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The Jewish Talmudists take upon themselves to determine how God spends His whole time, sometimes playing with Leviathan, sometimes overseeing the world....

Richard Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

Most critics of Moby-Dick, especially in recent decades, would agree that Melville's motives for writing it included powerfully subversive and iconoclastic feelings. There is broad agreement that Melville's discomfort with and alienation from the culture in which he found himself pervade his most memorable work. If Ishmael's need to go to sea was prompted by angry depression, so that his "splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world" and he had to restrain himself from "deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off," it's not difficult to imagine Melville feeling similar needs to challenge and insult the exasperatingly conventional readers on whose approval he was humiliatingly dependent.(1) But no readings of Moby-Dick to date have made it clear just how far Melville was willing to go in knocking off his readers' dignities, as if they were so many hats.

In fact, many readings still start from the premise that Melville's purpose must have been ultimately humanistic, so as to reaffirm the brotherhood of man. For such readers, the work becomes a cautionary tale about the anti-democratic potentiality of hierarchic social structures, exemplified in the ship's tyrannical chain of command and by the inhuman attempts of proto-industrial man to dominate nature. We know that Melville was a born mutineer, hating the absolute authority of ships' captains, and especially their penchant for dealing out demeaning physical punishments. Moreover, the book tells us quite a bit about the enormities that human beings commit against nature: "There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men" (chapter 87,322). So these readings have plausibility. But the corrosively satiric tone of the book tells against their humanistic premise, which may need leavening with some Cynical misanthropy. Humanistic readings require us to see Ahab as a Macbeth, leading himself into tyranny not by suggestible ambition but by monomaniac need to revenge an injury. Certainly Ahab is a dictator, a "democrat to all above" who "lords it over all below" (chapter 38, 148); he is also a fanatic, willing to defy God and sacrifice his men to get his chance at revenge. But decades ago Lawrance Thompson's work showed the likelihood that the real tyranny against which Melville exploded his hot heart's shell was that of a Calvinist God, the God of predestination and demands for submission. By these lights Ahab is a Blakean-Byronic-Shelleyan hero of the type of Cain or Prometheus, implicitly identifying "the accuser who is God of this world" with a malignant, prosecutorial demiurge, or even the devil himself (as in Ophite readings of the Old Testament).(2) Thus the work can be seen as a typical Romantic anti-theodicy: see especially Stubb's retelling of the book of Job in chapter 73, and the following passages.

In the very first chapter Ishmael's rebelliousness is made to lead to the theme:
      What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom
   and sweep down the decks?.... Who aint a slave? Tell me that. Well, then,
   however the old seacaptains may order me about--however they may thump and
   punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right;
   that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way--either
   in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal
   thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other's
   shoulder-blades, and be content. (15)

The irony in Ishmael's tone isn't very hard to detect. Several other characters see God as the fount of malevolence and strife, at least intermittently. In chapter 66, Queequeg barely escapes a shark-bite, and mutters "de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin" (257). Earlier, in chapter 40, the old Manxman sees Daggoo and the Spaniard about to fight, and comments about "the ringed horizon": "In that ring Cain struck Abel. Sweet work, right work! No? Why then, God, mad'st thou the ring?" (154). Thus the apparent humanism in the story suggests only that humans, though weak, at least know what fairness is, which is more than can be said for the cosmic tyrant.

Ahab in this reading is the spokesman for an embittered humanism that is concerned not to ennoble man but to rail at God. The book's corrosively sarcastic tone is created by Ahab's vehement protests against the mockeries that humans endure from so-called Providence. Ahab sees injustice everywhere; soliloquizing to a whale's "black and hooded" severed head, he imagines what it has seen at the bottom of the sea.
   "Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a
   sailor's side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them
   down. Thou saw'st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship;
   heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other,
   when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw'st the murdered mate when tossed
   by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper
   midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers sailed on unharmed--while
   swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a
   righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen
   enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one
   syllable is thine!" (chapter 70, 264)

Confronting this "Holofernes's" head as a Sphinx, Ahab asks of it riddles about death, sexuality, and justice; but he knows to whom the answers point. He works himself up into a frenzy over the prevalence of unjust deserts. In this he recreates not Macbeth but Lear, speaking that "sane madness of vital truth" that Melville so admired in Shakespeare's "dark characters"; indeed this speech structurally resembles Lear's mad scene, when "the frantic king tears off the mask" of sanity and rails against so-called justice in the world.(3) Ahab thus becomes a true tragic hero, at least as Byron would have seen it, and his insane pursuit of the white whale is a doomed but indomitable gesture of defiance, the best that bloody but unbowed man can do against heaven.

