1 — The Skeptical Problem
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is not a novel. Or, more precisely, it is not just a novel. In it, Melville tried to explode the characteristic form of the novel by importing the styles of many different genres (drama, glossaries, aphorism, natural history, philosophy, theology) into a novelistic shell, which in turn also explodes their characteristic forms. Like Queequeg’s tattooed body, it contains a panoply of signs — some decipherable, some not, all various and multiform — that together make up a world, one that can be known, but not completely, not exhaustively. Which raises the philosophical and human problem of skepticism.
In the history of Western Philosophy, skepticism generally divides into two broad categories: “veil-of-ideas” skepticism, epitomized by Descartes in the Discourse on Method and Meditations, and “Pyrrhonism”, which originated in the Greek Skeptics who took over Plato’s Academy, and which was resurrected, in different ways, by Hume in the Treatise on Human Nature and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and by Montaigne in his Essais.
2 — A Livable Skepticism
Cartesian skepticism sets up a metaphysical screen between our ideas and the features in the external world that these ideas are said to represent. This kind of skepticism was dubbed “problematic skepticism” by Kant because it set up the doubtfulness of our representations as an epistemological problem that needs to be solved before any philosophical work could be done. It is not the kind of thing that can function as a way or a form of life. The whole point of “veil of ideas” skepticism is that it is not livable. It is an existential horror that needs to be dispensed with before one can move and breathe, never mind think. Fortunately we do think, argued Descartes, so skepticism is pulverized by the cogito and all that it entails.
This kind of skepticism isn’t an issue in Moby-Dick. Pyrrhonism is. This variant of skepticism is precisely offered up as a way of life. It holds that “knowledge” is actually a paltry thing, not much available to us anyway, and we are none the worse off for that. Pyrrhonism is introduced precisely because it is livable, a form of life that grants us solace. It is exemplified by Montaigne’s motto “Que sais-je?”, and Hume’s calm acceptance of the fact that, while it has no rational warrant, belief in the external world of pool tables and backgammon boards and causal regularity comes naturally to us. We shouldn’t sweat it. Ishmael and Queequeg are unique characters in Moby-Dick in that they too do not sweat it, while Captain Ahab is nothing but sweat, a sweat that ultimately dissolves him and the crew of the Pequod in the end.
3 — Ishmael’s skeptical Anti-skepticism
Is Ishmael a kind of Pyrrhonist, then? No, not exactly. His skepticism is an element in an anti-skeptical outlook. Ishmael does have an unquenchable desire to know and to understand (not the same things), and spends much of his narrative allotment spelling out his grasp of the world, and especially the world of people, in minute detail. But he also is convinced that his explanatory and interpretive systems cannot be reduced to one, single system, and he is well aware that his human fallibility is ever-present. Human beings can decipher things, but not all things, and not exhaustively. There is no last word to be spoken, ever.
Ishmael’s search for a livable accommodation to the limits of knowledge and understanding places him at a tangent with Montaigne, whose skepticism is not quite as “livable” as Montaigne thought. “Que sais-je?” What do I know? Well something. Many things, actually. But not everything, and what I can understand and know about the things I do understand and know is not exhausted by my present understanding and knowledge. Ishmael’s skepticism, his Socratic acknowledgement that he knows only to the extent that he recognizes his ignorance, paradoxically buttresses a fundamentally anti-skeptical sensibility.
Just as Wallace Stevens pointed out thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird — ways irreducible to each other — there is a plenitude, an infinitude of ways one can perceive, understand, and know the world, the world of whales, of ships and sealing-wax. There are limits to our genuine grasp of reality. We can push those limits outward, but it is wise to acknowledge that this outward push can go on forever. It is a lesson lost on Ishmael’s counterpart, Captain Ahab.
4– Ahab the Enframer
Sean Kelly and the late Hubert L. Dreyfus, in their book All Things Shining, propose a late Heideggerian reading of Moby-Dick. The Heidegger of “An Essay Concerning Technology” and “Building Dwelling Thinking” contrasts the thinker, who lets beings be through a kind of contemplative releasement of control (Gelassenheit), with the enframer, the willful manipulator of things for the sake of a barren wilfulness. The enframer reduces scientia to technē, a Baconian view of all knowing geared toward a sense of control, an “enframing” (Gestell) mindset that discloses all beings, including human beings, as “standing-reserve” or “stock” (Bestand).
