Thoughts on Moby Dick November 28, 2012Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
Tags: books, Cognitive Biases, Evangelists, Moby Dick, religion
OK, first I have to say that I find driving really boring. (Terrifying and aggravating, but boring). And I have a morning commute of 20-40 minutes, and my homebound commute is more like 30-50 minutes. And the radio really does not help. If it’s a station that plays music I like, I’ve heard all the songs they play way too many times, and the banter of the DJ’s is usually inane, or about sports (which I have no interest in) or just plain uninteresting.
So – I’ve taken to listening to books on CD. My local library has a huge collection of these, as well as college courses on CD (from the Teaching Company). Good stuff all of it. And I’m using this opportunity to go back and read a bunch of those books that everyone should have read, and that I’d always meant to get around to but never seemed to find the time to read. So a lot of the books I have been reading this way are classics.
So now, Moby Dick. If you have not read the book, and you plan to read it someday, SPOILER WARNING.
Of course, everyone says the book is about Ahab’s obsession with revenge, as is the subject of innumerable term papers. Most of the book is a huge build-up to finally chasing down the whale. All along we are getting stories of how vicious the whale is, how he bit off Ahab’s leg, how he took off the arm of the captain of the Samuel Enderby, etc. etc. We don’t actually meet the whale until the book is almost over, so the suspense of what the whale is actually going to be like becomes almost overwhelming.
And the book is also saturated with religious references, names, and all sorts of reminders about how god-soaked that culture was. We even start off with a long sermon about Jonah before anybody ever puts to sea. Yet, my overall impression of this book is that it is sneakily anti-religious.
As the object of Ahab’s obsessive quest, you might expect that the whale would be vicious, vengeful, and personally interested in attacking people in general, and Ahab in particular. When Ahab finally tracks him down, what does he find? A whale. A large and very strong whale, but otherwise a pretty ordinary whale. He’s not a monster, or divine vengeance, he’s a wild animal. When attacked, Moby fights back, but only just enough to ward off the immediate threat of being killed. And as soon as he has done that, he leaves. Every opportunity he has to retreat, that’s what he does. Ahab must chase him down to attack him, because the whale just wants to get away. At the end, when the Pequod continues to harrass him, even after he has sunk several of the smaller whale boats, only then does Moby Dick finally turn and attack (and sink) the main boat.
Ahab is guilty of agenticity, of ascribing intention to something that does not possess it. He pays with his life, both in that he devotes his life to his quest, and also is dragged to his death in the end. Everything Ahab might have been, every good thing he might have done, has all been lost because he turned his life to the singleminded pursuit of the defeat of something that turns out to be basically a force of nature. And not only is his own life sucked into revenge, but he spends a good deal of effort dragging all of his colleagues into his obssession, with disasterous results for them as well. He lies to his crew about the real purpose of his voyage, he offers a bribe for their participation, he attempts to enlist other ship captains into the chase. He is an evangeligal revenge-ist.
So I find this book a commentary on the futility of religion, especially of the all-consuming fundigelical type. Buried underneath all those biblical metaphors is a rationalist freethinking message. Thank you, Herman Melville.