hospitable. In “Knights and Squires” (ch. 27), the figures of noble stature, the real Knights, are Queequeg, Tashtego, and Ahasuerus Daggoo, the harpooneers. Melville honors them with that archaic spelling of 1621, and Daggoo is identified with the Biblical king and patriarch. Indeed, the whole crew—now “federated along one keel”—comes from around the world, “An Anacharsis Clootz deputation from all the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth . . .” Clootz was a German who led a motley group representing different races and nations into the French National Assembly in 1790, to symbolize all mankind’s support for the French Revolution.
As for the actuality of hunting whales, Melville saw not slaughter, not unequal combat and butchery, but arduous and terrifying encounters with a prey that could—and very often did—escape, elude, outwit, injure, crush, and destroy his attackers. Although Melville “never threw a harpoon in his life,” as Barry Lopez once put it, despite the novelist’s claim of more than two years’ experience as a harpooner to his English publisher, he knew intimately what it was like to row in a whaleboat. See his 1847 review of J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, in which he recalls in vivid images his experience of being a terrified oarsman, water lashed “into suds and vapor” by the whale, lances and ropes flying about in chaos—“It’s all a mist, a crash,—a horrible blending of sounds and sights . . .” We are not asked to feel sorry for the whale, either here or in the novel. Will he perish? No, says Ishmael (ch. 105), “the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”
But hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. When we reach “The Try-Works” (ch. 96), it becomes impossible to ignore the warfare against nature that underlies the Pequod’s enterprise. What seemed before an epic hunting story—violent, bloody, merciless on both sides, but a source of nobility and value—turns into a ghastly vision of industrial hell, a fiery holocaust. Reducing whale blubber to oil produces an unspeakable pollution:
Would that [the whale] consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time. . . . It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.
The image is not just about the technology of whale oil production but about all such steam-driven, oil-burning, soul-destroying industries—whose smoke and soot are poisons. Ishmael stands at the helm, not even mentioning Ahab at first, in this new vision of infernal enterprise: “The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed.” We think back to those frugal businessmen, Bildad and Peleg, who commissioned the voyage, “Quakers with a vengeance.” Melville knows how well the austerities of New England Calvinism gave sanction to the ruthlessness of capitalism: Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war! “The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps,” says Ishmael, and now he sees them all—noble harpooneers included— begrimed and crazed by the flames. The vision is apocalyptic:
as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.
Note how the ship has taken the Leviathan’s place, scornfully champing the white bone—the devoured whale, instead of the little whaleboat—in its mouth, viciously spitting out what it destroys. From here on we will see Ahab in terms of industrial and mechanized images: iron rails, manufactured body parts, carpentry, hammer and forge. The portent of “The Try-Works” is inescapable. Modern industrial capitalism feeds on its own ruthless power. It is headed on a course of self-destruction that will take us all down with it. Much of the most influential environmentalist writing today is apocalyptic too—The End of Nature (McKibben), The Future of Life (Wilson), “Total Eclipse” (Dillard), Silent Spring (Carson), Writing for an Endangered World (Buell)— and for the same reasons.
What of Moby-Dick himself? Can the actual animal be seen apart from all the allegory and symbolism, the superstition and demonizing, the meanings that human emotions—like Ahab’s anger—project upon him? The problem is wisely summed up by Pip’s comment, in “The Doubloon” (ch. 99), “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.” Each person sees and projects his own understanding, and there can be no unprejudiced truth. Still, what can be known of the animal himself? When Moby-Dick’s history is first introduced, in ch. 41, Ishmael emphasizes the animal’s terrifying intelligence:
Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable hue, nor yet his deformed lower jaw, that so much invested the whale with natural terror, as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults. More than all, his treacherous retreats struck more of dismay than perhaps aught else. For when swimming before his exulting pursuers, with every apparent symptom of alarm, he had several times been known to turn round suddenly, and, bearing down upon them, either stave their boats to splinters, or drive them back in consternation to their ship. [Italics mine]
Treachery and malignity come up again when we hear how Moby-Dick so easily “reaped away” Ahab’s leg: “No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice.” But that qualifier, seeming, is clearly an invitation to rethink the malice. Just change the point of view and it becomes clear. Might you not be malignant too if, year after year, malicious little men threw barbed spears into your sides and tried to kill you? Might you not, having intelligence, find ways to deceive or outwit your pursuers? In short, wouldn’t you too use your head? Melville signals this irony by his covert allusion to Shakespeare, the “Turbaned Turk” in Othello’s suicide speech:
in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus.
The malignant enemy here—the barbaric Turk—is not Moby-Dick but Ahab, the one who smote him first.
