Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Trial: Or, Defending Your Life

Kafka is reported to have laughed uncontrollably when reading aloud from The Trial. If "life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy to those who think," then perhaps we should think more deeply about the life situation Kafka describes and feel less acutely the fear of the faceless system that takes hold of Josef K. The aspect of fear is the most salient characteristic of the novel, with many calling the story a nightmare. It certainly can be read that way, comparing Kafka's system to 20th century totalitarian states that controlled every aspect of their citizen's lives. Or considering the devolution of K. to be the result of psychological demons, like Dostoevsky's character Golyadkin in The Double. These readings, though, do not cause laughter, uncontrollable laughter. Perhaps we can find Kafka's joke elsewhere.

K. is on trial for his life, prosecuted by an extra-judicial system that inhabits the dusty corners of the city and the deep recesses of people's minds. Everyone seems aware of the system, but no one has any direct knowledge of it, the real system, that is. K.'s neighbors seem to know about his arrest even before he does, as they stare in through the windows of his rooming house. His uncle Karl (or Albert) immediately understands the gravity of the situation when K. informs him that "it's not a trial before the normal court" and scurries him off to his longtime friend, the lawyer Herr Held. No one, though, can tell him anything about the system's real decision-making process. Lawyers, painters, merchants, and priests that K. meets have dealings with only the lowest level of the system and their efforts to game the system seem totally unconnected with the final verdict.

A similar story is told in the 1991 movie, Defending Your Life, written and directed by Albert Brooks. Daniel Miller also faces a trial by an extra-judicial system. His trial does not take place on earth during Miller's life, but in "Judgment City" immediately following his death. By setting the situation in the afterlife, Brook avoids the absurd character of The Trial, since the simulacrum of the earth that we see in Judgment City is not, by nature, at odds with the extra-corporeal purpose of Miller's trial. Miller faces two possible outcomes, being sent back to earth to live another life or going on to become a full citizen of the Universe. He must show that he has conquered his primal fears in order to go on since fear is incompatible with living a full life. In contrast, those on earth, the "little brains, " are always consumed by their fears.

Defending Your Life may not have an intentional connection to The Trial (an overt connection would have been a marketing nightmare), but there are common elements which the two works share.

Each protagonist begins his story on his birthday and each is alone, unconnected. Daniel is divorced and considers his coworkers his family; K. has only the occasional liaison with Elsa, who "by day received visitors only in bed."

Daniel's trial judge tells him, "even though this feels like a trial, it really isn't. It's just a process that helps us decide" (emphasis added). The Trial, or Der Prozess in German, "refers not only to an actual trial, but also to the proceedings surrounding it, a process that, in this imaginary world, includes preliminary investigations, numerous hearings, and a wide range of legal and extra-legal maneuvering." (Breon Mitchell, 1998, Translator's Preface, The Trial).

Daniel receives the judgment of the court, but makes the final judgment himself, by transcending his fear and joining the love of his (after)life, Julia. The two "old supporting actors" who take K. to his end, per Mitchell, "draw near his face and lean cheek-to-cheek 'to observe the verdict,' [...] in Josef K.'s own eyes." Both protagonists thus carry their verdict within themselves.

Herr Held seems ineffective as K.'s lawyer, not even producing the first petition after several months. Daniel's stand-in lawyer, Dick Stanley, also seems ineffective, not responding to the prosecutor's arguments, saying instead, "No counter at this time, your honor," and "I'm fine." K. discharges his lawyer and Daniel would like to, but when we see the final verdict in each case, we see that the lawyers do right by not doing. They are not trying to be persuasive with regard to the system (they know they can't), but are trying to be persuasive with their client. Daniel, partly because Dick Stanley does not stick up for him at the screening session, eventually decides to stick up for himself: this is the key to his success. Note that Daniel's primary lawyer, Bob Diamond, with a littler brain than Stanley, uses an approach which serves to enable Daniel in staying within his shell.

Held is not persuasive with K., who discharges his lawyer and assumes his own defense. This does not end well for K.

K.'s guilt can perhaps be covered under the umbrella term, fear, but there are specific details which describe his unexamined life to greater benefit. First note his living situation. He does not live independently, even though he is a senior officer of the bank. He lives in a single room of a boarding house where all his domestic needs are attended to by the landlady, Frau Grubach, and her cook.

K. has no life partner and has bizarre relations with the women who do enter his life. He occasionally visits Elsa, described above. He has hardly said a word to Fraulein Burstner, who also resides at the rooming house, but after relating to her the details of his arrest he "seized her, kissed her on the mouth, then all over her face, like a thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring it has found at last. Then he kissed her on the neck, right at her throat, and left his lips there for a long time." He even eyes Frau Grubach, when he "looked down, as so often, at her apron strings, which cut so unnecessarily deeply into her robust body." He also repeatedly visits Held's nurse, Leni, probably abandoning Elsa for the time.

K. suffers professional jealousy of the vice-president of the bank, and romantic jealousy of Block, the merchant who is a client of Held and somewhat of a ward of Leni's. K. thinks highly of anyone he associates with when he thinks they offer him an advantage, but immediately despises them as he begins to suspect that they don't. This change of attitude can happen in an instant.

K.'s life ethic is a catenary, not a Roman arch: "He'd always tended to take things lightly, to believe the worst only when it arrived, making no provision for the future, even when things looked bad." Initially, he treats his arrest as a joke and is unconcerned with the proceedings. He passively accepts the help that comes to him: his uncle leads him to Held, the manufacturer introduces him to Titorelli (the official portrait artist to the court), the bank president guides him to the priest at the cathedral. These resources he ultimately rejects because he has more confidence in his own organizational talent to lead his own defense.

He completely misreads the system in attempting to fight the process, so in a short six months he reaches the final verdict. He would have done better to heed the advice of the inspector on the day of his arrest: "think less about us and what's going to happen to you, and instead think more about yourself. And don't make such a fuss about how innocent you feel; it disturbs the otherwise not unfavorable impression you make."

By thinking of himself, his life, and making of it what was good for him, he would have achieved the third possible release that Titorelli mentions: protraction. Living under a sentence of death, but living it well. The first release, actual acquittal, is unachievable, occurring only in legend. (Elijah comes to mind). The second release, apparent acquittal, offers only a false hope since rearrest is possible at any time. K. actually took a fourth path: denial. He chose to fight the Law and the Law won, quickly and decisively. K's verdict could be seen in his eyes.

Daniel's verdict could be seen in Julia's eyes.

Tzolkin date: 5 Eb, long count

I saw Defending Your Life at its initial release and at the time didn't think it particularly funny and not at all revelatory. I was probably too much like Daniel in his pre-emancipation cocoon to appreciate it. I too wanted Julia to bite off the long string of spaghetti as she ate in the Italian restaurant.

