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

A Half-hearted Attempt to Explain Moby Dick in its Totality

I want to illustrate that finding a complete and total map for understanding Moby Dick is impossible.

Let's start with what ought to be a simple question: why is Moby Dick being pursued by Captain Ahab?

We can begin to answer this by looking, as a psychoanalyst might, at the specifics of Ahab's psychology, as many readings of Moby Dick have done. We might seek a cause in Ahab's past for his driven pursuit of the whale - though I would argue [need to prove with textual detail] that a single and simple cause is unlikely to be found, and even if we found it, we could then ask: what cause caused that cause? We could then keep asking the same question through a series of psychological causes through human history until our will to live eventually subsided.

But we could also note that Moby Dick wasn't the only white whale being pursued. To answer more generally, we could talk about, as Marxist might, the capitalist system, sperm oil as a commodity, and the extraction of value from the natural world.

But why do we have a capitalist system in North American in the mid-ninetenth century, and why is it extracting value from the natural world in this way?

From here, we could take a step back in time, and talk, as a biologist might, about evolution and selfish genes.

But then, why are humans at this point in the history of the Earth subject to evolutionary development? We would then need to take a further step back, to explain the development of evolution, and then before that, to talk about the development of bacteria.

But why did bacteria develop? From here, we're taking another step back to look at geology and the formation of rock and sea and then perhaps to chemistry and the development of the elements, and to physics and the development of atoms, and the realm of the sub-atomic before that, and to theories of the big bang. And while we might feel, as some physicists do, that as we become smaller and smaller in our focus, and wider and more abstract in our viewpoint, we are getting closer to some kind of foundational knowledge, we are now so abstracted away from the original question that we probably feel the need to trace our way back to the start, and to the specifics of the orginal situation. We are staring forlornly at a quark through an imaginary super electron microscope of the future, and wondering: what was the question again? Oh yes, all those sub-atomic and atomic elements that make up Ahab in pursuit of the equally complexly assembled whale.

Complexitiy theory teaches us that in a complex system, and god knows the universe as a whole is pretty damn complex system, we can't just start with the foundational elements and trace some inevitable route to the answer to the present question in our minds. Behaviours emerge from the interactions between elements and isolating one element does not allow us to predict that emergent behaviour.

So what we're left with is a series of answers that become questions which beg answers which become questions in an infinite regress. Or a level of exasperating uncertainty about everything that may help us understand Ahab's "fiery hunt". As Ishmael put its:

_however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make (Moby Dick, Chapter 58, Brit)

Let me be very clear: the point I'm making here is not that taking a psychoanalytical, or Marxist, or feminist, or biological, approach to Moby Dick is not worth bothering with. Indeed, I'll spend some time here taking all of those approaches. Each of those approaches will illuminate the book in different ways. If Moby Dick was a "territory", like a country with a complex coast line, each of those approaches would provide a map that matched up fairly well with a part of that territory. You could use them to tour around for a while and probably not get too lost. But what they couldn't do was allow you to see the totality of that territory, with all its complexity in (at least) four dimensions.

Rather than taking a theoritical system and trying to impose that on the book, a different way to understand Moby Dick is to use guides that try to explain how as humans we create meanings and how that process changes as humans go through different stages of development. In what follows I'll introduce some of these guides. But they too are maps, and they too need treating with some considerable caution.

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