- Melville and the "Woe that is Madness"
I have turned to Moby-Dick (1851) many times during my career, and each time found myself moved by Melville's thought and art. The book, arguably the greatest novel ever written, is a vast symphony, with multiple themes—political, aesthetic, philosophical, religious—woven through its movements. It has been interpreted as an epic nature myth, a Shakespearean tragedy using American materials, a quarrel with God, a satire of Emersonian transcendentalism, a critique of industrial capitalism, an exploration of knowing and being, a study of fate and free will, a drama of race relations, an analysis of tyranny, and a celebration of American democracy. This last interpretation was the first that engaged me, many years ago, when I was a student in an undergraduate class at Ohio State University and was assigned the first "Knights and Squires" chapter to read. In it, Ishmael goes almost operatic, singing a paean to democracy worthy of Whitman. I still love the sentiments and music of the passage, which reads in part:
Man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes […] If then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman's arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!1
I had little interest, at the time, in Ahab's insane pursuit of the white whale, but as a budding liberal, I thrilled to Ishmael's prayer.
As a young man, I read the entire novel for the first time, and I was surprised and delighted to find the opening chapters light and humorous. One cannot help but laugh at Ishmael's shock at seeing Queequeg, the Maori tattooed South Sea Island harpooner, who returns to the Spouter [End Page 133] Inn (after peddling a shrunken head on the streets of New Bedford), worship his little black idol named Yojo, and jump into bed with the startled Ishmael. As you probably know, an interracial friendship develops between the two, and in Chapter 10, "The Bosom Friend," Ishmael even participates, by invitation, in Queequeg's worship of Yojo. He explains,
Now Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolater. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salaamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. But we did not go to sleep without some little chat.(58)
The homosexual suggestiveness of the relationship is clear to the modern reader, but it was the example of democratic brotherhood that impressed me the most, especially in light of Melville's aristocratic sensibility. (Like Ishmael, Melville came from "an old established family in the land" ). I ended up writing my dissertation on the fascinating ambivalent politics of the novel, the way in which Melville combines what he calls, in a letter to Hawthorne, an unconditional democracy in all things, with a dislike to mankind in the mass.
Later, as my interests became more interdisciplinary, I turned to the novel in admiration of its stunning aesthetics. Melville was a fan of J.M.W. Turner, especially those paintings of his that capture the sublimity of nature by means of obscure vortices of light, as in Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842) and The...