Starbuck alone in the novel challenges Ahab on the subject of his vengeance, rightly of course (“The Quarter-Deck,” ch. 36). But consider his terms for Moby-Dick:
“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 repetition of dumb—incapable of speech—carries the more colloquial implication of “stupid” or “slow-witted,” from the German dumm. Clearly, Starbuck condescends to the animal, as a “brute” and a “thing,” capable only of “blindest instinct.” But that is not what the novel tells us. Ishmael has already appreciated the stories about Moby-Dick’s “unexampled” intelligence and malignity in ch. 41; he returns to the subject more factually in “The Affadavit” (ch. 45), to anticipate the climax of the novel. The sperm whale, he declares, is “sufficiently powerful, knowing, and judiciously malicious, as with direct aforethought to stave in, utterly destroy, and sink a large ship. . . .” He will often chase the attacking whaleboats back to the ship “and pursue the ship itself.” Even when harpooned, Ishmael attests, the sperm whale
then acts, not so often with blind rage, as with willful, deliberate designs of destruction to his pursuers; nor is it without conveying some eloquent indication of his character, that upon being attacked he will frequently open his mouth, and retain it in that dread expansion for several consecutive minutes.
Modern observers of wild animals may well see this awesome display of ferocity as a calculated strategy—terrify your enemy and you may not have to attack and risk injury. Melville adds in a footnote a passage from Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Essex (1821), not one plank of which survived a sperm whale’s attack:
[It] was anything but chance which directed [the whale’s] operations; he made two several attacks . . . , both of which, according to their direction, were calculated to do us the most injury . . . His aspect was most horrible, and such as indicated resentment and fury. He came directly from the shoal which we had just before entered, and in which we had struck three of his companions, as if fired with revenge for their sufferings.
Chase seems fully aware of who caused the fury and why it was justified. Not quite so lucky as Ishmael, he survived in an open boat for weeks, unable to think of anything but “the horrid aspect and revenge of the whale”—another Ancient Mariner.
It would be a mistake to emphasize the battering-ram power of the whale’s head over its cranial capacity. Modern science confirms what Melville knew empirically: the sperm whale has a gigantic brain, the largest of any species on earth. Think how many chapters of Moby-Dick are devoted to the whale’s head, which comprises almost a third of his body—a “sphynx,” an Egyptian pyramid, a prairie, a crypt to drown in or a womb to be delivered from, a source of treasured ambergris, the very mind of Nature itself. With wrinkled illegible lines on his forehead, the mirror and counterpart of Ahab’s furrowed brow, and his charts, he confronts Ahab with mystery. Or rather, he affronts him, with his awesome intelligence and utter indecipherability.
But in the final three-days’ chase Ishmael is not affronted. At last (ch. 133) he sees Moby-Dick close up, in the harpooners’ stealthy first approach, and he is overwhelmed by images of serene beauty and harmony: everything about him is “dazzling,” “fleecy,” “milky,” musical, playful, and dancing. “A gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness invested the gliding whale.” It is the animal’s joy Ishmael appreciates, not his own. “Not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.” For a moment the “hand-clappings” of the waves are “suspended by exceeding rapture.”
With language like that, Melville surely must be counted among the greatest of nature poets. Aesthetic response, rapture —whether in the form of poetry or not—is a vital component of all modern environmentalism, never to be dismissed as mere aestheticism. The desire for natural beauty is a survival instinct, not just poetry. Two quick examples from non-poetic realms: Aldo Leopold argues that no decision about how we use land will succeed if we ignore its aesthetic value. E. O. Wilson argues that the human instinct for beauty is part of our DNA, essential to knowing what sustains us and where we can best survive. Wilson coined a term for it, biophilia, but Ishmael and others understood its value long before. Darwin, for example, in his summation of The Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
So much, then, for the sheer beauty of Melville’s whale.
Moby-Dick’s behavior on the first day’s chase is to surge up from the deep, directly under Ahab’s boat, with his huge jaws wide open. When Ahab eludes this, Moby-Dick, again with “malicious intelligence,” seizes the whaleboat, holds it aloft and shakes “the slight cedar as a mildly cruel cat her mouse,” then crushes it in two. Lesson clear? Not quite. Moby-Dick next swims round and round the wrecked crew, his “vengeful wake” churning and lashing the water into a whirlpool with “ever contracting circles” whose center is Ahab’s head. When the Pequod intervenes, Moby-Dick sullenly swims off.
On the second day Moby-Dick breaches, spectacularly, “Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths,” “booming” his entire bulk into the air, and “piling up a mountain of dazzling foam.” Attacking all three boats even before they attack him, he rushes among them, entangles and twists their lines into mazes, smashes two whaleboats to smithereens and goes down in “a boiling maelstrom.” Then he rises again under Ahab’s “yet unstricken boat,” lifts it up perpendicularly with his head, and sends it “turning over and over” into the air until it crashes upside down—with all of its occupants again in the drink. Remarkably, Moby-Dick’s fury now abates, and, “as if satisfied that his work for that time was done,” he mildly swims away “at a traveler’s methodic pace.” It is impossible to ignore the feeling that he has made not just a rational choice, but a noble one.
