Friday, March 11, 2011

Ouroboros and Universal Cannibalism

The concept of “the universal cannibalism of the sea” is one discussed at length in class. Essentially, the concept of universal cannibalism is the idea that everything in life is cyclic. It is best embodied by the ancient Ouroboros, which is a widely-used image of a serpent eating its own tail. Melville confines this concept to the sea in the physical realm of his novel, but it's clearly a concept that can be adopted on a wider scale.

It is very clear that both Herman Melville and Herbert Marcuse have noted the presence of self-reference or self-perpetuation. In fact, both authors take the concept so far as to deem it a necessary and constant component in the machine of life. The major difference between the two lies in the fact that Melville appears to express a level of discomfort with this idea. Marcuse seems to matter-of-factly believe that this cyclical, universal cannibalism is necessary and a neutral force in the universe. He says, “The ancient idea of a state where Being attains fulfillment, where the tension between 'is' and 'ought' is resolved in the cycle of an eternal return...” (Marcuse 167). What he means by this is that there is an extant ideal of an “ought” individual, deemed to be perfect and meant to be a goal for all individuals to achieve. He is stating that this ought individual comes into existence through a constant cycle. This mention of a cycle is actually reminiscent of the Hindu idea of reincarnation, brought into Melville's work in the form of Moby Dick being referred to as Vishnu. Vishnu is the god of destruction, and he symbolizes the idea of reincarnation because destruction is the first step in the cyclic reincarnation process.

Marcuse says on contemporary science, “Nature, scientifically comprehended and mastered, reappears in the technical apparatus of production and destruction which sustains and improves the life of the individuals while subordinating them to the masters of the apparatus” (Marcuse 166). Here he is stating that even the study of nature itself is cyclical. The scientific method reincarnates and destroys ideas, in the form of hypotheses, in the same cyclical way that Ouroboros consumes his own tail. Marcuse is not, however, loading his references with emotion or accusation. He is simply stating the fact that life is cyclical.

Melville heavily references the concept Ouroboros. He spends an entire (although admittedly short) chapter, Chapter 66 – The Shark Massacre, on an image of a wounded and dying shark who frantically consumes his own falling-out intestines “over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound” (Melville 320). This scene so blatantly draws on the Ouroboros that ignoring the connection would simply be ignorant. This chapter is also placed directly after an actual philosophical debate regarding the concept of eating a whale's meat by the light of its own oil. Melville almost points a finger at his readers in this debate, saying “Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras” (Melville 318).

Melville's highly emotional tone leads me to believe that the concept of “the universal cannibalism of the sea” is one that he still struggles with, while Marcuse's cold-seeming, resigned, matter-of-fact statements lead me to believe that he has faced the struggle and come to a logical conclusion. I as a reader am left wondering if even the idea of life's cyclical nature can be seen cyclically; would Marcuse lose his composure at some future point in his life? Would Melville eventually come to terms with what he struggles with? Will Ouroboros ever be completely destroyed or completely reborn?

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I can give a coherent reaction to this one; I'm pulled in contradictory directions. It's a serious, thoughtful piece, which goes in some directions which never would have occurred to me. On the other hand, it includes a number of errors, and the argument is certainly incomplete.

    The thing that took me off guard here is your understanding of Marcuse as interested in cycles, even in an Ourobourus-like way. My first reaction was that you were totally wrong. But you have some textual support: very possibly, I'm wrong.

    Let me give a few more of my thoughts. Maybe they'll help. Marcuse is situated in several philosophical family trees: he draws upon Heidegger, Hegel, Marx, and Freud, most obviously. Marx, in turn, is rooted deeply in Hegel. Hegel and Marx understand history, while being in some ways repetitive, as directed toward an end, or goal (telos, to use the Greek word). My first instinct it always to understand Marcuse as a utopian thinker in the tradition of Marx and Hegel (even though he is picking fights with the dominant Marxists of his time, that is, the Stalinists).

    Your citation of Marcuse talking about the "eternal return," though, complicates the picture. That phrase is at least an ambiguous key to a puzzle: he's referring directly to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (just to make your head hurt - that's another spelling of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, which is so important in Moby-Dick), which is, in large part, about understanding life & the world cyclically.

    In other words, I think you're on to something. If you were in grad school, I'd say this is an excellent topic for a seminar paper, after you had done a couple thousand pages of reading. I still think it might be an excellent topic for a final project, but I think you would need to go through Marcuse in detail thinking about how cycles work in the book and, if possible, do some outside research (maybe including reading some Nietzsche).

    You make some mistakes along the way. For instance, you call Vishnu the god of destruction; he's the good of preservation (Shiva is the god of destruction), and that actually matters a lot. There are a number of problems along those lines.

    A final attempt at a short response: this is fascinating and intellectually serious, and I could see the 10th revision being published in a journal. If you revise it in this class, you'll need to both sharpen your focus and do at least a little bit of external reading, in addition to delving deeper into Marcuse.