Today in class we read and discussed a few chapters of Melville’s masterpiece “Moby Dick.” My preoccupation with warfare and how it has been omnipresent in American Literature leads me to find particular interest in how this subject emerges in the most unlikely places. It is interesting to note that literature is not the only place we see representations of warfare penetrating the American Mind. We find it in films, music, advertisements, magazines, video games, and the list goes on. For my purposes, I choose to focus on Moby Dick for this post, but much can be said about the many instances I have alluded to.
I worked until 11pm at my job at the local grocery store, which requires a minimal amount of effort, but leaves copious amounts of time for reflection the other night; When I got home, I sat right down, sleep deprived as I was, and began reading America’s great novel. Certainly, I wanted to go to sleep, but I was thrilled to be able to have the remainder of the semester to read the book, which much like the whale has eluded me most of my Undergrad career.
A few key passages that fed my peculiar interests in war will follow:
From “The Advocate” Chapter 24: “And if the idea of peril so much enhances the conceit of the soldier’s profession; let me assure ye that many a veteran who has freely marched up to a battery, would quickly recoil at the apparition of the sperm whales vast tail, fanning into eddies the air over his head. For what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with interlinked terrors and wonders of God!”
Here the valor of soldiers is demystified and contrasted with the now monumental vocation of whaling. It is monumental because of the apotheosis, the deification that is, which Melville attributes to and endows whaling with as an industry. It becomes the principal economic and global expression of power. This to me is of particular interest, because our course is on U.S. Empire.
“If American and European men-of-war now peacefully ride in once savage harbors, let them fire salutes to the honor and the glory of the whale-ship, which originally showed them the way, and first interpreted between them and the savages.”
Again, the text shows how whaling makes possible the military advancement of navies on a global scale. That the true noble office is that of the whaler is key to Melville’s literary endeavor. While whaling carves a new avenue of approach on the waterways, the novel dismantled the preconceptions of the traditional epic and grafted it into the genre of the novel.
From “Cetology” Chapter 32: “For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and sharks included.” Here Ishmael is describing the Killer Whale. What I thought was curious is the complicity it places on mankind and even the shark. The sense that we are all predators in one way or another. I have a line of poetry that shares this sentiment. It went something like this:
“We are Killers me and you.”
I’m thinking of including this line in an epigraph. What I think is important here is how the idea of complicity comes into play. It begs the question, “Is whaling part of some larger order of violence?” It seems that from Ishmael’s account that it has paved the watery roads for military excursions all over the “Terraqueous globe,” as Ishmael would call it.
If you haven’t read Moby Dick, then I hope this post didn’t exclude you too much. The main point I am trying to make is that warfare pervades art, our dreams, and waking hours. It takes many forms and must be dealt with. Look and you will find it. This is the Leviathan that threatens to devour us all.
To Melville and melancholia,