Holding his "fool" Pip by the hand, Ahab-as-Lear in chapter 125 makes explicit the contrast between human hopes and the powers that toy with them.
   "Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the
   omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and
   knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and
   gratitude." (428)

We of course are not to be fooled by the word "gods," for Ahab is no polytheist; as he says elsewhere, "There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod" (chapter 109, 394). Very likely the uses of the term "gods" in Moby-Dick are intended to allude to the world of King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport."(4)

By a humanistic reading (represented in the book itself by Starbuck) this is all part of Ahab's madness, as blasphemous as tyrannical But Melville's phrase "sane madness of vital truth," along with all the insistent Lear-parallels in the book, suggests to many critics that Ahab's monomania is a device that allows Melville to say what he wants to say, things that "it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them." And as somewhat fewer critics see, he "craftily says, or sometimes insinuates" blasphemously and obscenely mad things to his readers that go far beyond anything Ahab says.(5) God, in Moby-Dick, is often in the details.

But first: how could Melville have thought he could get away with his offenses against his readers' senses of decorum? He had in the very conventionality of his readers an insurance policy that protected him: what is suggested is so scabrous, and so craftily insinuated, that any reader's notice of it would amount to a self-accusation of filthy-mindedness. Besides, Shakespeare again furnished precedents. Even the most timid readers of Melville's day had to put up with jokes like the Fool's in Lear: "She that is a maid now, and laughs at my departure / Shall not be a maid long, unless things be cut shorter" (I.v.45-46). Melville knew that those making maiden voyages through Moby-Dick would be tempted to take short cuts, so he planted surprises on many paths.

To see the full point of Melville's assault on readers, we must take note of three carefully laid patterns of motifs in the book. The first is anticlerical Christian-baiting, similar to that in all his works, as traced out by Thompson;(6) since it is usually playful in tone, readers squirm a little, perhaps chuckle, but mostly ignore it. Stubb's retelling of Job, with its attack on "the governor" who allows the devil to torment humans, is one good example; another--not playful--occurs in the story of the pursuit of an old, blind whale by the Pequod's men, a story in which the whale is insistently anthropomorphized, at humans' expense. The fleeing whale is a "terrific, most pitiable, and maddening sight"; panicked and crippled, he exhausts himself and lies wallowing, open to harpoons.
   As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks
   when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once
   occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity
   there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes,
   he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals
   and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches
   that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. (chapter 81,301)

That last thrust at churches is plain enough, but Melville probably also chose "gay bridals" to remind readers of the wedding-feast images that pervade the gospels, especially the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25.

The anthropomorphizing in this and other passages is designed to make readers feel uncomfortable in their assumption that humans are "above" mere whales; similarly, Western man's innate superiority to other races is insidiously questioned. All Melvillians know that in MobyDick, as in the earlier South Seas romances, cannibals are repeatedly held up as more Christian than Christians; the Ishmael-Queequeg by-play offers many examples.(7) "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian" (chapter 3, 31). These irreligious notes seem a minor discord, until the other patterns are perceived and added in.

The second pattern of motifs is noted by most modern critics of Moby-Dick: the series of phallic jokes, especially those involving masturbation and homoeroticism.(8) Of these the famous examples occur in chapters 94 and 95, "A Squeeze of the Hand" and "The Cassock." In the first Ishmael spends a morning squeezing sperm in a tub, working out lumps, with fingers "like eels [that] serpentine and spiralize" (348). The activity is so pleasant and mollifying that by its end he is in love with his fellow workers.
   At last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their
   eyes sentimentally, as much as to say,--Oh! my dear fellow beings, why
   should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest
   ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us
   squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves into the very
   milk and sperm of kindness. (348-49)

Wonderfully for Melville's purposes, the emollient fluid for which sperm whales were hunted (along with their oil) was so named for its resemblance to human semen: "spermaceti," the "seed" of whales. This gave him an ongoing license for bawdy, as above; other suspect allusions in the chapter include calling the tub of sperm "a Constantine's bath" and mentioning the taste of whale's flesh, which Ishmael suggests might be like the taste of "a royal cutlet from the thigh of Louis le Gros" (349). Whether Melville often squeezed himself into his fellow seamen is a vexed question, but what concerns us here is the mockery of sentimental humanism, including Christian versions, through the suggestiveness of "sperm" and consequent insinuations about the pleasures of masturbation.

In the next chapter Melville's most audaciously obscene pun merges obscenity with blasphemy. A seaman chopping blubber with a mincing-spade has to wear a "cassock" to protect himself from his own strokes; this cassock is the skin of the whale's own penis, suitably trimmed. "What a candidate for an archbishoprick, what a lad for a Pope were this mincer!" (351). We should not here be so distracted by the obvious bawdy of "archbishoprick" to fail to notice the "lad for a Pope." Melville may have been obsessively anti-Calvinist, but this did not prevent him from making an anti-Catholic joke about pederasty among unwived clergymen.

