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Ishmael’s Recovery: Injury, Illness, and Convalescence in Moby-Dick JAMES EMMETT RYAN Auburn University Life is a disease; and the only difference between one man and another is the stage of the disease at which he lives. George Bernard Shaw Back to Methusela. Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas1 It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby2 The hallowing of pain—makes one afraid to convalesce. Emily Dickinson3 I n the extensive critical literature on Moby-Dick, Ishmael’s archly melancholy “hypos”4 —which he describes in “Loomings”—have consistently been seen as a key emotional and somatic signal for the necessary voyage C  2006 The Authors Journal compilation C  2006 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc 1 [George] Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch (New York: Brentano’s, 1921). Beginning in 1918, shaw wrote five linked plays under the collective title Back to Methuselah. They expound his philosophy of creative evolution—featureing a male scientist names Pygmalion—in an extended dramatic parable that progresses through time from the Garden of Eden to AD 31,920. 2 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner’s, 1925), 82. 3 Letter from Emily Dickinson to Samuel Bowles, late November 1861. qtd. in Jay Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), vol. 2, 38. 4 “Hypos” can be understood here as an experience of both mind and body. Melville had used the term “hypos” previously in his seafaring novel Mardi, in which he described sailors undergoing withdrawal from tobacco during a long sea voyage. Deprived of their addictive “chaw” of tobacco, “the crew became absent, moody, and sadly tormented with the hypos. They were something like opium-smokers, suddenly cut off from their drug. They would sit on their chests, forlorn and moping . . .” (NN Mardi 339). The “hypos,” then, are associated with both psychological depression, or what we might call “the blues,” but also with the acute problem of physical dependency and the uncomfortable experience of withdrawal. For a helpful discussion of Melville’s allusions to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-1651. 4 vols. Ed. Thomas C. Faulkner et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), see Nathalia Wright, “Melville and ‘Old Burton,’ with ‘Bartleby’ As an Anatomy of Melancholy.” Tennessee Studies in English 15 (1970): 1-13. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 17 J A M E S E M M E T T R Y A N upon which he embarks. Influenced by his reading of Richard Burton’s sprawling Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which he had purchased in 1848, Melville turns to the lexicon of melancholy—a word that for Burton defines the human condition—and elaborates Burton’s concept within linked medical discourses of convalescence and therapeutics. Ishmael refers to his melancholy condition as a prelude to adventure, but also as what might be termed a “whaling cure” for his own depression. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” he muses in the novel’s famous opening paragraph, thereby signifying his intertwined urges toward physical and spiritual recuperation. Crucially, the traces of psychic stress are written onto the very contours of Ishmael’s body; the “grim mouth” signals the melancholy of Ishmael’s injured spirit and suggests a link between bodily symptoms and the crisis of soul in much the same fashion that Ahab’s facial scarring and amputated leg serve as physical indices to his radically wounded psyche. “What a searching preacher of self-command is the varying phenomenon of Health,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in Nature (1836) perhaps ironically, given his bouts with visual impairment. Emerson’s comment speaks both practically and transcendentally to the inescapable variances in a human being’s health, and to the possibility of discovery and new knowledge through a “searching” for “self-command” during...


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