Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Death of Moby Dick

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put a hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears? (Job 41, 1:2 and 7)

God has here appeared “out of the whirlwind” to bully the long-suffering Job with his overheated bluster.  The sheer illogic of God’s response to Job makes for a moment of great sublimity.  I, like Herman Melville, am using the King James Version.

My understanding is that many Biblical scholars hear, in this part of Job, traces of an ancient mythology, in which Yahweh is some sort of storm god, and leviathan is – what?  A monster to be slain?  A water god to be tamed?

That storm god appears in Moby-Dick, in “The Candles,” where he grants magic powers to Captain Ahab’s handmade harpoon.  Ahab identifies the lightning god with Mithra, the sun.  The mate Starbuck, a Christian, fears that the blasphemous hubris of their captain has brought the wrath of Yahweh down upon the whalers.

Maybe they’re both right.  Just a few pages from the novel’s end, challenged by Starbuck, Ahab responds:

Ahab is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. (Ch. 134)

On the one hand, Ahab is starkers.  On the other, what if he is also correct?  Meaning, that he is the agent of the pre-Old Testament sun and storm god, engaged in a war with the leviathan \ water god.  Yahweh can put a hook into leviathan’s nose and fill his head with barbed irons, but he never says exactly how.  In that same chapter, Ahab does, in fact bore his magic thorn right through Moby Dick’s jaw.  His crew fills the whale's head with more fish spears.  Ahab strikes Moby Dick again in the last chapter.  None of this works out so well for Ahab or the crew, but who said being a divine agent is easy?

The question is, how does it work out for Moby Dick?  I’m not sure.  I didn’t come up with this crackpot idea until the last quarter of the book, so I wasn’t looking for signs of the white whale’s post-Ahab adventures.  “The Town-Ho’s Story,” Chapter 54, looked promising, since parts of it are clearly set after the events of the rest of the novel.  I just found one ambiguous clue, though, where Ishmael calls Moby Dick “immortal.”

The battle between the sun god and the water god is presumably recurrent and endless, so in that sense Moby Dick really is immortal.  And the actual demise of the white whale may be cosmically irrelevant.  Who knows the rules of this game?

Brief Googling suggests that no one has yet written The Death of Moby Dick.  It’s so promising – maybe an even better idea than Karamazov in California.  In the novel, he will survive Ahab’s harpoon, but barely.  Weakened, blasted in spirit, abandoned by Dagon, he wanders the seas searching for meaning.  He needs to survive at least until the invention of the explosive harpoon.  The book is a most heart-wrenching tragedy.  I’m eager to read it.


  1. So, I don't have a lot to say about this post, except that it's awesome. Whenever I read Moby-Dick I feel like my own focus on all the water is to some extent misplaced, but now I have the perfect basis for my next re-read: sun god vs. water god, battle royale.

  2. Me too. And with any luck, while combing through the sun \ water opposition, I'll come up with something even crazier. Although the next time through will basically just be research for The Death of Moby Dick.