This is an on-going project, and you can help! If you have any notes that could be incorporated here to make this document a more robust index of themes and concepts of Melville/Moby Dick, then please send them to me via email.

I collected these notes in preparation for the papers I wrote on Moby Dick, which are also available here. The edition that page-numbers refer to was published by Vintage/Random House in New York, 1991.
The first references are very loosely categorized by the themes that struck me and that I had some kind of response to. At the end of this document is a series of particular words (such as phantom) with references to the pages on which I noticed their occurrence.


Melville's psychology involves a denial of distinction between instinct and knowledge. 230,234,248, ...

Man vs. God, vs. Nature. Mortal vs. Immortal, vs. Inscrutable
The relationship of mortal to the inscrutable immortal Nature/God is ambiguous. At times, it is inexpressibly more horrific than that of man to powerful man, and at others, is more manageable for its anonimity and lack of intentionality.

Will and Intention vs. Conspiracy of Fates with Nature
Do men have intention? That is the question Nietzshce raises.
Several passages in MD suggest the impossibility of independent intention in humans. From the very beginning, Ishmael's purpose is governed by delusions of decision, passed off on him by the police-officers of the fates:

Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces ‹ though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own nbiased freewill and descriminating judgement. [p. 29]

Two much later instances occur in the section dealing with the anatomy of the whale and the technical niceties of whale-catching:

Queequeg believed strongly in annointing his boat, and one morning not long after the German ship Jungfrau disappeared, took more than customary pains in that occupation; crawling under its bottom, where it hung over the side, and rubbing in the unctuousness as though diligently seeking to insure a crop of hair from the craft's bald keel. He seemed to be working in obedience to some particular presentiment. Nor did it remain unwarranted by the event. [p. 416]

For not by hook or by net could this vast leviathan be caught, when sailing a thousand fathoms beneath the sunlight. Not so much thy skill, then, O hunter, as the great necessities, that strike the victory to thee! [p. 420]

It is through the fundamental laws or givens of Nature that the Fates conspire to deprive man of his independence. Or is it merely through his biased interpretation of Nature's givens that we come to the conclusion that they rule despotically?
Humanity's inability to "live in this world without being of it (p. 351)," to be independent of the Fates is expressed in the following:

"Better and better, man. Would now St. Paul would come along that way, and to my breezelessness bring his breeze! O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind," [concludes Ahab, p. 357]

The minuteness of atoms suggest the minute, incremental level on which the minds of humans and the fundamental structure of Nature interrelate. Additionally, Ahab's plea for passive reception of another's breeze hearkens back to Ishmael's Pantheistic passivity at the end of the "Masthead" chapter. This last ocurrence, together with something in the tone of the soliloque, suggests to me the possibility that it is really the descriptive voice of Melville commenting on Ahab's condition objectively (as opposed to the appearance of Ahab's subjective vantage-point).
This interpretation gains further credibility with consideration of the following:

ŠLifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan.
But few thoughts of Pan stirred Ahab's brain, as standing like an iron statue at his accustomed place beside the mizen rigging, with one nostril he unthinkingly snuffed the sugary musk from the Bashee islesŠ [p. 538]

By referring specifically to the imperviousness of Ahab's brain, Melville undermines the "linked analogies" that stir even the "smalles atom" in the passage from page 357, above. 'Brain-as-intellect' and "atom" are words that belong in the same vocabluary of mid-19th Century science. If the swells are incapable of affecting Ahab's brain, so too must every atom of his being be impervious to the swells and breezes of Nature or the Fates.
Some combination of these motive forces works on Ahab to purify his will to the point of making it indistinct from action:

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? ...[p. 6Š?]

Something inscrutable, external in the universe moves him against all human nature or 'reasonableness.' His will has been completely taken to the point of pure action in which he does what he does not even dare to do. Action has become so primary that it comes even before will:

"Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting! What I've dared, I've willed; and what I've willed, I'll do! They think me mad ‹ Starbuck does; but I'm demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that's only calm to comprehend itself!..." [The Chart?]

Daring is willing is doing.

