Why is a captain obsessing after a whale considered a classical story? This episode will dive into the mythical and spiritual significance of Moby Dick, exploring our unconscious, forgotten images of God, the quest for self-knowledge, and the path to sanctity.
Full Transcript of the episode
Written in 1851 by Herman Merville, the sheer scale and popularity of this story has always astounded me, even as a boy. I used to ask: ‘why is a story about a captain who is so obsessed at hunting a whale that he is eventually killed by it, such a great story’? Indeed why is it a classic? Well, mountains of ink and thousands of books and study guides have already been produced studying its themes and its characters and its moral and religious wrestlings. I don’t intend to be rehashing these necessarily today. Rather, what I want to offer is a little different: I want to offer some commentary as to the mythical and spiritual significance of the story of Moby Dick. This means I will be looking at the story perhaps beyond what the author consciously intended, and instead offer my opinion as to why the story is so psychologically and spiritually compelling. Especially for us today. To do this, I intend to break this episode into three main sections. After the usual quick summary of the story, I will firstly comment—perhaps a little comically—on:
- Why we have an obsession with giant mythical creatures, like dinosaurs and dragons and mythical white whales. This will be the first section.
- Then, I will move onto exploring the mythical significance of Moby Dick, as a story about recognising what lies in our unconscious unknown, so as to attain the great treasures that awaits us there.
- Finally, I will suggest the spiritual significance of Moby Dick, on how the story offers a evocative model of the life of a saint – one who is single heartedly captured and oriented towards union with the great Other.
So that’s the plan, and hope you’re on board with it. Let’s begin now first with a quick summary of a very, very fat novel, a whale of a tale really
Synopsis of Moby Dick
Set in mid 1800s, Moby Dick is a fascinating snapshot of a time when American whaling was at its peak. Prized for their oil and ivory and ambergris, the story follows one particular ship called the Pequod. While the narrator of the story is a man named Ishmael (a man in a sort of bland midlife, meaninglessness crisis), I suppose you can say that the character that most drives the happenings of the story is Captain Ahab. Described as a great man and the greatest whaler of his time, Ahab actually has a wooden leg, because one of his legs was bitten off by a giant white whale known as Moby Dick. Since that fateful day, Ahab becomes more and more obsessed with hunting down the creature and slaying it. So on Christmas Day, he sets out from Massachusetts on his ship called the Pequod, and along with him is a crew of memorable characters like his virtuous first mate Starbuck, a tattoo covered harpooner from New Zealand named Queequeg, and the ever jolly, cool in a crisis Stubb. The tale pretty much follows the Pequod as it navigates the great seas and meets many obstacles along the way, such as typhoons, giant squids and pirates. Herman Melville (the author), himself a seasoned whaler, gives much detail into the intricate, messy experiences of life on a whaling ship, while at the same time musing on life’s biggest questions through Ishmael. As one commentator suggests, while Ishmael chases after the meaning of life, Captain Ahab chases after Moby Dick. Despite Ahab’s chase eventually turning him to madness, and despite the many warnings of his more reasonable first mate Starbuck, Ahab persist and sacrifices everything to attain his goal. He eventually finds the whale, and after an epic three day pursuit, the whale gets the better of all the crew and the Pequod. The great sea leviathan attacks, and all on board perish, except Ishmael. Captain Ahab himself, holding fast to the harpoon he had managed to secure on the side of the whale, is wrapped up in the roping and is himself dragged to the bottom of the ocean, to his death.
