Herman Melville's Moby Dick
From Classics Comics, no.5, 1942
by D.H. Lawrence
Moby Dick, or the White Whale.
A hunt. The last great hunt.
For Moby Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is old, hoary, monstrous, and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked; and snow-white.
Of course he is a symbol.
I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.
He is warm-blooded, he is lovable. He is lonely Leviathan, not a Hobbes sort. Or is he?
But he is warm-blooded and lovable. The South Sea Islanders, and Polynesians, and Malays, who worship shark, or crocodile, or weave endless frigate-bird distortions, why did they never worship the whale? So big!
Because the whale is not wicked. He doesn’t bite. And their gods had to bite.
He’s not a dragon. He is Leviathan. He never coils like the Chinese dragon of the sun. He’s not a serpent of the waters. He is warm-blooded, a mammal. And hunted, hunted down.
It is a great book.
At first you are put off by the style. It reads like journalism. It seems spurious. You feel Melville is trying to put something over you. It won’t do.
And Melville really is a bit sententious: aware of himself, self-conscious, putting something over even himself. But then it’s not easy to get into the swing of a piece of deep mysticism when you just set out with a story.
Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby Dick. He preaches and holds forth because he’s not sure of himself And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.
The artist was so much greater than the man. The man is rather a tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical-transcendentalist sort: Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, etc. So unrelieved, the solemn ass even in humour. So hopelessly au grand serieux, you feel like saying: Good God, what does it matter? If life is a tragedy, or a farce, or a disaster, or anything else, what do I care! Let life be what it likes. Give me a drink, that’s what I want just now.
For my part, life is so many things I don’t care what it is. It’s not my affair to sum it up. Just now it’s a cup of tea. This morning it was wormwood and gall. Hand me the sugar.
One wearies of the grand serieux. There’s something false about it. And that’s Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!
But he was a deep, great artist, even if he was rather a sententious man. He was a real American in that he always felt his audience in front of him. But when he ceases to be American, when he forgets all audience, and gives us his sheer apprehension of the world, then he is wonderful, his book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe.
In his ‘human’ self, Melville is almost dead. That is, he hardly reacts to human contacts any more; or only ideally: or just for a moment. His human-emotional self is almost played out. He is abstract, self-analytical and abstracted. And he is more spell-bound by the strange slidings and collidings of Matter than by the things men do. In this he is like Dana. It is the material elements he really has to do with. His drama is with them. He was a futurist long before futurism found paint. The sheer naked slidings of the elements. And the human soul experiencing it all. So often, it is almost over the border: psychiatry. Almost spurious. Yet so great.
It is the same old thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on, and an old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things. There you are: you see Melville hugged in bed by a huge tattooed South Sea Islander, and solemnly offering burnt offering to this savage’s little idol, and his ideal frock-coat just hides his shirt-tails and prevents us from seeing his bare posterior as he salaams, while his ethical silk hat sits correctly over his brow the while. That is so typically American: doing the most impossible things without taking off their spiritual get-up. Their ideals are like armour which has rusted in, and will never more come off. And meanwhile in Melville his bodily knowledge moves naked, a living quick among the stark elements. For with sheer physical vibrational sensitiveness, like a marvellous wireless-station, he registers the effects of the outer world. And he records also, almost beyond pain or pleasure, the extreme transitions of the isolated, far-driven soul, the soul which is now alone, without any real human contact.
The first days in New Bedford introduce the only human being who really enters into the book, namely, Ishmael, the ‘I’ of the book. And then the moment’s heart’s-brother, Queequeg, the tattooed, powerful South Sea harpooner, whom Melville loves as Dana loves ‘Hope’. The advent of Ishmael’s bedmate is amusing and unforgettable. But later the two swear ‘marriage’, in the language of the savages. For Queequeg has opened again the flood-gates of love and human connection in Ishmael.
As I sat there in that now lonely room, the fire burning low, in that mild stage when, after its first intensity has warmed the air, it then only glows to be looked at; the evening shades and phantoms gathering round the casements, and peering in upon us silent, solitary twain: I 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. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him.
