September Selection: Moby Dick

One of our informal traditions has been that the person who selected the book under discussion makes a few comments before the meeting about why they picked the book, and perhaps a few topics and/or questions for everyone to be thinking about as we prepare for the discussion. So, here goes.

Why I Picked Moby Dick
I picked Moby Dick mostly by chance. I had originally intended to pick a book by Hawthorne for my next selection. Burk introduced me to his friend Susan D. who is a retired literary professor so that I could get some insights about Hawthorne from her prior to making my selection. She recommended to me that the best entry to understanding Hawthorne was to read some of Melville, and she loaned me two anthologies of his published writings and personal letters:

The Portable Melville, edited by Jay Leda, Viking Press, 1952.
Great Short Works of Melville, edited by Warner Berthoff, Harper and Row, 1969.

My intent was to simply peruse these briefly before choosing a book by Hawthorne. Twelve hundred pages of reading later, I emerged from this immersion in Melville with a high regard and respect for his writings and deep feelings of empathy for him as a person. And since I had never read his long epic novel, Moby Dick, I decided to give it a try for this round, and put off Hawthorne until later. Also, since my round came up in the summer, I figured this would be a good time for us to attempt a long read that would ordinarily be too much to accomplish in one month.

Here are a few of the themes I discovered that run through Melville’s short works and personal correspondence (and many of which I later discovered can also be found lurking in Moby Dick):

1. He was one of the first to question the prevailing theme of “American Exceptionalism” that was dominant in the mid-1800s.
2. He expressed strong concern about the dangers inherent in capitalism.
3. He explored the idea that civil disobedience could be an appropriate response to tyranny or other forms of repression.
4. He espoused a form of humanism based on a concept of a worldwide brotherhood of Man (He did not espouse any particular anti-feminist sentiment, but clearly his primary identification was with a society of like-minded men, which he often denoted by the term “bachelors”. There is perhaps even an undercurrent of homoeroticism, although it is more Agape than Eros).
5. He had a respect for what might be called “spirituality”, sometimes expressed in terms of a sense of awe towards forces that operate in our world but can not be seen or examined by science, but had a very negative view of Christian Puritanism, the dominant religion in New England at the time.
6. His sense of humor is complex, to say the least!
7. His writings frequently seek to explore the boundaries of, and ultimately try to break down, what he considered to be artificial binary categorizations: Christan/Pagan, Human/Animal, Good/Evil, etc. He was almost always able to discover at least some Ying in the Yang and vice versa.
8. He explores exceedingly complicated psychological topics. I was amazed to read much in his writings that I did not know had been dissected at this level of analysis long before these kinds of ideas were formalized later in the early 20th Century by writers such as Freud, Jung, and William James.
9. He had a lifelong intellectual interest in epistemology, and in particular with questions about how we know what things mean (I say more about this below).
10. There is a sadness and melancholy in his later writings. As a young man, he had an image of himself as being hailed one day as one of the first great American authors, following in the footsteps of Hawthorne, whom he knew personally and admired, but whose reputation he was expecting to eventually eclipse. For a variety of reasons (too far ahead of his time, too much of an original thinker to be understood, too much out of step with the values of the dominant establishment gate-keepers) this never happened. He pressed on, writing to the end, but was never appreciated as a genius or even as a great writer during his lifetime – Moby Dick was only “rediscovered” as being a great masterpiece in the 1920’s, long after Melville’s death in 1891.

Melville’s Exploration of Epistemology
Turning now to the question of what themes or questions I would like you all to be thinking about prior to our discussion, I realize that any attempt to reduce this massive epic to a few bullet points of themes to discuss is a fool’s errand. However, I do want to highlight one major theme (among many) that I found particularly fascinating – Melville’s deep thinking about epistemology, and in particular about the issue of how we establish what things mean. A quick summary statement that I think encapsulates both Melville’s position and a major theme in the novel would be something along the lines: Experience can not be reduced to a single meaning, regardless of how exhaustively it is written about, depicted in the visual arts, systematized scientifically, dogmatized by theologians, subjected to critical analysis, reflected upon, or lived. It always remains in the end, mysterious, and subject to ongoing multiple interpretations. That is true of a “Whale”, it is true of this book about a whale, “Moby Dick”, and it is true of everything else in life.

