"Five Dusky Phantoms": Gothic Form and Cosmopolitan Shipwreck in Melville's Moby-Dick
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"Five Dusky Phantoms":
Gothic Form and Cosmopolitan Shipwreck in Melville's Moby-Dick

Abounding with figures of racial difference, Herman Melville's antebellum works have long occupied the attentions of nineteenth-century Americanists interested in the author's engagement with Western imperialism.1 In the late 1990s, two landmark works of historicist criticism, published by Samuel Otter and Geoffrey Sanborn, meticulously analyzed the ways in which Melville's maritime fictions both reproduce and subvert racializing discourses. For Otter, Melville represents "not a transcendent but an immanent manipulator," redirecting the uses of these discourses but still "subject to entanglement and complicity" with some of their ideological propositions and methods.2 Sanborn, on the other hand, grants Melville greater agency. Characterizing the author as a "translator" of indigenous critiques, he suggests that in Typee (1847), Moby-Dick (1851), and "Benito Cereno" (1855) Melville performs a "vital act of discursive disruption" that anticipates and, indeed, enables the emergence of a postcolonial readership.3

Directing minute attention towards Melville's representations of Polynesian islanders and black Africans, these field-changing works have led to the appearance of a number of compelling arguments concerning the author's intervention in discourses of cannibalism, particularly in Typee and Moby-Dick, and debates about slavery in works such as "Benito Cereno." At the same time, their lasting impact accentuates a need for analysis of racialized figures whose function in Melville continues to remain elusive. In the present study, I examine the "five dusky phantoms" of Ahab's mysterious boat crew in Moby-Dick, reserving special emphasis for Fedallah, their most prominent member.4 While Sanborn groups Fedallah together with Queequeg as a "phantom of the mind," I [End Page 1] read him as a distinctive figure who replaces Ishmael's "bosom friend" as the narrative's most arresting racialized presence (54).5 By making this substitution, Melville signals a shift from the terror of cannibalism to the threat of a cunning and treacherous Malay figure. Key to this shift, I contend, is an important transformation in the author's use of Gothic form.

From around the time of Mardi (1849) through that of "Benito Cereno," Melville's engagement with the Gothic undergoes a radical reorientation that disrupts conventional readings of the form as a symptomatic expression of repressed racial anxieties linked to the past. Instead, he takes advantage of the Gothic's plasticity as a cultural mechanism for mediating inchoate threats to humanist subjectivity. The Malay figure, located on the ultimate horizon of Western historical development—the "almost final waters" of the Pacific, constitutes one of these hitherto unknown threats (Moby-Dick 368). In this sense, Melville's Pacific Gothic distinguishes itself as a surprisingly futurological mode. Attending to this feature opens a new perspective on Moby-Dick's general characterization of the relationship between race and futurity. Notably, transnational criticism of the last ten to fifteen years tends to read this relationship in mostly positive terms, finding in the Pequod a model of pluralistic belonging for a globalized world to come.6 Like the postcolonial criticism of the '90s, however, this perspective has yet to account for Melville's anomalous representations of Ahab's "phantoms," who collectively constitute an exceptional form of alterity from which the work's cosmopolitan propositions noticeably recoil.

If it is true that Melville discovers a heterotopian prototype of global community on the decks of the American whaler, this discovery presupposes a specific vision of cosmopolitan futurity rooted in a racialized division of labor. Within this dynamic, the novel envisions racialized others playing subordinate roles in a new world economy under White American stewardship. In seeming to possess an improper ingenuity, the phantom figures of the Malays emblematize forms of unthinkable futurity incompatible with this desired order. Dubbed "Manilla-men" and "Lascars" in the nautical parlance of the time, these sailors largely appear in Melville's antebellum works as distinctively nonhuman characters, insensible to affect and the bonds of communal life. In view of such characterization, an analysis of the Malay figure allows for the expansion and revision of contemporary discussions of bare life and biopolitics, too often conceptualized in Eurocentric terms.

My argument unfolds in four parts. In the...