Moby-Dick and Schopenhauer

By Gupta, R. K. | International Fiction Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Moby-Dick and Schopenhauer


Gupta, R. K., International Fiction Review


For it is the case with regard to everything, that each man can only prize that which to a certain extent is analogous to him and for which he has at least a slight inclination.--Arthur Schopenhauer

In his last years, Herman Melville (1819-1891) avidly read Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the German philosopher whose works first became available in English translation only in 1883. Melville acquired personal copies of many of these works--the three-volume The World as Will and Idea, The Wisdom of Life, Studies in Pessimism, Religion: A Dialogue and Other Essays, and Counsels and Maxims--and made extensive markings and some annotations in them. He borrowed Counsels and Maxims from the New York Society Library in February 1891, a few months before his death. (1)

In "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Parable of Pessimism," Daniel Stempel and Bruce M. Stillians have suggested the possibility of Melville learning about Schopenhauer during his 1849 trip to Europe from his traveling companion George J. Adler (1821-1868), Professor of German at New York University and "an enthusiastic student of German philosophy"; and again through John Oxenford's (1812-1877) comprehensive survey of Schopenhauer's works in the 1 April 1853 issue of the Westminster Review, a magazine Melville was likely to be familiar with. (2) If in absence of conclusive evidence the theory remains conjectural, the question still arises why in his final years Melville turned to Schopenhauer with such passion.

The explanation, I think, lies in the remarkable congruence of views between the two writers. Since the late 1840s Melville had been moving toward a Schopenhauerian view of human life and the world. The process, adumbrated in the change of course in Mardi from travel and adventure to metaphysical speculation, came to fruition with Moby-Dick, which is shot through and through with Schopenhauerian images, ideas, and motifs, a study of which promises to throw new light on the novel and on Melville's intellectual relationship with the German philosopher.

Dissenting from the Western philosophical tradition that identifies reason as the defining trait of man, Schopenhauer posited the ultimate reality as a blind and involuntary force which he called the will. The will is the "inside" of the world, the noumenon. It objectifies itself through the operation of the principium individuationis of time and space in the phenomenon, the multiplicity of phenomena being the "idea" (or "representation," as Schopenhauer's recent translator E. F. J. Payne would have it). Like Freud's id, Schopenhauer's will is not purposeful volition but a primitive force inaccessible to rational admonishment. Being unassuageable--an endless, restless, tormented striving for satisfaction--the will is the chief source of the pain and suffering of life: "The wish is, in its nature, pain; the attainment soon begets satiety: the end was only apparent; possession takes away the charm; the wish, the need, presents itself under a new form; when it does not, then follows desolateness, emptiness, ennui, against which the conflict is just as painful as against want." (3)

In Moby-Dick, Schopenhauer's will--an unconscious force of great potency, insatiable, and imperious in its demands on the individual--is seen in operation, time and again. Thus Ishmael finds that his decision to go on a whaling voyage is not an act of conscious choice but involuntary. Ishmael is also unable to explain how the crew fall under Ahab's spell and make his cause their own, identifying the White Whale with evil. In the crucial quarter-deck scene, when Ahab tries to win over the three mates, including the recalcitrant Starbuck, "it seemed as though, by some nameless, interior volition, he would fain have shocked into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life." Ahab then asks the mates to be cupbearers to "my three pagan kinsmen there ... my valiant harpooneers," adding: "I do not order ye; ye will it. …

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