Heidegger is not against technology as such — enframing is a valid way in which the Being of beings can be disclosed — but he worries about its imperial reach. If enframing manages to push out all other ways of disclosing Being, our humanity is threatened. We start to view others and ourselves merely as “stock’ — as “human resources”. Much as Ahab views his crew.
5 — Ishmael in the House of Being
The contrast between Ishmael and Ahab is that of the poet, the mortal who preserves beings through language, versus the enframer, the instrumentalist who marshals all things and people as resources to “challenge-forth” the world in service to a blind Will-to-Power that is at base an empty Will-to-Will. Ishmael’s stance toward all beings is first and foremost that of the interpreter, the physiognomist: one understands things, thinking from their perceived surfaces, only to the extent that one lovingly encounters them gratefully in all their complex mystery. For Ahab, the monomaniac, there is only one thing worth understanding — the white whale. And Ahab is convinced that to understand something you have to kill it. No mystery.
6 — Polytheism or Monotheism? Or Something Else?
Unfortunately, I think, Dreyfus and Kelly extrapolate this illuminating late Heideggerian reading of Melville into a brief for Polytheism over Monotheism. The Polytheist acknowledges that there is no one way to “read” reality, and thus concludes that all beings contain Heraclitean “gods” that make all beings “shine.” In contrast, the Monotheist assumes that one and only one order is invested in reality, and our job as mortals is to tease that order out — or to admit that God has teased it out for us in revelation. Viewed the way Dreyfus and Kelly do, the “wickedness” of Moby-Dick as Melville characterized it in a letter to Hawthorne, lies in its explicit rejection of Abrahamic Monotheism.
I think this conclusion is mistaken. Melville himself was a doubter, if a God-intoxicated one. and while the Absolute whom he doubted was certainly Father, Son, and Spirit, he did not doubt for the sake of an Hellenic pantheon. His choice is not between gods and God, but between anything and nothing embodying the sacred.
The one God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the creator God, that which responds to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” The one creator does not create haphazardly, but this does not mean that the particulars of divine creation, which reflect and participate in this Ground of Being, can be articulated in one and only one true account or narrative: that is, God’s singular view of his creation. Even less so for God himself. As Gottfried Tersteegen put it, “A God comprehended is no God.” Our grasp of God, for Tersteegen as well as Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, is analogical and metaphorical. The God-sign functions as an index, a sign that points without literally describing the object of which is in principle beyond our understanding.
God’s created world is a somewhat different story: we pass from understanding particulars in their particularity to generalizations and theories, but there is no reason to reduce our grasp of entities, of beings in their Being, to a single structural form. Thus understood, Abrahamic Monotheism does not function as the metaphysical foil that Dreyfus and Kelly take it to be. Heraclitus was partly right: all things are full of “gods”, understood as “energies”, to use the Greek theologian Gregory Palamas’s term, manifestations of the one God in the plurality of created particulars and their forms. Thus things can still “shine” under the Jerusalem-based faiths, objects of a natural piety or reverence.
But Melville has his doubts precisely about this. Heraclitean gods, or the one God’ sacred energies, may at times seem to be everywhere, but at other times they appear nowhere at all. The world oscillates from shining to dullness, to bland whiteness. Melville’s anti-skepticism thus fails him, if only in theology. His loyalties safely lie only in and with the human world.
7 — Father Mapple’s Calvinism (and its Discontents)
Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s agon between Monotheism and Polytheism is further complicated by the interplay between two very different types of Monotheism. The key episode is Chapter 9 containing Father Mapple’s Sermon on Jonah at the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford.
Father Mapple’s Protestant sect is never explicitly stated. But it is clear from its content that the theology of his sermon is Calvinistic to the core. (He is probably Congregationalist or Presbyterian, Melville’s own denomination). His words are drenched in the Calvinist rhetoric of the total depravity of humankind, the necessity and irresistibility of grace, and the division between the saved and the reprobate.
