As man is bound to his subjective perception, inhibited from comprehending the essence of things, he is forced to apply personal, extraneous meaning to them or find himself devoid of it altogether. Loftiness of such application is the nature of romanticism, and such is the nature of Melville’s Moby Dick. The sea becomes vogue, limbo for the reticent felo-de-se; the untraversed, the nebulous, even the numinous. The Pequod assumes the role of a nation of men—30 men for 30 states is explicit enough—doomed by the mad will of him in power. The Whale either becomes God, myth, the embodiment of evil, or all of the above, depending on which character’s perception is to be taken. Indeed, Moby Dick contains myriad instances of such applied meaning, but the focus of this paper will be that of three of the most prominent: that of the sea, that of whiteness, and that of Moby Dick.
Ishmael examines the sea in various ways, and from various perspectives, but in all his examinations, the sea invariably assumes the role of an escape vehicle from the world of the living—temporary or otherwise. When the novel first begins, Ishmael compares his own escape to Cato the Younger’s ultimate remonstration of tyranny: “With a philosophical flourish, Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship” (14). Though Ishmael lists no political motivations for escaping, he does imply that it is life’s tyranny that engenders the need for it. In any case, the ocean is a means of escape for both him, and, as he asserts, all men.
Ishmael describes the sea—and water in general—as inseparably bound with meditation—a narcissistic mediation; in this description, he epitomizes man’s aforementioned romantic (=narcissistic, anthropocentric) application of meaning to natural phenomenon in general. He is somewhat explicit in this self-conceit through his assertion that the reflection that drew Narcissus’ inextricable affection is the same image “we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (16). Throughout the novel, Ishmael attempts to wrap his head around various romantic stimuli ranging from the anatomy of the whale back to the sea itself, but his efforts are met with no avail, and the preceding quote is a sort of key in itself in this regard—the key to understanding why he fails. Because man’s self is the “ungraspable phantom,” he can by no means be expected to comprehend the nature of things other than himself. Even in his efforts to understand these extraneous items, he merely projects pieces of himself in order to fill the gaps in his own comprehension; though this is a romantic idea, it is by no means the key to understanding the world; rather, it is the key to asserting one’s place in it.
The sea, in all its depth and vastness, represents the unknown and the unknowable; such is the reason why Ishmael describes it as the marriage of life and death—at times, a sabbatical from...