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Perspective: Painting Moby-Dick

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“The Chase of the Bowhead Whale” is a 1909 painting by Clifford Warren Ashley on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

“The Chase of the Bowhead Whale” is a 1909 painting by Clifford Warren Ashley on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

Wikimedia Commons

Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” published in 1851, is the definitive and indisputable Great American Novel. Full stop.

The text captured the American spirit of exploration and discovery, the nature of American religion, the complexities of social hierarchy and race, and the generally difficult and mundane reality of life. As with any great literary work, the story birthed an abundance of American writers, and even inspired character names in the “Star Trek” series. The greatness of the novel is such that the New Bedford Whaling Museum is again hosting its annual “Moby-Dick Marathon” from Jan. 6-8 — a 25-hour live-streamed reading of the novel that will be kicked off by actress Taylor Schilling.   

While the novel holds an impressive and influential past, however, its greatness and importance lies in the future, especially in a world increasingly devoid of meaning.

The novel — on the surface — tells of a group of whalers sailing in pursuit of the terrible whale Moby Dick. As the narrator, Ishmael, builds up to the final scene between the sailors and Moby Dick, he describes both the physical and mythic essence of whales in laborious detail. He writes of every possible factoid known concerning the beasts, attempting to “paint to you (the reader) as well as one can without canvas, something like the true form of the whale as he actually appears.” Even still, Ishmael realizes that any such attempt is extremely limited, and perhaps useless. In order to truly understand the nature of whales, he writes, especially one such as Moby Dick, you must go a-whaling yourself.

His realization peaks in the chapter titled “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.” Here, Ishmael writes of artists, whalers and scientists alike and their futile attempts at painting, sculpting, or depicting (in any way) the true nature of a whale. Ishmael calls all such artworks “manifold mistakes in depicting the whale,” declaring that “(the) living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters.” Therefore, he concludes, “the great leviathan (Moby Dick) is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.”

Here, at least so it seems, Ishmael speaks quite literally of Moby Dick — of his greatness and uncapturable majesty — but the reader more accustomed to deeper waters will notice something else in the depths of Melville’s novel and its infinite sea. In the book, “All Things Shining,” scholars Hubert Dreyfus  and Sean Kelly write about Moby Dick not as a creature of Melville’s fiction, but as a manifest symbol of God (or at least the idea of God, the ultimate source of meaning), drawing similarities between Moby Dick and the God of Abraham.

As Ishmael writes in Chapter 79: “But in the great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity… you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature.” 

Here, Ishmael describes the great white whale as something infinite, something deified, or godlike: It is Moby Dick, but it also is, or at least seems to be, God.

When the story reads thus not as the search for Moby Dick but the search for God, much of the narrative takes on new meaning. Consider the famous opening lines, “Call me Ishmael,” where the narrator explains that “whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp and drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” These now prescient opening lines capture not only his depressed reality, but also the now-modern zeitgeist of depression and anxiety throughout the world — one in which too many turn to pistol and ball for their solution.

Ishmael begins his tale depressed, searching for meaning. So, he goes a-whaling. Instead of (let’s say) scrolling his phone, he steps into the raging storms of the sea, seeking transcendence from the mundane reality of life. He leaves his bedroom and joins a crew and steps into the unsteady, unsure waves of the ocean and life. He does not retreat from life by turning to a YouTube video on whaling, or a museum exhibit on the essence of whales. No, he goes out to sea. And in so doing he inevitably embarks on a journey towards the infinite, a journey towards meaning and the Divine.

Returning to the idea of painting Moby Dick, Ishmael writes, “There is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a-whaling yourself.” These are the words of one with experience, one who knows, who has seen with his own eyes and heart the terrific reality of Moby Dick.

No one can paint Moby Dick, he writes — it’s impossible. We have no means to accurately bind the beast to our man-made representations. And if Moby Dick is, at least in part, a symbol of the Divine, then neither can anyone adequately paint God. If you are to truly find Moby Dick — that is, to find God — you must traverse the open sea for yourself. You must brave the ice in the waves of humble prayer and drive the bow of your ship headstrong into the storms of life. As Isaiah wrote, you must eat the Lord’s “bread of adversity” and “water of affliction.” There are no social media influencers who can lead you to knowledge of the great whale, let alone knowledge of God. There is only one way to know Moby Dick, only one antidote to a drizzly winter soul, and that is to go a-whaling.  

Yes, the waters are certainly choppy, even frigid. The voyage is and will always be filled with mighty winds and waves — waves so high that one might exclaim “carest thou not that we perish!” Yet there is a Master in the winds, and the waves obey Him. And indeed, He certainly does care that we perish not — but perhaps not in the way we might expect. We live in a time of safety and comfort, where our daily bread doesn’t come through prayer, but through Walmart supply chains. This is not the daily bread of God, but the painted bread of Man; for the bread of God is the bread of adversity, and the bread of Man is sweet and easy. If death is essential (and inevitable) to our mortal experience, should we then perish at the pistol and ball, or die as we pour our souls into our phones searching for paintings of Moby Dick? Or shall we perish on the high seas in pursuit of something far greater than us all?  

Ishmael writes “(but) as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God — so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!” May we all seek refuge from the drizzle of our sleepy winter souls and break into landlessness, searching for “the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs” and see “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom.”  

Perhaps you might paradoxically begin your journey by tuning into the live reading of “Moby-Dick.” If you step into the waters and break free from the world, if you begin your search and embark on the voyage, you will find meaning; you may even find him, because he will find you. And in your heart you will own a true painting, a pearl of great price worth selling all that you have to buy it.

Scott Raines is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Kansas.