Melville rubs salt into the wounded sensibilities of Christian readers by adding a footnote to this sentence, asserting that the crewmen continually exhort the mincer to cut the thinnest possible slices of blubber by crying to him, "Bible leaves! Bible leaves !" In the chapter itself, during the description of the whale's penis, Melville had alluded to phallic idol worship among the ancients, asserting that it occurred even in Judea, "as darkly set forth in the 15th chapter of the first book of Kings" (351). One doesn't need to go far into Melville's reading among his favorite ancient authors to trace his interest in phallic idols, and phallicism of all kinds. In Lucian's "True History," just prior to being swallowed by a whale, the hero has an excursion to the moon, where men "have artificial penises, generally of ivory."(9) Melville refers to this work in the "Extracts" that preface Moby-Dick, and also draws an extract from Plutarch, who furnished to later generations the myth of the dismembered Osiris; the penis of the latter is a central motif in the myth, and Osiris was even referred to as a "living phallus." In one version of the myth, the penis is swallowed by fish.(10)

These are only a few of the phallic jokes in the book. When in "The Cassock" Melville first brings up the whale's penis, he calls it "the grandissimus" (351); earlier, when Stubb demands a steak cut from it, the euphemism is "his small," and Ishmael coyly defines that as "the tapering extremity of the body" (chapter 64, 249). There are jokes about a "horn" and a whale's tail presented to queens, and so on. These are linked to the various jokes about sperm, milkiness, and whiteness. Chapter 99, "The Doubloon," is shot through with Stubb's sly phallic references. In Robert K. Martin's words: "Like the exaggerated phallus of Greek comedy, the constant phallicism of Moby-Dick is a counterweight to its epic and tragic force and a reminder of its fundamentally comic structure."(11) All these jokes tie in to the novel's homosexual byplay, often about Queequeg, who makes a "cosy, loving pair" with Ishmael (chapter 10, 54), and looks very attractive in shirt and socks (chapters 4, 10, and 72). In earlier works, as Martin observes, Melville inserted so many allusions to homosexuality among sailors that he thought better of it, and took some out: "His first novel includes a reference to Buggerry Island, later deleted (his willingness to delete some of the more obvious sexual references is an indication of his conscious use of them)."(12) And of course we all know that Claggart's hatred of "Baby" Budd, the Handsome Sailor, is really frustrated love.

The third pattern, unlike the others, is not much noticed; it has to do with Ahab's sensitivity to insult. As a ship's captain, Ahab is quick to insult anyone on the ship who displeases him, as he does Stubb in chapter 29. But he is even quicker to return a perceived insult from any other being. "Talk not to me of blasphemy, man," he says to Starbuck, "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me" (chapter 36, 144). Only a chapter later he is challenging the "gods" who have struck him via Moby-Dick to come out of hiding, come from behind the visible objects that are but "pasteboard masks" for them:
   I laugh and hoot at ye, ye cricket-players, ye pugilists, ye deaf Burkes
   and blinded Bendigoes! I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies,--Take
   some one of your own size; don't pommel me! No, ye've knocked me down, and
   I am up again; but ye have run and hidden. Come forth from behind your
   cotton bags! I have no long gun to reach ye. Come, Ahab's compliments to
   ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. (chapter 37, 147)

Moby-Dick's reaping of Ahab's leg adds insult to injury; he can never believe what Starbuck tells him, that Moby-Dick is a dumb beast who simply smote him from blindest instinct. For him it was a castration that sheared away his "humanities" as well as his leg; when recalling it in front of the crew, he "shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose." (In case we miss the castration symbolism, Melville tells us that Ahab's substitute ivory leg, made of whalebone, had some time before the voyage slipped "by seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty ... [so] that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin" [chapter 106, 385].) The white whale, says Ahab, "dismasted" him; but it is the insulting, more than the crippling, nature of the act that spurs his revenge. When his crew mutilate and castrate whales, they rehearse what Ahab wants to do to MobyDick in revenge.

That Ahab sees "the gods" hiding behind cotton bags is predictable; these would be used to protect against gunfire, but the image also manifests the insistent associations of whiteness, in this book, not only with sperm but with the "whited sepulchre" aspect of the world. In chapter 42, on "The Whiteness of the Whale," Melville accuses the cosmos: "all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within" (170); the last phrase clearly alludes to Matt. 23:27 (the Pharisees are likened to "whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness"). Moby-Dick's whiteness, it becomes clear, is symbolic of the ambiguous, mask-like appearances of the phenomenal world, behind which--for Ahab--is "an inscrutable malice." "That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him." Ahab thinks he sees God hiding behind the whiteness of Moby-Dick.
   All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each
   event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still
   reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the
   unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the
   prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the
   white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's
   nought beyond. But `tis enough. (chapter 36, 144)

Other notable insults in the book include those in the story of Steelkilt and Radney and in the fight between Daggoo, the huge African harpooneer, and the Spaniard. Ishmael himself is irritable and hotheaded, as he shows in the early byplay about Queequeg's shrunken head. These narrations of easily inflamed passions serve to prepare us for, and make more credible, the touchiness of Ahab.

