Melville, Anti-Transcendentalism, & Democracy: Moby-Dick as a Cautionary Tale

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On the eve of the Civil War, Herman Melville wrote in a letter that he was disillusioned with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transcendentalisms, myths & oracular gibberish.” Not short of two years later would Melville publish what would arguably be his greatest work, and in it take on the task of deconstructing Emerson’s transcendentalist ideas in a cautionary tale that would warn against the danger of both the tyranny of one and the passivity of many within a democracy. In his novel Moby-Dick, Melville crafts a narrative that serves as a call for action, creating in Ahab a character that is representative of the failures of transcendentalism and in Ishmael a martyr for democratic ideals who oscillates between the part of observer and interpreter in a way that intends to revolutionize not just the text, but also the roles of the reader and the American novelist.

Melville portrays both Ishmael and Ahab as transcendentalists, but goes on to show that such an ideology cannot sustain them. The two seek an absolute truth: Ishmael tries to unravel the mysteries of Ahab, whom he can never truly know, and Ahab pursues a whale he can never catch. In the spirit of Emerson in his essay “Nature,” they wish to “[be] admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth” (Emerson 73), but come up short. Ishmael believes that Ahab’s secrets “[need] be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep” (Melville 127), but even within the first few chapters of the novel, Ishmael informs the reader that he “lost [him]self in confounding attempts to explain the mystery” (37-8), to the point where he eventually all but disappears from the novel as a character in favor of Ahab’s presence. Ishmael’s aimless pursuit of the truth is relevant not only to his fixation with Ahab, but also to his in-depth dissection of the whale in the cetology chapters throughout the novel. In the whale’s skin he sees the “rare virtue of a strong vitality,” pleading with mankind to “admire and model [it]self after the whale” (247). Much like a transcendentalist, Ishmael tries to ascend to the level of the divine through nature, singing the praises of Emerson’s musings that “the whole circle of persons and things” is “one vast picture which God paints on the instant eternity for the contemplation of the soul” (Emerson 70). Ishmael may try to justify his fascination with facts, but he can never reconcile these figures with the supernatural. When he peels away the surface of the whale’s skin in “The Blanket,” all that is left are “mysterious cyphers” which he cannot comprehend (Melville 246), a reflection of the divinity with which he often describes the whale and which remains enigmatic as Moby Dick leads the Pequod down a path of destruction and then disappears as quickly as it came. Ishmael is not able to gain “access to the entire mind of the Creator,” nor does he “himself” become “the creator in the finite” (Emerson 73), as nature is cruel to Melville’s characters, leaving Ishmael shipwrecked and Ahab dragged to the bottom of the sea. Melville pits man against nature in Moby-Dick, and in such an environment, there can be no creation, only destruction.

With Ahab, Melville shows that destruction is inherent not only in nature, but also in mankind. In contrast with Ishmael’s frequent idealism, the histrionic and monomaniac Ahab may seem like an odd character to manifest transcendental ideals, but he too is a subject of a philosophy which ultimately fails him. Ahab is said to “[pile] upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down” (Melville 156). He vilifies Moby Dick and the power it possesses, casting all the blame for evil and humanity’s sins onto the whale much in the same way that Emerson blames society for corrupting man and causing him to become a “timorous, desponding whimperer” (Emerson 194). Ahab is the vessel for destruction in Melville’s novel; unlike Ishmael, he does not wish to become one with nature and the divine, but instead hopes to destroy it in an effort to understand the “unknown but still reasoning thing” that “puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask” in “each event” (Melville 140). Yet Ahab shares the same fate as Ishmael in his understanding; it will never be enough, and since “the inscrutable thing is chiefly what [Ahab] hates,” this abstraction that is out of his reach will only continue to drive him toward his demise as he forcefully tries to “strike through the mask.” In this way, Melville opposes the transcendental view of the intrinsic goodness of man, going out of his way to show that both man and nature are primarily destructive forces if left to their own devices.