When Ishmael and Queequeg arrive at Nantucket, however, they are surrounded by a different sect, one of the Radical Reformation: the Quakers. Calvinists had little use for Quakers, who dismissed the idea of the absolute gulf between God and humankind, and in fact marginalized even the written word of Scripture in favor of individual mystical communication between God and humans. God is to be found, unmediated, in meeting houses where congregants speak when and only when the Spirit moves them.
This bespeaks a huge gulf between the two kinds of Protestantism, one mainstream, the other radical. For a Calvinist, Quakers were reprobates, Arminians, antinomians. For Quakers, Calvinists preached a Word that was dead, removed from the dynamism of the Spirit, and the Spirit’s correlative sacred silence.
8 — Melville’s (and Ishmael’s) Religious Other
But Ishmael does not align with Quaker sensibility any more than with Calvinist dogma or Polytheistic animism. His bond with Queequeg is less a matter of Polytheistic sympathies than what Hume called “the sentiment of humanity”, and is rooted in Ishmael’s skeptical anti-skepticism. That there is no one true narrative, no God’s-eye-view of humanity’s relation to both God and cosmos, swings free of the question of whether there is one God or many, since we are all just fallible bags of bone and sinew, whether we are Calvinists, Quakers, or Cannibals. Whether God or the gods are present or absent, we are always with other human beings.
This places Ishmael at a considerable distance from Father Mapple, who construes the human propensity for evil in stark, almost Manichean terms — the double bind of Calvin’s double predestination, where the saved are mere vehicles of divine grace and the reprobate mere vehicles of divine wrath.
The Quakers would then seem to be more Ishmael’s speed: more open to the presence of the divine light, more reverent toward the world, less misanthropic. Their God is friendly to human aspirations and concerns.
9 — The Dilemma of the “Fighting Quaker”
Perhaps a bit too friendly, however. Nantucket’s “Fighting Quakers” plainly fudge their faith a bit too often. Captains Bildad and Peleg are ruthless capitalists outside the meeting house where they are moved by the Spirit. The ethos of Nantucket is at once as spare as the landscape and as pecuniary as Wall Street, the locale which Ishmael was eager to quit when he introduced himself. Melville’s antipathy to both capitalist and the slave economies is a matter of record throughout his oeuvre, especially in “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, but also in Moby-Dick. The ease with which Bildad and Peleg glide between market-based rapaciousness and Quaker tranquility is disconcerting.
This is yet another reason why Ishmael casts his lot with Queequeg the cannibal: he is what he is, in all his bewildering tattooed complexity, yet manages to embody this plurality in a simple unity of self that is irreducible to any one of his elements. He contains multitudes but not contradictions. Like Lear’s Tom ‘o’ Bedlam, he is “the thing itself.”
10 — Starbuck, the Hegelian-Kantian
Starbuck too is “the thing itself”, one who is who he is, but a different kind of “thing” than Queequeg, a serious Quaker. There is a contradiction between the fact of his Quaker pacifism and his livelihood as a slaughterer of whales, but this is a minor inconsistency compared to Bildad and Peleg, and to Starbuck’s character taken as a whole. There is a moral earnestness to Starbuck that neither Stubb nor Flask possess, and a moral intensity matched only by Ahab’s twisted monomania. But the needle on his moral compass is being pulled in two opposing directions, a feature of Moby-Dick’s narrative that is rarely remarked upon.
Kant’s categorical imperative, the first principle of morality, is a decision procedure for generating universally valid maxims rooted in the sheer fact of self-determining rational agency. This spells out the nature of moral action: duty for duty’s sake. After Ahab’s speech in “The Quarter Deck” Starbuck alone comes to a stark awareness of his duty — to prevent Ahab from not only compromising the Pequod’s commercial mission but for leading the crew to certain doom. Ahab is crazy, and the innocent crew needs to be rescued from him. But Starbuck hesitates. Why?
It is not because of Hamletic indecision or mere cowardice: rather, he is torn between Kantian Moralitȁt and Hegelian Sittlichkeit, between the universal duty to help those in need and the particular duty proper to his station, the obligation to refrain from mutiny and to respect the legitimate hierarchical order of the sea.