So Melville carefully plants in the text the motif of Ahab's thin skin, together with the anti-Christian and phallic patterns. These latter two then interweave themselves in those parts of the book that treat of whales and whaling. These chapters of cetacean lore may at first seem boring or distracting, but they have a more important function than that of simply bulking up the epic and encyclopedic ambitions of the book. No doubt Melville, a taunter and teaser of readers, relished putting them through these chapters as ordeals, but unless one reads them carefully the interrelatedness of the patterns of motifs remains hidden.

Melville takes us through the whale's anatomy, and its likeness to that of humans (one of the points made, in a footnote in chapter 87 [326], is that "when overflowing with mutual esteem, the whales salute more hominum"). He concentrates on the head and the tail. The front of the head is repeatedly described as a "dead, blind wall," so that the whale has no face; this associates the whale with that mask-like impenetrability and ambiguity of visible objects that enrages Ahab, who bitterly comments (echoing Bartleby's end) that "the dead, blind wall butts all inquiring heads at last" (chapter 125, 427). The association of this aspect of the world with the hiddenness of God is driven home in chapter 79:
   But in the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty godlike dignity inherent
   in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full
   front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in
   beholding any other object in living nature. For you see no one point
   precisely; not one distinct feature is revealed; no nose, eyes, ears, or
   mouth; no face, he has none, proper ... (292)

The last remark's comic possibilities are not apparent until we get to chapter 86, "The Tail." Here Melville goes to great lengths to emphasize that the whale's tail combines the attributes and functions of several kinds of human appendages. He proposes that it can even make mystical gestures of communication. Then he finally reveals that it too is a manifestation of deity, in the most overtly blasphemous joke in the whole book:
   The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to
   express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they would
   well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable.... Dissect him how
   I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will. But if I
   know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more,
   how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back
   parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I
   cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his
   face, I say again he has no face. (317-18)

The play in the penultimate sentence on Exodus 33:23 could not be missed by Melville's Bible-reading audience: there, God puts Moses in a cleft of rock and passes by, so as to show Moses his back parts but not his face. So the whale is identified with the Bible's God--most dramatically in its facelessness and maddening inscrutability.

Moby-Dick himself is specifically linked with divinity, many times; Ishmael tells us of the "supernatural surmisings" of whalemen that Moby-Dick was both ubiquitous and immortal, and could never be harmed even by "groves of spears" (chapter 41, 158). The mad Gabriel pronounces that "the White Whale [is] no less a being than the Shaker God incarnated" (chapter 71, 267). When he finally appears, Moby-Dick is called a "grand god," swims "divinely," is compared to "the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa," and so on (chapter 133, 447-48). Also, Starbuck's complaint about the crew, after Ahab manipulates them, that "the white whale is their demogorgon," identifies Moby-Dick as the Shelleyan-Ophite God, a tyrannical and demagogic "demiurge" and "Demogorgon" (chapter 38, 148).

But the identification of God and whale through lack of face and revealing tail is by far the most important figure in this pattern, because of Melville's insistence that the tail is more than a tail.
      Such is the subtle elasticity of the organ I treat of, that whether
   wielded in sport, or in earnest, or in anger, whatever be the mood it be
   in, its flexions are invariably marked by exceeding grace. Therein no
   fairy's arm can transcend it. ........ Out of the bottomless profundities
   the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven.
   (chapter 86, 315-17)

Melville insists that the tail comes out of a "crotch" (chapter 86, 314) and that the whale has the "strength of a thousand thighs in his tail" (chapter 81, 300).(13) The associations of deity, grace, power, and unknowability are hilariously capped by the suggestion that the tail has erotic, genital power.

Now whales are phallus-shaped in general; but the head of the whale, like the tail, is also specifically phallic, notable for its huge reservoir or "Great Heidelburg Tun" of sperm, here described in close likeness to human semen:
   Though in life it remains perfectly fluid, yet upon exposure to the air,
   after death, it soon begins to concrete; sending forth beautiful
   crystalline shoots, as when the first thin delicate ice is just forming in
   water. A large whale's case generally yields about five hundred gallons of
   sperm, though from unavoidable circumstances, considerable of it is
   spilled, leaks, or dribbles away ... (chapter 77, 286)

Melville's delight in writing such sentences, stringing out his running wordplay, must be kept in mind. Now, finally, we can see why Moby-Dick always rises with a "creamy pool" of foam, an unmistakably male god bursting from the aphros, the white sea foam associated with the severed genital of Cronus, and in this book with sperm.

