Home > Uncategorized > From Hell’s Heart He Stabs at—What, Exactly?

From Hell’s Heart He Stabs at—What, Exactly?

“The ‘elusiveness’ of Kafkaesque terror … is maybe the supersaturation of every possible line of allegorical reading (you can’t isolate what is everywhere).”

John Holbo.

(I know Kafka’s a long stretch from Moby-Dick, but he’s not why I used the quotation; I aim to connect the extract and the point below.)

We finally meet the White Whale! And he’s just as vicious as we’ve been led to expect: rocketing up out of the depths of the ocean to chomp an occupied boat in half, swatting at other boats with his tail as if they were flies, pulling a remarkable Three Stooges maneuver with two harpoon lines to smash their boats against each other, single-headedly staving an entire ship so that its whole crew (but one) drowns in a maelstrom. But then, after three chapters of mayhem, there’s a short epilogue and the book is over. That’s it, nothing more to see.

It seems an odd kind of book whose title character only appears in the final pages to kill practically every other character and then vanish. It all happens quickly, but I agree with Paul that it doesn’t feel rushed. Instead it just feels very final, and brutal. Speaking for myself, there’s something about the mystery of Moby Dick and the compactness of his “on-screen” presence in the book that I find irresistibly suggestive. There’s too much weight placed on him through the course of the narration to be borne by that tiny role, so I find myself again saying it must mean something.

It’s not just me, though: Many of the characters, and I would imagine much of the criticism, look to Moby Dick as a symbol of something. For Ahab, he’s an agent or principal of supernatural malice, an implacable nemesis. Starbuck seems to think he is a devil and expresses concern that they’ll get dragged to Hell if they harpoon him. (I don’t know how literally he means it.) Ishmael goes everybody one better and devotes an entire chapter to projecting his own meanings onto the empty canvas of the whiteness of the whale.

As far as that whiteness goes, Melville practically invites us to write our own interpretations onto the blank page that is the whale’s skin. It’s certainly easy enough to grope toward reading Ahab and Moby Dick’s contest as humanity vs. nature, or humanity vs. the greater powers, or will vs. matter, or (at least poetically comprehensibly) even past vs. progress, and probably any number of other allegories. The resonance and capaciousness and complexity of Melville’s writing give us lots of pitons to rope a reading through, and seem to support a great variety of interpretations. The book brandishes an enormous amount of knowledge about whales, and brings to bear on the plot and its giant albino a huge range of human discourses, including economics, biology, anatomy, physiology, oceanography, literature, psychology, and theology. Of course we can make him mean something!

But this is where the quotation I began with enters the picture: allegorical supersaturation. Moby Dick can mean all those things, at least tolerably well; which is too many meanings. The confusion of every possible meaning that can be attached to him cancels out to a nullity—you can’t isolate any one of them, because the others all impinge too much upon it. Consider: After all we’ve read, outside of his great savagery we know nothing significant about Moby Dick except for a probabilistic idea of where he’s more and less likely to be at a given season. He’s visible from a mile or two out, and we know less about him than about the electron. To steal a phrase from Daniel, we still don’t know dick about Moby Dick. He spends the vast majority of the book hidden both figuratively and literally below the surface; for all the psychological effect he has on the characters (and, I admit, this reader) before he appears, he remains wholly unknowable. We can squeeze him into any interpretation we want, but it will teach us no more about the whale and we will have made the same mistake as Ahab and Starbuck and who knows who else: We will have ignored the irreducible fact of the whale in favor of converting him to an interpretive object.

That’s what I find the most compelling about Moby Dick. He comes out of nowhere, without warning (dare I say “like a thief in the night”?), does whatever he is going to do, then vanishes. There is no taming him or managing your encounters with him or even understanding him. He’s almost like a Lovecraftian monster in his assault on the idea that human beings can master or even comprehend the world. He is purely sublime, and although he will bear a great number of interpretations, none of them will encompass him. For someone as intellectual and Enlightenment-infatuated as I am, it’s an exhilarating thing to read such a stimulating book and then get my face slammed right up against the wall of human understanding. I look forward to it every time.

  1. July 5, 2010 at 9:58 am

    A neat thought and a great finish. Thanks for playing along.

  2. July 7, 2010 at 9:00 am

    We will have ignored the irreducible fact of the whale in favor of converting him to an interpretive object.

    Love it. Truth in paradox. “By even attempting to understand the whale, all you do is ensure that you’ll totally miss the point.”

    Does this relate in any way to Henri Bergson’s view of intuition? This is the idea that any analysis is ipso facto reductionist, and you can never grasp the true nature of anything by analyzing its details or components. True understanding has to come holistically, intuitively.

  3. Joann Karen
    July 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Great Read. I also enjoyed very much reading all of the comments and insights. Thank you Everybody ! Looking forward to Ulysses !

  4. Fiona Webster
    August 6, 2010 at 1:05 am

    Nice mini-essay on the way the hyperallegorical supersaturation of the book ends up with Moby-Dick himself as a nullity. Cool beans.

    I want to agree, and yet…I can’t help but thinking a lot about the tragedy of Ahab’s obsession, the way his unswervable focus on the white whale inevitably leads to his doom. In other words, I think of a dyad: a human being, and the monster.

    This is how I would express the meaning of the monster: he’s what screws us up, he’s the thing we pursue and then die of. Not all of us: many of us are blissfully free of such an overpowering obsession. But think of all the people for whom the pursuit of some monstrous thing like money, power, drugs, fame, love, even excellence…ultimately kills them. Did David Foster Wallace have a whale in his head? You have to wonder.

    Anyway, that’s my current take on it. I’m keepin’ a close eye on my own thoughts, tryin’ not to develop a thing for some ridiculous white monster.

  1. February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm

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