Monday, January 6, 2020

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, a reread

Herman Melville 
American novel
Published 1851
reread (first read July 2012)

"I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb," Herman Melville admitted to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne after writing his most popular novel Moby-Dick.

Herman Melville hated God, and he loathed Christianity and its followers; but mostly he was angry with God. 

Melville was raised in a strict form of Calvinism and the Reformed Church. At age 12, he witnessed his father die a terrible death and had to work to help support his family. Eventually he went to sea, where, on many voyages, he witnessed every intolerable misfortune and immoral deed imaginable: lust, theft, disease, pestilence, hunger, hatred, murder, racism, poverty, and death. Many crimes and tribulations he connected with Christianity because these crimes were perpetrated by so-called Christians or in the name of "Christian" nations, with no relief even from the sympathetic God of his youth. Hence, Melville's heart hardened against Christianity, believers, and the Christian God.

In interpreting this novel, it is commonly held that Moby-Dick, the white whale, represents nature, a god, or the God of the Bible. I am 100% certain now, after this second read, that Melville intended to portray Moby-Dick as the Christian God, exactly as the author experienced His character.

To Melville, God was a colossal bully who exploited His power, harassing and tormenting small, powerless man on the earth, especially in his time of misery and affliction. To Melville, God was not a God of mercy, grace, or love. God was heartless. 
Here's food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels; that's tingling enough for mortal man! to think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that. 
According to Melville, at least we humans can feel. God cannot. We are nobler than God, even though we can never overpower Him; at least we have a conscience,* Melville argued.

*(Notice that Melville claimed it was man who had a heart and felt compassion, unlike God, yet it was his fellow man who was responsible for causing many of these misfortunes against other human beings. But, I digress.)

On and on and on...the entire book is contempt, suspicion, animosity, and vexation directed at Christianity and God. Melville is not the first to experience rebellion toward his religion or to blame God for all the world's calamity, hardship, and injustice. But why did he fiercely reject and challenge Him? I cannot fully understand this answer until I dig deeper into Melville's personal life. 

Moby-Dick is not genuinely about whaling or struggles at sea or even a lunatic sea captain bent on revenge. It is a written record of one man's personal and private struggle with his pride. Melville knew his Bible very well, and He knew the truth; but he chose not to believe. He bitterly turned away from God, and he put himself in God's place, as man is want to do generation after generation. In the end, I think Melville knew it was dangerous to take this position; but he refused to yield. 

According to Hawthorne, he said of Melville, "He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. He has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us." 

Moby-Dick, the novel, is a raging case against the God of the Bible, but it is also Melville's justification for his own self-righteousness. He said he felt "as spotless as a lamb" for writing a "wicked book," but I wonder if his conscience burned within him. With his obvious religious symbolism and parody of theology, he must have known he was accountable to Christians (and God). 

Furthermore, his rebellion against God is so blatant and arrogant that I believe he was unbearably cognizant of his circumstance. In other words, he needed to prove unequivocally to himself that he was not afraid of the wrath of God; and therefore should no one else.

Well, having said all that, what do I really think of Moby-Dick

I will never get rid of this book, and I will read it again, God willing. It is rightly considered important literature, cleverly written, and at times poetry. Melville wrote about what many people only struggle with privately: we have and will continue to throw temper tantrums at God; we rage about the world's misery and injustice; we question our own beliefs; and the hypocrisy of the religious confines us. Naturally, we all are at enmity with God; we all wrestle with our faith.

Moby-Dick is the written record of that universally personal, private human conflict with God. 

Unfortunately, Melville's rebellious pride was more valuable to him, even though he knew man never wins in his conflict with God; nonetheless, he would not yield to God's will. To me, that is the most notable and inescapable part of the story - the personal story behind the story

And so, if I can end on this note...while I think Moby-Dick is a literary treasure and that it should be read for its brilliance, just know that there is something far deeper about the story and its author than what you may initially read upon its surface -- something very melancholy and heartbreaking. That is how I feel about Moby-Dick and what I see when I look at the eyes of the man in this portrait.

Herman Melville ~ Joseph Oriel Eaton, 1870

I read this with a group - many of whom are still reading - for the Moby-Dick Readalong. If you want to know more about Moby-Dick, like if you should read it (which I would say, "You should."), you could visit Brona's blog at Brona's Books for the most comprehensive coverage of Moby-Dick on the entire planet.