Melville does not take sides in this longstanding Kant vs. Hegel contest. Rather, he attempts to show how it can never and should never be resolved. Starbuck hesitates because he is caught in this double-bind: he can acknowledge Moralitȁt or Sittlichkeit, but not both. His condition is the human condition — he hangs in limbo between the universal and the particular.
I do not think that Melville takes this dilemma to warrant moral skepticism, however. There is a cognitively valid difference between good and bad, between the right and the wrong, in Moby-Dick, which is given concrete display in the character of Ahab. But Melville admits that sometimes whatever one does will issue in tragedy. The ethical life is a fragile one, not completely within our conscious and conscientious control. Ishmael lurks in the background as a kind of prophet of moral tragedy: the world, both factual and moral, can be understood, but never infallibly, and never completely. It is as silent and mysterious as the white whale lurking in the depths. And like Moby Dick it may consume us in the end.
11 — Ahab, the Divine, and the Demonic
In contrast to Starbuck, Ahab is completely insane, but in a seductive way. This is brought out nicely in the contrast between the performance of Ahab by Gregory Peck in the original John Huston film, and that of Patrick Stewart in the later televised adaptation. Peck’s Ahab is more than a bit over-histrionic, all raised eyebrows and furrowed brow. In contrast, Stewart’s Ahab is just as insane, but wins the crew over to his quest by a kind of manic charm — something Stewart is very good at portraying. Stewart’s Ahab is above all a confidence-man, a theme that resurfaces in Melville’s eponymous work.
Ahab’s con job also entraps himself. He describes his quest for the white whale as an attack on the essence of evil: Moby Dick is a synecdoche for all that violently attacks and ails humankind. He willfully ignores the fact that the whale’s violence is not voluntary but instinctive, hence only “evil” in a non-moral sense, if that. But this is so obvious a fact it must hide a deeper motive, one that places Ahab on the wrong side of the Good/Bad divide.
Why does Ahab initially present his hunt as a divinely just mission? Because the whale bit off his leg? This imputes agency to a being incapable of it, and, besides, does not peg Moby Dick as the embodiment of a world-historical or cosmic malignancy. Defeating the white whale is not an act of divine vengeancce. To the contrary, Ahab’s mission, from the start, is not divine but demonic, made clear in the “baptism” of the fatal spear-tip in nomine diaboli. Ahab the enframer is obsessed with means, and does not care of these means emanate from heaven or hell: he intends to know the whale through its destruction. And this is a “knowledge” that is both dangerously impossible and impossibly dangerous.
12 — The False Prometheus
Ahab is Promethean, but unlike the Greek Prometheus, who stole fire to benefit humanity, Ahab the enframer is out for the sake of power, of his own will, a will that, as for Heidegger and others as different as Adorno and Weber, is empty, an iron cage in which he imprisons himself. He is a tragic figure, but a compromised one: he falls not because he is confronted with two valid but mutually exclusive alternatives — he could always call off the obsessive hunt — but between divine Gelassenheit or letting-be and diabolical control as an end-in-itself, a false and fatal end. Like Walter White, he is a formerly good man who breaks bad.
Ahab is temperamentally anti-skeptical: he seeks to know not just the whale but that which the whale represents, what it stands-for. But of course the whale stands for many things, and no one thing. Ahab’s mono-focal and anti-skeptical temperament seals his bitter fate, a fate not shared by Ishmael, who alone is left to tell his tale.
13 — Coda
While Ishmael himself is also temperamentally anti-skeptical, he has learned a skeptical lesson from his adventures which qualifies and conditions all his tentative certainties. In the pivotal Chapter 42, Ishmael is baffled by the indefinite whiteness of the whale — whiteness being both the absence of color and the plenitude of all the colors of light — but is willing to let it go, to think it without trying to articulate the ineffable ground of the figure of beings, the whiteness of the whale which is the white and blank mystery of the world. Ishmael knows what he knows: he does not know everything. He knows that this is beyond his ken, and that the conceit of omniscience, even as a possibility, is catastrophic.
Ishmael is anti-Promethean, but ironically he, like Prometheus, gives an important gift to his implied readers within the novel, and his actual readers without. He is the true Prometheus as opposed to Ahab’s false one: his gift is the gift of the silence that surrounds human understanding, but which also makes it possible.