So they smoked together, and are clasped in each other’s arms. The friendship is finally sealed when Ishmael offers sacrifice to Queequeg’s little idol, Gogo.
I was a good Christian, born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with the idolater in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God ? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me -that is the will of God.
– Which sounds like Benjamin Franklin, and is hopelessly bad theology. But it is real American logic.
Now Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must unite with him; ergo I must turn idolater. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salaamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. But we did not go to sleep without some little chat. How it is I know not, but there is no place like bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, open the very bottom of their souls to each other and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair –
You would think this relation with Queequeg meant something to Ishmael. But no. Queequeg is forgotten like yesterday’s newspaper. Human things are only momentary excitements or amusements to the American Ishmael. Ishmael, the hunted. But much more Ishmael the hunter. What’s a Queequeg? What’s a wife? The white whale must be hunted down. Queequeg must be just ‘KNOWN’, then dropped into oblivion.
And what in the name of fortune is the white whale ?
Elsewhere Ishmael says he loved Queequeg’s eyes: ‘large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold’. No doubt like Poe, he wanted to get the ‘clue’ to them. That was all.
The two men go over from New Bedford to Nantucket, and there sign on to the Quaker whaling ship, the Pequod. It is all strangely fantastic, phantasmagoric. The voyage of the soul. Yet curiously a real whaling voyage, too. We pass on into the midst of the sea with this strange ship and its incredible crew. The Argonauts were mild lambs in comparison. And Ulysses went defeating the Circes and overcoming the wicked hussies of the isles. But the Pequod’s crew is a collection of maniacs fanatically hunting down a lonely, harmless white whale.
As a soul history, it makes one angry. As a sea yarn, it is marvellous: there is always something a bit over the mark, in sea yarns. Should be. Then again the masking up of actual seaman’s experience with sonorous mysticism sometimes gets on one’s nerves. And again, as a revelation of destiny the book is too deep even for sorrow. Profound beyond feeling.
You are some time before you are allowed to see the captain, Ahab: the mysterious Quaker. Oh, it is a God-fearing Quaker ship.
Ahab, the captain. The captain of the soul.
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul!
‘Oh, captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done.’
The gaunt Ahab, Quaker, mysterious person, only shows himself after some days at sea. There’s a secret about him! What?
Oh, he’s a portentous person. He stumps about on an ivory stump, made from sea-ivory. Moby Dick, the great white whale, tore off Ahab’s leg at the knee, when Ahab was attacking him.
Quite right, too. Should have torn off both his legs, and a bit more besides.
But Ahab doesn’t think so. Ahab is now a monomaniac. Moby Dick is his monomania. Moby Dick must DIE, or Ahab can’t live any longer. Ahab is atheist by this.
This Pequod, ship of the American soul, has three mates.
1. Starbuck: Quaker, Nantucketer, a good responsible man of reason, forethought, intrepidity, what is called a dependable man. At the bottom, afraid.
2. Stubb: ‘Fearless as fire, and as mechanical.’ Insists on being reckless and jolly on every occasion. Must be afraid too, really.
3. Flask: Stubborn, obstinate, without imagination. To him ‘the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse or water-rat -‘
There you have them: a maniac captain and his three mates, three splendid seamen, admirable whalemen, first-class men at their job.
It is rather like Mr Wilson and his admirable, ‘efficient’ crew, at the Peace Conference. Except that none of the Pequodders took their wives along.
A maniac captain of the soul, and three eminently practical mates.
Then such a crew. Renegades, castaways, cannibals: Ishmael, Quakers.
Three giant harpooners to spear the great white whale.
1. Queequeg, the South Sea Islander, all tattooed, big and powerful.
2. Tashtego, the Red Indian of the sea-coast, where the Indian meets the sea.
3. Daggoo, the huge black negro.
There you have them, three savage races, under the American flag, the maniac captain, with their great keen harpoons, ready to spear the white whale.
And only after many days at sea does Ahab’s own boat-crew appear on deck. Strange, silent, secret, black-garbed Malays, fire worshipping Parsees. These are to man Ahab’s boat, when it leaps in pursuit of that whale.
