Environmental Consciousness from the Days of Moby Dick to Present Day
Melville's oceans do not change: they are inexhaustible and eternal. Not so when we turn away from his pages. Today we see the global commons on the brink of tragedy. We see environmental groups emerging, transcending national boundaries in ways completely unknown to Melville. Through a juxtaposition of then and now, we can trace the process of change from "Moby Dick" to a new global consciousness, through a re-imagining of the oceans.
The stories we tell promote certain ideas and, in so doing, police social norms and construct common sense. At the same time, however, stories can reveal the underpinning categories for our understanding of the world. By naming the nameless, they enable us to recognize, question and critique our "truths" as historical constructions. Literary theorist Jonathan Culler thus posits two claims about literature: that it is both "the vehicle of ideology" and "an instrument for its undoing" (1:38).
Literature not only facilitates social change, but is itself subject to evolution. In spite of this fact, Melville proclaims: "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it" (2:349).
"Moby Dick" commands scholarly attention, yet is it 'great and enduring' in the sense that Melville may have intended? I am not convinced that it holds us in the same grip of relevance that it may have readers of the nineteenth century. Instead, I believe that our interest in the novel reflects an interest in the artifact of a particular historical moment, in this 'vehicle of ideology'. "Moby Dick" is important not because it is a static pool of mighty themes, but because it is a crossroads for themes on their way to and from greatness.
To illustrate this point, I explore the evolution of a pair of connected themes: our vision of nature and our interaction with it. They represent the ecological and cultural dimensions to an ever-changing narrative about our place in the world.
Melville's understanding of nature is steeped more in indulgent mysticism than any appreciation of its ecological complexity. Imagining himself as one among thousands "fixed in ocean reveries" (2:18), he sees "the image of the ungraspable phantom of life" (2:20) in the oceans. In its endlessness, he finds his freedom. An endless ocean must, by extension, be endlessly populated. The whale is thus described as "immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality" (2:354).
As long as this is 'true', sovereignty is king: every nation is free to draw from this eternal spring. In "Moby Dick", these exploitative practices are structured according to the imperialist order. Lawrence Buell, a literary theorist interested in environmentalist discourses and cultural nationalism, points out that Melville casts Americans to head a ship crewed by "a global village of...