On the third day—but we all know what Moby-Dick does on the third day, breaching again beside the ship and “leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round [his] marble trunk.” He seems “strangely oblivious” when Ahab darts “his fierce iron and his far fiercer curse into the hated whale.” Having thought it over, Moby-Dick makes a rational decision. He attacks the ship itself, head on, smashing open a gaping hole in its prow, and again, after circling around deliberately, he hammers into the starboard bow—with, Ishmael infers, “Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice . . . in his whole aspect.” Again he is notably “quiescent.” Had enough? But Ahab must fling his last harpoon and his last curse, and the rope whizzing out violently forms a noose which yanks him “voicelessly” into the depths. Exit Moby-Dick. All in all, given the relentless malevolence of his attackers, I think he behaved rather well.
Can anything now be said in explanation if not defense of Ahab, from the point of view of modern ecology, or the deeper understanding of nature? Consider the argument of that rather cantankerous desert rat, Edward Abbey. His purpose in writing Desert Solitaire in 1968 was to undertake a radical experiment.
I am here [in the Nevada desert] not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself.
He wanted to understand Nature just as deeply as Melville did, to confront it somehow, unsentimentally, unmisted by love or dislike. Whether he will encounter God or Medusa—or neither—he declares his “willingness to risk everything human in myself.” That sounds more than a bit like Ahab to me. But Abbey’s source was a passage in the second chapter of Walden about “fronting only the essential facts of life.” Thoreau wrote,
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Thoreau did not think that human life, reduced to its lowest terms, would prove to be mean. But he wanted to be empirical about it. If the experiment proved that Nature was ultimately mean, he would not only relish that meanness but “publish it to the world.” If it were sublime, which of course is what he thought (and learned from Emerson), he would still want to publish a disinterested account of it. Now consider Ahab. He too wants to prove what’s fundamentally true about the Creation. On the quarterdeck he tells Starbuck about the pasteboard masks of all visible objects, but behind them he senses “some unknown but still reasoning thing.” He chafes at the idea of that unknowable intelligence. But what’s worse, he sees in this force—call it God, Nature, or Moby-Dick—“outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.” It’s the seeming malice at the heart of it that Ahab cannot abide, and to defy that he will risk everything human in himself. Ishmael paraphrases Ahab’s quest in ch. 41, showing that he recognizes and perhaps even sympathizes with its motives:
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. . . . 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.
In effect Melville goes Thoreau one better: he will publish both the meanness and the sublimity of Nature. What if Thoreau had found truth with malice in it? Aren’t there “malicious agencies” in nature as well as benevolent ones? Malignant species of all kinds? What if he had endured the sufferings of Job or dwelt on all the undeserved agonies of human beings, not to mention those of domestic and wild animals? For Ahab, “Truth has no confines,” and perhaps that can serve as a mild rebuke to simpler truth seekers like Abbey and Thoreau. By not reassuring us that Nature will sustain or heal or console, and may seem malicious by not intending anything, perhaps Moby-Dick became what Annie Dillard said it was, the best book about nature ever written.
Now for a coda about Native American wisdom, befitting the novel’s Epilogue. What were those tattoos that Queequeg transferred so assiduously to his coffin, which became Ishmael’s life-buoy? “All manner of grotesque figures and drawings,” perhaps the work of “a departed prophet and seer,” Ishmael supposes, perhaps “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth,” apparently a riddle “not even [Queequeg] himself could read.” Modern environmental writing suggests an answer to this question, which at some level I think Melville may have understood. Ever since Thoreau spoke of “a more perfect Indian wisdom” in 1842, American nature writers have turned to alternative languages and to so-called “primitive” cultures for wisdom—chief among them in recent decades are Leslie Marmon Silko and Barry Lopez. Silko has argued, in her essays and fiction, that the stories of the Laguna Pueblo Indians link them to the land and to their tribal history—often very specifically, to this mesa or that particular arroyo—preserving knowledge that sustains them, generation after generation. In Arctic Dreams, Lopez writes about the “place-fixing” stories of the Eskimos in the Canadian Arctic: “they occurred against the backdrop of a mythological landscape [and were] usually meticulously conserved. (It was always possible that the storyteller would not himself or herself grasp completely the wisdom inherent in a story that had endured, which had proved its value repeatedly.)” Now let’s consider a source closer to Queequeg’s origins in Polynesia: the Moken, nomadic fishermen who have lived for hundreds of years on the Andaman Sea on islands off the coast of Thailand and Burma. On December 26, 2004, when the great tsunami struck, not a single Moken native died. Those on land knew immediately they should find higher ground, and did so. Those at sea immediately recognized the strange swells and paddled out to deeper water and safety. “We’ve told the story of the wave since the old times,” one of them explained to CBS television news, matter-of-factly. “The Big Wave had not eaten anyone for a long time, and it wanted to taste them again.” None of the Moken tribes had ever experienced a tsunami, but the story told them what to do—a story they preserved without knowing why. Surely some such story as this was carved on Queequeg’s coffin, and allowed Ishmael to survive.
In Memoriam: Benjamin P. Flower (1962–2012), marine geologist and paleoceangrapher