What do you think of the ship Pequod, the ship of the soul of an American?
Many races, many peoples, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes. Beaten with many stripes.
Seeing stars sometimes.
And in a mad ship, under a mad captain, in a mad, fanatic’s hunt.
For Moby Dick, the great white whale.
But splendidly handled. Three splendid mates. The whole thing practical, eminently practical in its working. American industry!
And all this practicality in the service of a mad, mad chase.
Melville manages to keep it a real whaling ship, on a real cruise, in spite of all fanatics. A wonderful, wonderful voyage. And a beauty that is so surpassing only because of the author’s awful flounderings in mystical waters. He wanted to get metaphysically deep. And he got deeper than metaphysics. It is a surpassingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts.
It is interesting to compare Melville with Dana, about the albatross – Melville a bit sententious.
I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below I ascended to the overcrowded deck, and there lashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal feathered thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked Roman bill sublime. At intervals it arched forth its vast, archangel wings – wondrous throbbings and flutterings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some King’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible strange eyes methought I peeped to secrets not below the heavens – the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. I assert then, that in the wondrous bodily whiteness of the bird chiefly lurks the secret of the spell –
Melville’s albatross is a prisoner, caught by a bait on a hook.
Well, I have seen an albatross, too: following us in waters hard upon the Antarctic, too, south of Australia. And in the Southern winter. And the ship, a P. and O. boat, nearly empty. And the lascar crew shivering.
The bird with its long, long wings following, then leaving us. No one knows till they have tried, how lost, how lonely those Southern waters are. And glimpses of the Australian coast.
It makes one feel that our day is only a day. That in the dark of the night ahead other days stir fecund, when we have lapsed from existence.
Who knows how utterly we shall lapse.
But Melville keeps up his disquisition about ‘whiteness’. The great abstract fascinated him. The abstract where we end, and cease to be. White or black. Our white, abstract end!
Then again it is lovely to be at sea on the Pequod, with never a grain of earth to us.
It was a cloudy, sultry afternoon; the seamen were lazily lounging about the decks, or vacantly gazing over into the lead-coloured waters. Queequeg and I were mildly employed weaving what is called a sword-mat, for an additional lashing to our boat. So still and subdued, and yet somehow preluding was all the scene, and such an incantation of reverie lurked in the air that each silent sailor seemed resolved into his own invisible self—
In the midst of this preluding silence came the first cry: ‘There she blows! there! there! there! She blows!’ And then comes the first chase, a marvellous piece of true sea-writing, the sea, and sheer sea-beings on the chase, sea-creatures chased. There is scarcely a taint of earth – pure sea-motion.
‘Give way, men,’ whispered Starbuck, drawing still further aft the sheet of his sail; ‘there is time to kill a fish yet before the squall comes. There’s white water again! – Close to! – Spring!’ Soon after, two cries in quick succession on each side of us denoted that the other boats had got fast; but hardly were they overheard, when with a lightning-like hurtling whisper Starbuck said: ‘Stand up!’ and Queequeg, harpoon in hand, sprang to his feet. – Though not one of the oarsmen was then facing the life and death peril so close to them ahead, yet, their eyes on the intense countenance of the mate in the stern of the boar, they knew that the imminent instant had come; they heard, too, an enormous wallowing sound, as of fifty elephants stirring in their litter. Meanwhile the boat was still booming through the mist, the waves curbing and hissing around us like the erected crests of enraged serpents.
‘That’s his hump. There! There, give it to him!’ whispered Starbuck. – A short rushing sound leapt out of the boat; it was the darted iron of Queequeg. Then all in one welded motion came a push from astern, while forward the boat seemed striking on a ledge; the sail collapsed and exploded; a gush of scalding vapour shot up near by; something rolled and tumbled like an earthquake beneath us. The whole crew were half suffocated as they were tossed helter-skelter into the white curling cream of the squall. Squall, whale, and harpoon had all blended together; and the whale, merely grazed by the iron, escaped—
Melville is a master of violent, chaotic physical motion; he can keep up a whole wild chase without a flaw. He is as perfect at creating stillness. The ship is cruising on the Carrol Ground, south of St Helena.—
It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow—
Then there is the description of brit.