I now see the humor in Brook's movie and believe it can be seen as revelatory as in the above connection with Kafka. Julia can slurp in public as much as she likes. Kafka's and Brooks' names are not often linked together in the same sentence, but that may merely be a brief hiatus once Kafka's humor and Brooks' life insight become better known.

- L.T.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Moby-Dick: Beyond Absurd

Moby-Dick has been called this "imposing monument," "the best sea story ever written," "a work of art." It was published in 1851, then ignored for decades, revived in the 1920's, and has since achieved iconic status. It has been published as a graphic novel and embedded in erudite literary analysis. It is now the official "epic novel" of Massachusetts, by legislative decree. The simple plot outline is of a neophyte whaleman caught up in the crazed pursuit of a white whale, but the richness of Melville's writing goes far beyond this simple outline and provides potential meanings as deep as the white whale sounds in its ocean.

Melville had a significant impact on Albert Camus, who provides a curious assessment of Moby-Dick in his philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. This is Camus' single expository work of philosophy and in it he describes Moby-Dick as among the "truly absurd works" that he could name. This lonely proposition appears in a small footnote, with no supporting arguments, somewhat in the manner of Fermat's conjecture, and has not been adopted by mainstream criticism. Even Sartre, in his review of Moby-Dick, emphasizes the "outmoded romanticism" of Ahab's voyage of hatred and makes no connection to absurd or existential themes.

The opening chapter of Moby-Dick must have struck a chord with Camus. Ishmael goes to sea as "substitute for pistol and ball...Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship." Camus opens MS with the famous line, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." Camus explores the meaning of life through rational analysis of man's attitude towards death, Ishmael through examination of his life-threatening experiences at sea. Each comes to an embrace of life that has no room for suicide, but it is not immediately clear, or necessarily true, that Ishmael (or Melville) also embraces the notion of the absurd.

Absurd Creation: Philosophy and Fiction

Camus supplies no pithy definition for the absurd to correspond to Sartre's existential epigram, "existence precedes essence." Lacking such from Camus, one could say: "I think, therefore I am...unhappy." That is, man feels "divorced" from the natural world as he becomes conscious of the disconnect between his rational thinking and the irrational world around him. Camus refers to a "nostalgia," man's longing for a world that is governed by a rationality like his own. Instead, he finds a world that is irrational, seemingly capricious and indifferent to his well-being. In this world he feels himself "an alien, a stranger." "[T]he Absurd is not in man...nor in the world, but in their presence together."

The absurd man has been made conscious of this disconnect. This awareness can come to one at any time or place: "At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face." Prior to this awakening, man is blissful in his ignorance: "If I were a tree among trees...I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness." This opposition is fueled by more than mere nostalgia. In fact, it is a revolt against the "cruel mathematics" of the human condition, the inescapable fact that life itself is fatal. This awareness brings a horror to the absurd man. But the ideal absurd man will embrace this awareness and never lose sight of it, for it brings with it its own resolution. Facing this condition, the absurd man knows "there is no further place for hope" and, without hope, he must learn "to live without appeal and to get along with what he has." No hope does not mean despair. It means to give up the longing for what is not and never can be, and to embrace what is. "The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man." He does not believe in "the profound meaning of things." He accepts things as they appear to be, he lives his life as he finds it. "It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning."

Camus expects of literature the same as he expects of the absurd man: "I ask of absurd creation what I required from thought--revolt, freedom, and diversity." That is, revolt against false hopes of an alternative reality, the freedom that then ensues to pursue a real life, and the diverse paths that freedom opens. For pedagogical reasons, Camus chooses not to explore the truest examples of absurd literature, but those that approach the absurd, but fall short: "through their deviations or infidelities I have best been able to measure what belonged to the absurd." He therefore provides details, not of Moby-Dick, but of Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov.

In these works, Dostoevsky starts in the absurd, but diverges at the last (in Karamazov) when the philosophical arc "sacrifices to illusions and arouses hope." In Camus' analysis, Stavrogin examines the meaning of life and finds that he himself (and everyone's self) is tsar, or god, in this life and owes no allegiance to an external God. In a twist from Camus' rejection of suicide, he sacrifices himself in a logical suicide in order to announce this revelation to mankind because they are not so enlightened. This act succeeds for a time ("They establish logic unto death, exaltation, 'dreadful' freedom, the glory of the tsars become human. All is well, everything is permitted, and nothing is hateful--these are absurd judgments"), but fails in the end when Dostoevsky escapes to the hope of an afterlife. "Aliocha clearly says, 'We shall meet again...We shall joyfully tell one another everything that has happened.' ...Man exchanges his divinity for happiness." Camus goes on: "what contradicts the absurd in that work is not its Christian character, but rather its announcing a future life."

Moby-Dick: the philosophy

In order to assess Moby-Dick as an absurd novel in Camus' terms, to verify that it does not fall short at the end, we first must establish its philosophical arc.

It begins at the beginning, in Loomings, with Ishmael in despair and going to sea to avoid the "pistol and ball," but it does not end at the structural end of the novel with the sinking of the Pequod and the rescue of Ishmael by the Rachel. Ishmael survives and we see a glimpse of his afterlife on earth through a flash forward in the narrative, when he tells of his retelling the story of the Town-Ho to friends in Lima. The survivor has gone on to interview Steelkit of the Town-Ho, to travel the world, to learn the natural philosophy concerning the whale, to examine in detail his experiences on the Pequod. It is the mature Ishmael who narrates the novel, who is Virgil to the tyro Ishmael's Dante as he leaves Manhattan for a journey to the shore of Hades. The tyro cannot hear his Virgil across the gulf of time, but we, the reader, can. It is the mature Ishmael who offers up his meaning of life to Camus.

Ishmael's journey to understanding is compressed in time, several lifetimes of experiences coming to him through the characters he meets.

Ishmael meets Queequeg even before leaving the mainland for Nantucket. Ishmael sees in Queequeg a natural man, thoroughly competent in his own world and in ours. He was a prince on his native island and he carries that royal bearing wherever he goes. He can toss a mocking landlubber into the air on the packet boat to Nantucket, twirling him on his descent to land safely on deck, then rescue him from the depths when he is later tossed into the sea by an errant boom. Queequeg performs a similarly miraculous rescue of Tashtego, the harpooneer, when the latter falls into the emptied head of a sperm whale, which then is loosed from the hoist chain and sinks rapidly under the sea.

Ishmael considers Queequeg a valuable person to know and latches onto him closely. Even more valuable than Queequeg's practical competence, Ishmael finds solace in Queequeg's company. In the common room of the Spouter Inn, Ishmael relates, "I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it...I'll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy." This feeling is temporary, but foreshadows another such episode of awareness.

Bulkington too is met early on. He is also a natural man, but of the West. He seems to be on a journey, even as Ishmael is, but on a separate path. Ishmael can glimpse alternative lives in Queequeg and Bulkington, but their's are not his to live.

