Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Cannibals and the Destruction of the State

“…And like willful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel grazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him.  And of all these things the albino whale was the symbol.  Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”  (Melivlle, 212)

            What is Moby Dick?  Is it simply a white whale, a super powerful and massive, yet earthly creature who strikes in the hearts of sailors both awe and terror?  Although Moby Dick may be a whale in the narrative, the symbolism it embodies takes the creature to an almost supernatural level.  Moby Dick is not so much of a whale, but, similar to many of the characters, is more of a moving symbol that the narrator and those around him engage with, hunt down, and ideally, kill.  But to kill something that is so heavily embodied with symbolism and meaning in itself must also have meaning.  And those who carry out the deed, and those who want the deed to be carried out, also possess their own symbolism as well.  If Moby Dick is, as Hobbes says in Leviathan, and as Melville suggests, a commonwealth, a state, and or an artificial man, then those who seek to destroy Moby Dick are actually seeking to destroy all of those things.  Another interesting fact is that each of the harpooners, the men who are designated to kill Moby Dick should they ever encounter the creature, are all non-white and non-Christian.  They also come from areas of the world that have been historically abused, from Tashtego, a “non-mixed Indian from Gay Head” (Melville, 130) to Daggoo a “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” (Melville, 131) and of course, Queequeg.  Their non-whiteness seems to contrast greatly to Moby Dick who is frequently called “the white whale” (Melville, 200) and perhaps that in itself could seemingly cast these harpooners in a negative, perhaps evil light for attempting to destroy such a pure creature who represents the artificial man, and perhaps, the American white state.  Although this may seem to be a malevolent deed to carry out, Ishmael points out several times, particularly in Chapter 24:  The Advocate that whaling is in fact a noble profession, citing the bible as one of his many sources.  This then justifies the destruction of the state.  In addition, Ishmael points out in Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale that the color white can denote evil as much as it denotes purity, further complicating the reader’s understanding of the symbolic meaning of the whale.
            The idea that it will be the non-white and “savage” harpooners who are the ones to destroy Moby Dick, or the state, is poignant.  Ishmael states that “each mate or headsman…is always accompanied by his boat-steerer or harpooner.”  (Melville, 130)  Although Ishmael comments that there are a lot of foreigners on the ship, each of the ships mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, are all American, and to my knowledge, both white and Christian.  The fact that they are not the harpooners, and instead, the ones most talented with the spears and most able bodied to bring Moby Dick down, are the three most exotic and foreign men on the ship, is extremely interesting.  The fact that these three men are the harpooners seems to suggest that it is the cannibals, the foreigners and those outside the realm of white Christianity that will bring Moby Dick, or the state, down.  Of course, this is all done under captain Ahabs orders, however, Captain Ahab’s mental state, blinded with rage and a need for revenge, should be questioned, and is questioned at times by the crew. “…I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.”  (Melville, 177)  Initially, one could interpret Ahab as being a possessed, crazed man, for going after the whale, or the state, something that is “not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” and the harpooners being foreign, non-Christian, and non-white must carry out the job because good Christian men would never go after the state, would never try to destroy something so vital, at least with their own hands. (Melville, 198)
            However, this idea too is complicated, because whaling is a noble profession, at least, according to Ishmael, “Whaling is imperial!  By old English statutory law, the whale is declared “a royal fish.””   Not only is whaling supposedly virtuous but it is also referenced in the bible “Who wrote the first account of our Leviathan?  Who but mighty Job!”  (Melville 121) If the destruction of a whale is in fact, a good deed, a deed that is carried out in reverence to God, then what does it say that the white Christian men do not have the skill to carry it out, but instead, the “cannibals” are more qualified?  This could mean that Melville is suggesting, as he already has done through Queequeg in the beginning of the book that “We cannibals must help these Christians.”  (Melville, 68)  That what the harpooners are really doing by destroying the “the hated whale” (Melville 184) is destroying the flawed, white state.  A state that has wronged and destroyed Ahab’s life, a state that despite its whiteness, is as evil as it is good.
            In fact, the idea that the whale, despite the fact that white typically “enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own,” (Melville, 204) also lends itself to “when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the fullest bounds.”  (Melville, 205)  This proposes that perhaps the whale, although at first seen a majestic, beautiful, colossal white being that is pure in nature, is in fact made all the more terrible by its white color, which “strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness wihich affrights in blood.”  (Melville 205) Now, instead of the mad Ahab ordering the destruction of the Christian White state embodied in Moby Dick, facilitated by the most savage of all the men in the crew, he is now a man who has been terribly wronged by the this state, his revenge is justified, and only those who are the furthest things from white and Christian are strong enough, and pure enough, and good enough to vanquish Moby Dick.  As Ishmael puts it, “few of those hunters were willing to encounter the perils of his jaw,” especially considering the rumors of Moby Dick’s immortality and supernatural qualities, however, it is Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo who have that bravery, and perhaps will fulfill the notion that the cannibals will be the ones saving the Christians, from the terrible fate that the state, or Moby Dick, brings upon them. 

1 comment:

  1. This is a strong, focused beginning of an analysis of one of the most interesting and deep lines of symbolism (as well as serious, political-philosophical thought) within the novel. I don't have any objections to anything that you have here - which is to say, I think you do everything you could within the scope of a single short assignment - but I also think that the deepest questions remained unasked.

    You are setting up a case (which itself could use developed, of course) that
    a) MD symbolizes the state, among other things
    b) Ahab's war against MD symbolizes war against the state
    c) cannibals, criminals, and proletarians take his side, whereas the officers are much more ambiguous about their position (Stubb doesn't like it; Starbuck detests it) - I'm filling in some details for you on this one.

    You assert that Ahab has been wronged by the state.


    What makes the paragon of white power turn against the state, turn against everything he has ever stood for, and join with cannibals? To make this successful short essay turn into a successful revision, you must answer this question well - that's at the heart of this potential project.

    Note that if you're right, Ahab and Ishmael are much more closely aligned than we might think.