Moby Dick Essay

1 January 2017

Moby-Dick is a novel of darkness. Though Melville did not intend it, his story, I find, can only be read at night by a dim light on my patio, looking out over the starlit desert. As I read, I sense the darkness of his story. I am not moved to fright or horror by it, but I feel those shadows move in. Psyche is near but not yet touchable. Something is missing, at least if you’ve only read to Chapter 40. There is darkness, jocularity, hints of imminent catastrophe, and pleasant old English to be read.

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The story is only just developing. Ahab, Ishmael, Starbuck, Stub, Flask, and Moby-Dick: all of these characters are well known in our modern, literary world. Ishmael’s narrative sets their qualities clearly, but this is only a tool of literary character development. The reader is not drawn into the horror that has occurred (Ahab’s dismemberment) or into the horror to come until Chapter 41. We are faced with Ahab’s madness in Chapter 36 and, with Ishmael; we stand in awe of the power of the man, overlooking the depth of his madness.

Chapter 41—curiously named by the title of the book—finally brings the horror to reality as Ishmael personifies the shadow within Moby Dick- the whale, and the madness in Ahab. Moby-Dick, the White Whale itself, is only a representation of the sperm whale species so clearly unique and delineated by Melville in earlier chapters. It is difficult to be either drawn to him—Moby-Dick—or repelled by him. That can only happen once the whale becomes the personification of the psychological Shadow. When we personify something, we move it closer to its archetypal meaning.

In this essay, Moby-Dick becomes the personification of Shadow in all of us. Within that Shadow are found fear, vengeance, ferocity, and murderous rage. Personification by itself is not enough. Moby Dick is used as a vessel by the shadow, and once the Shadow is contained by the image of Moby-Dick, anyone with knowledge of archetypal images can clinically dissect it and, thereby, miss what Melville is trying to accomplish: linkage of the archetype to the insane Ahab. So the archetype is doubly personified, first in the embodiment of the White Whale, then in the humanity of Captain Ahab.

Shadow exists in the presence of humanity, insane or not. If we are to understand madness, it must be personified. As the chapter opens, Ishmael ponders over his own participation in the excitement generated by Ahab’s grandiosity. Transference has occurred and now Ishmael senses, “A wild, mystical, sympathetically feeling…; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine…” (1967, p. 155). The counter transference is manifested in the arousal of the crew to do Ahab’s bidding. Before that can happen, though, Moby-Dick must become real.

Ishmael relates the factual calamities caused by the sperm whale then, the rumors running widespread throughout the “fishery. ”  He points us to these facts and rumors and further says that it is not surprising that “whalemen should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby-Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time)…” (1967, p. 158). Ishmael cites contemporary authors who rave of the ferocity of the Sperm whale saying even sharks nearby are “‘…struck with the most lively terrors’ and ‘often in the precipitancy of their flight dash themselves against the rocks…’” (1967, p. 57). These contemporary authors begin the process of personification. The whale seems to live in rage and fury. The “phantom” of fear and threat from the white whale strikes animals into their instincts to be fearful of such a mysterious thought. The sharks indeed can be personified as Ahab and his crew, fearful of the whale and the shadow within it. Moby Dick has been shown to hold the Shadow and all the malicious implications of that Shadow. Our fears and terrors now have a point—the whale, in space and time upon which to hang.

In some strange way, our fears and terrors have an altar upon which we can sacrifice them. The whale becomes the god and, like Ahab, we point to it as source and origin of all that ails us, consciously and unconsciously. The whale/Shadow lives each day with us. We have reflected, as Ahab has, on its presence and now contemplate its destruction. The moral here is about to be conveyed through the character of Ahab, as his emotions represent the act of emotional self-defense.

According to Sigmund Freud, The mind may avoid the discomfort of consciously admitting personal faults by keeping those feelings unconscious, and by redirecting libidinal satisfaction by attaching, or “projecting,” those same faults onto another person or object, which in this case Ahab projects those faults on Moby Dick, the white sperm whale. And now we turn to Ahab. Ishmael presents us with one telling sentence: “The White Whale swam before him as a monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. (1967, p. 160)

As with many a madness, Ahab suffered a physical trauma. He lived through the physical healing of that wounding but “his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad. ” (1967, p. 160)  Ishmael incorporates poetic speech in his attempt to say that this madness personified in Ahab could afflict any of us. The soul of a human is affected by physical punishment such as humiliation penetrates the mental state of mind of the victim. One, in act of self-pity, will act upon the most dangerous undertaking to remove the humiliation from their mental state.

Ahab comes to personify Madness itself as evinced in his ravings to the crew, his introspection in Chapter 37, and now by Melville’s delineation of the onset of that madness, in the voice of Ishmael. The reader makes this move, not Ishmael. Our own Shadow points to Ahab instead of inwardly; Ahab are substance, which will hold our conception of our own potentiality to madness. We nod our heads in affirmation of Ishmael’s narrative as he talks of “this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals…” (1967, p. 62).

It is Shadow that drives this Captain beyond his ability to understand. So Shadow stands now doubly personified in whale and man. The shadow which presents itself through a man’s raging passion subconsciously pushes a victim to think and act beyond the norm to rid our minds of that threatened psyche and the burning fire of revenge in the human soul. We have seen the psychology in this fiction. Now ask: where resides this fiction in psychology? Don’t let the enormity of this story cloud the metaphor. This happens every day in the consulting room.

Personification of Shadow gives the client the means whereby to heal. The therapist must recognize the opportunity and make the most of it. It is Psyche that has allowed the presence of Shadow in the consulting room. It is Psyche that allows Shadow to walk with Healing. I have only told the beginning of this story within the story. Once personified, how will the madness and malice come to conflict? Who will win? We all know the story of Moby-Dick. But have we ever stopped to think that its ending is not one of catastrophe, but one of integration?

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