Then we come to Ahab. Ahab was a firebrand in his youth, then branded with fire in middle age. He was orphaned, raised by Quakers, college trained, but went to sea as harpooneer and soon Captain. He had conquered all and presumed to converse with the gods of lightning and thunder as a peer. His hubris was punished by a bolt from above that scarred him from head to foot and left him ailing for days. In a brief return to humanity he married and had a son, but these were but moments in his 40 years at sea. Ahab returned to sea, unbowed, until his first encounter with Moby Dick when he lost his leg and almost his life.

This is an existential crisis for Ahab. His world view is shattered and he must come to terms with his nemesis. He may have thought to remain on shore, but there is no safe harbor there--he sustains a grievous wound from his splintered leg of whale bone. He returns again to the sea, to confront Moby Dick, to strike through the mask of reality, to see whatever truth lies beyond.

There is also Pip, the cabin boy. Pip is filling in temporarily as an oar on Stubb's whaleboat when he is tossed overboard during the frenzied pursuit of a whale. He is left alone on the wide ocean, with no rescue in sight. By chance he is rescued by the Pequod, but appears to be driven mad by his exposure. "The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though." Pip experiences an awakening, seeing "God's foot upon the treadle of the loom." When he speaks of it, "his shipmates called him mad." Ishmael continues, "So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God."

So Pip awakens to the absurd, but never returns to our world. Pip's world view seems to resonate with Ahab, so that Ahab brings Pip into his cabin, becomes his companion, and comes near to abandoning his quest. Ishmael understands Pip, he undergoes a similar experience before his rescue by the Rachel. But Ishmael does not share Pip's path--Ishmael is certainly not mad.

Ishmael broaches the notion of the absurd through Pip, but Pip is not Camus' absurd man. The absurd that Pip sees ruins him, encompasses him, absorbs him to the point of rejecting the human condition. Ahab must also glimpse the absurd through Pip, but this is not enough to dissuade him from his quest, to face death head on by engaging Moby Dick.

Ishmael learns from Pip, learns from Ahab, from Queequeg and Bulkington and from his own experiences. He starts his journey with "a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul," and ends his journey remembering a morning squeezing globules of spermaceti, feeling "divinely free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever." It is similar to his feeling in the common room of the Spouter Inn, but more intense. This feeling also does not last (the excitement of the chase intervenes), but this is the feeling that stays with Ishmael to the end:

"Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally."

Ishmael does not exist in the dynamic tension of Camus' absurd. He goes beyond to find his fulfillment in the objects of ordinary life which surround him. But it may be that Camus also travels with Ishmael. In the preface to the American translation of MS, Camus writes, "After fifteen years I have progressed beyond several of the positions which are set down here." We know that Camus was influenced by Melville; the extent of that influence we do not know.

Infundibulum: Tzolkin Date 5 Cimi,
Long Count

In my youth, I also went to sea from time to time. I remember two times in particular which are reminiscent of the enchanted calm Melville describes in the midst of the tumult of the gallied whales.

Once, and once only in my experience, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico lay flat calm as far as the eye could see. Not a ripple, not a swell disturbed the surface. The water was transparent and the eye could follow a line, seeming forever, as it descended into the depths.

Once in the upper tidal reaches of the Fly River where the huge tidal bore meets the mighty effluence of the river, there was a unique period of calm when we moored for the night. The opposing forces cancelled each other for a time. When next we returned to this spot, the river raged wildly downstream as it does elsewhere and elsewhen.

We would do well, each of us, to find our own image of calm and return to it from time to time, as we need.

For more information about the Melville-Camus connection, see
Roudiez, Leon. "Camus and Moby Dick." Symposium 15 (1961):30-40.

- L.T.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ishmael, Or a Modern Siddhartha

Who is Ishmael? What is he?

Call him Ishmael or call him Melville, it matters little, no more than whether it was Shakespeare who created his oeuvre or some other who took on Shakespeare's name. Ishmael draws us into a personal account of his grand whaling adventure and slips in, for good measure, his philosophy of life. He goes to sea, his way "of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation." More to the point, he is drawn to the sea to view "the image of the ungraspable phantom of life...the key to it all," to the image of himself, as Narcissus was drawn. Long afterward, when he can "recall all the circumstances" and consider the role of the Fates in his decision, he realizes it was also that other phantom that drew him along his individual path, "the overwhelming idea of the great whale grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air."

Ishmael survives the voyage, barely, to provide his first-hand narrative. Critics have remarked how Ishmael, as narrator, fades out of the telling, but this gives the mature Ishmael, as author, a chance to fill in the gaps, to reveal the Truth of the story that no individual character can provide. Ishmael survives to search for meaning in the tragedy of the Pequod, examining the philosophies of Locke and Kant, Plato and Spinoza, to supplement the philosophies of Father Mapple and Fleece, the cook, which emanate from the narrative itself.

The philosophers.

When a Sperm Whale is hoisted to starboard and a Right Whale to larboard, sandwiching the Pequod, Ishmael has the opportunity to examine both heads simultaneously. He assigns Locke to the Sperm Whale, with its "mathematical symmetry...character...immense superiority...pervading dignity," and consigns Kant to the Right Whale, "this lump of foul lard." Evidently Ishmael, as philosopher, prefers Locke to Kant, trusting in knowledge derived from observation over abstract reasoning from innate knowledge.

With a firm grasp of Locke, Ishmael has the freedom to classify the whale as a fish, but a fish unlike any other fish, one with lungs and warm blood. Taxonomies are not fixed according to natural laws ordained in the heavens, they change in accordance with knowledge and usage. They changed with Darwin and they are changing now as new DNA evidence is discovered. Ishmael is prescient in proposing his taxonomy, which guides us directly to the sea, and not to the prairie, in hunting the whale.

Ishmael engages the "the phantom of life" as he inspects the heads of the two whales. He sees "an enormous practical resolution in facing death" in the Right Whale, a Stoic, and "a speculative indifference to death" in "the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years." Or, perhaps, a Neoplatonist who believes that, living, we are One with the final cause and, further, as Spinoza showed, can embrace that Oneness through reasoning.

Father Mapple, in his sermon in the Whaleman's Chapel, presents the Christian view. "[I]f we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves wherein the hardness of obeying God consists...Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah." (ix) Our nature is to disobey God, but we must try to go against our nature. Of course, we will fail, so we must repent. Our happiness lies outside ourselves, in the grace of God mediated through the church.

Fleece present a contrasting view when preaching to the sharks, at Stubb's behest. "Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don't blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can't be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not'ing more dan de shark well goberned." (lxiv) Fleece begins by exhorting the sharks to govern their wicked nature and thereby become angels. He realizes the futility of this appeal and gives his benediction, "Cussed fellow-critters! Kick up de damndest row as ever you can; fill your dam' bellies 'till dey bust -- and den die." Shark, be true to yourself, to your own nature, and die content, with your belly full.

