‘Moby-Dick’ and the Modern World | Luke Butterworth

Moby-Dick is not an easy read. The presence of the seemingly unconquerable tome on my desk tormented me for weeks. At times, slogging through such lengthy digressions as the differences between the right and sperm whales’ heads, the measurement of the sperm whale’s skeleton and the sustainability of the sperm whale population is almost wholly unenjoyable, interrupting the flow of an already sluggish plot. When narrative does occur it is obscured by unfamiliar and often inscrutable nautical terminology, and many of Ishmael’s references to history or scripture are entirely foreign to the modern reader. But this Leviathan of a novel was eventually slain, and I am immensely glad that I stuck with it.

To read Moby-Dick is to be exposed to a world far more remote than its mid-nineteenth century setting would suggest. As the awesome power of steam heralded a radically new age, and the Great Exhibition celebrated the unstoppable march of modernity, the primitive industry of whaling was at its precarious peak. Beneath largely superficial changes to cartography and shipbuilding, the tactics and technology of whaling in the Pequod’s time had remained unchanged for centuries. Indeed, chasing a beast to exhaustion while pelting it with pointed projectiles has been a stratagem employed by our species since the Stone Age. Despite millennia of human advancement, the whaleman’s hunt was no less fraught with peril than those undertaken by the hunter-gatherer, nor was the impetus driving him any less primal. It was man’s perennial struggle against darkness which pitted him against the oil rich sperm whale, before he discovered less costly ways of fending off the night. And so our narrator warns us: ‘be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it’: a message which the invention of kerosene made wholly redundant in the decades after the book was published. The modern reader should be grateful that they live in an age of near limitless energy, where artificial light can shine incessantly and often pointlessly – where darkness itself is an anachronism. 

The narrator’s somewhat spurious inclusion of such mythical and biblical figures as Perseus, St. George, and the Prophet Jonah among the illustrious ranks of whalemen adds further to the remoteness of the profession to the modern world, as does the presence of a cannibal and a fire worshipping soothsayer on the deck of the Pequod. We see whaling as an outdated, barbaric practice, undertaken by isolated aboriginal communities and a handful of obstinate countries at loggerheads with the International Whaling Commission. There are few nowadays who hold whaling in a positive regard, still less who would rhapsodise about its ‘great honourableness and antiquity’ as our narrator does at considerable length. And yet, hunting whales for food is something Ishmael is strikingly ambivalent about. He may justify the habit by comparing it to beef eating, but he also claims that ‘only the most unprejudiced of men’ choose to eat the ‘excessively unctuous’ meat of the whale. I think our narrator would have been quite derisive of the modern whale meat industry, which is no longer a by-product of the need for an effective lighting oil but rather the exclusive reason whales are hunted. Such hunts are entirely free from the dangers faced by whalers in the Pequod’s time, using explosive harpoon-cannons mounted on motorised ships to effortlessly slaughter their prey. If the glutton with a penchant for foie-gras is worse than the starving man who resorts to cannibalism, as Ishmael argues, then so is the modern whale meat consumer. 

It is the great success of the novel to revere both nineteenth-century whalemen as well as the beast they hunted without any contradiction. The camaraderie of the crew, the methodical diligence with which they processed their catch, the friendly interactions with other whaling ships – all this creates a romantic, almost alluring picture of life onboard a whaler. ‘The great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open’ when Ishmael decided upon a whaling voyage. How many people embarking on a new career in the modern world could say the same thing? But though the prosperity of the whaleman relied on subduing a beast capable of destroying him and his boat with a swipe of its vast tail, Ishmael seems to respect and admire the species far more than he abhors it. The sperm whale boasts ‘great inherent dignity and sublimity’, and is so ‘ponderous and profound’ as to be ‘Platonian’. The narrator is as much concerned with detailing the Pequod’s search for Moby-Dick as he is with completing a study of the species it belonged to; one which he believes had yet to be carried out. He is a biographer trying to give an undervalued and misunderstood figure the respect they deserve, drawing from sources as wide ranging as Hindu cave carvings and Blackstone’s Commentaries. His thoroughness may not always make gripping reading, but such a mighty theme as the sperm whale could only ever ‘be treated of in an imperial folio’. 

The narrator’s respect for whale and whaler conflicts with the ostensible reason for his voyage: his captain’s irrational pursuit of the great white whale which maimed him. As malignant a beast as it is, and though Ahab’s manic zeal is so powerful as to influence both crew and reader, his quest is vainglorious, dishonourable folly. Those distinguished members of the whaleman’s club, Perseus and St. George, each slew their Leviathan to save the maid or city from devastation. Ahab wants to slay for revenge, ignoring every divine warning and enlisting the devilish powers of prophecy to try and achieve his monomaniacal purpose. In what may well be the most moving passage of the novel, the contemplative captain begins to question his fanaticism before throwing aside this final chance at redemption. While the moody Pequod makes its grim leeward journey to the equator, a jolly whaling ship passes them bound for home after a remarkably successful voyage. Not only is its captain unaware of Moby-Dick’s location, he says he doesn’t believe in him at all. There is no better representation of the true glory of whaling – one which the lunacy of Ahab totally perverts.

Moby-Dick is a mighty book for a mighty theme. Its poetic, consciously elaborate language befits the colossal topic, and is a welcome change from the vulgarity of modern English. It is a compendium of Western thought, referencing thousands of years of literature and history and forcing the reader to expand their insular cultural outlook. It can defend and even romanticise a whaling industry which the modern reader may hold nothing but contempt for, making them acknowledge the effortless ease of their world in contrast to Ishmael’s. It lavishly and eagerly describes one of our world’s most august inhabitants, permitting the narrator to ‘enlarge, amplify, and generally expatiate’ his discussion to nearly every facet of human endeavour. And perhaps most importantly, it reminds us of the dangers of chasing the unattainable, and the ease at which man’s pride can turn to folly. 

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