The thrust, so to speak, of the interweaving of these patterns is clear; the whale, and Moby-Dick in particular, is from head to tail a divine, incarnated penis, as full of sperm as of inscrutability. (Perhaps we should remember here that the "face" of a penis, in uncircumcised males, is ordinarily hidden.) The most audacious of the phallic jokes in the book, then, is that the whale is God's dick. 14 Melville might have chosen Timor Tom or New Zealand Jack or various other names of legendary whales, but instead chose a variation on Mocha Dick, the name that emblematizes an obscene pun. The whole of this wordplay was to be relished by any readers who liked the humor, and the other readers, Melville knew, would just shut their eyes.(15)

However, the joke was not yet complete. The punch line requires that we go back to the topic of Ahab's irritable sensitivity to insult. One particular remark of his illuminates the point. In chapter 108, the carpenter is making Ahab a new ivory leg: mishearing some mutterings, he holds a lantern up to Ahab's face, and Ahab responds violently: "What art thou thrusting that thief-catcher into my face for, man? Thrusted light is worse than presented pistols" (391).(16) Ahab's response is not only an index of his touchiness, but also suggests a taxonomic link among objects thrust in the face as threats and insults; what's worse than lanterns or pistols? What would be the great original of such insults, except the symbolically or actually thrust phallus?

Another significant observation by Stubb, in chapter 31: the night after Ahab calls him a "dog" (a Biblical term for a male prostitute), Stubb dreams that Ahab has kicked him with the ivory leg, and that when he tried to kick back, an old merman turned to him a "stern [that] was stuck full of marlinspikes, with the points out" (115). To kick this would indeed be kicking against the pricks, z7 But Stubb decides, as he tells Flask, that the dream-kick from the false leg "was not much of an insult," because
   there's a mighty difference between a living thump and a dead thump. That's
   what makes a blow from the hand, Flask, fifty times more savage to bear
   than a blow from a cane. The living member--that makes the living insult,
   my little man. (115)

The term "living member" suggests that here Melville was not only theorizing about insults and "universal thumps," but also laying the groundwork for the image of God thrusting his whale-sized member in Ahab's face.

Melville must have intuited that behind the most offensive kinds of insults lies the primate practice of intimidation by phallic threat, gestures threatening anal rape of a weaker male. (Among baboons the submissive gesture is exposing the rear.) This would have been gleanable from the fact that the most insulting gestures in the male cultural lexicon are forms of such a threat: "the bird," the upraised middle finger, with the other hand grasping the elbow to indicate "up to here"; the various signs of the fig, and so on.(18) If the White Whale is a divine penis, Ahab sees it as being thrust or waved in his face by the hidden God, and this is the insult that feeds his rage for revenge--for such insults, when unrevenged, are symbolic castrations also. Ahab doesn't just want to kill and mutilate Moby-Dick; he wants to castrate God.

This pattern of motifs again has been foreshadowed by Stubb, who throughout serves as a kind of stormy petrel for Ahab, and whose name is a reminder of Ahab's loss. When in chapter 73 Stubb denounces "the governor" who allows the devil to torment humans, he also jokingly blusters about what he'd do to Fedallah, Ahab's stowaway harpooneer, if he turned out to be the devil:
   "And if he makes any fuss, by the Lord I'll make a grab into his pocket for
   his tail, take it to the capstan, and give him such a wrenching and
   heaving, that his tail will come short off at the stump--do you see; and
   then, I rather guess when he finds himself docked in that queer fashion,
   he'll sneak off without the poor satisfaction of feeling his tail between
   his legs." (277)

We can read this not only as phallic humor, but also as a figure for Ahab's desire to castrate the ichthyphallic God who emasculated him. At the climax of the story, Ahab's actions are described in terms that exploit bawdy imagery; when he finally catches up to Moby-Dick, the whale takes Ahab's small boat in his mouth, and Ahab tries to grab his jaw: "frenzied with all this, he seized the long bone with his naked hands, and wildly strove to wrench it from its gripe" (chapter 133, 449-50). But the whale only toys with him, and is seen "vertically thrusting his oblong white head up and down in the billows." Ahab is left "half smothered in the foam of the whale's insolent tail."

