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.