Steering north-eastward from the Crozetts we fell in with vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance upon which the Right Whale largely feeds. For leagues and leagues it undulated round us, so that we seemed to be sailing through boundless herds of ripe and golden wheat. On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen, who, secure from the attack of a Sperm Whaler like the Pequod, with open jaws sluggishly swam through the brit, which, adhering to the fringing fibres of that wondrous Venetian blind in their mouths, was in that manner separated from the water that escaped at the lip. As moving mowers who, side by side, slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of the marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue on the yellow sea. But it was only the sound they made as they parted the brit which at all reminded one of mowers. Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless masses of rock than anything else—
This beautiful passage brings us to the apparition of the squid.
Slowly wading through the meadows of brit, the Pequod still held her way northeastward towards the island of Java; a gentle air impelling her keel, so that in the surrounding serenity her three tall, tapering masts mildly waved to that languid breeze, as three mild palms on a plain. And still, at wide intervals, in the silvery night, that lonely alluring jet would be seen. But one transparent-blue morning, when a stillness almost preternatural spread over the sea, however unattended with any stagnant calm; when the long burnished sunglade on the waters seemed a golden finger laid across them, enjoining secrecy; when all the slippered waves whispered together as they softly ran on; in this profound hush of the visible sphere a strange spectre was seen by Daggoo from the main-mast head.
In the distance, a great white mass lazily rose, and rising higher and higher, and disentangling itself from the azure, at last gleamed before our prow like a snow-slide new slid from the hills. Thus glistening for a moment, as slowly it subsided, and sank. Then once more arose, and silently gleamed. It seemed not a whale; and yet, is this Moby Dick? thought Daggoo –
The boats were lowered and pulled to the scene.
In the same spot where it sank, once more it slowly rose. Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-colour, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct; but undulated there on the billows an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life. And with a low sucking it slowly disappeared again.
The following chapters, with their account of whale hunts, the killing, the stripping, the cutting up, are magnificent records of actual happening. Then comes the queer tale of the meeting of the Jeroboam, a whaler met at sea, all of whose men were under the domination of a religious maniac, one of the ship’s hands. There are detailed descriptions of the actual taking of the sperm oil from a whale’s head. Dilating on the smallness of the brain of a sperm whale, Melville significantly remarks – ‘for I believe that much of man’s character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are—’ And of the whale, he adds:
‘For, viewed in this light, the wonderful comparative smallness of his brain proper is more than compensated by the wonderful comparative magnitude of his spinal cord.’
In among the rush of terrible awful hunts, come touches of pure beauty.
As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay not so much as a ripple or a thought, came up from its depths, what landsman would have thought that beneath all that silence and placidity the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony!
Perhaps the most stupendous chapter is the one called The Grand Armada, at the beginning of Volume III. The Pequod was drawing through the Sunda Straits towards Java when she came upon a vast host of sperm whales.
Broad on both bows, at a distance of two or three miles, and forming a great semicircle embracing one-half of the level horizon, a continuous chain of whale-jets were up-playing and sparkling in the noonday air.
Chasing this great herd, past the Straits of Sunda, themselves chased by Javan pirates, the whalers race on. Then the boats are lowered. At last that curious state of inert irresolution came over the whales, when they were, as the seamen say, gallied. Instead of forging ahead in huge martial array they swam violently hither and thither, a surging sea of whales, no longer moving on. Starbuck’s boat, made fast to a whale, is towed in amongst this howling Leviathan chaos. In mad career it cockles through the boiling surge of monsters, till it is brought into a clear lagoon in the very centre of the vast, mad, terrified herd. There a sleek, pure calm reigns. There the females swam in peace, and the young whales came snuffing tamely at the boat, like dogs. And there the astonished seamen watched the love-making of these amazing monsters, mammals, now in rut far down in the sea—
But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes, as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in these watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while sucking will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at a time; and while yet drawing moral nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence, even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of gulf-weed in their newborn sight. Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us.—Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep. And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternation and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight—
There is something really overwhelming in these whalehunts, almost superhuman or inhuman, bigger than life, more terrific than human activity. The same with the chapter on ambergris: it is so curious, so real, yet so unearthly. And again in the chapter called The Cassock—surely the oldest piece of phallicism in all the world’s literature.
