Saturday, April 2, 2011

Parable of the Leviathan

Revision of The Leviathan

There has been much debate on the symbolism and interpretation of the White Whale in Herman Melville’s highly praised novel, Moby Dick. Many have speculated that Melville intended for Moby Dick to symbolize God or some representation of good and righteousness since the whale is often portrayed in a divine light. My interpretation of Moby Dick’s role in the novel is not consistent with these speculations; I believe that Melville—through the use of countless parables (comparisons)—represents Moby Dick as the Leviathan, the demonic sea creature that is repeatedly spoken of in the Bible, especially in the Books of Job and Psalms. “The great Leviathan that maketh the seas to seeth like boiling pan” is an extract that gives us insight on God’s claim that “Nothing on earth is his [the leviathan] equal—a creature without fear” (New International Version Bible, Job 41:33); thus Melville illustrates the biblical notion the Leviathan, Moby Dick, is supreme over all but God, its creator.

It is easy to mistakenly interpret the whale as a symbol for God or good, since Melville frequently associates this creature with great beauty, admiration, mystique, and might. However, the whale has an overpowering dark side; In Ilana Pardes’ Job’s Leviathan: Between Melville and Alter, she analyzes God’s creation of the Leviathan and the role that God bestows upon the creature, as portrayed in the Bible: “God renders Leviathan as the peak of creation, a grand mixture of horror and beauty, of overwhelming power and light” (Pardes, 234). The aesthetic values placed upon the Leviathan stem from the idea that God made the creature so that it would be superior to and unconquerable by man; the creature is feared, respected due to his unconquerable power, only God can defeat the leviathan: “May those who curse days curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan ” (Job 3:8). Melville’s portrayal of Moby Dick is a parable for the divine yet fearsome Leviathan that God discusses in the Book of Job.

Melville casts a diabolical yet divine light on the White Whale throughout the entirety of Moby Dick. His representation of the whale indicates that it should be viewed as superior to mankind, a creature that demands respect in the realm of nature: “Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form” (Melville, 204). Readers are fully made aware of Moby Dick’s—the Leviathan—two contradicting dimensions in the chapter entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale. The whiteness that surrounds the whale is glorified as beauty but is also viewed as evil. Melville provides a depiction of the White Steed of the Prairies as an insightful parable of the two dimensional whiteness of the whale:

…the White Steed gallopingly reviewed them with warm nostrils reddening through his cool milkiness; in whatever aspect he presented himself, always to the bravest Indians he was the object of trembling reverence and awe. Nor can it be questioned from what stands on legendary record of this noble horse, that it was his spiritual whiteness chiefly, which so clothes him with divineness; and that this divineness had that in it which, though commanding worship, at the same time enforced a certain nameless terror (Melville, 207).

Melville uses the parable of the White Steed to strengthen readers’ overall understanding of the Leviathan’s, thus Moby Dick’s ironic nature. Additionally, Melville draws upon biblical characteristics of the Leviathan as he does this; For example, God describes the Leviathan, “Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds” (Job 41:20). Melville’s depiction of the White Steed’s “warm nostrils reddening” is an accurate parable of God’s description of the Leviathan. Additionally, Melville’s claim that “to the bravest Indians he was the object of trembling reverence and awe” parallels God’s prophecy of the Leviathan: “When he rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before his thrashing” (Job 41: 25).This prophecy is repeatedly seen throughout the novel whence forth Moby Dick emerges from the sea; his commanding emergence is often accompanied by “A low rumble sound, A subterraneous hum” and calls to mind the extract in question, “The great Leviathan that maketh the seas to seeth like boiling pan”.

In her essay ,Job’s Leviathan: Between Melville and Alter, Pardes discusses what may be one of the most important themes in Moby Dick, the tempting allure that the White Whale elicits as a result of its divine evasiveness:

Ubiquitous in space and in time, Moby Dick can appear at all sites, defying all spears, springing unexpectedly back to life. No one can stop the creature from “gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings”… No one, it seems, can stop Ishmael from pursuing the creature’s grand dreamy creamy wake. “Hoary” and shiny, it lures him to dare approach the exuberant monsters of the deep time and again, however impossible such a game may be (Pardes, 246).

