God and the White Whale

Brandon points to this interesting piece by Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul on Moby-Dick, which Sproul correctly notes is the greatest American novel.

Sproul argues for a Christian reading of Melville’s work–seeing Ahab as man in rebellion against God (symbolized by the White Whale).

Melville experts and scholars come to different conclusions about the meaning of the great white whale. Many see this brutish animal as evil because it had inflicted great personal damage on Ahab in an earlier encounter. Ahab lost his leg, which was replaced by the bone of a lesser whale. Some argue that Moby Dick is Melville’s symbol of the incarnation of evil itself. Certainly this is the view of the whale held by Captain Ahab himself. Ahab is driven by a monomaniacal hatred for this creature, this brute that left him permanently damaged both in body and soul. He cries out, “He heaps me,” indicating the depth of the hatred and fury he feels toward this beast. Some have accepted Ahab’s view that the whale is a monstrous evil as that of Melville himself. That the whale is not a symbol of evil but the symbol of God Himself. In this interpretation, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale is not a righteous pursuit of God but natural man’s futile attempt in his hatred of God to destroy the omnipotent deity.

While I think there’s something to this, I also think it’s a bit too pat–and maybe too comforting to Christian sensibilities.

The Whale certainly does symbolize transcendence, I think. Sproul points to the key chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” where the many facets and connotations of the property of whiteness evoke what we might, following Rudolph Otto, call the mysterium tremendum et fascians. I would go further and say that much of the book–such as the allegedly boring chapters on cetology, history, the details of whaling, etc.–are intended by Melville to create a mythology of sorts in which the whale (and by extension all of non-human nature) takes on a transcendent, larger-than-life quality.

However, I think Sproul overlooks another key theme–the inscrutability of the Whale (and, by implication, ultimate reality). One of the things that makes Melville seem so contemporary is what we might call his “perspectivalism.” There is no single privileged perspective that can give us a “true” picture of reality. This comes out perhaps most clearly in “The Doubloon” where the crew members inspect the symbols on a gold doubloon Ahab has nailed to the ship’s mast, each one finding in them a radically different meaning. Each character’s understanding of reality is as much a product of himself as it is of the world. We can also cite the early chapters in which Ishmael, through his relationship with the “savage” Queequeg, comes to a rather “relativistic” view of religious and cultural pluralism.

Indeed, this perspectivalism is inherent in the very structure of the novel–the shift from first- to third-person narrative, telling the story from the point of view of different characters, the mixing of genres (realistic novel, history, drama), and the general “unreliability” of Ishmael as a narrator. This structure destabilizes the reader by refusing to provide anything like the classic omniscient narrator to tell us how things really are.

We also see this in the treatment of Ahab. Sproul seems to want to read him as more classically villainous–as man in revolt against God. But Ahab is closer to a Shakespearean tragic figure–someone who is admirable in many ways, but who is set, almost in spite of himself, on a path that can only end in his own destruction. By contrast, the more conventionally pious Starbuck, while perhaps morally in the right, is too weak-willed to prevent Ahab from carrying out his quest for revenge.

If the White Whale is a symbol of ultimate reality for Melville, then it has to be said that he regarded that reality as deeply mysterious and ambiguous. The world can by turns appear beneficent, brutally cruel, and indifferent. And each character responds to that reality in a different way, none of them obviously “correct.” If we take Ishmael as Melville’s stand-in (a decidedly dicey proposition) we might, tentatively, characterize his response as something like “diffident awe.” But this is certainly far from Christian piety. You could well argue that the novel leaves us with a picture of reality as supremely indifferent to human affairs, with “the great shroud of the sea roll[ing] on as it rolled five thousand years ago” and Ishmael as “another orphan” on that sea.


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