No wonder Ishmael suggested that some "might scout at Moby-Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory" (chapter 45, 177). Did he mean the whale, or the book? As for readers, let them make what they would of any of these jokes that they happened to catch; as Melville must have calculated, they could hardly complain. Moby-Dick is the rod of God's anger, the staff of his indignation (see Isaiah 10:5): now we can give a new meaning to Father Mapple's phrase "O Father!--chiefly known to me by Thy rod." This is thrust at Ahab to intimidate him, or make him swerve, as he puts it. But as all the portents and omens and prophecies that were sent to dissuade Ahab only make him more determined, so also the supreme insult only maddens him further. He like Stubb would kick against the pricks, but he hasn't a leg to stand on.

The whale ends the story by using his "predestinating" (rather than "predestined") head as a "solid white buttress" against what Ahab calls the "god-bullied hull" of the ship. So the stove-in Pequod sinks, but not without a last gesture of defiance. The pagan harpooneer Tashtego drags down with him a sky-hawk uttering "archangelic shrieks"; the hawk had tried to tear away the ship's flag, as eagles tore at Prometheus, but the ship "like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it" (chapter 135, 468-69). These last allusions make most sense if Moby-Dick is read as an anti-theodicy. And if it is, then the obscenely blasphemous running joke about God's dick leavens the Byronic heroism of Ahab with Melville's own savagely Cynical humor.

The phallic jokes are there, undeniably; the associations of Moby-Dick with deity are clear; Ahab's remarks on the topic of insults are certainly relevant. Yet even the book's most astute critics haven't put these elements together, presumably because they couldn't believe that Melville would be so blasphemous, or that he couldn't afford to so offend his readers. But Melville himself called it a "wicked book," and lamented that what he really wanted to write was "banned." He asked Hawthorne, "Shall I send you a fin of the `Whale' by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked--though the hell-fire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it all ere this."(19) Critics might have taken these remarks more literally, and added a refresher course in the nineteenth-century taste for obscenity, as in the private writings of Mark Twain, Eugene Field, and many others.(20) Moreover, the works of many Victorian writers--from Thomas Hardy to Christina Rossetti to W. S. Gilbert--are rife with questionable words and motifs that could not be objected to without self-accusation.

D. H. Lawrence came close to the point, but not the joke. He sensed the pervasive phallic symbolism of "hot-blooded sea-born Moby Dick," but identified it with body-consciousness instead of bawdy. The whale for him was "the deepest blood-being of the white race," "our deepest blood-nature, "the last phallic being of the white man," "the great American Phallus." But he had a fixed belief that Melville was incapable of real jokes, that he was a "solemn ass even in humour." He knew about Melville's Christian-baiting, but mostly skipped over it, so never saw the connection that makes the whale God's dick.(21)

Other early critics grasped Melville's "Timonism," and those who traced out the motif of the "isolato" in Moby-Dick saw at least the context for Melville's joke? As Ishmael goes to sea to avoid his impulse to knock hats off, so do the other sailors vote with their feet for alienation; they are islanders even if from the mainland, subtly disqualified for normal life. "They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own" (chapter 27, 108). An isolato dissents tacitly from the view that Godgiven order pervades human society.

The symbolic character Bulkington has no part in the action, but epitomizes the need to get to sea in order to escape the delusive delights and comforts of normal life. In chapter 23, "The Lee Shore," he is apotheosized, made into a demigod, for thus fleeing, "not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern."(23) Bulkington lands from a four-year voyage and immediately ships out again. He has found life out, to use a phrase from Yeats. He is compared to a ship storm-driven toward land:
   The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is
   safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that's
   kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that
   ship's direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land,
   though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.
   With all her might she crowds all sail off shore.... Her only friend her
   bitterest foe! (97)

Bulkington may know now "that mortally intolerable truth, that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore" (97). But he can know this only in death.

Closely allied to the theme of "the treacherous, slavish shore" is the pattern of associations in Moby-Dick with the word "mild." Near the novel's end, Starbuck almost persuades Ahab to desist from his doomed quest on a day so clear and mild that we may read it as the last heaven-sent attempt to deter the hunt. "Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky," says Ahab, carded back to his youth and to memories of wife and child (chapter 132, 443). But the "smiling sky" again puts him in mind of his drive to avenge the insult. We have a hard time understanding why or how mildness leads to those thoughts, unless we go back to chapter 41, "Moby-Dick." There we learn that the day of Ahab's wounding was a similar day; that the boatmen capsized by the whale then "swam out of the white curds of the whale's direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal" (159).

