I re-read Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick every few years, and each time it speaks to me in wildly different ways.
The Black Lives Matter movement was front of mind when I taught the novel in a seminar a couple years ago. Melville is ahead of his time regarding race relations and rights, and the novel is suffused with nods to his visceral antagonism toward the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that all escaped and subsequently captured enslaved individuals be returned to their enslavers, even if captured in a free state. He makes heartbreaking comments about sharks following slave ships, and gives a powerful voice to the Black cook Fleece.
In graduate school I marveled at the vertiginous array of intertextual sources Melville juggles in nearly every sentence, biblical and cetological, poetic and prosaic. Shakespeare is a particular favorite. The diabolical Captain Ahab’s first lines in the novel, in fact, scan in iambic pentameter, as he previews his own demise like a woebegone Danish prince: “It feels like going down into one’s tomb.”
The earliest readers of Moby-Dick were equally equivocal. Some bristled at its “ill-compounded mixture” of thematic and generic features. Others praised Melville for precisely this: the disparate nature of Moby-Dick somehow creates a “singular medley,” rather than discordance.
George Ripley called it a “pregnant allegory, intended to illustrate the mystery of human life” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Horace Greeley, writing in his New York Tribune, saw it, rather, as the epic of the whale, a “Whaliad,” with the mighty leviathan playing Achilles or Hector on an aquatic battlefield. Perusing these appraisals from a century-and-a-half ago is great fun, and a reminder that every reader of this kaleidoscopic tale — from its inception — has found in it something unique and personal (if not always favorable).
As I prepared to teach a section of Moby-Dick this month in another course, I’m reminded of a more recent assessment of the novel that feels particularly urgent right now. The great American author Annie Dillard wrote, succinctly, that Moby-Dick is the “best book ever written about nature.”
And indeed, nature’s beauty and brutality resonate on nearly every page. Melville is brilliant at representing the natural world, particularly in his dazzling oceanic descriptive “landscapes” and other picturesque forays away from human-focused concerns.
A few passages from the novel have been on my mind while reading the news, as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia seemed singlehandedly poised to gut the budget reconciliation’s climate plan, torpedoing the Biden administration’s pledge to reduce US carbon emissions by up to 50% by 2030.
President Biden needs all 50 Democratic senators on board in order to pass the bill via reconciliation, since not a single Republican senator has indicated they would vote for the bill. With world leaders convening in Scotland on Monday for a United Nations conference on climate change, the likelihood that the United States will not have a viable policy in place to adequately address human-caused climate change will make it difficult for Biden and his climate envoy John Kerry to motivate other nations to address the issue.
We tend to view our relationship with nature as abusively one-sided: humans are the aggressors, and the life of the planet hangs in the balance at our whim. What I think makes Melville’s take provocative — and why it’s resonating with me as my own frustrations continue to build at our complacency — is that Moby-Dick casts Nature as malignly indifferent to humanity’s survival.
Melville stages humanity’s assault on nature in lavish detail. Our extermination of the American buffalo functions as something of a refrain in the novel, which Melville compares with the slaughter of an incalculable number of whales. This theme is perhaps nowhere more powerfully articulated than in the ship-as-capitalist-industrial-state metaphor in Chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” where the burning of whale blubber for industrial oil creates toxic plumes and hellfire — “horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must” — infecting sea, sky, and crew alike with its poisons.
Whaling was the fifth largest industry in the United States in the 1850s, with whale oil fueling expansive industrialization here and in Europe. Melville’s image of the Pequod here, the “burning ship [driving] on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed…plunging into that blackness of darkness” is a pointed apocalyptic prophecy of self-destruction awaiting humanity for our rapacious sins.
This metaphor has wider implications. Moby-Dick prepares us again and again for a world without us, a world where Nature, in its guise as the all-powerful, irresistible ocean, consumes everything in a replay of the cataclysmic biblical Flood. Melville fantasizes about a water-world “ere time itself can be said to have begun,” where whales traversed the peaks of the Andes and Himalayas, and imagines a future post-diluvian world with similar contours:
“I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over,” he writes, adding later that “if ever the world is to be again flooded…then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”
Melville’s cursed anti-hero Ahab views humanity and nature as intimately conjoined: “O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterances are your linked analogies!” But it’s Ahab’s — and our own — arrogance that places Nature and humanity (even the soul of humanity) on equal footing. That implication lasts only as long as there’s actual land to stand on.
The novel ends famously with the destruction of the Pequod by the White Whale, Moby-Dick — a figure for Nature’s malice in the face of human egotism, as Melville makes plain. But the final image before the brief epilogue is more symbolic and cutting. As the ship sinks, “a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Again we have Noah’s flood (hence the biblical timeline, “five thousand years ago”), but with the ark — that self-destructive ship-of-state — smashed to pieces and enveloped in Nature’s ravening maw. This is Nature triumphant over the self-sabotaging industrial machine.
Even the most optimistic assessments indicate that global sea levels will rise by about 12 inches by 2100 if we pursue a low greenhouse gas pathway. If we don’t dramatically cut emissions those levels could conceivably rise to 8.2 feet. The victims, at either end of the model, will overwhelmingly be vulnerable, marginalized populations whose impacts on the climate have been infinitely less damaging than the extractive, consumptive capitalist economies that have created this crisis.
Melville could imagine a future oceanic world wherein “humane ages are over.” But what’s more likely is that non-privileged, non-white populations will be the ones who suffer and die because of the environmentally destructive practices of wealthy Western white elites. Our frenetic, unfettered capitalistic policies and institutions have made this modified vision frighteningly tangible.
Unless we act now to pass climate measures to radically curb these profit-driven systems which are fundamentally incompatible with environmental sustainability and social and economic justice, we won’t be able to continue justifying our cowardly inaction by pointing to an unimaginable “future” catastrophe. The time to act is, frankly, yesterday.
Dr. Andrew M. McClellan is a lecturer in classics and humanities at San Diego State University. He has published numerous works on violence and horror in ancient literature and culture, and the reception of ancient literature in modern society. His book Abused Bodies in Roman Epic was published recently by Cambridge University Press.