Friday, August 24, 2007

Moby-Dick, More than a Good Read

Saying of the week: "First man learned to measure time and built clocks. Then man learned to measure space and built maps with longitude and latitude lines. His dream of eternity slowly turned to focus on time and space and the riches and adventure of the new world around him. Rather than focusing on eternity, he spent his time traipsing back and forth in time." --Lewis Mumford.

In my readings this week, I came across an essay written by Lewis Mumford in 1944. The topic was Moby-Dick, and although I have read the novel and thought I understood its meaning, I found the essay fascinating. I extracted what I deemed to be the most interesting points (at least to me) and wanted to share these ideas, so this week's posting is snippets from that essay. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Moby-Dick, admirable as it is as a narrative of maritime adventure, is far more than that: it is, fundamentally, a parable on the mystery of evil and the accidental malice of the universe. On one reading, the white whale stands for the brute energies of existence, blind, fatal, overpowering, while Ahab is the spirit of man, small and feeble, but purposeful, that pits its puniness against this might, and its purpose against the blank senselessness of power.
The whole tale of the West, in mind and action, in the moral wrestlings of the Jews, in the philosophy and art of the Greeks, in the organization and technique of the Romans, in the precise skills and unceasing spiritual quests of the modern man, is a tale of this effort to combat the whale -- to ward off his blows, to counteract his aimless thrusts, to create a purpose that will offset the empty malice of Moby-Dick. Without such a purpose, without the belief in such a purpose, life is neither bearable nor significant: unless one is fortified by these central human energies and aims, one tends to become absorbed in Moby-Dick himself, and becoming a part of his being, can only maim, slay, butcher, like the shark or the white whale, or Alexander, or Napoleon. (or George Bush?)
Ahab has more humanity than the gods he defies: indeed, he has more power, because he is conscious of the power he wields, and applies it deliberately, whereas Moby-Dick’s power only seems deliberate because it cuts across the directed aims of Ahab himself. And in one sense, Ahab achieves victory: he vanquishes in himself that which would retreat from Moby-Dick and acquiesce in his insensate energies and his brutal sway. His end is tragic: evil engulfs him. But in battling against evil, with power instead of love, Ahab himself becomes the image of the thing he hates: he has lost his humanity in the very act of vindicating it. By physical defiance, by physical combat, Ahab cannot rout and capture Moby-Dick: the odds are against him. And if his defiance is noble, his final aim is confessedly mad. Cultivation, order, art -- these are proper means by which man displaces accident and subdues the vacant external powers in the universe: the way of growth is not to become more powerful but to become more human.
Here is a hard lesson to learn: it is easier to wage war than to conquer in oneself the tendency to be partial, vindictive, and unjust: it is easier to demolish one’s enemy than to pit oneself against him in a spiritual combat which will disclose one’s weaknesses and provincialities. And that shapeless evil Ahab seeks to strike is the sum of one’s enemies. He does not bow down to it and accept it: therein lie his heroism and virtue: but he fights it with its own weapons and therein lies his madness. All the thing that Ahab despises when he is about to attack the whale, the love and loyalty of Pip, the memory of his wife and child, the sextant of science, the inner sense of calm, which makes all external struggle futile, are the very things that would redeem him and make him victorious.
In the very creation of Mody-Dick, Melville conquered the white whale that threatened him: instead of horror there was significance, instead of aimless energy there was purpose, and instead of random power there was meaningful life. The universe is inscrutable, unfathomable, overwhelming -- like the white whale and his element (the sea). Art in the broad sense of all humanizing effort is man’s answer to this condition: for it is the means by which he circumvents or postpones his doom, transcends his creaturely limitations, and bravely meets his tragic destiny.

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