Melville’s prophetic mission

Melville does not attack traditional ideas about God with the object of replacing them with better ideas; his mission is prophetic, that of calling us to a deeper life. He is a forerunner of religious writers in our own time, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Elie Wiesel, whose keynote is the maintenance of discourse concerning ultimate realities in the face of horrors so extreme as to confound religious meditation altogether, to threaten it with extinction. Yet unlike Bonhoeffer and Wiesel, Melville does not speak for a community of religious teaching and observance. He invokes traditional theological materials in such a way as to produce a characteristic dissonance, in which conflicting perspectives are pressed upon the reader simultaneously. By this means, Melville continuously establishes and disestablishes the reader’s relation to his narrative; at every point, we find ourselves struggling to find a framework in which to place what is being said.

Melville thus draws us into a religious struggle. The traditional perspectives at work are biblical and theological, pointing toward the ultimate boundaries of experience; and Melville places the unresolvable conflict of these perspectives at the book’s own outermost horizon, embracing within that horizon a discourse concerning final questions, the meaning or unmeaning of life and death. Engaging in that discourse, as it goes on in passage after passage, calls up a religious consciousness; and as we attempt to place Melville’s local meanings within the context of the work as a whole, we are carried to the frontier at which the churning of interpretive frameworks goes on, Melville’s dismantling and re-framing of the world.

— T. Walter Herbert, Jr., “Calvinist Earthquake: Moby-Dick and Religious Tradition,” in New Essays on Moby-Dick, edited by Richard H. Brodhead, pp. 113-114.

Far from being a simple adventure yarn, Moby-Dick is driven by a metaphysical/theological quest: is the universe friendly toward us? Indifferent? Hostile? What is the nature of God and can we peer into that nature through the cracking open of our perception that occurs in certain moments of transcendental insight? The fact that this is the kind of stuff I’ve been obsessed with since I was about 19 may partly explain why this book had such an effect on me.

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