Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Melville's Ichthyphallic God

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Melville's Ichthyphallic God

Article excerpt

The Jewish Talmudists take upon themselves to determine how God spends His whole time, sometimes playing with Leviathan, sometimes overseeing the world....

Richard Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

Most critics of Moby-Dick, especially in recent decades, would agree that Melville's motives for writing it included powerfully subversive and iconoclastic feelings. There is broad agreement that Melville's discomfort with and alienation from the culture in which he found himself pervade his most memorable work. If Ishmael's need to go to sea was prompted by angry depression, so that his "splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world" and he had to restrain himself from "deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off," it's not difficult to imagine Melville feeling similar needs to challenge and insult the exasperatingly conventional readers on whose approval he was humiliatingly dependent.(1) But no readings of Moby-Dick to date have made it clear just how far Melville was willing to go in knocking off his readers' dignities, as if they were so many hats.

In fact, many readings still start from the premise that Melville's purpose must have been ultimately humanistic, so as to reaffirm the brotherhood of man. For such readers, the work becomes a cautionary tale about the anti-democratic potentiality of hierarchic social structures, exemplified in the ship's tyrannical chain of command and by the inhuman attempts of proto-industrial man to dominate nature. We know that Melville was a born mutineer, hating the absolute authority of ships' captains, and especially their penchant for dealing out demeaning physical punishments. Moreover, the book tells us quite a bit about the enormities that human beings commit against nature: "There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men" (chapter 87,322). So these readings have plausibility. But the corrosively satiric tone of the book tells against their humanistic premise, which may need leavening with some Cynical misanthropy. Humanistic readings require us to see Ahab as a Macbeth, leading himself into tyranny not by suggestible ambition but by monomaniac need to revenge an injury. Certainly Ahab is a dictator, a "democrat to all above" who "lords it over all below" (chapter 38, 148); he is also a fanatic, willing to defy God and sacrifice his men to get his chance at revenge. But decades ago Lawrance Thompson's work showed the likelihood that the real tyranny against which Melville exploded his hot heart's shell was that of a Calvinist God, the God of predestination and demands for submission. By these lights Ahab is a Blakean-Byronic-Shelleyan hero of the type of Cain or Prometheus, implicitly identifying "the accuser who is God of this world" with a malignant, prosecutorial demiurge, or even the devil himself (as in Ophite readings of the Old Testament).(2) Thus the work can be seen as a typical Romantic anti-theodicy: see especially Stubb's retelling of the book of Job in chapter 73, and the following passages.

In the very first chapter Ishmael's rebelliousness is made to lead to the theme:

      What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom
   and sweep down the decks?.... Who aint a slave? Tell me that. Well, then,
   however the old seacaptains may order me about--however they may thump and
   punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right;
   that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way--either
   in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal
   thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other's
   shoulder-blades, and be content. (15)

The irony in Ishmael's tone isn't very hard to detect. Several other characters see God as the fount of malevolence and strife, at least intermittently. In chapter 66, Queequeg barely escapes a shark-bite, and mutters "de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin" (257). …

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