In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851, Melville wrote that it is not in fact an inconsistency to “assert unconditional democracy in all things,” as he does, “and yet confess a dislike to all mankind—in the mass.” This belief is reflected in Moby-Dick as the reader bears witness to the rise of Ahab as an absolute ruler—a danger to the democracy of the ship—from the foundation of his transcendental quest, culminating in his defeat, albeit not as a result of any actions taken by his crew. The question of revolt is one that is frequently juxtaposed with that of destruction in the text, and much of it stems from Ahab’s possession of absolute power. The cycle of inaction that inevitably forces a choice between revolution and destruction is yet another instance of Melville drawing on Emerson’s ideas, this time not to demonstrate the shortcomings of a transcendentalist worldview, but to alter those ideas to fit his own narrative. “Once gone through, we trace the round again” (373), Ahab says in “The Gilder,” and indeed, in his essay “Circles,” Emerson writes that the “life of man is a self-evolving circle” (Emerson 227) —a theme that Melville frequently revisits and which the characters of Ishmael and Ahab seem to embody. In “The Grand Armada,” Ahab finds himself “in his forward turn beholding the monsters he chased, and in the after one the bloodthirsty pirates chasing him” (Melville 299), demonstrating that even those in power are running from something and that getting stuck in such a cycle can only end in disaster, as “through that same gate he was now both chasing and being chased to his deadly end.” According to Emerson, the circle is “throughout nature [the] primary figure repeated without end” (Emerson 225), and while this is reflected in the text of Moby-Dick, and in particular in “The Grand Armada,” Melville’s circles are much more chaotic than the idyllic circles that Emerson describes, which represent unity. “Concentric circles” also dominate the seascape in Ahab’s final moments, swallowing up “the lone boat itself, and all of its crew… in one vortex” (Melville 426) and seemingly resonating with the transcendentalist belief that “the natural world may be conceived of as a system of concentric circles” (Emerson 233). Once again, Melville seems to use Emerson’s own transcendentalist ideas against him, as these circles only serve to unite the crew in death and destruction under Ahab.

It is not until the epilogue that the focus of the cyclical symbolism shifts from Ahab to Ishmael, if only for a brief moment as the novel comes to an end. A choice was made not to rebel, and so consequently Ahab and the crew of the Pequod had to face destruction, yet Ishmael was spared. “Round and round… at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle… [Ishmael] did revolve” (Melville 427), suggesting that Ishmael will now be stuck in a cycle of his own, much like Ahab was before he met his demise. As Ishmael is the sole survivor of the shipwreck and now the subject of loss, he has the potential to become the new “Ahab.” Even before his fatal voyage, Ahab’s character was shrouded with tragedy, and more often than not his anguish about the “desolation of solitude” (405) that defined his life as well as his “poor leg” which was “snatched from under him” (406) motivate his quest for revenge, which serves to justify his absolute power to the rest of the crew. Ishmael refers to himself as an “orphan” (427), resembling Ahab in his speech in “The Gilder” when he proclaims that all of humanity’s souls are like “orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them” (373), Ahab’s own “widowed mother” having died “when he was only a twelvemonth old” (78). Ahab even seems to believe that he bears the burden of all of mankind, “as though [he] were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise” (406). Ahab’s power is therefore carefully framed by his tragedies as he seeks a way to comprehend and give meaning to them, eventually doing so in the form of his retaliation against Moby Dick when his transcendentalist efforts to gain an understanding of the world of both the natural and the divine fail him. In doing so, however, Ahab attempts to remove any responsibility for his own fate and for the fate of his crew from himself, choosing to ignore all the warnings and bad omens he receives in his final days aboard the Pequod. Subsequently, this raises the question of what is to come of Ishmael if he is the new “Ahab.”