Mildness and serenity in Moby-Dick stand for the hypocritical and delusive comforts of so-called Providence, for the "comforts of the shore" that seem friendly but are in reality deadly, and so madden Byronic, Bulkingtonian souls.(24) Not surprisingly, the motif is otherwise most noticeable in chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale." There Melville's, or Ishmael's, tortured attempt to explain the fearsome repulsiveness of white things is typified by the paragraph on the Polar bear and the white shark:
   Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics;
   what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors
   they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent
   mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their
   aspect. (164)

In the footnote he added to this passage, Melville expanded the point to include the idea of "repose":
   As for the white shark, the white gliding ghostliness of repose in that
   creature, when beheld in his ordinary moods, strangely tallies with the
   same quality in the Polar quadruped.... Now, in allusion to the white,
   silent stillness of death in this shark, and the mild deadliness of his
   habits, the French call him Requin. (164)

Requin, as Melville says, derives from "requiem," resting in peace. Peace and repose are linked to that deceptive deadliness that, in Moby-Dick, motivates the machinations of the being called by Pip the "great white God." Mildness and serenity exasperate deep thinkers because they mask the treachery of God; they also characterize the comforts of those self-deluded, self-satisfied landlubbers and burghers and Pantheists whom Melville particularly despised for selling out to that God, to the flummery of Transcendentalists, and to His offer of illusory comforts. Ahab throws away his pipe, last symbol of the temptations of mildness, and abjures all repose. He sleeps with his face pointing up, fixed on the compass that guides him to Moby-Dick.

Put in its larger context, Melville's anti-theodicy belongs with the satiric skepticism of Lucian; but in its social aspect, it goes back through Timon and Lear to Diogenes and the Cynics. Mockery of social conventions was a Cynic trademark; these beggar-philosophers sat in marketplaces taunting passersby with the illogicality of all pretensions, ambitions, and the like. Their taunts made fun of all society and social practices, and also the comforting, conventional religious beliefs that supported the social order. Only by dropping out completely, even from one's own family, could one discover the illusory nature of society; only by depriving oneself of ordinary comforts could one work down to the real necessities of life, which were very few, and discover the nature of virtue. These were the foundations of Cynic teaching.

Diogenes was an isolato. He searched with a lantern in daylight for an honest man; carded around a tub for a house, like a turtle with its shell; preached the need to eschew all the delusive comforts that humans think they want.(25) In a famous anecdote, Alexander the Great admired his self-sufficiency and offered to give him anything he wanted, to which Diogenes replied "Anything I want? All right. Move over, you're blocking the sun."(26) Cynics were also known for obscenity in speech and behavior. Their mockery of social pretensions involved animalistic attitudes toward sex, personal hygiene, and the like. Indeed they were named for their dog-like (kunikos in Greek) practices. They urinated, defecated, masturbated and--when very lucky-fornicated right in the street, treating modesty with the same corrosive suspicion that Lear expresses in his mad scene, in which he also mocks the idea of justice on earth.

For Melville such alienating assaults were necessary to attack the deceptiveness of conventional life, as he says in many ways in MobyDick. Protest against the concept of a God who controls human affairs, especially obscene and scurrilous mockery of Him, could shock readers out of their senses of decorum, which lulled them into self-satisfaction and blinded them to truth; it was especially necessary since it's so obvious that the race is not to the swift. "`All is vanity.' ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon's wisdom yet" (chapter 96, 355).(27)

Melville would have liked to be a latter-day Solomon, but also a Diogenes. "There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness." One can't help feeling he enjoyed the doggish jokes, and especially thrusting them in readers' faces. Every Cynic has his day.


(1) Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker (New York: Norton, 1967), 14. Hereafter cited parenthetically by chapter and page number.

(2) Melville mentions the Ophites in chapter 41. Jorge Luis Borges arrived at a similar reading, calling the universe of Moby-Dick "a cosmos (a chaos) not only perceptibly malignant as the Gnostics had intuited, but also irrational." Borges: A Reader, ed. Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reid (New York: Dutton, 1981), 148-49.

(3) The annotated edition of Moby-Dick by Luther S. Mansfield and Howard P. Vincent (New York: Hendricks House, 1952) lists over a dozen references to Lear, by far the most of any Shakespeare play.

(4) Richard Burton quotes the phrase "Ludus deorum sumus"--we are the sport of the gods. The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (New York: Vintage, 1977), 326.

(5) See Herman Melville's famous review, "Hawthorne and his Mosses," repr. in Hayford and Parker, eds., Moby-Dick, 541-42.

(6) Lawrance Thompson, Melville's Quarrel with God (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1952).

(7) Melville writes in Typee, of the Marquesas Islanders: "I shudder when I think of the change a few years will produce in their paradisiacal abode; and probably when the most destructive vices, and the worst attendances on civilization, shall have driven all peace and happiness from the valley, the magnanimous French will proclaim to the world that the Marquesas Islands have been converted to Christianity!" Typee (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1968), 195-96.

(8) The major essay on these is by Robert Shulman: "The Serious Function of Melville's Phallic Jokes," American Literature 33 (1961): 179-94. Shulman notes that the jokes are "typically playful and good-natured on the surface" but "beneath that surface they are characterized by hostility and defiance" (179).