The essence of Ahab's struggle with Nature are expressed in the following:

"Oh, oh, oh! how this splinter gores me now! Accursed fate! that the unconquerable captain in the soul should have such a craven mate!"
"My body, man, not thee. Give me something for a cane ‹ there, that shivered lance will do. ..." [p. 623]

Ahab's struggle with Nature can be understood better when one considers the frustration of a proud and profound soul that is thwarted by its physical being. Insofar as Ahab seeks to forge himself in god-like wholeness, he is stricken down by the subjection of his body to Nature. We would be free and omnipotent, but for our legs, arms, hands, and other susceptable parts.
Identity plays a key role in this problem, for it is the scaffolding around which Ahab's attempt at wholeness fails: without the centralizing goal of identity, there is no structuring principle on which to found any wholeness. Wholeness then becomes a sense of being inextricable from Nature herself.

D. C. Dennett writes in Consciousness Explained of many agents within the brain, all competing to make their products known. Some specialize in producing a particular word at a particular prompting, others form alliances with others to generate thousands of words in a few seconds that are associated with one another. All our thoughts, and all our sentences are the products of these producing and censoring agents. They are the creations of a mechanical, competitive aesthetics (logic being merely a dominant aesthetic). Memory is similarly void of personal responsibility. It comes to us without our consciously creating anything. As we remember the things that seemed intentional when we did them, we re-experience them passively.
Ishmael only realizes his delusions of intention (p. 29) in memory, in the process of low-level agents recalling the past.
Ahab more and more as the book progresses begins to throw his own responsibility on the Fates:

"The whole act's immutably decreed. 'Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine. ..." [p. 624]

Blaming all on the incident in which he lost his leg, he is able to remove himself from personal responsibility by recalling the incident in passive mode: he lost his leg not because he chose to engage in a dangerous occupation and to murder Nature's most powerful, graceful, and horrific subject; he lost his leg not by choice, he thinks, but by some design external to himself. And the awsome, mad, and blasphemous reflex, three years or so in the inexorable execution, is likewise but the appointed playing out of the Fates' decree.
It seems that Melville feels Ahab to be personally responsible:

"Oh, Ahab," cried Starbuck, "not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!" [p. 632]

Individual Power vs. Universalist connection w. Nature
Solipsism vs. Pantheism

Part of the dynamic of Moby Dick is coded in the juxtapostion of "individual vitality" against "Pantheistic vitality." Spiritual vitality is individualist, Thoreauan, and may have horrible consequences, as with Ahab:

Oh, Life! Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on! Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I'm down in the whole world's books. I am so rich, I could have given bid for bid with the wealthiest Prætorians at the auction of the Roman empire (which was the world's); and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with. By heavens! I'll get a crucible, and into it, and dissolve myself down to one small, compendious vertebra. So. [p. 527]

Shakespeare's infinity in a nutshell. Why a vertebra and not a skull or brain?
"dissolve down to Šsmall, compendiousŠ": "concentration of self" afforded by open ocean occurs precisely because there is no sense whatsoever of being connected to anything ‹ the cannibal ocean is totally alien.

"Oh, oh, oh! how this splinter gores me now! Accursed fate! that the unconquerable captain in the soul should have such a craven mate!"
"My body, man, not thee. Give me something for a cane ‹ there, that shivered lance will do. ..." [p. 623]

Ahab again speaks against the forces pulling toward acceptance of pantheism:

Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar: I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now knowthat thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence will thou be kind; and e'en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; Whenceso'er I came; whereso'er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; bt at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there's that here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee. [p. 564]

Here Ahab most clearly confronts the pantheizing forces expressed by other characters in the drama. By casting away all care for life, by throwing his body to the total power of Nature, Ahab seeks to free his mind or soul from its insufferable influence. He argues that it is of no avail to love or reverence, nor fearfully respect grim nature, for to none of these "will thou be kind." And hate remains as an expression of defiant will, an expression that, at worst, can lead to death ‹ not a bad thing at all. Yet, "war is pain, and hate is woe." Ahab would gladly "kneel and kiss" Nature, would it come "in ... lowest form of love."
This presents the question: How do our expectations influence our experience of the world and so inform our response to it? As Starbuck put it

"Oh! Ahab, not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!"