Okay! Curious story right… and if it weren’t for the lengthy chapters of existential musings, you’d agree it’s a rather simple story. Let’s now examine it in a little more detail
Part 1: The symbolic significance of Giant Mythical Creatures
Firstly the symbolic significance of the great, mysterious white whale needs attention. I will posit that Moby Dick is quite representative of man’s heightened obsession with massive mysterious creatures. You know recently when the latest Jurassic Park movie come out, I had a conversation with Ep 4’s Fr Tony about why this dinosaur franchise has done so well, despite pretty much the same storyline repeating itself again and again … of mankind trying to control mother nature and then mother nature getting the better of mankind, until there’s a healthy respect restored… something like that. Tony and I mused whether there is something significant about otherworldly beings that are beautiful yet dangerous, familiar yet mysterious … which of course dinosaurs are. I mean literally dinosaurs are outside of time, even, in the sense they are ancient giants from another era that should be extinct. I wonder whether the dinosaurs and dragon and Godzilla’s and Krakens and Loch Ness monsters and Moby Dick’s actually embody a dimension of God that’s lost today – the wild, otherworldly… even dangerous side of God. Since the 1800s, Christians readily grasp Jesus as friend and companion, but what about the God who is Big, who is beyond us, who created the starry night, who banged the big bang, and speaks out of whirlwinds? See, Moby Dick was released at the end of the Industrial Revolution, when the American people were disenchanted by a monotonous world of industry and machines and grimy factories, and control … who yearned once again for the beauty and wildness and freedom of being. This something of why Moby Dick’s narrator Ishmael felt himself drawn to sea to begin with. In the famous opening lines, he says “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” And what about us today, don’t we the readers/audience feel a certain nostalgia at the thought of exploring the sea’s horizons (enter the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean series)? Don’t we also feel a sense of awe and reverence when the Pequod finally encounters the white whale, and almost hold it with holy fear, in the same way Shasta does with the lion Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia? Maybe our yearning for thus lost fear of God, is why Moby Dick, like the Jurassic Park franchise… has captured modern imaginations so much.
Part 2: The Mythical Significance of Moby Dick
Next we’ll look at what I will refer to as the mythical significance of the Moby Dick tale. It will be helpful to mention that traditionally, the oceans have long been the archetypal symbol of chaos, and of disorder. Think back to Genesis where God’s spirit hovers over the formless seas of chaos, before he speaks, and creates order from it … separating earth and sky and dry land. When God then parts the Red Sea, and Jesus walks upon water, these were all symbols of God’s lordship over both order and chaos, both the known and the unknown. Fast forward to Carl Jung’s contribution in modern psychology, where dry land represents that which is conscious, that which is understood, while the sea represents the unconscious – that which is unknown. With this in mind, if we think of the literal Moby Dick whale being the animal that rises up out of the sea, arrests Ahab’s imagination, and forever calls him back into the depths, it isn’t hard to see the mythical/psychological significance of Moby Dick. For a healthy, integrated person, is precisely one who has gained lordship of both his conscious self, and his unconscious self… and indeed can ‘travel’ relatively freely between the two. I mean, we all value self knowledge right, and are upset at anyone displays little of it. Well, self knowledge is always the act of making conscious what lies in our unconscious, and in doing so, gaining greater mastery over the various forces, drives and thoughts that are in there.
But! The gaining of self knowledge is not always a romantic and pleasant process, for sometimes, there are things in the unconscious that we’d rather not face, thoughts and desires and memories that we’ve suppressed away, or consider too scandalous to bring to light. This is where the image of Moby Dick is so compelling. For Moby Dick symbolises the surfacing of all that lies unknown to us, something of both beauty and danger, of incredible value and incredible threat. Remember that in the story, Captain Ahab is a whaler, and whalers go whaling because whales, while dangerous, are infinitely precious, bringing back the gifts of ivory and oils and perfumes and priceless skins. But mythically speaking, in order to get the treasure, one has to also face the dragon. Nothing valuable in this life is obtained without great price, else the object of value wouldn’t be valuable at all.
Again, if we place the Moby Dick story in its historical context at the end of Industrial Revolution, the pervading worldview of the time was a slightly arrogant one, one which suggested that man could, through his own might and intellect be able to conquer the forces of nature, and to gain knowledge over everything. Into this worldview then came the tale of Moby Dick, which features not only the wildness of mother nature incarnate, but a captain Ahab, who knows not how to tame the wildness in his own heart. It’s as if the book was a slap in the face of “enlightened man”, saying “you think mankind can tame the world? You can’t even tame what’s in your own heart!” Wow. And along with other compelling works like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, such tales reveals just how unconquered our own ‘civilised’ selves can be. Such a message still remains relevant for us today, dear friends. For most of us would sooner plumb the depths of Google for wisdom, then the depths of our own hearts. Perhaps many of us still feel that the answers to life’s questions lie out there in the ether, when in actual fact, they are found within.