After this comes the amazing account of the Try-works, when the ship is turned into the sooty, oily factory in mid-ocean, and the oil is extracted from the blubber. In the night of the red furnace burning on deck, at sea, Melville has his startling experience of reversion. He is at the helm, but has turned to watch the fire: when suddenly he feels the ship rushing backward from him, in mystic reversion—
Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead, as rushing from all havens astern. A stark bewildering feeling, as of death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted. My God! What is the matter with me, I thought!
This dream-experience is a real soul-experience. He ends with an injunction to all men, not to gaze on the red fire when its redness makes all things look ghastly. It seems to him that his gazing on fire has evoked this horror of reversion, undoing.
Perhaps it had. He was water-born.
After some unhealthy work on the ship, Queequeg caught a fever and was like to die.
How he wasted and wasted in those few, long-lingering days, till there seemed but little left of him but his frame and tattooing. But as all else in him thinned, and his cheek-bones grew sharper, his eyes, nevertheless, seemed growing fuller and fuller; they took on a strangeness of lustre; and mildly but deeply looked out at you there from his sickness, a wondrous testimony to that immortal health in him which could not die, or be weakened. And like circles on the water, which as they grow fainter, expand; so his eyes seemed rounding and rounding, like the circles of Eternity. An awe that cannot be named would steal over you as you sat by the side of this waning savage –
But Queequeg did not die – and the Pequod emerges from the Eastern Straits, into the full Pacific. ‘To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption. It rolls the midmost waters of the world—’
In this Pacific the fights go on:
It was far down the afternoon, and when all the spearings of the crimson fight were done, and floating in the lovely sunset sea and sky, sun and whale both stilly died together; then such a sweetness and such a plaintiveness, such inwreathing orisons curled up in that rosy air, that it almost seemed as if far over from the deep green convent valleys of the Manila isles, the Spanish land-breeze had gone to sea, freighted with these vesper hymns. Soothed again, but only soothed to deeper gloom, Ahab, who had sterned off from the whale, sat intently watching his final wanings from the now tranquil boat. For that strange spectacle, observable in all sperm whales dying – the turning of the head sunwards, and so expiring – that strange spectacle, beheld of such a placid evening, somehow to Ahab conveyed wondrousness unknown before. ‘He turns and turns him to it; how slowly, but how steadfastly, his homage-rendering and invoking brow, with his last dying motions. He too worships fire . . .’
So Ahab soliloquizes: and so the warm-blooded whale turns for the last time to the sun, which begot him in the waters.
But as we see in the next chapter, it is the Thunder-fire which Ahab really worships: that living sundering fire of which he bears the brand, from head to foot; it is storm, the electric storm of the Pequod, when the corposants burn in high, tapering flames of supernatural pallor upon the masthead, and when the compass is reversed. After this all is fatality. Life itself seems mystically reversed. In these hunters of Moby Dick there is nothing but madness and possession. The captain, Ahab, moves hand in hand with the poor imbecile negro boy, Pip, who has been so cruelly demented, left swimming alone in the vast sea. It is the imbecile child of the sun hand in hand with the northern monomaniac, captain and master.
The voyage surges on. They meet one ship, then another. It is all ordinary day-routine, and yet all is a tension of pure madness and horror, the approaching horror of the last fight.
Hither and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small unspecked birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish and sharks, and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea—
On this day Ahab confesses his weariness, the weariness of his burden. ‘But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, and bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise—’ It is the Gethsemane of Ahab, before the last fight: the Gethsemane of the human soul seeking the last self-conquest, the last attainment of extended consciousness – infinite consciousness.