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Oh my. Your take on Moby Dick is brilliant, I think. I tweak your thoughts a bit, and say Moby Dick is an excellent portrayal of the God of the Old Testament, and in Melville's day, that seems to be the focus of much of Christianity.

And that is why I loved reading Moby Dick. It's such a rich and thoughtful book. I'm glad I read it.

Silvia said...

Deb, I agree. As a Christian, I am so sad that Melville could not get past his "Job's stage" an come full circle to understand that our true God loves us.

If he felt spotless as a lamb, it could have been in the sense that he gave his honest all in this book.

I too find it so gut wrenching that in the end the book could not be have a redeemable or cathartic effect on him. To all of us, the beauty in it, the honest questioning, the denounce of false piety, it's all a testimony to the intelligence and artistic nature that God has given humanity. The book undoubtedly has an old testament quality to it.

But while we can read it and be at peace with the Lord, it pains me to know that Melville wasn't because his assumption in that letter.

It's the same sadness I feel for another author, Steinbeck, who had so much love for humanity and who didn't believe in God either.

I too would love to reread it one day.

I'm si glad I jumped into the read along, even though I finished it early.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ruth,
I just finished Moby Dick on December 31st. I find your take on the novel not only plausible but most probable given what we now know of Melville. I'll go so far as to speculate that he may have even written the novel with no other real motive than to finally purge the God he disliked from his mind. He was for sure a most talented writer but in the end, this novel never settled his heart from what I can gather. A very well written final review. As for me, I'm not sure I'll ever re-read it though. Have a nice week. By the way, you should start reading some of Hemingway's short stories before jumping right in to a lengthy novel. I suggest starting with 'The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber,' and 'The Snows Of Kilimanjaro.' My best to you and your family.
~ Dean

Jillian said...

It sounds like Job with an unhappy ending.

Silvia said...

To me it's still amazingly worth reading, but that's the tone. Though the book is so rich, it is generous to the reader.

A man and his obsession, and everything in between, hahaha.And there's tremendous beauty, and humor, and profound observations.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Wow, what a great review. And what penetrating insight. I plowed through Moby Dick once and can not bring myself to read it again. It was just too plodding, even though Melville could be pretty funny at times.

It really has to do with the Holy Spirit and this is where Calvin had it right (I'm quasi in the Calvin camp, but not completely, that's another topic). Our corrupt natures make us unable to comprehend the truths of God. That is why so many people who are intelligent stubbornly persist in believing in a false world, that is easily disproved. The only reason they believe it is because they are in rebellion against God.

Where I differ with Calvinists is that they believe that one cannot reach out to God unless He first saves you. Otherwise, in order to show his justice, he deafens the ears and blinds the eyes of the unchosen, so it is impossible to come to salvation.

I do not see this in scripture. I see that God calls people and writes the truth on each man's heart. Man chooses to close his own mind against it. But again, that is a very long conversation for another day.

Incidentally, R.C. Sproul, a hyper-Calvinist if there ever was one, thought Moby Dick was the greatest book ever written in classic literature. I need to look up what he has written about it and see why.

Paula Vince said...

Melville sure used a huge platform to grapple with his issues against God. Thanks for this fascinating run-down of his personal history. It helps to explain the mindset behind a most melancholy book.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi me again. I was reading previous comments and I have to disagree with the comments about "God of the Old Testament". Having studied the OT indepth. I find a God rich in mercy and love. In Isaiah He pleads with His people to return from them. They were sacrificing their own children, yet God speaks of wooing them back as a lover.

Then in Jonah, the most powerful words at the end:

When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.

Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”

I feel like crying every time I read that, and I can't read it out loud without breaking down.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Sorry, I should proof read. I meant God pleads for His people to return to Him.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Wow. This is the most profound thing I've read about this book. What a deep and thought-provoking take on it! Bravo. I don't know much at all about Melville except that he was played by Ben Whishaw in In the Heart of the Sea, and this is pretty fascinating stuff. Poor guy, I feel sorry for him, misunderstanding God's love and grace.

Ruth said...

I think I need to do more research into Melville's religious upbringing bc I am not familiar with it. I read that when his father died, he was offended by his mother's continued strong faith and trust in God. He probably felt betrayed and expected his mother to abandon her faith, too. I know I cannot confirm that in Melville's time there was a focus on the God of the OT; anyway, even if it was, He was and is always merciful. What mattered was how his church taught about the God of the Bible, and that is what I do not know.