Melville’s illustration of Moby Dick’s allure is adapted from God’s speech to Job, “Behind him he leaves a glistening wake; one would think the deep had white hair” (Job 41:32). Hence, Melville writes of the alluring desirability of the White Whale: “He [the White Whale] is without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce; he being the only creature from which that valuable substance, spermaceti, is obtained” (Melville, 149).

Captain Ahab’s unrelenting hunt for Moby Dick is a parable for what happens to those who attempt to “rouse the Leviathan”. God explains that “Any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse him” (Job 41:9 & 10). Ahab’s refusal to be receive God’s message is manifested as Ahab disregards several warnings that he receives about Moby Dick’s inability to be conquered; once such warning came from the crew of The Rachael, “whence it was concluded that the stricken whale must have indefinitely run away with his pursuers, as often happens” (Melville, 577). Instead of heeding the countless number of warnings Ahab assumes the role of a God like figure and wraps himself in pride, he takes on a role that is very similar to God’s role:

Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s ever-pitching prow. There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable willfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say aught to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye…moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe (Melville, 135).

Melville draws on the notion that the Leviathan is unconquerable to all but God. The parable, as it is written in the Book of Job, reveals that any man who is so prideful to believe that he can “rouse leviathan” will be destroyed by the creature. The Leviathan punishes those who are high and prideful, who act as if they are on the same level as God; God explains this to Job: “He [leviathan] looks down on all that are haughty; he is king over all that are proud” (Job 41: 34). This parable is illustrated multiple times throughout Moby Dick, however, the most striking example comes at the conclusion of the blasphemous journey upon which the prideful, arrogant Ahab and his crew are destroyed by the Leviathan: “all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, til men and timbers reeled” (Melville, 622). This passage is especially relevant to the extract that states “The great Leviathan that maketh the seas to seeth like boiling pan”; it demonstrates that the Leviathan is supreme over all but God, its creator.

Works Cited:

Herman Melville. Moby Dick. New York, NY: Baronet, 1990.

Pardes, Ilana. "Job's Leviathan: Between Melville and Alter". Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, 27.2 (2007): 233-53.

New International Version of Holy Bible

1 comment:

  1. In my comments to the original draft, which I admired in many ways, I asked you to consider both Ahab and the multiple dimensions of MD if you chose to revise. You certainly did both, while retaining your strong, clear writing style and adding an effective piece of research. There is absolutely nothing wrong or bad here, and you get quite a few things right.

    I'm going to interrogate your work nonetheless, though, focusing on more conceptual questions.

    1) Was it right, given your biblical focus, to really zoom in strictly on Leviathan and never leave him? Even the passages you cite have different points of reference. The "whiteness of the whale," in particular the white horse which you discuss, refers to the white horse of Revelation 6:2, for instance. Obviously I don't expect you to catch every reference - but I would have liked to see *something* more.

    2) This one is actually far more important. You repeatedly refer, including in your title, to the *Parable* of Leviathan. This is fascinating, but it's also troublesome - having read Kermode and Butler, you should be prepared to *do* something with this parable. If it's a parable, how are we to interpret it (or, following Kermode, how are we to fail to interpret it?). To put it another way: if I accept and agree with everything you say about MD and the Biblical Leviathan, how should I think differently about the novel? Why does it matter? Don't just put the parable in front of my - wrestle with it yourself, even if your interpretation is incomplete or tentative.

    3) This is arguably a variation of #2. How do you extend or challenge Pardes' reading? It's good research, and you write well, but I'm not entirely clear on where your voice comes in, and what you have to add to the conversation.

    As a final variation on all of that. How do we understand things differently (I'd ask especially how do we understand Ishmael differently, but maybe that's just me) if we understand MD as God's special creation, subordinate to him alone?