Perhaps Ahabs quest is really a quest to blindly interpret the world as hostile and hateful, not a quest to explore the possibilities of interpretation and the avenues of truth.
Unlike Individual Vitality, Pantheistic Vitality is passive (cf. the conclusion of the "Masthead" chapter in which the pantheist feels all his action as subject to the multi-layered forces of the universe) and may lead to the disaster referred to in "The Masthead."

A particularly revealing passage in this light is this:

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. [p. 451]

The individual vitality seems here to be praised for its independence from Nature's whims. Ahab's iron rails. There are certainly calls to the pursuit of technology that grant power to exercise will over/within Nature (cf. pages immediately following 451).
"Like...the great whale..." reminds one of Ahab's relationship with Moby Dick and the Narcissism of contemplating the significance of the sea (or any-thing that contains the mysteries that water does). Ahab is to become like the great whale, like Moby Dick.
The passage that must be considered with this one precedes it:

It was unsafe to meddle with the corpses and ghosts of these creatures. A sort of generic or Pantheistic vitality seemed to lurk in their very joints and bones, after what might be called individual life had departed. [p. 346]

Ahab reinforces within himself the individual vitality, associating it with a powerful solipsism by denying both the heart and the more positivistic outward senses.

"Hold; while Prometheus is about it, I'll order a complete man after a desireable pattern. Imprimis, fifty feet high in his socks; then, chest modelled after the Thames Tunnel; then, legs with roots to 'em, to stay in one place; then, arms three feet through the wrist; no heart at all, brass forehead, and about a quarter of an acre of fine brains; and let me see ‹ shall I order eyes to see outwards? No, but put a sky-light on top of his head to illuminate inwards. There, take the order, and away." [p. 525]

Ahab the individual vitalist or solipsist would make man anew with no heart to intuit or feel the world and with no senses to look out at the world; only a light "to illuminate inwards," and "about a quarter of an acre of fine brains" to do that introspection.
Carolyn Porter sheds new light on the question of pantheistic vs. individual vitality. In her essay "Call Me Ishmael, or How to Make Double-Talk Speak," Porter shows the ambiguity of their respective advantages, at least from Melville's perspective. In Chapter 23, in praise of Bulkington, Ishmael/Melville praises the sea as being the true position of humanity (Porter calls it the ontological position). From this place, the land becomes dangerous, enslaving, treacherous (cf. the naive sincerity of sailor vs. urbanity of landsman-aristocrat in Billy Budd). "In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God." This plays precisely into the definition of pantheism: the being of God is in the being of all things/God is everywhere. As a subject, to make one's subjectivity unstable, indefinite, landless; to dissolve one's identity as individual separate from the world 'out there' is to disseminate one's identity into the world, and to become indefinite as God. To become like God. To fix one's identity in one's work ‹ to be "pent up in lath and plaster ‹ tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks" ‹ this is to be a slave to the world.

Species vs. Individual
In American Renaissance, F. O. Matthiessen begins to draw out the relation of the subject to its history. He begins with a quote describing the depths of Ahab's soul as being like the lower levels in an historic French Hotel, in which the ruins of past ages wait for those who care to explore them. There lurks the (sinister or something) essence of man, according to Melville. It will be important later that within this citation are references to the piled influences of our lineage from Adam on. Cast adrift of any dictation from the old God, we are subject to the inmost dictates of this being that is deeply influenced by the modes of past ages. In this respect, Fedallah signifies this shadow of the past. He is the embodiment of past ways of being in the world. In this loose, intial, faltering interpretation, Melville can be said to anticipate Heidegger in suggesting that the incorporality that Ahab seeks but never achieves requires a deep and (apparently if not in fact impossible) excavation of the past that piled up to make us. When I speak of Fedallah as embodying this state of incorporality (an interesting paradox), I have this, specifically in mind:

At times, for lonest hours, without a single hail, they stood far parted in the starlight; Ahab in his scuttle, the Parsee by the mainmast; but still fixedly gazing upon each other; as if in the Parsee Ahab saw his forethrown shadow [of liberating death], in Ahab the Parsee his abandoned substance. [p. 597]

The various stages of Ahab's mission become intimately implicated in this genealogically determined being:

Look ye, carpenter, I dare say thou callest thyself a right good workmanlike workman, eh? Well, then, will it speak thoroughly well for thy work, if, when I come to mount this leg thou makest, I shall nevertheless feel another leg in the same identical place with it; that is, carpenter, my old lost leg; the flesh and blood one, I mean. Canst thou not drive that old Adam away? [p. 526]

In striving to reconstruct identity (in the allegorical sense of reconstructing legs as part of a body-inflected identity), Ahab here explicitly confronts the impossiblity of erasing the past, of living beyond the reaches of the history into which we are thrown. Even when the leg, the material components that one would expect to comprise the entirety of that past is devoured and carried away in the form of a facesless, inscrutable monster; even then, the spirit-shadow of that leg remains to haunt the project of constructing the new. In terms of "the Shakespearean Connection," we might say that Ahab's quest of destroying the whale involves the desire to erase all persistence of the past-existing limb, so that it can be replaced in total newness. In this light, the quest is not madness at all. But neither Melville nor Ahab give any indication that the project is ought but madness.
In man, the individual expresses glory or significance, while the mass, or species taken wholly, are base. In the whale, individuals are subject to the powers of hunting man, but as species, the whale is immortal:

Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. [p. 519]

Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary. [p. 521]

Dostoevski: "[It is easy to love man in the abstract, but nearly impossible in person.]"
Parllels between Benito Cereno and Moby Dick
Starbuck and Delano are both honorable men who lack the umph to execute the good that they will. Both face the madness or fantastic mask of another man more affected by the whims of nature: Ahab's quest to revenge the loss of his leg, even though lost to the unthinking Nature of the whale, imputes intention on the part of Nature as embodied in totality by the White Whale. Benito Cereno cannot perceive the persistance of the bright sun and the dancing waters and vapors in the sky as the redemption of the hardships he endured, for he cannot see the actions of the slaves as being in line with Nature ‹ they had intent to do malice. If Nature is a totality, then it is not harmonious and anonymous, but malicious and intentional.

The word "phantom" is key in both. How?

ethnic crew

"ivory Pequod" / white-washed San Dominique ("like a white-washed monastery newly cleaned by rain")

Defects in Melville

Melville concerns himself with making a study of the defects of characters. In Moby Dick, each character has his own defect ‹ Starbuck is too conservative; he lacks the forthrightness to execute his proper and well-developed moral principles. Stubb is too indifferent to what makes itself plain to him as evil. Flask lacks any moral sense and feeds on the excitements life has to offer.
Billy Budd centers even more clearly on the distinctive ways in which defects spoil characters as they act in the world. Billy is offered as the perfect man, physically and morally, excepting the one defect that bridges both: his inability to give voice to "sudden, ... strong heart-felt feeling." Captain Vere, very much like Starbuck, lacks something, I can't remember what now. And the sneaky guy ‹ what's his name? ‹ has reason and will, but is morally dispicable.

Signs and Speech, Nietzsche and the Amoral, Historicity
How to communicate?
How to decypher?

"He too worships fire; most faithful, broad, baronial vassal of the sun ‹ Oh that these too-favoring eyes should see these too-favoring sights. Look! here, far water-locked; beyond all hum of human weal or woe; in these most candid and impartial seas; where to traditions no rocks furnish tablets; where for long Chinese ages, the billows have still rolled on speechless and unspoken to, as stars that shine upon the Niger's unknown source; here, too, life dies sunwards full of faith; but see! no sooner dead, than death whirls round the corpse, and it heads some other way. ‹" [p. 552]

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. [p. 637]

