Herman Melville's Moby Dick: A Survival Guide to the Twenty First Century

An Overview of What Follows

In his online book, Vividness, David Chapman argues for the importance of an attitude, which he calls "spacious passion", that he claims is the key to understanding Buddhist tantra. This attitude, I'm going to argue, is also a key to understanding Moby Dick, and the key to understanding Moby Dick as a survival guide. There - I've said it now, and you can't stop reading if you want. The rest of this book will mostly just be a painstaking unpicking of exactly what that means.

Just to provide an initial context, let's look a little more closely at what Chapman means by "spaciousness" and "passion".

Spaciousness is defined by Chapman as "freedom from fixed meanings". To quote from Vividness:

Spaciousness is an attitude: the willingness to suspend the process of meaning-making. Spaciousness is the willingness to allow unknowing, uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity, meaninglessness.

Spaciousness values astonishment, perplexity, and groundlessness. Spaciousness gives experience a quality of freshness: every situation appears unique, not merely as another instance of a familiar category.

Spaciousness depends on opened perception. Habitual categorization suppresses details; it dulls the senses. The supposed meaning of a situation blocks your view of it. You see only interpretations, not the full complexity, variability, and diversity of reality. Spaciousness directs attention to specifics, and reveals their vividness. It recognizes, not rejects, both incoherent messiness and alluring beauty.

Passion is about "strong emotions" that "—connect us with what matters."

Passions take you out of yourself; they are about other people, situations, and things. That “aboutness” prompts you to connect with the world.

What Chapman is arguing for is an attitude that brings spaciousness and passion together:

Spaciousness is functional only when wed with passion. Without passion, spaciousness produces only a stupid peacefulness. Spaciousness, by itself, is passive.

Passion without spaciousness is blind obsession. Without spaciousness, passion is confined to fixed channels, and its energy is often destructive. You act on emotions compulsively, or impulsively.

When the two are united, passion can flow in the many directions that are revealed by spaciousness. Then you can use your emotions creatively—propulsively—rather than being used by them habitually.

To make this country-simple from the start: one way of understanding Moby Dick is to see Ishamel, the narrator, as representing spaciousness, and Ahab, the central character, as passion. It's not quite that simple, of course. Nothing is.

Reflecting that attitude of valuing both spaciousness and passion, this book is (or probably more accurately will be) structured in three parts:

  • Some Maps and Guidebooks: which presents some of the different ways of looking at Moby Dick, and at reality more generally, while insisting that none of the maps and guidebooks are 100% accurate.
  • Spaciousness: focuses on maps and guidebooks that explain the ways in Moby Dick suspends "the process of meaning-making" and values "astonishment, perplexity, and groundlessness". Some examples of those maps are:
    • Analyses of capitalism: taking apart the idea that capitalism is natural and unchanging
    • Analyses of colonialism: taking apart the idea that colonial values are natural and unchanging.
    • Anaylses of gender: taking apart the idea that gender roles and patriarchal structure are natural and unchanging. I guess you're probably seeing the pattern. In fact, another approriate title for this section would be Deconstruction - taking everything apart. A lot of people are uneasy about the whole business of taking things apart, but I think it's a part, but not the whole, of the process. We'll also look at
    • Analyses of scientific development: the increasing importance of uncertainty across multiple scientfic disciplines
    • And beneath all of this, we'll borrow from contemplative practices, and look at the idea that reality itself is groundless and that any attempt to describe it in final terms is futile. They'll be nihilism, shadow eating and emptiness. You'll love it.
  • Passion: the final part, expresses the belief that spaciousness, though vital, is not sufficient, and needs to be wedded with passionate engagement with and connection to the world, alongside the recognition of groundlessness. This section could also be titled Reconstruction, or putting things back together once you've also seen and accepted that they can be taken apart. I don't want to introduce too many spoilers at this point, but Queequeg is pretty vital to this part of the book.

As ever throughout this book, it is key to remember: the concepts of spaciousness and passion are just (hopefully useful) maps (other useful maps are definitely available and will definitely get attention too). Their use as structuring devices should therefore be viewed with suspicion. There may be, for example, the sense that we get the bad news (spaciousness) out of the way first before getting onto the good stuff (passion) but it's really not that simple. Nothing is.

Hopefully this has given you a sense of what is to come, rather than just telling you the whole story. So I'll continue. In Some Maps and Guidebooks, we'll look at some very different perspectives on what Moby Dick is about, and introduce properly the concept of the Map and the Territory that is another vital part of this book.

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