- Melville in the Shallows
In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Ishmael reports that many a superstitious sailor attributes to the great white whale a mysterious and astonishing ubiquity. These days one might almost suspect the same of Melville himself, of the author as well as of his masterwork, so thoroughly have they lately penetrated various regions of our popular culture. In the course of little more than one year, several books and newspaper articles, and even a two-part television film, have attempted to reproduce, explain, or appropriate the lessons and multiple significances of Melville’s philosophical-creative outpourings. Sad to say, however, none is quite up to the challenge: Melville is great in large part because he is deep—his recent public admirers, unfortunately, are not quite comfortable beyond the safety of the shallows.
An evident aversion to deep diving is the primary vice of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s chapter on Moby-Dick in All Things Shining.1 As surprising as it may be to those who have lost themselves in the plunging profundities of Ishmael’s musings on the problem of the universe, Dreyfus and Kelly argue in “Fanaticism, Polytheism and Melville’s ‘Evil Art’” (ATS, pp. 143–89) that Melville’s solution is to shun the depths and remain on the surface of life. Ishmael himself never quite explains just what he takes the problem of the universe to be, so we cannot be certain that Dreyfus and Kelly address Melville’s own specific concerns. But this is not necessarily an objection to their project, for surely we can allow this pair of philosophers to formulate what they [End Page 496] take to be the most pressing problem confronting us moderns in their own terms and to point to Melville’s work as providing a solution, even if Melville himself did not and, perhaps, would not have articulated the problem in their preferred jargon. According to Dreyfus and Kelly, then, the problem, to borrow from the subtitle of their book, is the apparent absence of meaning in a secular age. Having either actively rejected or passively lost our ancestors’ confidence in the existence of a metaphysical source of meaning and objective moral standards, whether this be a Platonic realm of Forms or the Judeo-Christian God, we moderns feel abandoned and adrift, alone at sea without compass or chart. This is nihilism, the uncanny guest that Nietzsche once spied darkening the threshold of the twentieth century, and All Things Shining is Dreyfus and Kelly’s guide to living well in the face of nihilism with help from several Western literary classics, ranging from Homer’s Iliad to David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King.
Melville’s Moby-Dick is the final text Dreyfus and Kelly consider at length, for in its pages they claim to have found the solution to the problem of modern nihilism clearly expressed. Relying not only upon Moby-Dick itself, but also upon the details of Melville’s life and correspondence, they argue that the solution, as presented primarily in Ishmael’s reflections upon his haunting narrative, is “to live at the surface, to take the events of daily life with the meanings they present rather than to seek their hidden purpose” (ATS, p. 163). These words are Dreyfus and Kelly’s formulation, but they have drawn the substance of the thought from Ishmael’s remark, in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” that “in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” (ATS, p. 163).
Dreyfus and Kelly make much of this lowering or shifting of our conceit of attainable felicity: Ahab is monomaniacal, and ultimately he must die, precisely because he is unwilling to settle for any other source of felicity than that which finally reveals the deepest depths of truth. He wants too much; he longs to tear through the appearances and discover the meaning lurking behind reality’s mask. But there is no final truth...