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  • Moby Dick and "The Ecological Thought"
  • Paul B. Downes

In his "Conjectural Beginning of Human History" (1786), Kant revises a biblical scene (Genesis 3.21) and ventriloquizes early man, coming into reason via a preposterous speech act: "The first time he said to the sheep: Nature has given you the skin you wear not for you but for me, then took it off the sheep and put it on himself . . . he became aware of a prerogative that he had by his nature over all animals." Addressing the sheep, Kant's Adam combines Starbuck's commercial practicality ("I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs") with Ahab's "mad" determination to address Moby Dick as a being capable of intentional malice ("To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous"). To ask why Ahab seeks vengeance on Moby Dick, in other words, is akin to asking why Kant's early man speaks to the animal he is about to shear. These archetypal humanists (Kant's Adam, Melville's Ahab) demonstrate exposure to what Timothy Morton calls "the ecological thought"—a "coexistentialism" that precipitates environmental deconstruction. For Ahab, this opening up coincides with a wound he cannot forgive and a breach that eventually sinks the Pequod. The ecological thought, Melville's novel suggests, can be hard to distinguish from a humanitarian disaster and from the kind of conceptual disaster that haunts Kant's early man. It is not so much the threat of a reply from the animal (whether that reply take the form of a rights claim or a headlong charge) that ruins Adam's speech from within as it is the originary "madness" of its own desire to speak to the other as animal in order to tell this other that it does not have language. Morton's ecological thought helps us to think about the violence of a humanism that, detouring [End Page 106] through the "animal" other, recoils upon itself (to recall Billy Budd) with all the force and terror of an inscrutable malice. Ahab seeks vengeance on the white whale not for causing but for bearing witness to this humiliation.

Paul B. Downes
University of Toronto


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pp. 106-107
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