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 tissues...as 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." [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.