My question(s) for everyone to think about prior to our discussion
Go back and re-read the first three paragraphs of Chapter 3. It seems quite obvious, perhaps a truism, to assert that this passage is referenced by the book Moby Dick, since the passage is included within it. But this passage itself also perhaps references something, at least metaphorically. What? And what are some of the implications of that form of referencing? For one bonus point, Can you provide examples of other forms of similar referencing within the book? And for a second bonus point: In the phrases from this passage such as, “at first you almost thought” and “you at last come to the conclusion”, what is the meaning of the word ‘you’?

About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2014 Selections, Moby Dick and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to September Selection: Moby Dick

  1. dorsettrichard says:

    Sagacity. Do you know this word, this experience? Melville uses it often in Moby Dick. Often as the adjective ‘sagacious.’ It is one of the most potent words in science and it surprised me to see it so often in the book.

    • Ron Boothe says:

      What a discerning question.
      A quick search on my Kindle app provides 9 hits, including two with reference to Queequeg, and two (once direct and once indirect) with respect to Ahab. It is also used with reference to a dog, a hunter, a lawyer, and readers of the book who might be skeptical about whether or not everything told us by Ishmael is true.
      Any meaning we can take from this?

  2. Sagacity is an interesting side note. I can’t find the other I am looking for. It’s a factual mistake. Melville references boas in Africa. Actually, boas are in South American and other places; pythons are in Africa. Just a small error. I have two big questions in mind. First, is Ahab given a bad rap? I think so. What audacity to go ‘all in’ for something like a whale. This is no different than climbing a high mountain or seeking a pole or the source of the River Nile. Some fail; some succeed. Most of us in life never put it all on the line. Wish I did. Second, Ahab as a leader is underrated. Steve Jobs, by accounts of his friends, was an asshole. But do our leaders need to be good guys, or do they need to lead? What kind of leaders are we all; or what kinds of followers? Speaking truth to power is difficult for all. It must have been very difficult to challenge a captain on a boat at sea.

    I look forward to tomorrow’s discussion

  3. I don’t know Bukowski, but his quote below is what I’m getting at with Ahab. Have you ever gone ‘all the way.’?

    “If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery — isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” — Charles Bukowski

  4. Nice meeting on Moby Dick, but am wondering who reads the blog. Have you looked at the new book?

    • Ron Boothe says:

      As site administrator, I can look at stats for the hits to our site. Here is what our site shows today, which is pretty typical — Usually 10 to 20 hits per day:

      Top Posts (the past week)
      Home Page for the Tacoma Retired Men’s Bookclub 16 views
      Personal Reflections on Waking up Blind 13 views
      Melville, Moby Dick, and Self-Referential Meaning 13 views
      Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear, Penguin Group, 2009 (paperback edition). 12 views
      Peter Farnum’s Summary of Blind Assassin 11 views
      Discussion Questions for “Thinking Fast and Slow” with some of my own answers 10 views
      “The White Tiger,” by Aravind Adiga: The Paradox of Modern India 6 views
      The White Tiger – What was it about after all? An Empiricist’s view 6 views

      Most of our hits come from searches on the internet that relate to books we have discussed. Here are the top searches that led to hits on our site:
      Top Search terms (the past week)
      why does balram choose to address the premier, capitalism a ghost story, waking up blind cavanaugh, white tiger quotes with page numbers

      A copy of TRAVELS OF A T-SHIRT IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY just arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Will start perusing it today.

  5. I enjoyed discussing ideas about Ahab being ‘all in’ as an aspect of his commitment to spearing the white whale. Here’s part of a paragraph about the consequences of another type of committed obsessive, those that hunt flowers, from Susan Orlean’s ‘The Orchid Hunter.’

