To say that Moby-Dick is a book about meaning is probably not a terribly bold statement. I haven’t done a search of the literature, but I’d wager a big bag of M&Ms that there are a dozen or more theses floating around whose titles (or tortuous subtitles) incorporate variants of our book’s title and author and the word “meaning.” During our first week’s reading, I spent some time poking around to find instances of the word (and its kin — it was this effort that resulted in Moby-Diction) and discovered some thirty in the opening sixteen chapters, of which a number of significant instances could be retained after paring off some of the junk. I’ll spare you the rambling set of quotes I had originally planned to pull by way of illustration, but I will offer one, Ishmael, on the appeal of the water:

Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned.

Although one might mark this down as simply a convenient literary reference on Melville’s part, I believe it bears some more scrutiny as it fits into our second week’s chunk of pages. What’s interesting to me isn’t so much the correspondence with certain patterns of narcissism through chapter 41 (not the least of which turns out to be Ahab’s decision to draft a ship and its crew to fulfill his personal vendetta), but the sense Melville’s word choice gives us of a yearning for (I think) understanding where none can in truth be found. In some versions of the Narcissus myth, the youth does reach out and try to grasp his reflection, thereby plunging to his death by drowning. This is a physical grasping. The OED cites usages of “grasp” meaning “to lay hold of with the mind… to comprehend” as far back as 1680. What a tactile definition for such an abstract sense of the word! By choosing this word, Melville imbues the circumstances of this myth with the sense of not only a physical grasping for something but also a mental grasping, as in a search for meaning. Further, it is a search for meaning not within the self but within some dumb, other, obsessed-about thing.

The idea of dumb, other, tormenting things endowed with reason or agency and so a sort of significance or meaning appears again and again in the first 41 chapters of Moby-Dick. The examples I took note of:

  • Ishmael desires to “[find] out what [a] painting meant” in The Spouter Inn.
  • In “The Chapel,” Ishmael meditates on the mind/body distinction as he ponders the ways in which we commemorate the bodies of our dead and seems to settle on the importance of the reason/mind over the body.
  • In “A Bosom Friend,” Ishmael speaks dismissively about Queequeg’s worshipping a piece of wood.
  • Also in “The Ship,” we see Yojo warming himself at the fire.
  • Again in “The Ship,” we’re told of the peculiar ferocity of the particular whale that took Ahab’s leg.
  • Still in “The Ship,” Yojo is credited with agency for having chosen the Pequod for Ishmael and Queequeg.
  • In “The Ramadan,” as Ishmael tries to bust down the door to the room he shares with Queequeg, it “stubbornly resist[s].”
  • Of Starbuck in “Knights and Squires”: “Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor for persisting in fighting a fish that too much persisted in fighting him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. What doom was his own father’s? Where, in the bottomless deeps, could he find the torn limbs of his brother?” (He knows that being attacked by a whale is a workplace hazard and not a personal affront, in other words.)
  • Flask, in “Knights and Squires,” is described (tongue-in-cheek, to be fair) as seeming to think that “the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him”
  • Stubb’s dream, in “Queen Mab,” revolves around his kicking at an insulting and inamimate pyramid that has kicked him with a dead ivory leg (this pyramid image is later used to link Ahab and the white whale himself).
  • In “The Quarter Deck,” Starbuck cries “Vengeance on a dumb brute that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
  • Ahab replies that all things are as pasteboard masks, which must be struck through. And, of Moby Dick: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and, be the white whale agent or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” (Note that the sun is another inanimate thing here given the potential for agency.)
  • In “Moby Dick,” Ishmael reflects on the reported “infernal aforethought of ferocity” of the white whale, and of that directed ferocity’s resulting deaths not “having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent.” To Moby Dick here are attributed “direful wrath” and “seeming malice” and “malicious agencies.” Ahab’s rage is made a thousandfold more potent by its dumb recipient than had he aimed it at “any one reasonable object.”
  • And, finally: “Ahab did not fall down and worship [malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them] like [others]; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.”

There it is again, that word torment. Melville used it in describing the plight of Narcissus. Consider Narcissus and Ahab together: both obsessed; both willing to subvert the desires of those around them to their own obsessions; both reaching physically through a sort of mask; both grasping at a sort of understanding by pursuing a dumb thing (for Narcissus fails to bodily grasp his image but also fails to mentally grasp that it is a mere image and not a reasoning man); both punished (Narcissus literally) by a Nemesis for their hubris.

Starbuck’s admonition in “The Quarter Deck” seems to me to be a central lesson of Melville’s book. I hate, in a way, to look for a pat lesson, but I think it’s there. I can’t be the only person reading who has stubbed a toe only to deliver a retaliatory kick to the dumb thing I stubbed it on, making both the injury and the insult that much worse. It’s a good lesson.

Delbanco puts it rather more philosophically in his biography of Melville (p. 173):

[Ahab] speaks to the human need for finding meaning in suffering, to what he calls the “lower layer” of consciousness from which arises the demand to know if the “inscrutable” whale is the agent of “some unknown but still reasoning thing” that has sent it on its mission or if it is a mindless beast driven by purposeless instinct. To Ahab, we are all prisoners of our metaphysical ignorance about the meaning of our suffering, and so he demands of the dubious Starbuck, “how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”

[The speech Ahab gives in answer] is delivered by a man unafraid that meaning itself may prove to be an illusion, yet who is willing to destroy himself and, indeed, his whole world in pursuit of it.”

Delbanco goes on to quote Nietzsche, who suggested that “every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering . . . a ‘guilty’ agent who is susceptible to pain.”

I would add to Delbanco and Melville and Nietzsche a near-contemporary of Melville whose own arc as an author rather mirrored our venerable author’s. Here’s Thomas Hardy’s dreary “Hap”:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
  From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
  That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”	

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
  Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
  Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.	

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
  And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
  And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan….
  These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

8 thoughts on “Meaning

  1. Greg Carlisle May 31, 2010 / 8:04 pm


    Thanks for spurring on this reading. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up, but I just finished Ch. 16 (it’s my second reading).

  2. Daniel June 1, 2010 / 2:03 pm

    every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering

    See, that’s why I love conspiracy theories. But that’s not what I really meant to post about. This was the point you made that really caught my attention:

    a yearning for (I think) understanding where none can in truth be found

    Not to be a Johnny One-Note, but that’s basically the soul of modernism. Think Waiting for Godot … or 2666.

  3. Jeff Anderson June 3, 2010 / 7:04 pm

    I’m glad you put this post up, Daryl. I think the almost involuntary search for meaning is a large part of the book–which makes the nautical setting so effective, because that’s one of the least known and (at the time of Melville’s writing, certainly, and even still) least knowable parts of earthly existence. (I had “terrestrial,” but that’s just exactly wrong…) I’ll definitely have more to say on this head after we’ve seen the White Whale himself later on–you probably will too–but this post is a great way to get thinking about it already, and the huge number of forms it’s already appeared in.

  4. MT June 6, 2010 / 2:58 am

    Johnny One-Note, ha! 🙂

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