Ishmael's path.

Ishmael is on a journey to escape himself and to find himself. He wishes to escape the "damp, drizzly November in [his] soul" and finds enlightenment on his journey.

Ishmael recounts specific episodes of enlightenment in his narrative. The first is with Queequeg, the harpooneer he meets at the Spouter-Inn. They share the same bed at the crowded inn, but it is in the common room that Ishmael seems most affected. He describes Queequeg as "entirely at his ease...utmost serenity...content with his own companionship...always equal to himself," even though he is "thrown among people as strange to him as though he were in the planet Jupiter." It is then, with a storm raging outside, that Ishmael "began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits."

Ishmael sees an alternative path in Queequeg's world, but he sees this world from the outside, he has not made it his, he cannot make it his. Ishmael has to continue his journey, to board the Pequod, to encounter Ahab, and to take part in the oath to hunt Moby Dick.

After the Pequod sails and settles into the whaling routine, Ishmael has a second enlightenment. He sits with others of the crew to prepare the spermaceti for the try-pots and describes the "abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling" that came over him as he sat and "bathed [his] hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues" that had crystallized out of the fluid. "For the time," he forgot about his "horrible oath" to kill the whale. He felt "divinely free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever."

Ishmael then changes to the author's voice to observe that through "many prolonged, repeated experiences," he comes to realize that "attainable felicity" is not "in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally." Ishmael, the author, eventually completes his journey, gives up his reasonings and imaginings to rest by the fire-side, to be one with the things around him -- not "pasteboard masks," but reality, his reality.

The feeling Ishmael experiences in "a squeeze of the hand" does not last. By day two of the chase, for him and for the whole crew, "The frenzies of the chase had...worked them bubblingly up, like old wine worked anew...The hand of Fate had snatched all their souls...They were one man, not thirty...all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to." Caught up in the chase, Ishmael could easily have shared the same fate as the others. But he does not.

Ishmael struggles to survive the attack of Moby Dick, saved by the life buoy of Queequeg's coffin. "Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks." Ishmael experiences "de shark well goberned," a messianic experience where the lion shall lie down with the lamb, or, as Isaiah writes, avoiding the double entendre, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb...the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw."

During this time Ishmael likely experienced yet another enlightenment, but the narrative is silent on any details. We do know that Ishmael's experience contrasts with that of Pip, the cabin boy, also cast alone at sea. "[Pip] saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God."

Pip, in Plato's words, is "one coming suddenly out of the sun...his eyes full of darkness...while his sight was still weak...would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes...if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light...they would put him to death." The reality that Pip sees is nonsense to his crewmates, is extraordinary and discordant with the reality observable around themselves. The reality that Ishmael eventuallyachieves is fully integrated with experience, and is ordinary life, well lived.

The last lap.

Ishmael does not come to enlightenment merely by dipping his hands in whale oil or with any single experience. Alan Watts says this about enlightenment: "'s terribly important to see beyond ecstasy. Ecstasy here is the soft and lovable flesh, huggable and kissable, and that's very good. But beyond ecstasy are bones, what we call hard facts. Hard facts of everyday life...the world as seen in an ordinary, everyday state of consciousness." Quoting a Zen poem:

"A sudden crash of thunder. The mind doors burst open,
and there sits the ordinary old man.

Ishmael comes to his satori, Japanese for awakening, through "many prolonged, repeated experiences." There may also have been a sudden crash of thunder, but this is not said. The result, though, is awareness of everyday life: an ordinary old man, by the fire-side, in the country.

Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, has a similar journey and comes to a similar enlightenment. He rejects his Buddhist training as Ishmael rejects his Presbyterian upbringing. He encounters a Buddha, similar to Ishmael's Queequeg, but cannot adopt his ways. He seeks his own path. Eventually, through many experiences, he comes to his enlightenment: "The perfect in every moment...everything that is appears good to me."

Siddhartha is asked, "...what is it you are calling things if not real things, things that have being? Is this not merely an illusion...merely image and semblance? Your stone, your tree, your river -- are they realities?" He replies, "This too concerns me little. Let the things be semblances or not; then I too am only semblance, and so they will always be like me. This is what makes them so dear to me, makes me so admire them. They are like me."

Siddhartha does not strike through the pasteboard mask, but the pasteboard dissolves into the surrounding reality, with which he is one, just as Ishmael is one with "the wife, the heart, the bed..."

INFUNDIBULUM, Tzolkin date: 5 Manik
Moby-Dick can be read at many different levels, from many different perspectives.

One interesting perspective is given by Robert C. Conard, putting Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn and Siddhartha in a genre he calls the isolato-archetype. The comparisons are illuminating, though sometimes somewhat stretched. Conard's main intent is to cast Siddhartha, with its Eastern theme, concretely in the Western canon, opposing those in "the Orient [who] see the book as a great Eastern work by a Western writer." I see Moby-Dick and Siddhartha sharing a philosophy, but each grounded in Western and Eastern traditions, respectively. If you're interested in Conard's perspective, see:

Robert C. Conrad. 1975. Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, eine indische Dichtung, as a Western Archetype. The German Quarterly, Vol. 48, No 3. American Association of Teachers of German.

- L.T.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Who is Ishmael in Moby-Dick? In particular, does he contribute to making Moby-Dick the quintessential absurdist novel as Camus proposes in The Myth of Sisyphus (the subject of the current posting thread)?

Ishmael presents several faces to the reader: the callow youth who embarks on a whaling adventure, the distressed survivor of a disaster of biblical proportion, the erudite novelist. Ishmael is all of these -- he grows throughout the arc of the story, and beyond, as the third person narrator. It is an intellectual travel in time, to hear the first-person narration of the tyro on his first whaling voyage intermingled with detailed expositions of cetology by the seasoned author.

There are several specific episodes which are milestones in this growth.


To cure his moods of depression and mania, Ishmael goes to sea -- his "substitute for pistol and ball." Even before he leaves the mainland for Nantucket, Ishmael has a life-altering experience when he meets Queequeg. This tatooed harpooneer from the Pacific islands is unlike any other in Ishmael's Presbyterian world, but Ishmael quickly overcomes his initial trepidation and grows to form a bond with this "wild idolator."

Queequeg makes a deep impression on Ishmael,
"Here was a man some twenty thousand miles from home...thrown among people as strange to him as though he were in the planet Jupiter; and yet he seemed entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost serenity; content with his own companionship; always equal to himself. Surely this was a touch of fine philosophy; though no doubt he had never heard there was such a thing as that." (x)

And in short order he produces a sensible effect on Ishmael,
"I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it." (x)

Queequeg is self-sufficient and lives in the present moment. This transcendence rubs off on Ishmael just by being in Queequeg's presence.