    ‘The great Victorian-era orchid hunter William Arnold drowned on a collecting expedition on the Orinoco River. The orchid hunter Schroeder, a contemporary of Arnold’s, fell to his death while hunting in Sierra Leone. The hunter Falkenberg awl also lost, while orchid hunting in Panama. David Bowman died of dysentery in Bogatá. The hunter Klabock was murdered in Mexico. Brown was killed in Madagascar. Endres was shot dead in Rio Hacha. Gustave Wallis died of fever in Ecuador. Digance was gunned down by locals in Brazil. Osmers vanished without a trace in Asia. The linguist and plant collector Augustus Margary survived toothache, rheumatism, pleurisy, and dysentery while sailing the Yangtze only to be murdered when he completed his mission and traveled beyond Bhamo.’

    Lots of commitment to collect a mere flower. One collector was eaten by a tiger! In comparison, Ahab’s obsession seems not out of sorts.

  6. Ron Boothe says:

    Susan Dean alerted me about this poem by Auden:

    Herman Melville
    by W.H. Auden

    Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary
    And anchored in his home and reached his wife
    And rode within the harbour of her hand,
    And went across each morning to an office
    As though his occupation were another island.

    Goodness existed: that was the new knowledge
    His terror had to blow itself quite out
    To let him see it; but it was the gale had blown him
    Paste the Cape Harn of sensible success
    Which cries: ‘This rock is Eden. Shipwreck here.’
    But deafened him with thunder and confused with
    –The maniac hero hunting like a jewel
    The rare ambiguous monster that had maimed his sex,
    The unexplained survivor breaking off the nightmare–
    All that was intricate and false; the truth was simple.

    Evil is unspectacular and always human,
    And shares our bed and eats at our own table,
    And we are introduced to Goodness every day.
    Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults;
    he has a name like Billy and is almost perfect
    But wears a stammer like decoration:
    And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;
    It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover
    And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,
    And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.

    For now he was awake and knew
    No one is ever spared except in dreams;
    But there was something else the nightmare had distorted–
    Even the punishment was human and a form of love:
    The howling storm had been his father’s presence
    And all the time he had been carried on his father’s breast.

    Who now had set him gently down and left him.
    He stood upon the narrow balcony and listened:
    And all the stars above him sang as in his childhood
    ‘All, all is vanity,’ but it was not the same;
    For now the words descended like the calm of mountains–
    –Nathaniel had been shy because his love was selfish–
    But now he cried in exultation and surrender
    ‘The Godhead is broken like bread. We are the pieces.’

    And sat down at his desk and wrote a story.

  7. Ron Boothe says:

    Since she had to miss our discussion of Moby Dick, Susan Dean asked me if I would post the last two paragraphs of Chapter 26, which she finds particularly poignant in its description of a Quaker, and had planned to highlight for us if she had been able to attend our discussion. Here is a link to Chapter 26:

  8. Andy says:


    I found your site while researching T S Eliot and noticed that you read Moby Dick last year. Reading your interesting blog on Melville and self-reference and seeing some of the other books you have reviewed I thought you might be interested in Invective. I spent 7 years in British military intelligence in both Afghanistan and Iraq, before working for the UK government in London on UK based counter-terrorism duties. Whilst in the last role I read Moby Dick and was struck by the similarities between some of the characters in the novel and some of the people I was working against in my day job. I proceeded to write a novel, Invective, examining this.

    Invective follows the narrative arc of Melville’s novel, exploring what makes some of us need to seek out adventure and conflict, and makes many of us need to believe in, and be part of, a cause. It examines the existential angst that plays its part in creating the modern jihadist. This angst that can take someone’s fear of a meaningless life to the point where ending their life seems the best way to give it meaning. As the story progresses Ismael is torn between loyalty to those he is travelling with, those he has come to work with at the security services, and to himself. After witnessing the violence created by both sides, as he moves through this new world, back in the present, he is forced to decide what acts are acceptable and work out what he is prepared to do to get himself home.

    All the profits from the book go to the charity War Child.

    The link is below where you can see full details if you do have any interest

    I would happily speak to the group if you chose to read the book!

    Best regards


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