Part 3: The Spiritual Significance of Moby Dick
Having explored something of the mythical significance of Moby Dick, this final section will explore the spiritual significance of this tale. By spiritual significance I’m not referring to its many paragraphs of religious wrestlings… of which there is a lot… everything from the meaning of life, why God seems impassive and silent, or whether Moby Dick is more akin to God or the very devil himself. What I do want to suggest is that this tale as a whole, provides us with a model of a person’s path to holiness. Some of you may recall that famous quote from the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, where he says “a saint is a person whose life is about one thing”. While most of us navigate the busyness of life distracted and disoriented, tossed about by the waves of change and chance, you suddenly have the character of Ahab, who knows very clearly what his life is about. In this way, the madness of Ahab actually becomes an apt model of the madness of the saints, who were single minded in their pursuit of God. For Ahab, it literally didn’t matter what Starbuck, or crewmember, or ship or storm or giant squid was thrown at him – he had set his heart set on one thing, and pursued that one thing till the end. In biblical terms, he had placed his hand on the plough and didn’t look back.
Now I know that the literal Ahab was motivated by revenge and spite, but I’m no longer looking at the character in its literalness as intended by Melville, but now as a spiritual symbol. For when all is said and done, all classical fiction speaks to us at multiple levels, and for me, I can’t see why a tale about a mere madman would have such timeless appeal. Rather there is something within us that deeply connects with Ahab, or at least wants to, we who tend to be scatter hearted and directionless. We want to have a pure heart, to be able to persevere to attain our pearl of great price, that one thing necessary. Think of anyone you admire – and you will surely always find commitment, perseverance and steadfastness as one of their standout qualities. How much more the lives of the saints – many of whom persevered to the end of ends.
As we delve into this symbol more, it turns out that the wound Moby Dick inflicts upon Ahab’s leg is significant too. For in the book, its his one gnawing reminder that a piece of him has been captured, and that he’ll never be complete without it. So too, is the divine wound we all carry; that divine spark within us that was made for God, that makes our hearts so restless until we rest in him. C.S. Lewis described this yearning as Joy (with a capital J) which is ‘like a desire that can feel so much like sorrow, except that those who have tasted Joy will want, more than anything, to be struck by it again’. Lewis, ever the philosopher writes “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. But… If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” See we Christians often romanticise the God-shaped hole in our heart, and in many ways it IS a beautiful thing. But let’s not pretend that our yearning for eternal love, for truth that lasts, for beauty that satisfies, is not also an ache, one that drives our lives, making everything that is not God ultimately feel unsatisfying.
If we romanticise God too much, we forget that wrestling with this truth is a key part of growing in the spiritual life (as mentioned in episode 53). God greatly blesses the Old Testament Jacob after a night of wrestling, and after injuring his thigh in the process. The name ‘Israel’, the chosen people of God means ‘he who wrestles with God’, for there is intimacy and perseverance in the act of wrestling. In likewise manner, captain Ahab of Moby Dick is able to represent something of this wrestling with God, where the sacred wound that is inflicted upon him is a blessing, rather than a curse. And Ahab doesn’t relent until he enters into full union with that which his heart desired, and is utterly overwhelmed by him (I was going to say ‘utterly consumed by him’, but then you’d think I meant Moby Dick eats Ahab, and that would be a bit distracting from our message). But to be utterly overwhelmed by Moby Dick—to be taken down to the place of his dwelling—symbolises us being utterly caught up in God, to be brought to the place of his dwelling.
Interestingly, did you know that in the islander nations, whales were revered as eternal beings, because people never actually witnessed the natural death of a whale (unless of course it gets washed up on a beach). But in terms of natural death, no man ever saw the final resting place of a whale, whose body would eventually sink to the bottom of the deep abyss… a place which is itself mysterious to mankind, a place no eye has seen, and mind can comprehend. Yet we now know that the body of a single whale can support life for millions of creatures in the ocean ecosystem, providing food and shelter and breeding grounds, sometimes for decades! Wow right… talk about the themes of resurrection and death giving birth to new life! And just on this theme of resurrection, I’ve come across theories that Ahab didn’t actually die in the end, and that having arrived at this place of enlightenment, he is reborn and returns to the world as the ever wise and omniscient Ishmael! Interesting … I will leave you that one for you to ponder with.
Episode Soundtrack credits: Wellerman – Sea Shanty (cover by RochaMusic), Jurassic Park theme – John Williams, Nine Years On Shore (Matthew Ward, ft Sarah Carino and Rhiannon Gill), Now We Are Free – Hans Zimmer (cover by Hauser), Zora’s Domain – Zelda Breath of the Wild
Practical Pilgrim reflection
Here are some favourite praise songs of mine, to boost you in your Practical Pilgrim reflection