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 himself...one 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.
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 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.
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: "...it'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 world...is 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.