I feel the same about Steinbeck! He makes me so mad. His mother read to him from the Bible. He knew the Bible inside out, and it was probably why he used so much biblical symbolism. But, so far as I know, he didn't know the Lord personally. I think I can say the same about Hawthorne. Again, I cannot agree more -- it's a deep, provocative read; one can get so much out of it. But when you know the truth about the emotion behind the story, it is heartbreaking.

I probably haunted him. You know when you are so bitter about someone or something, you never let it go. It just grows like a cancer. About Hemingway...I am familiar w/ the Snows of Kilimanjaro...but it's going to have to wait bc I'm sort of on a buying and borrowing ban, and I have my books lined up for the next few years. But you never know. I'll keep it in mind, especially if I enjoy these Hemingways that I own. Thanks!

The emotional overtones in Job may be present in MD, but one difference between Job and Ahab (or Melville) is that Job didn't rage at God; he honestly questioned God. That's it. But Melville I don't believe ever said anything right about God, on purpose. Well, this may be a stretch, but I was thinking Ahab/Melville is more like Herod of the NT, who actually sought to kill Jesus (at birth) bc the Scriptures prophesied about a King born in Bethlehem, and he was so enraged that he killed all the baby boys under two.

Thanks for bringing up the Calvin issue. There has been much discussion about Calvinism in my circles lately. Thanks for clarifying that. I found an article by Sproul called The Unholy Pursuit of God, in which he expounds the chapter about the Whiteness of the Whale. He says:
"If the whale embodies everything that is symbolized by whiteness—that which is terrifying; that which is pure; that which is excellent; that which is horrible and ghastly; that which is mysterious and incomprehensible—does he not embody those traits that are found in the fullness of the perfections in the being of God Himself?
Who can survive the pursuit of such a being if the pursuit is driven by hostility? Only those who have experienced the sweetness of reconciling grace can look at the overwhelming power, sovereignty, and immutability of a transcendent God and find there peace rather than a drive for vengeance. Read Moby Dick, and then read it again."

This is what Melville missed. He was unable to experience the mercy and grace of God bc he was blinded by his rage and hatred and ungratefulness and hardened heart. Furthermore, I wholeheartedly agree about our God rich in mercy and love, which is why it breaks my heart when even authors get God wrong.

Huge is a good way to describe it. :D

Ruth said...

I do want and need to see that movie again. I wish it covered more of his personal struggle - or maybe it does touch on it and I don't remember; but I think it mostly focused on the story about the whaling ship being chased by the whale. Well, thanks for your kind words about my opinion. : )

Jillian said...

Thanks for the clarification, Ruth. Appreciated and very interesting!

RT said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure the novel is Melville's rant … I read it as Ahab's rant as observed by Ishmael as "observed" by Melville … in short, I'm wary of ascribing so much to Melville … but that's just my limited POV …

Ruth said...

R.T.: What do you mean by "limited POV?" You've read MD, right? So it is probably your experience. For me, during my first read, I felt abandoned by Ishmael. Someone else is telling this story. This second time it was more obvious to me that the narration changes after the Pequod begins her voyage. One could say the wrath is Ahab's, for certain, but on further investigation, there is definitely a deep-rooted anger in the narration itself, a personal story that doesn't fit the well-grounded Ishmael. That's why I think it is Melville's personal story. Anyway, that's just my experience.

RT said...

I played with language by saying my comment was my point of view. As for the narrator in the novel, sometimes Ishmael and sometimes another voice, I resist equating the voice with Melville’s voice. The novel is not his rage but his query. We must provide our own answers to his provocations.

RT said...

Postscript ... consider the following when thinking about narrator rather than author ...

Ruth said...

RT: I did know what you meant. I suggested it wasn't limited bc you read the story, so it is your full experience. But anyway, I understand what you mean.
It's ok if you reject Melville as the voice. But I have a different experience especially bc Melville raged and struggled personally in his faith. The entire novel is bursting with religious symbolism that mocks and rages against the God of Melville's youth. He even admitted he wrote a wicked novel.
The other night I watched The Heart of the Sea, hoping it would reveal something about the author. At the very end of the film he tells the last surviving member of the Essex, after his interview of what happened, that he gave Melville the courage to do what he had to do...which I think was more than just write about men escaping a vengeful white whale. Melville was going to go home and write about his personal experience of a vengeful God. So while the narrator is Ishmael in the story, we are made to believe, I still think Melville took over bc he could. It was his story to tell.