The sea is Death or Nothingness; the sun the life-giver or (Being?). In the context of death there can be no meaning: the world is "most candid and impartial" with regard to it. Likewise, there are "to traditions no rocks to furnish tablets." There is no truth, no meaning, only death. Yet always life emerges newly out of death and resurrects its own timeless struggle with meaninglessness: immediately following the 'all-collapsing' catastrophe of death on 637, life emerges miraculously:
The drama's done. Why then here does any one step forth? ‹ Because one did survive the wreck. [p. 637]

As the final three days of the chase approach, the Pequod's voyage becomes progressively more unruly. Ahab destroys the quadrant in a mad fit; the typhoon inverts the compass needles; the log and line are rotten and defective, as is the life-buoy. Perth, the carpenter, has important commentary hereupon:

"Now I don't like this. I make a leg for Captain Ahab, and he wears it like a gentleman; but I make a bandbox for Queequeg, and he won't put his head into it. Are all my pains to go for nothing with that coffin? And now I'm ordered to make a life-buoy out of it. It's like turning an old coat; going to bring the flesh on the other side now. I don't like this cobbling sort of business ‹ I don't like it at all; it's undignified; it's not my place. Let tinkers' brats do tinkerings; we are their betters. I like to take in hand none but clean, virgin, fair-and-square mathematical jobs, something that regularly begins at the beginning, and is at the middle when midway, and comes to an end at the conclusion; not a cobbler's job, that's at an end in the middle, and at the beginning at the end. It's the old woman's tricks to be giving cobbling jobs." [p. 584]

Perth, like everyman, wants a mathematical beginning, middle, and end, but cannot have it except by self-delusion, which he refuses. In the Pantheist vision, there can be no such distinction in the life of anything, for the beginning of the coffin is the tree, and the disease that nearly killed its owner, and the earth that nourished the tree, and the many dead things that went to make up the earth.
Can pursuit of Moby Dick be said to have a beginning?

"Not Without Meaning"
ungraspable phantoms--luring, deluding, maddening

of whole worshipping world
"world's a ship on its journey out"
"mutual, joint-stock world"
Pantheists -- (cf: end of the mast-head chapter)

What Basis for relationships do Unkowable Mysteries provide?

Christian/Canibal split -- "we are all common in our crotches"

Cartesian Vortices vs. Pantheism:
I: Pantheism 1, Vortices 1
"There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch, slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!"(p. 192).

the Vortices are linked to time and space; a sort of inescapable grid. And through Melville, time and space are linked back again to chance and fate:
"And hence not only at substantiated times, upon well known separate feeding-grounds, could Ahab hope to encounter his prey; but in crossing the widest expanses of water between those grounds he could, by his art, so place and time himself on his way, as even then not to be wholly without prospect of a meeting.
And where Ahab's chances of accomplishing his object have hitherto been spoken of, allusion has only been made to whatever way-side, antecedent, extra prospects were his, ere a particular set time and place were attained, when all possibilities would become probabilities, and, as Ahab fondly thought, every possibility the next thing to a certainty [p. 235].

Ishmael takes on the pantheistic philosophy early on in the voyage. Yet by adding to it what he calls a "desperado philosophy" he manages to escape the vortices that finally drag everything down from idealism and Eastern self-denial. He accepts death by vow; in so doing merely confirming the morbid sentiments expressed in the opening paragraphs:

Considering, therefore, that squalls and capsizings in the water and consequent bivouacks on the deep, ere matters of common occurrence in this kind of lif; considering that at the superlatively critical instant of going on to the whale I must resign my life into the hands of him who steered the boat ‹ oftentimes a fellow who at that very moment is in his impetuousness upon the point of scuttling the craft with his own frantic stampings; considering the particular disaster to our own particular boat was chiefly to be imputed to Starbuck's driving on to his whale almost in the teeth of a squall, and considering that Starbuck, nootwithstanding, was famous for his great heedfulness in the fishery; considering that I belonged to this uncommonly prudent Starbuck's boat; and finally considering in what a devil's chase I was implicated, touching the White Whale: taking all things together, I say, I thought I might as well go below and make a rough draft of my will. "Queegueg," said I, "come along, you shall be my lawyer, executor, and legatee."
...After the ceremony was concluded on the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.
Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, her goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil take the hindmost. [pp. 266-7]