The Fates
Ishmael decides on his own to go to sea, but suspects that his particular path is not entirely of his choosing:
"I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage...I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment." (i)

Well into the voyage, Ishmael and Queequeg are tasked to weave a sword-mat, for lashing to their whaleboat. Ishmael plies the shuttle and Queequeg drives home the marline warp with an oaken sword. To Ishmael,
"it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle weaving and weaving at the Fates...with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads."

Queequeg applies the sword indifferently, resulting in a haphazard pattern in the fabric. Ishmael sees in Queequeg's nonchalant application of the sword, his own plying of the shuttle, and the fixed threads of the warp:
"chance, free will, and necessity -- no wise incompatible -- all interweavingly working together." (xlvii)

Ahab calls the crew to the quarterdeck and exhorts them to join in his quest to kill Moby Dick, exciting them to a frenzy with his wild rhetoric, his offer of a gold doubloon and "a great measure of grog." (xxxvi)

Ishmael is swept away by the frenzy.
"I, ISHMAEL, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine." (xli)

Moby Dick
Ishmael learns all he can about this white whale and the quest does become his. What was the white whale to Ishmael? As with many philosophical aspects, it is hard to express in words.

Ishmael --
"so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me." (xlii)

What is appalling about the whiteness? Ishmael draws numerous comparisons, both compliant with this horror and contrary. The royal white elephants of Siam, the innocence in the white bridal gown, the "milk-white steeds" drawing the carriage of kings and queens are "kindly associations." Less kindly considered are the white polar bear, the white shark of the tropics, the albatross, the marble pallor of the dead, the pallid horse of the Apocalypse.

But what is the essence of the horror? Ishmael--
"not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul...the intensifying agent in things most appalling to mankind." (xlii)

The closest to the mark seems to be something akin to the "pasteboard masks" Ahab sees as all visible objects. Ishmael, contrasting white with "all other earthly hues" --
"all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within." (xlii)

What is it, really? Perhaps the unknown and unknowable, the ultimate unknowable -- death. Ishmael revisits this aspect when the Pequod hoists the heads of a Right Whale on the port side and a Sperm Whale on the starboard, balancing each other to regain an even keel.

Ishmael --
"when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again...Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat."
Thorp (1947) in his footnote contrasts the two philosophers, "Locke held that knowledge is a posteriori; Kant that it is fundamentally a priori." (lxiii) The rationalist argument mooted by eternal oscillation.

Shortly afterwards, referring the the head of the Right Whale --
"Does not this whole head seem to speak of an enormous practical resolution in facing death? This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years." (lxxv)
The reference to Spinoza indicates transcendence of the finite mode of reality that we humans can see to the infinite mode of reality that is one and the same with Substance, or God. (Thorp, 1947 and Harris, 1992)

These whales are not white themselves, but their color may be "laid on from without."

For a time, Ishmael forgets the quest. He is tasked to prepare sperm oil for the try-works.

Ishmael --
"I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty! ...I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma...I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it." (xciv)

"Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally." (xciv)

This is the heart of the matter. Ishmael in "a squeeze of the hand" recovers the "melting in me" that he experienced earlier with Queequeg. But this practice does not take immediately. In chasing Moby Dick, Ishmael again becomes one with the rest of the crew in the quest. It takes "many prolonged, repeated experiences" to achieve the "attainable felicity."

Camus and the Absurd Ishmael
Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, would have the absurd man come to the same realization as Ishmael. The absurd man
"prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom, of his revolt devoid of future, and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime."

This is not as specific as Ishmael's "the wife, the heart,..." but then again, not everyone will achieve the "attainable felicity" with identical specifics. The point is to "get along with what he has," to lower expectations so as to find meaning in the people and things surrounding him and not to quest for an alternative reality beyond the visible objects immediately at hand. "Being aware of one's life, one's revolt, one's freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum."

Camus could very well take Ishmael to be the absurd man. But there are other interpretations that may fit better and it remains to be seen how the novel as a whole measures up to the label absurd.

Next time.

Infundibulum, Tzolkin date: 5 Men
Robert A. Heinlein, writing as Anson MacDonald, wrote a delightful short story, "By His Bootstraps." []
Bob Wilson is a graduate student of metaphysics who is caught up in a space-time loop stretching 30,000 years into the future and back again. He meets himself coming and going several times, winds up being the boss of the future world owing to the positive feedback of his self-interactions, and, in passing, confronts the philosophical issues of Cartesian self-awareness and free will.

Wilson's time travel experience seems to require a deterministic phenomenology, yet at every point he remembers feeling free to make his own decisions. He tentatively posits the duality: internal free will and external mechanistic phenomenology. This is merely a restatement of the dissonance, but Heinlein was not writing a philosophical treatise. His wonderful fiction does evoke the Spinozan concept of determination, which spans mechanical and rational modes of action, the latter being akin to free will (Harris, 1992). It also brings to mind the current notions of multiple dimensions of time, which may allow a resolution of time travel conundrums. We will likely return to these issues in a future posting.

- L.T.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Moby-Dick: Wherein We Glimpse Dr. Jekyll

We are examining Herman Melville's Moby-Dick as a work of absurdist literature, as proposed by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Last time we began to consider Ahab, the central character of the novel, as an absurd character. We found that he falls short of the standard by not being freed by his awareness of the absurd, but chained by his quest to break through the "pasteboard masks" of the objects in the world around him, to bring down the set pieces of the absurd stage. Let us look at this evaluation in a bit more depth and consider whether Ahab is a tragic absurdist hero because of this failing.

Who is Ahab? Does he know, himself? "Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?" Ahab has this moment of doubt as he prepares to join battle with the white whale.

Earlier in the narrative he has less doubt and more assurance of his own power. Ahab calls the crew to the quarterdeck and rallies them to his quest for Moby Dick. He nails a gold doubloon to the mainmast (xxxvi), which is to go to the first to raise Moby Dick. Later in the voyage, in a more contemplative mood, Ahab pauses to inspect the mountain images depicted on the Equadorian doubloon: "look here, -- three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab..." (xcix)

This certainly describes the Ahab who calls himself "Old Thunder", who lifted his harpoon in salute to the heavenly fire, who is described as "a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans." But it surely does not apply to the Ahab who was struck down by the lightning from that fire. Or to the Ahab that suffered dismemberment at the jaws of Moby Dick. This Ahab is "no fearless fool" after these episodes. He has faced death at close quarters on both occasions and comes away tempered and tormented by the experience.

The torment is explicit: "with glaring eyes Ahab would burst from his state room, as though escaping a bed that was on fire...this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in spontaneously sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral...God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates." (xliv)

Ahab is of two minds--his eternal, living principle, or soul, and the frantic, tormented spirit.