At last they sight the whale. Ahab sees him from his hoisted perch at the masthead – ‘From this height the whale was now seen some mile or so ahead, at every roll of the sea revealing his high, sparkling hump, and regularly jetting his silent spout into the air.’
The boats are lowered, to draw near the white whale.
At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspectful prey that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam. He saw the vast involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head, beyond. Before it, far out on the soft, Turkish rugged waters, went the glistening white shadow from his broad milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over the moving valley of his steady wake; and on either side bright bubbles arose and danced by his side. But these were broken again by the light toes of hundreds of gay fowl softly feathering the sea, alternate with their fitful flight; and like to some flagstaff rising from the pointed hull of an argosy, the tall but shattered pole of a recent lance projected from the white whale’s back; and at intervals one of the clouds of soft-toed fowls hovering, and to and fro shimmering like a canopy over the fish, silently perched and rocked on this pole, the long tail-feathers streaming like pennons.
A gentle joyousness – a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale—
The fight with the whale is too wonderful and too awful, to be quoted apart from the book. It lasted three days. The fearful sight, on the third day, of the torn body of the Parsee harpooner, lost on the previous day, now seen lashed on to the flanks of the white whale by the tangle of harpoon lines, has a mystic dream-horror. The awful and infuriated whale turns upon the ship, symbol of this civilized world of ours. He smites her with a fearful shock. And a few minutes later, from the last of the fighting whale-boats comes the cry:
‘The ship! Great God, where is the ship?’ Soon they, through dim bewildering mediums, saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of the water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooners still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight—
The bird of heaven, the eagle, St John’s bird, the Red Indian bird, the American, goes down with the ship, nailed by Tashtego’s hammer, the hammer of the American Indian. The eagle of the spirit. Sunk!
Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed; and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.
So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism. It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equalled; and it is a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness.
But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.
The terrible fatality.
Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!
Doom of what?
Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.
Ah, well, if my day is doomed, and I am doomed with my day, it is something greater than I which dooms me, so I accept my doom as a sign of the greatness which is more than I am.
Melville knew. He knew his race was doomed. His white soul, doomed. His great white epoch doomed. Himself, doomed. The idealist, doomed: The spirit, doomed.
The reversion. ‘Not so much bound to any haven ahead, as rushing from all havens astern.’
That great horror of ours! It is our civilization rushing from all havens astern.
The last ghastly hunt. The White Whale.
What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-being of the white race; he is our deepest blood-nature.
And he is hunted, hunted, hunted by the maniacal fanaticism of our white mental consciousness. We want to hunt him down. To subject him to our will. And in this maniacal conscious hunt of ourselves we get dark races and pale to help us, red, yellow, and black, east and west, Quaker and fireworshipper, we get them all to help us in this ghastly maniacal hunt which is our doom and our suicide.
The last phallic being of the white man. Hunted into the death of upper consciousness and the ideal will. Our blood-self subjected to our will. Our blood-consciousness sapped by a parasitic mental or ideal consciousness.
Hot blooded sea-born Moby Dick. Hunted maniacs of the idea.
Oh God, oh God, what next, when the Pequod has sunk?
She sank in the war, and we are all flotsam.
Now what next?
Who knows ? Quien sabe? Quien sabe, senor?
Neither Spanish nor Saxon America has any answer.
The Pequod went down. And the Pequod was the ship of the white American soul. She sank, taking with her negro and Indian and Polynesian, Asiatic and Quaker and good, business-like Yankees and Ishmael: she sank all the lot of them.
Boom! as Vachel Lindsay would say.
To use the words of Jesus, IT IS FINISHED.
Consummatum est! But Moby Dick was first published in 1851. If the Great White Whale sank the ship of the Great White Soul in 1851, what’s been happening ever since?
Post-mortem effects, presumably.
Because, in the first centuries, Jesus was Cetus, the Whale. And the Christians were the little fishes. Jesus, the Redeemer, was Cetus, Leviathan. And all the Christians all his little fishes.
Essay first published in Studies in Classic American Literature, by D. H. Lawrence, 1923
About the Author:
D.H. Lawrence (11 September 1885 – 2 March 1930) was an English writer and poet.