It is finally the symbol of death that saves Ishmael: Queegueg's coffin alone survives the all-destroying vortex of the sinking Pequod. The only thing that exists at the limits of reality is death, or the idea of death. Having joined all others in the sacrelidge hatred of dumb Nature, Ishmael survives because he accepts death.
OR: Are the entire crew Pantheists (because they chase the White Whale, phantom of life) who fall prey to the vortex? What does it mean for Ishmael to have escaped by being "on the margin" of the vortex?

The Ship as the Sole (and deconstructable) grounding in reality
The ship is like the center and totality of the real world when at sea. In Benito Cereno, Melville makes this clear in his comparison of entering a strange home and entering a strange ship.
If the Pequod is reality, what do the power-relationships on it have to say about the construction/maleability of reality? Does Ahab construct value when he drives his men to the hunting of MD? What holds this reality together?
After the failed attempt at hunting a whale (a failed forray into spiritual groundlessness ‹ cf. my essay on the symbolism of water in Gospel of Mark):

The rising sea forbade all attempts to bale out the boat. The oars were useless as propellers, performing now the office of life-preservers. So, cutting the lashing of the water-proof match keg, after many failures Starbuck contrived to ignite the lamp in the lantern; then strtching it on a waif pole, handed it to Quegueg as the standard-bearer of this forlorn hope. There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in the heart of that almighty forlornness. There, then, he sat, the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair. [p. 263]

That which they await in hope is the return to reality of the Pequod.
Identity -- universal and unitary
identity linked to cannibalism and self-destruction that run throughout:

But not only is the sea such a foe to man who is an alien to it, but it is also a fiend to its own offspring; worse than the Persian host who murdered his own guests; sparing not the creatures which itself hath spawned. Like a savage tigress that tossing in the jungle overlays her own cubs, so the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships. No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe.
Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty emnbellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return! [p. 317]

Melville seems to want to hint that we are in fact in that ocean of universal cannibalism, where sharks consume themselves only to provide more of themselves to consume; that chaotic, "masterless ocean" of ateleological reality. Ahab and Pip are compared to one another in their madness, and Pip's madness is the product of his being concentrated on his verdant island in the sea:

Out from the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling , black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest.
Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practiced swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness in intoerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it? Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea ‹ mark how closely they hug their ship and only coast along her sides. [p. 466]

Whose island identity can withstand such a self-examination as is required by this "concentration of self"? And without the human presence of another soul! Compressed by the gentle sea, Pip's identity was crushed altogether into a dust that scattered ubiquitously through the open ocean. Consumed by the violent maws of the Ocean's other face, Ahab became a monomaniac. Behind his pasteboard mask his identity is just as void of place (time?).


Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces ‹ though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own nbiased freewill and descriminating judgement. [p. 29]

The Dadaist theory of performative action as the dominant mode of life for most (Heidegger's ontic, perhaps) in this world ‹ a theory I know only through vague hearsay‹ seems at play already in Melville. Here in the beginning, Ishmael casts himself as an actor in an undesireable part of an undesireable play. The idea that Ishmael, the most immediate character of the novel, is performing, despite his best intentions, the script given him by the Fates conspiring with Nature to delude him; that idea, I say, leads to the connection with the mask of the little lower layer in the "Quarter-Deck" chapter. If all is performance, if all put on the mask, strike through the mask, engage in the madness of revenge upon mute, indomitable Nature, commit the absurd:

"Hark ye yet again, ‹ the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event ‹ in the living act, the undoubted deed ‹ there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? TO me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that , then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presideing over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confices. Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends' glarings is a doltish stare! So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn ‹ living, breathing pictures painted by the sun. The Pagan leopards‹ the unrecking and unworshipping things, that live; and seek, and give no reasons for the torrid life they feel! The crew, man, the crew! Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! see yonder Chilian! he snorts tho think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck! And what is it? Reckon it. 'Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck. What is it more? From this one poor hunt, then, the best lance out of all Nantucket, surely he will not hang back, when every foremast-hand has clutched a whetstone? Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see! the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak! ‹ Aye, aye! thy silence, then, that voices thee. (Aside) Something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion."