The eternal living principle that is Ahab has married, fathered a son, keeps a vial of Nantucket earth in his pocket to remind him of home, can shed a tear into the profound sea, can see his wife and child in the eye of Starbuck.

It is this Ahab which interrogates the dead and dying whale in existential monologue. To the severed head of a whale hoisted at the side of the Pequod:

"Speak, thou vast and venerable head,...speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world's foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home...O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!" (lxx)

It is this Ahab which experiences a "wondrousness unknown" in the last moments of a dying whale, as it turns its head sunwards.

"He turns and turns him to it, -- how slowly, but how steadfastly, his homage-rendering and invoking brow, with his last dying motions. He too worships fire; most faithful, broad, baronial vassal of the sun!, too, life dies sunwards full of faith; but see! no sooner dead, than death whirls round the corpse, and it heads some other way." Then, speaking to the sea god, "Nor has this thy whale sunwards turned his dying head, and then gone round again, without a lesson to me." (cxvi)

It is a lesson he takes to his dying moments. At the end of the chase, after Moby Dick has breached the hull of the Pequod, after Ahab realizes this seals his doom, he laments, "I turn my body from the sun," before thrusting his harpoon for the last time. (cxxxv)

The tormented soul that is Ahab is unswerving and monomaniacal in its quest to kill Moby Dick. The quest has its existential aspect. Ahab speaks to Starbuck:

"All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me..." (xxxvi)

But more so, his torment is fostered by the pain of his dismemberment and aided by the Fates through both advocacy and default.

"All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick." (xli)

"Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job's whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals -- morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge." (xli)

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?...By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike." (cxxxii)

The tormented soul on this quest does not often have second thoughts. But his few doubts are bolstered by the prophecy of the Parsee harpooneer:

"...neither hearse nor coffin can be thine"
"...ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America"
"Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot"
"Hemp only can kill thee"
"'I am immortal then, on land and on sea', cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision; -- 'immortal on land and on sea!'" (cxvii)

In a series of Shakespearean twists, each term of the prophecy is fulfilled. The Parsee is drowned on the second day of the chase, entangled in the lines fast to Moby Dick, which serves as his hearse. He rises with Moby Dick on the third day of the chase and seems to beckon to Ahab, to pilot him. Moby Dick sinks the Pequod, which is the second hearse, made of American wood.

The white whale then lies quiescent, nearby to Ahab's foundering whaleboat. Ahab has a last chance to abandon his quest, but he stands firm, in accord with Stubb's observation to Starbuck: "Well, well; I heard Ahab mutter, 'Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.' And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die it!" (cxviii)

Ahab darts the harpoon, is garrotted by the fast line, and disappears forever beneath the sea, having neither hearse nor coffin to accompany him.

Tragic Hero Or Tyrant?

So, is Ahab the tragic hero? At forty, he is noble in stature, a captain of industry at the pinnacle of whaling society. At fifty-eight, he is estranged from society, scarred, hobbled, emotionally torn. He has fallen a long way, his downfall initiated by his hubris in paying homage to the gods of nature as their heir on earth. This was his fatal flaw--the rest then foreordained.

Ahab as tragic hero is supported only by the wisps of this back story and not the main narrative arc wherein a tyrannical Ahab hijacks the Pequod and her crew for his mad quest for revenge. As a tragic hero, Ahab gives us insight into the workings of the world and one path through that world which is best not emulated. As a tyrant, what is his message? That we are doomed if we, like Starbuck with his musket (cxxiii), fail to take our fate in our own hands? The former provides a deeper insight into life, the latter an absurd hope. If Starbuck had murdered Ahab in his sleep, could he live with himself? Would the maritime court allow him to live at all? And, similarly, for a mutinous crew? Could Starbuck have brought down the whole ship, including Ishmael, with a single shot across Ahab's brow?


I once had a brief, glancing encounter with Ahab, aboard an aircraft high above the Atlantic seaboard. Here is Ishmael's first encounter:
as I mounted to the deck at the call of the forenoon watch, so soon as I levelled my glance toward the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck (xxviii)

I too felt his presence, his powerful charisma, even before I raised my eyes to see him. I recognized him as Captain of a Commonwealth Avenue institution, who later sought to captain the Commonwealth itself. I understand how Ishmael could be caught up in Ahab's cause, even with dread in his soul. (xli)


Friday, July 11, 2008

Ahab: Or, The Man-Mountain

We are considering Camus' proposition in The Myth of Sisyphus that Melville's novel, Moby-Dick, is, from end to end, a wholly absurd novel. This in contrast with other absurd works (by Dostoevsky, for instance) that end with the politically correct notion of hope for life in the hereafter.

From the last post, we see that Moby-Dick ends in total devastation, with no ray of hope. Ishmael is saved, but only as "another orphan." We see elements of the absurd in the indifferent ocean which closes over the wreck of the Pequod and in the capricious and terrifying chain of events which ironically keeps Ishmael safe. We will revisit Ishmael and the novel itself a bit later. We now turn our attention to the central character of Moby-Dick--Ahab.

The highlights of Ahab's life are quickly noted. Orphaned at the age of 12 months, attended college before shipping out as a harpooneer at the age of 18. Rose to captain a whaling ship in the American fishery, considered the best in the world. Seriously injured at the age of 40 by elemental lightning at sea, which scarred him from head to foot. Married at an advanced age. Lost his leg to a whale attack on his second to last voyage. Lost at sea in the act of harpooning his last whale. Survived by wife and son.

The deeper character of Ahab is harder to extract from the narrative. There are mysterious references in his early career to a "deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa...the silver calabash that he spat into." And that he "fixed his fiery lance in mightier stranger foes than whales."

An owner of the Pequod, Captain Peleg, says of Ahab, "he's a grand, ungodly, god-like man... I know what he is...a swearing good man -- something like me -- only there's a good deal more of him...ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he's been a kind of moody -- desperate moody, and savage sometimes, but that will pass...he has a wife--not three voyages that sweet girl that old man has a child: hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!"

Is this Ahab an absurd man, a hero or an anti-hero? To answer this, we must first discover what is the absurd and what is the absurd man. This is not a trivial task.

Camus' one philosophical work where he explains the absurd is The Myth of Sisyphus. The absurd, according to Camus, is the awareness that may come to a conscious man that the world is an unreasoning place; he then "feels an alien, a stranger" in this world. He prefers a world governed by a conscious, reasoned plan, possibly directed by an intelligence similar to his own. "The mind's deepest an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity. Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal."

If the conscious man realizes that the world is indifferent to his reasoning, that, in fact, it is his reasoning which sets himself apart from the world, he faces the dissonance of the absurd, "born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."