(9) Selected Satires of Lucian, ed. and trans. Lionel Casson (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), 24.

(10) Melville had himself discovered the pervasive phallicism of Polynesian religion. "In common use throughout all Polynesia, the term [tiki] signifies the phallus; it designates all the images of the gods (in stone, in wood, in jade, either carried on the person or fixed in the ground) and it is moreover the name of a mythological deity." Michel Leiris, quoted in James Baird, Ishmael: A Study of the Symbolic Mode in Primitivism (Harper, 1960), 294. See also John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), 301-2, and H. Bruce Franklin, In the Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1963), chapter 3. David Simpson, in Fetishism and Imagination: Dickens, Melville, Conrad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1982), 73-90, discusses representation of the phallus as fetishist activity.

(11) Robert K. Martin, Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville (Durham: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1986), 80. Martin provides what can be called the homosexual-humanist reading of the novel, in which male friendship and communal masturbation represent alternatives to hierarchy, domination, aggression, and the like.

(12) Martin, p. 15.

(13) On the age-old use of "thigh" as a euphemism for genitals see Genesis 24:2, where Abraham requires a servant taking an oath to "place your hand under my thigh."

(14) For many fascinating Biblical connections, see Howard Eilberg-Schwarz, God's Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (Boston: Beacon, 1994).

(15) Once again, Ishmael lays the groundwork with his whale-lore. In chapter 32, "Cetology," he says of whales: "To grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one's hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing" (118). The last phrase would of course awaken Biblereaders' echoes of "... to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31).

(16) These lines have several Biblical echoes, among them the arrest in the garden and other metaphors of Jesus as thief, and the prediction that "the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." Ahab wants to get even, to rob the Thief who robbed him.

(17) See Acts 9:5, and perhaps Samuel Beckett's More Kicks than Pricks.

(18) "Martial, Seneca and others mention that the middle finger fully extended and held upright represented the penis, the closed fingers and thumb on each side signifying the testicles. According to Juvenal, male prostitutes used the infamus digitus as a signmark of their trade"; see George Ryley Scott, Phallic Worship: a History of Sex and Sex Rites in Relation to the Religions of all Races from Antiquity to the Present Day (London: Luxor Press, 1966), p. 86.

(19) Letters of June 1 (?), June 29, and November 17, 1851, to Hawthorne. In the former, Melville says of Hawthorne's story "The Unpardonable Sin" ["Ethan Brand"]: "I have no doubt you are by this time responsible for many a shake and tremor of the tribe of `general readers.'" See Hayford and Parker, eds., Moby-Dick, 566, 557, and 561-62.

(20) Moby-Dick was not the only work in which Melville used phallic double-entendres. See his story "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!" and the essay by Allan Moore Emery, "The Cocks of Melville's `Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!'" in ESQ 28 (1982): 89-111, esp. 98.

(21) D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (Garden City: Anchor, 1951), 173. For Lawrence, Melville was "a tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical-transcendalist sort" (146). He didn't see that the book is one long parody of the Transcendalist habit of allegorizing natural phenomena, just as he completely missed the bawdiness. But he saw into Melville's misanthropy: "Well, the world is hateful. It is as hateful as Melville found it. He was not wrong in hating the world. Delenda est Chicago. He hated it to a pitch of madness, and not without reason" (157).

(22) See especially Lewis Mumford, Herman Melville (New York: Harcourt, 1929).

(23) This phrase is Ishmael's from his revery at the tiller in chapter 96, "The TryWorks" (354).

(24) The temptations of Platonic-Pantheistic thinking, in the famous chapter 35, "The Mast-Head," are related dangers. Falling through "Descartian vortices" into the sea is punishment for too easy identification with the world-soul. The sea is an avenue of defiance for isolatoes, but in the end God will drown them in it; in the book as a whole, the sea is an "insatiate maw," a vagina dentata, a fitting receptacle for God's dick.

(25) In Redburn, chapter 57, a man is punished by being forced to wear a barrel as the mincer wears the cassock-penis, and he is called "Diogenes in the tub." Herman Melville, Redburn (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1969), 284.

(26) Luis Navia, Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (Westport: Greenwood, 1996), 99.

(27) From "The Try-Works." Melville's views on writers and readers are illuminated by this passage, from the June 1 (?) letter to Hawthorne: "It seems to me now that Solomon was the truest man who ever spoke, and yet that he a little managed the truth with a view to popular conservatism; or else there have been many corruptions and interpolations of the text." See Hayford and Hershel, eds., Moby-Dick, 560.
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Author:Schneider, Herbert N.; Pettey, Homer B.
Publication:Studies in American Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1998

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