The Shakespeare Connection
Pip as Ophelia to Ahab's Hamlet.
Ahab soliloquises on the dead head of the whale, demanding from it mysteries of life. Ahab's unswerving quest leads to tragic and prolific death, just as Hamlet's does. Where Hamlet sought to seek out the illicit and out-of-place, to purge the everyday world of all falsehood, Ahab strives to forcefully squeeze truth out of all the everyday: "Surely this is not without meaning." Ahab interprets everything, looking for truth in everthing. Just as Hamlet's madness, chosen in seeming full-consciousness, had the cost of Ophelia's sanity to remind it early of its consequences, so Ahab's (arguably less-optional) madness has its costs early revealed to it in the form of Pip. Both Pip and Ophelia lurk in the background of the plot, reminding their respective counterparts of their interconnectedness with other humans, for all that they might wish to be alone ("I would count it an infinity were I bound in a nutshell!" becomes "I'll get a crucible, and into it, and dissolve myself down to one small, compendious vertebra. So.")
Another instance of connection is the analogous position of Ahab and Hamlet in not valuing their own lives, and in risking those lives in the face of inscrutable mystery:

Hamlet: Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life at a pin's fee;
And for my soul, what can it do to that,
Being a thing immortal as itself?
It waves me forth again; I'll follow it.

And here again, Ahab's matrices of motivation find their ancestors in Hamlet:

GHOST: I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
that roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this [the telling of a crime against you].

GHOST: ...Oh, horrible! oh, horrible! most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear [the crime against thee] not;

Hamlet's father appeals to that in him which will drive Ahab on his monomaniac and disastrous adventure. He suggests that the inmost being of a proper son will by nature be compelled to pursue this revenge to its conclusion, come what may. What makes Ahab villainous in his revenge, while Hamlet is (at least at first glance) heroic?
Another instance of Shakespearean influence comes with respect to madness:

POLONIUS: Indeed, that is out of the air. ‹ [aside] How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of. [act 2 scene 2]

Melville similarly describes Pip's madness as giving him access to the divine realms that are closed to others.

ROSENCRANTZ: The cease of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it; it is a massy wheel,
fiex'd on th esummit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoin'd; which, when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty conseuence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan. [act 3, scene 3]

This imagery bears close resemblance to that of the conclusion of the Pequod's voyage: Ahab in his massiveness brings down the whole of his ship and crew.
And again, this description is in terms of Hamlet's interview with mother on the subject of his sadness:

...but so many are the unrecorded accidents in the fishery, and so plainly did several women present wear the countenance if not the trappings of some unceasing grief, that I feel sure that here before me were assembled those, in whose unhealing hearts the sight of those bleak tablets sympathetically caused the old wounds to bleed afresh. [p. 62]

Clues on How to Read
Tragic Glory/Grace
Possible Approaches to Life
Biblical References
God-Man/Man-God (Dostoevsky)
Man vs. God; Man vs. Nature
Knowledge as Instinct and other schemas of Psychological Makeup in Man and Nature
Nature: Fates or Freedom/chance?
Parallels to other Texts
ethnic crews
tension between Nature's force and man's will/intention
"ivory Pequod"/ white-washed San Dominique
Starbuck-Ahab: Delano-Cereno relation
Metaphors of Commercialism
P. 416 The vagueness of the words "obedience to some particular presentiment" conjures up the same sense of suspense and masked importance that Dostoevsky conjures in his frequent use of vagueness with respect to the significance of people's bodily expressions ‹ smiles, twiches, gaits, blushes, gestures. I cannot remember the phrase structure with certainty now, but it may be something like, "Ivan smiled somehow [importantly, ...?]." In any case, the mystery inscribed around physical expression begins to give it almost primary importance even over sincere speech.
p. 580 "There can be no hearts above the snow-line."