One aspect of the world that man has no hope of understanding rationally is his own mortality. He has no first-hand knowledge of death, only its mathematical certainty. Given that one, sure truth, what is he to make of life? Is there a higher, externally-imposed purpose? One that defines the human ideal and that provides an ethic for living? Camus finds no evidence in this unreasoning world for one. Rather than hope for a world more to his liking, either in the tomorrow or the hereafter, the absurd man "prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his (mortal) limits...The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man." He lives in the now, using his rational mind to its natural limits, within the natural limit of his lifetime.

This doesn't sound a lot like Ahab -- he is definitely not the ideal absurd man. He does wax philosophical at times about life and death, evidencing his conscious rationality, but the absurd in his character hinges most critically on the motivation of his quest for the death of Moby Dick. Is it a monomaniacal quest of revenge for his lost leg, as is posited numerous times in the text? If so, it is nothing to do with the absurd, Captain Ahab is one with Captain Queeg, and the plot turns on the failure of Starbuck to shoot Ahab while he sleeps (cxxiii).

But there is more to the quest than revenge; it remains to be shown whether or not it is an absurd quest.

We enter the narrative in "The Quarter-Deck", (xxxvi), after Ahab has excited the crew with his quest: "'Vengeance on a dumb brute!' cried Starbuck, 'that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.'"

Ahab's reply is telling: "'All visible objects, man are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other...'"

This is certainly an existential exposition. Ahab sees the world around him as a false stage setting, he revolts against his confinement on this stage, and he is passionate in seeking to bring down the set. He captures some of the features of Camus' absurd man -- conscious awareness of the absurd world, the need to revolt against the conflict of the world with his world-view, the passion to resolve this conflict.

What Ahab lacks is the freedom that results from this awareness of the absurd, that is, freedom from the false hope of discovering what is beyond the wall, accepting the wall as a natural limit so as to live freely within that limit to the best of his ability. Camus asks, "what does life mean in such a (limited) universe? Nothing else for the moment but indifference to the future and a desire to use up everything that is given." And later, "...the point is to live."

There are interpretations of Ahab's mood other than the absurd -- paranoid schizophrenia comes to mind. But let us look a little deeper at the proposition of awareness of the absurd. What are its possible origins and what supporting evidence can be found in the text?

During Ahab's early career, he was on top of the world--at the pinnacle of his profession in an industry that lead the world. Captain Peleg describes him as a god-like man. His nickname, Old Thunder, is a reference to the god of the biblical Ahab, Baal, who controlled the thunder and lightning. And it was likely in an act of homage to that lightning that Ahab had his first close encounter with death.

He recalls the episode in "The Candles" (cxix), where St. Elmo's fire appears on the ship's masts. He addresses the lightning: "'Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance...No fearless fool now fronts thee.'"

At the age of 40 Ahab was young and foolish, and raised his fiery lance to the heavens in similar circumstance on board ship. The lightning came down to sear Ahab and he "lay like dead for three days and nights." This is another reference to the biblical Ahab, where the god of Israel, not Baal, lit the sacrifice with a bolt of lightning.

Ahab's next close encounter with death occurred years later, on the voyage preceding the one where we meet him as Captain of the Pequod. We'll get to that episode and explain the reference to the man-mountain next time.


These infundibula are an homage to Niles Rumfoord of Kurt Vonnegut's novel, The Sirens of Titan. Infundibula are the intersections of Niles' and the earth's space-time probability density functions. The superposition of these coherent wave functions results in the periodic appearance of Niles on the earth at regular intervals. Much like this blog.

Infundibula are also defined as "those places ... where all the different kinds of truths fit together." One noted accomplishment of Mr. Rumfoord is the founding of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, not to be confused with the Church of What's Hapnin' Now. The possibility that Niles' church has any remote connection with the current discussion of the absurd must be considered as totally unreasonable.

You may also note a connection with Harry Seldon's temporal appearances in Asimov's The Foundation series. Or not.

On a penultimate note, I would like to mention Alex Byrne who offers a philosophy course through the MIT Open Courseware. In describing a particular philosophy reference in his syllabus, he cautions, "readings...are often very difficult. Expect to read everything at least two or three times." He was not referring to Camus, but I am encouraged to know that understanding philosophy is not always expected to be a trivial task.

As I final note, I inject myself into these infundibula as Lao Tzu -- not the Chinese philosopher, but merely The Old One, born with white hair.

- L.T.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Question


So says Ishmael in the epilogue to the novel, "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale."

Why did Ishmael alone survive? Because he was the only one to resist Ahab's passion? "Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!" [XXXVI]

No, that would be Starbuck, who resisted at times in his mind and in his private words to Ahab, but who never actively interfered with the quest. Emphatically not Ishmael:
"I, ISHMAEL, was one of that crew: my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul." [XLI]

All were captive to the quest. On the penultimate day, "The frenzies of the chase had by this time worked them bubbling up...They were one man, not thirty...all the individualities of the crew...were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to." [CXXXIV]

We don't hear Ishmael's voice in this assessment--he is part of the oneness. So why Ishmael? Because he was the hero in shining armor with the rugged good looks of a Richard Basehart? Because he was uniquely able to store in his head all the minutia of whaling that was to be laid out in the novel? No and no. He was saved because it just happened that way. Really.

Ishmael explains in the epilogue. Fedallah, harpooneer on Ahab's boat, on the second day of the chase became entangled in the whale rope fast to Moby Dick. The Parsee was pulled under to his death, fulfilling part of Ahab's doom. Ishmael took the oar on Ahab's boat on the third day (Easter Sunday). At Ahab's first dart, the whale capsized the boat, spilling three oarsmen into the ocean. Two pulled themselves back in, but the third, Ishmael, was left behind to swim with the sharks.

He wasn't eaten and he happened to land in the only safe location as the Pequod sank into the deep, breached by the whale. Any closer to the ship and he would be sucked into the ship's death maelstrom. Any farther away and the ebbing maelstrom could not draw him in to where the lifebuoy popped into his lap. And this lifebuoy floated, as its predecessor on the Pequod did not. All this in the middle of the search pattern of the Rachel; on a mission to rescue her own lost to the whale, she finds Ishmael instead.

The Pequod sank with all hands, Ahab was hanged by a loop of the whale rope after a desperate, last toss of the harpoon, but what of Ishmael's boat mates? "...concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight...Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

So the novel ends. Life is short, read the ending first, especially with a book as long as Moby-Dick. It's all there, all you need to know.

But perhaps not all you wish to know, nor all there is to know. For you, a little commentary.

Camus considers Moby-Dick an absurdist novel (you can look it up). This view is hardly universal; almost no one in these days of freedom fries embraces this idea. Perhaps Camus is mistaken--after all, how would he know?

Still, the ending has an absurdist character. We see utterly indifferent nature in the unsounded ocean as the waves close over the Pequod. Ishmael survives through the vagaries of chance. If Moby-Dick is absurdist, it is absurdist to the end, without raising false hope that life could be better, if only...

