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  • "Oceanic Wonder":Arthur Koestler and Melville's Castaway
  • James Duban

This study proposes that "The Castaway" (Moby-Dick, chapter 93) helped shape Arthur Koestler's interpretation of "The Sermon" (Moby-Dick, chapter 9), which figures prominently in Insight and Outlook:An Inquiry into the Common Foundations of Science, Art and Social Ethics (1949). Koestler expanded the work into The Act of Creation (1964).1 In both works he sees Jonah's cowardice as an evasion of the "bisociative" challenge to pass from mundane to tragic planes of existence. Beyond reclaiming Koestler's reading of Father Mapple for students and scholars of Melville,2 I argue the significance of "The Castaway" for Koestler's "bisociated" reading of Father Mapple's sermon and for the oceanic wonder that Koestler believes to accompany bisociated consciousness.

Koestler coined the term bisociation to refer "to any mental occurrence simultaneously associated with two habitually incompatible contexts." By extension, bisociation is the "bringing together of the hitherto unconnected" in the act and "character of discovery" across "the spectrum of creative processes"3 spanning humor, science, and the arts. As described by Koestler, momentous instances of bisociation, occasionally resulting in Night Journey experiences, begin variously: "as a sudden shock caused by some external catastrophe, or as the cumulative effect of a slow inner development, or through the trigger action of some apparently banal experience which assumes an unexpected significance." In the last of these cases, the hero "suffers a crisis which involves the very foundations [End Page 371] of his being; he embarks on the Night Journey, is suddenly transferred to the Tragic Plane—from which he emerges purified, enriched by new insight, regenerated on a higher level of integration" (I, p. 371). After citing several examples of this Jungian phenomenon—including the Night Journeys of Orpheus, Odysseus, the biblical Joseph, Buddha, Mahomet, and Jesus—Koestler focuses on "The Guilt of Jonah" and, beyond attention to the biblical narrative, on Father Mapple's characterization of Jonah. In Koestler's exegesis, Mapple chides those who evade, rather than accept, the mandate to embark from trivial to momentous (and necessarily tragic) planes of awareness. Jonah, reluctant to confront and denounce the sinful Ninevites, chooses to "go on leading his happy and trivial life," disobeying God's command by escaping aboard a ship headed for Tarshish; then, in a further act of elusion, he sleeps through the storm that objectifies God's anger at his avoidance of the tragic: "And therein—in his normality, complacency, in his thick-hided triviality and refusal to face the storm, and God, and the corruption of Nineveh; in his turning his back on the tragic essence of life—therein precisely lies his sin, which leads to the crisis, to the Night Journey in the belly of the whale, in 'the belly of hell'" (I , pp. 374-75). For Father Mapple's Jonah, as interpreted by Koestler, the road to hell is paved with triviality.

Koestler therefore offers an "unorthodox" and bisociative "moral" for Father Mapple's utterance "'Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonour!'" (I, p. 375; see MD, p. 48). To Koestler's mind, Father Mapple here chides Jonah not for mere disobedience, but for wanting "to stick to the Trivial Plane and to disregard the uncomfortable, unjust, terrible voice from the other plane" (I, p. 375). And while, according to Koestler, God readily berates Jonah for evading the bisociative venture, He is nonetheless disposed to pardon Nineveh, since few humans, in their trivial routines, are capable of pondering the turbulent merging of the tragic with the cosmic. In a related sphere, Pip's abandonment at sea, along with his purported gain of cosmic wisdom in "The Castaway," foreshadows Freud's evocation of "oceanic feeling" to indicate "ego loss and an almost mystical merger with the rest of reality."4 Koestler's description of the states of mind accompanying that sublime outcome of bisociative thinking was indebted to the...


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