Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Elijah as Truth

In the bible, Elijah and Ahab are constantly in conflict. Ahab is the most evil of the kings of Israel, guided by greed and deceit (such as in his pursuit of the greatest vineyard after acquiring another through murder). The two contradict each other in the eyes of God — Ahab is evil whereas Elijah is good and faithful; Ahab is concerned only with his own acquisitions whereas Elijah is concerned with his fellow humanity (such as when he asks God to revive the widow’s son who fed him when he was starving). Based upon their biblical roles, Melville manipulates the relationship between Captain Ahab and Elijah in Moby Dick. I will demonstrate in my the following discussion that Melville introduces Elijah as the seemingly insane bum to instill the questioning of Ahab’s authority and, through a reading of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, that Elijah’s warning to Ishmael is the representation of the loss of liberty to labor under a capitalist authoritarianism.
Elijah’s role in the novel is brief; he enters in the earlier chapters when he lurks behind Ishmael and Queequeg as they walk down the street, sends them his warnings and disappears for the rest of the novel (Stubb makes a reference to the biblical Elijah’s ascendence later on in the novel when criticizing Fleece’s lack of cooking skills, but I will not include this segment in my discussion). After Elijah’s initial warnings, he only regains a presence in two later spots, both of which revolve around the sense of mystery surrounding Captain Ahab’s rule of the ship. The first is directly before Ahab’s first appearance upon the deck; he has remained hidden from the sailors below deck since before the Pequod set sail, “Every time I ascended to the deck from my watches below, I instantly gazed aft to mark if any strange face were visible; for my first vague disquietude touching the unknown captain, now in the seclusion of the sea, became almost a perturbation. This was strangely heightened at times by the ragged Elijah's diabolical incoherences uninvitedly recurring to me, with a subtle energy I could not have before conceived of” (Melville Ch. 28). The second occurrence comes after Ahab’s unseen sailors yield to his call in pursuit of the first whale of the expedition, “Though the affair still left abundant room for all manner of wild conjectures as to dark Ahab's precise agency in the matter from the beginning. For me, I silently recalled the mysterious shadows I had seen creeping on board the Pequod during the dim Nantucket dawn, as well as the enigmatical hintings of the unaccountable Elijah” (Melville Ch. 48). In both cases, Elijah’s role is within Ishmael’s memory, and he continues to hint at the dark mystery in the vast unknowns aboard Ahab’s ship; he hints at evil.
When Ishmael first hears of Ahab from Captain Peleg, he attempts to describe him while producing the effect of intimidation, yet trust. His result is a stream of contradicting, exaggerated and vague statements about who the captain is.
Any how, young man, he won't always see me, so I don't suppose he will thee. He's a queer man, Captain Ahab—so some think—but a good one. Oh, thou'lt like him well enough; no fear, no fear. He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab's above the common; Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales. His lance! aye, the keenest and the surest that out of all our isle! Oh! he ain't Captain Bildad; no, and he ain't Captain Peleg; HE'S AHAB, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king! (Melville Ch. 16)
In terms of Marcuse, this passage is essentially one of lies. “This language controls by reducing the linguistic forms and symbols of reflection, abstraction, development, contradiction; by substituting images for concepts. It denies or absorbs the transcendent vocabulary; it does not search for but establishes and imposes truth and falsehood” (Marcuse Ch. 4).
If Ahab is the evil king, and his fellow captains acting in evil on his behalf, than Elijah is truth. He warns of the painstaking labors that Ahab will force upon his crew, of the greed and lies. “But you must jump when he gives an order. Step and growl; growl and go—that's the word with Captain Ahab. But nothing about that thing that happened to him off Cape Horn, long ago, when he lay like dead for three days and nights; nothing about that deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa?—heard nothing about that, eh? Nothing about the silver calabash he spat into? And nothing about his losing his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy. Didn't ye hear a word about them matters and something more, eh? No, I don't think ye did” (Melville Ch. 19). Before Elijah, the deceitful language of the captains effectively prevented any questioning of Ahab’s character or ability to captain a whaling ship. They manipulated the listener (Ishmael) to believe that it was inherently sinful to doubt at all the honor of such a man of glory. But Elijah steps in as if to remind Ishmael that the truth lies beneath the decks of the ship, where he will be forced throughout the whole journey to fall slave to the man who plans the journey of his ship as the pathway towards his own greedy pursuit — the white whale. Elijah does not try to convince Ishmael of his own goodness, but instead calls attention to the deceit he has been victim to.

Insert section about Marcuse’s opinion of labor and the capitalistic venture of the shit and the authoritarian power of Ahab, and how Elijah’s warnings relate to this.

Elijah is the reminder of the blinders one wears even in great decisions. He is the presentation of truth and the power — or weakness — of the individual in the face of (the king of) evil — of power, greed and deceit.


  1. My first response to the beginning of this essay was that you were trying to do far too much for a short paper: "I will demonstrate in my the following discussion that Melville introduces Elijah as the seemingly insane bum to instill the questioning of Ahab’s authority and, through a reading of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, that Elijah’s warning to Ishmael is the representation of the loss of liberty to labor under a capitalist authoritarianism." That's a mouthful, and it worried me.

    However, what you've set up here (including the "insert section" etc.) is about halfway between a skeleton and a draft. As such, it actually works reasonably well. My only cautionary note is that, while you introduce it effectively and every part has merit, is that you're cutting things most to the bone when they're challenging.

    Here's what I mostly have in mind: "In terms of Marcuse, this passage is essentially one of lies." The approach is great: if you're going to take Ahab as being a representative of capital or capitalism, analyzing the language surrounding him through Marcuse is a good way of dealing with the enormous complexity of your claim in a focused way.

    What you don't actually do, though, is use Marcuse to read that language in detail. You simply assume that we can read the propaganda surrounding Ahab in this way. You're probably right, and I'm very interested in seeing the detailed reading, but you're currently gesturing at it, rather than actually doing it.

    Also, keep in mind that Ahab is, among other things, bilking Bildad and Peleg - he's taking the ship they partially own and seizing it for his own purposes. This doesn't make your argument wrong, but you need to do something to deal with the fact that we have an owner-manager who has wrested control away from the other owners.

    Short response: a promising draft of a complex paper, which worryingly dodges the most challenging material implicit in the argument.

  2. I think it is really interesting how you went about this using Marcuse as well as evil vs. truth in regards to the characters.

    I believe a lot more could be said, and it is seen with your "insert section". I feel like there could be more instances that you could use and possibly go into more depth with the Marcuse and language. Are there other ways in which Elijah could be regarded as truth in comparison to Ahab other than the differing descriptions of Ahab?