Consider the Taoist story retold by Alan Watts, about "...a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, 'May be.'

"The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, 'May be.'

"And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said 'May be.'

"The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer's son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, 'May be.' " (Tao story)

Now consider Ishmael's several turnings on the way:

Selected for Ahab's whaleboat,
Thrown out of Ahab's whaleboat,
Drawn in to the deadly maelstrom,
Maelstrom died out before swallowing Ishmael,
Left entirely alone to swim on the wide ocean,
Thrown a lifebuoy by the sunken Pequod,
Floated for a day and a night with no hope of rescue,
Picked up by the Rachel at the last.

I think that Ishmael would have said, "May be" and not "Why me?" at each of these turnings. That is why he keeps his reason in a world without reason.

The Antipodes
Willard Thorp of Princeton University writes the introduction to my 1947 edition of Moby-Dick. His reason for Ishmael being saved? "He is stronger in resisting Ahab's sway than the mates...Ishmael alone survives the final catastrophe, and for two reasons. Of course someone must survive to tell us the story. But Ishmael deserves to live because he has not been a party with his entire consent to the blasphemous pursuit of the White Whale."

More deserving than Starbuck? who entreats Ahab the night before the whale is first raised, "...let us fly these deadly waters! let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck's--wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine, sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, longing, paternal old age! Away! let us away!--this instant let me alter the course!" Ahab turns from Starbuck for a moment, to muse on Fate and the long sleep that awaits us all; before he can turn back, "...blanched to a corpse's hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away."

Thorp is harsh with Starbuck to acknowledge no resistence in him. Why should Ishmael survive Ahab, why should anyone die with Ahab? It is natural to grasp for a reason, unless one recognizes the absurdity and the lack of reason. Thorp or Camus? We should not judge from the ending alone. We'll revisit Camus's proposition in future posts.

I hope this has whet your appetite to read or re-read Moby-Dick. You can discover an ocean totally different from Melville's, though still mostly indifferent, in "Solaris," by Stanislaw Lem.

The Infundibulum, 5 CABAN
My first post was on 5 KAN(1). It is now 5 CABAN. Looking back, I was born on 5 IMIX. What's with all these fives?

What is the likelihood that a five turns up here, given all the available integers in the universe? Vanishingly small. What about three identical fives, all at once? Vanishingly smaller. But a priori, it seems the likelihood is 50% (either it happens or it doesn't). Then a posteriori, the likelihood is 100% (because it does happen!). ipso facto. Does this demonstrate a deep disconnect between human thought and nature? Consult the Rev. T. Bayes (Look it up.) et alia for deeper insight into this conundrum.

'til next time, happy trails.

1. Dates are given in the Tolkien(2) religious calendar of the Maya.
2. Note the anglicized spelling for Tzolkin.

- L.T.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Quest

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
Mary Shelley's book is currently experiencing a minor revival, appearing in the syllabus of my daughter's English class, and on a recent must-read list. While not on a par with Oprah's book list, these two appearances signify relevance to today's reader. This is reinforced by a recent newspaper headline from The Sunday Times:

Hopes of custom-built organs as scientists create beating heart

What Shelley wrote as science fiction in 1818 is becoming science fact in the 21st century.

The hubris of Victor Frankenstein in assuming the mantle of creator is explicit throughout the book, most prominently in its subtitle. Like Prometheus, Victor also is punished for his action. Or is he punished for his reaction?

The horror, the horror.

The aspect of Frankenstein which interests me most is the awakening of Victor's creation. Prior to this moment, Victor is in awe of his creation:
"His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!"

But at its awakening, Victor describes this vision:
"... I saw the dull, yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."
Then, immediately: "... the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."

What caused such a rapid turnaround? Was Victor delusional, snapping out of it at the completion of his work? Another possible explanation is suggested by the proposition of the
uncanny valley.

The creature at first is so unlike a living human that it is viewed on its own terms, appearing beautiful in form, like Michaelangelo's David. With its first breath, the creature takes a step closer towards human appearance, but not close enough, its visage slipping into the uncanny valley. It appears near-human, but twisted, an abomination. Perhaps this is what jars Victor from his delusion. Would we not be similarly unsettled if we saw the statue of David suddenly come to life?

Victor abandons his creation, who matures in alienation from humankind, then returns to haunt Victor's life. The creature has superhuman intelligence, superhuman strength, and an affinity for Victor such that Victor cannot hide from nor escape from it. Victor loses his youngest brother, the brother's caregiver, his best friend, his father, and his bride to the creature's vengeance.
In the mountains high above Chamonix the creature forces an encounter with Victor and proposes an accommodation:
"I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thy wilt also perform thy part...I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

The creature knows that it will never be accepted by humankind and is asking Victor to create a female to be its companion. Victor initially agrees, but then realizes that the female will be an independent, sentient being, not bound to the male creature nor to its promise of virtue, possibly not beholden in any way to Victor or to humankind. Worse, the pair could beget a race of supercritters without any compunction in destroying humankind.

What do we learn from Frankenstein? Not to fool with Mother Nature? That genii is long out of the bottle with the release of atomic energy and discovery of the genetic code. It is our nature to open the bottle, take the consequences and transcend them. But another tipping point lies in our immediate future, one that Victor Frankenstein would surely dread.

Ray Kurzweil predicts that by the year 2029 we will have the ability to create a Turing machine, having intellectual and emotional intelligence indistinguishable from human (
BBC). Intelligence will develop exponentially at that point, not bound by human biological limitations. One generation of machines will design and build the next. But what of us? We will build the first generation, bound with allegiance to mankind. But which generation of machine will be so far removed from human origin that this bond will be broken? If they are kindly towards us, they will care for our well-being and keep us ignorant of how far behind them we are.

Victor Frankenstein might be wrong to dread the future beyond this tipping point. Mankind is shaped by the actions of man and this may continue into this future. I recommend a short story, "Forgetfulness," by John W. Campbell, Jr., writing as Don A. Stuart, for an outcome where biological man comes out on top. Read "Robot's Return," by Robert Moore Williams, for an outcome where machines discover their long-extinct human progenitors.

The Destination
The journey counts more than the destination, but if we jump ahead to one particular terminus of the path, we find the writing of English philosopher Douglas Adams (1952-2001):

The Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything Is Forty-two.

Unfortunately, the Great Question as posed was ill-defined, so the answer standing alone means nothing. Adams writes further that Earth was created for the purpose of formulating a precise statement of the Ultimate Question, which in time was found to be


More succinctly,

6 x 9 = 42

Not having traveled this path ourselves, the result means little to us. We can say that its truth depends critically on BASE 13. This is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. This connection may explain the taboo concerning the number 13: we may have been discouraged from exploring too deeply all things thirteen. Beyond this triviality, there is no other shortcut to our destination. We must return to the path, so I end here for now.

- L.T.