Moby-Dick is such an extraordinary and impossible success not because it’s a fable about man’s environmental overreach but because it is several distinct things at once, things that at a radical level don’t add up. It displays the fascination of the hunter with the anatomy and habits of the hunted and it does so with such intensity that the fascination turns into something like love. It takes you inside the process of learning things about other species and the process of making money from killing them. Then, stuck right into the middle of that intoxicating brew are huge shards of Hamlet and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in the form of the madly vengeful Ahab. If you were at a creative writing class and said you wanted to write a novel embodying the obsessive imagination of the romantic hero in the captain of a whale ship as a modern Hamlet plonked in the middle of a factory floating on the sea, your instructors would no doubt be encouraging, because that’s their role, but would gently tell you that it wasn’t quite time to give up the day job. But that completely non-viable combination is what gives this infinitely frustrating and ambling novel the propulsive energy of a time bomb, lifting it out of the fishery into the realms of cultural critique. The impersonal violence of energy-seeking capitalism, which boils down distinct entities into a fungible oil, is hijacked by the obsessive energy of a post-romantic individual. This particular man, Ahab, wants this particular whale, Moby-Dick, and will seek it through every possible sea, regardless of all physical or financial risk.
This means that the Satanic obsessive Ahab is not in league with the shipowners and whale-oil burners, nor is he the friend of Victorian ladies with their baleen stays. He’s the arch-enemy of all these. When the whale oil starts to leak into the Pequod’s hold Starbuck says they must ‘up Burtons and break out’ – raise the winches and unpack the hold – because of the lost profit that will result. ‘What will the owners say, sir?’ the deferential Starbuck asks. ‘Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons,’ Ahab replies. ‘What cares Ahab? Owners, owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience.’ If Ahab had, say, proudly worn the badge of WhaleCorpTM embroidered on his bosom and personally sucked the spermacetti from the heads of all the sperm whales in the multitudinous seas, barrelling it up to make his shipowners massively wealthy and provide his crew with their pitiful share of the spoils (in Chapter 16 Ishmael is tricked into signing up for a three hundredth ‘lay’ or share of the profits by two of the owners of the Pequod) there would be no Moby-Dick. It would just be Barrett’s touristic whaling voyage or Scoresby’s Arctic, whaling as industry with a sideline in marine biology. Moby-Dick doesn’t give the last laugh to the ocean or to man or to the environment. It asks how we can marry the obsessions of individuals together with the intrinsically deindividuating industrial-scale processes that melt life down into money. The conclusion – we can’t, or at least not without wrecking the entire ship and killing the crew – is indeed not great news for shareholders in whale boats or for whale-oil futures, but Moby-Dick is probably more on their side than on that of Ahab. The wrecking of the Pequod is the result of human obsession rather than unsustainable fishing practices or ecological collapse. Certainly one can see in Melville’s heirs – notably in the John Steinbeck of Cannery Row – a premonitory recognition of the damage done by human beings to marine ecology, but Melville’s gaze is always that squinting vision of the mid-19th-century adventurer-cum-naturalist-cum-money-maker, for whom a whale is a fascinating creature partly because of what you can get for its blubber, and partly for the beauty you can see inside when you chop off its head.
The mess that is Moby-Dick didn’t go down well with its early audiences….
‘Moby-Dick is such an extraordinary and impossible success not because it’s a fable about man’s environmental overreach but because it is several distinct things at once, things that at a radical level don’t add up.’
— London Review of Books (@LRB) June 4, 2020