If Melville seems to agree with Emerson on one thing, it is that, in a metaphorical sense, “the whole of history is in one man” (Emerson 150), that man in the context of Moby-Dick being Ahab. In the epilogue, Ahab successfully passes the baton to Ishmael, putting history into his hands as Ahab’s fate seemingly becomes Ishmael’s. However, it is in this way that Ishmael differs from Ahab at the end of the novel; he, too, could choose to try to attribute some sort of meaning to his life by chasing after his own death, but instead, he breaks the cycle by not taking the path that is set up for him—that is, the cycle of the rise and fall of power within a supposed democracy. Unlike Ahab, Ishmael does take responsibility and is therefore able to change his fate; he does not become self-aggrandizing as Ahab does, but instead goes on to document the events of Moby-Dick—as though it is his duty to tell the story—and in doing so becomes a vessel for the anti-transcendentalist cautionary tale. In essence, Ishmael’s role shifts from that of observer to that of interpreter. As the author of Moby-Dick, he must make choices about how to depict the events that took place, to supplement the narrative by adding imagined details about the inner-workings of Ahab’s mind as well cetology chapters which may have reflected Ishmael’s true ponderings aboard the Pequod, but could just as easily have been included to add another layer of plausibility to the story. Either way, Ishmael is shown to have evolved in some manner from his initial transcendentalist standpoint, no longer searching for a universal truth in Ahab or in Moby Dick, but rather writing something of an anti-transcendentalist work of his own. While Melville still holds the strings here in that he is the one to have constructed Ishmael, Ahab, and their ultimately failed transcendentalist beliefs, the structure of the narrative, can be attributed wholly to Ishmael in the context of the universe of Moby-Dick.

The narrative as it is organized by Ishmael can too be described as cyclical; the majority of the plot centers on Ahab’s continuous pursuit of Moby Dick, interjected with the killing of whales by the crew of the Pequod, followed by a cetology chapter or some other form of disruption by Ishmael, followed by a gam in which the Pequod meets yet another ship which may or may not have information regarding the whale. This pattern breaks down, however, in the final portion of the novel when Ishmael, both as a character and as a narrator, recedes into the background almost entirely. He acts as an omniscient third-person observer, and so the break of the repetitive cycle of the narrative comes at the price of his own disappearance from the story. He does not reappear until the epilogue, at which point his story truly does come full circle, beginning with Ishmael having “no money in [his] purse, and nothing in particular to interest [him] on shore” (Melville 18), and ending with Ishmael as a lone “orphan” floating in the middle of the sea. After the epilogue, Ishmael must fade into obscurity again in order to break another, more chaotic cycle in which revolution and destruction—both of which will result in a continuation of the cycle—are the only two options should it be allowed to reach its conclusion. As this comes at the expense of Ishmael’s own personal significance to the narrative, Melville seems to offer through Ishmael an alternative to the self-reliance and independence emphasized by Emerson and other transcendentalists. By means of Ishmael, Melville does not deny the necessity of individuality to a democracy, but rather warns against allowing any one person to have so much faith in his own willfulness that it grants him enough control to overshadow the identities of his subordinates, as Ahab does with his crew. Perhaps, then, Melville pens a cautionary tale as a response to the transcendentalist ideas that were prevalent among American thinkers and writers in the first half of the nineteenth century and which he may have perceived as a threat to democratic ideals. He does not suggest that the cycle of revolution and destruction can be permanently stopped, but does caution against acting impulsively, and while he is conscious the past, he is not so much concerned with “the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras” (Emerson 153) as is Emerson. Instead, Melville seems to use Ishmael to show that man should record the failures of history and interpret them from a perspective that differs from the one which brought them about in the first place—in the case of Ishmael, his zealous transcendentalism.

Ishmael does not need his own narrative, like Ahab does, to play a central role in shaping a greater narrative—one that will potentially influence his fellow writers, as well as Melville’s, to follow Ishmael’s example. As John Bryant suggests in his essay “Moby-Dick as Revolution,” Melville requires a true revolution, not just within the text itself, but also in “creating readers anew” (Bryant 66). This is to be a different kind of revolution, not of the transcendentalist sort that brings about superficial change and results in another cycle of revolution and destruction, but rather, a revolution of Ishmael’s caliber that deviates from that cycle, relevant both to the reader’s perception of the novel and to the tumultuous democracy of the freshly minted United States, which Melville holds accountable in Moby-Dick.

Works Cited

Bryant, John. “Moby-Dick as Revolution.” N.p.: n.p., n.d. 65-90. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. Ed. Larzer Ziff. New York: Penguin, 2003.Print.

Melville, Herman. Letter to Evert A. Duyckinck. 3 Mar. 1849. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. From Family Correspondence of Herman Melville. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.

Melville, Herman. Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jun. 1851. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. From Family Correspondence of Herman Melville. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Ed. Herman Melville, Harrison Hayford, and Hershel Parker. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1967. Print.