Category Archives: Classic Books

The Classics: Wisdom Speaking

Cornel West wrote an article in the Washington Post in response to Howard University and other universities getting rid of their Classics Department.  Walter Isaacson interviewed him on Amanpour and Company about that. said that he believes it is important to preserve and read the classics. He  emphasized that, it important to read the classics:

I am convinced we are living in a moment of spiritual decay and moral decrepitude in the American empire. We have to come up with countervailing forces and countervailing weight against the rule of money, rule of mediocrity, rule of military might, rule of narrow conformity, and rule of indifference and callousness. The best classics of any civilization, of any empire, of any culture have to do with trying to convince ourselves to get involved in a quest for truth, and beauty, and goodness, and then for some of us like myself, a Christian, the holy.


That is what the classics can help us to do. That is part of West’s religious quest in the modern age. West believes there has been a deep moral decline in the west and a deep intellectual narrowness has crept in, and that the classics can help us to resist this trend. He says, the reason it does that is

“The classics force us to come to terms with the most terrifying question we can ever raise which is what does it mean to be human? The unexamined life is not a life of a human according to Plato in his Apology in line 38a. “Human” comes from the Latin humando which means burial, we are disappearing creatures. We are vanishing organisms on the way to bodily extinction. Therefore, the question becomes, ‘who will we be in the meantime?’ What kind of virtue can we enact? What kind of vision will we pursue? What kind of values will we try to embody? And once you raise that question what it means to be human, then you begin to see on the one hand like Shakespeare and Dante have taught us, like Toni Morrison, and John Coltrane have taught us, it’s dark in our history! Most of our history is the history of domination and oppression. The history of hatred. The history of contempt. It is the history of fear driven cruelty. What is the best of our history? Counterweights against that. And that is everywhere you look. Every civilization. Every continent. Every race. Every religion. Every gender. Every sexual orientation. And once you come to terms with that, then the question becomes how do you become equipped? What kind of spiritual and moral armour do you have that allows you to think critically? That allows you to open yourself to others. That allows you to act courageously.”


Now if that is not a spiritual quest, I do not know what is. That is what I have been seekiing on my quest. I think I have found it. West used Frederick Douglas as an example of a man who did that. He discovered  truths from foreign languages as well as anyone can do. He was already a freedom fighter, but the classics of other countries helped him to find the truth, beauty, and the good. According to West, “He teased out an eloquence. And what is eloquence? “Eloquence is wisdom speaking,” say Cicero and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (often referred to as Quintilian) a rhetorician and educator.


According to West, the essence of wisdom speaking is having the courage to know how to die by questioning your presuppositions. Every time you let a presupposition go that is a form of death because it allows you to be reborn. It allows you to grow. It allows you to develop. It allows you to mature.

As West said,

“We live in an empire my brother that has grown powerful and rich but has not grown up. F.O Mathieson used to say, “America would in some way be distinctive because it could move from perceived innocence to corruption without a mediating state of maturity.” The nation believes it is innocent. How can you be authorizers of devastation of indigenous people and African slaves and then view yourselves as innocent? James Baldwin said that innocence is the crime before you commit the crime. We need to grow up. This is not Peter Pan. This is not Disneyland. We gotta be mature. It is possible for any human being to be innocent, naïve, to be mature and separate childishness from child-likeness. Child-likeness is a sign of maturity. Childishness? You need to grow up.”

The classics taught West how to find truth, beauty, moral goodness and the holy. That is the spiritual quest in the modern age.

The Horror

At first Kurtz could not stand to looking into the Heart of Darkness either.  He said, “I can’t bear to look at this.” But eventually he did. He broke down and looked.  But that drove him mad. This is how Marlow described it:

“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.  I had—for my sins, I suppose to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. Kurtz looked into the mind of all of us—into the heart of darkness within each of us and declared “The horror. The horror!”

Kurtz, went to the edge and looked down into that heart of darkness that most of us just cannot do. We cannot stand it.

Though Marlow could not muscle up sufficient courage to go to the edge and look down into that heart of darkness, as Kurtz had done, he remained loyal to Kurtz for that was his “choice of nightmares.” He respected the courage of Kurtz “to dream the nightmare out to the end.”  Marlow recognized that he had learned tragic things about life, like Leslie Fiedler’s hero who could carry that torch to the end of the cave. Marlow described the lesson this way, with just the hint of a summing up of his philosophy, of what he has learned from his encounter with Kurtz,

 “Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.  The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.  If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.”

Marlow’s final statement was less declarative, more tentative than that of Kurtz.  Marlow knew that Kurtz “had summed up—he had judged. The horror!”  Kurtz’s final statement had “the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate


Yet somehow Marlow saw Kurtz’s final summing up with its astonishing characteristics. For it was the most horrible conclusion imaginable.   Yet Marlow said “It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last.”

But what was the victory?

That was why Marlow when he returned to London, the “sepulchral city” as he called it,  he felt sorry for those poor shallow souls who had not gained such knowledge as he had in the jungles of Africa. He had gained knowledge. A terrifying knowledge but knowledge nonetheless. As he said,

“I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams.  They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew.  Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficult in restraining myself from laughing in their faces , so full of stupid importance. I daresay I was not very well at that time. I tottered about the streets—there were various affairs to settle—grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable persons.”


This reminded me of what my great uncle Peter once told:  If you have been through the Russian Revolution you would not bother going to the bar in Labroquerie. After all was it not true that in Labroquerie all I did was gulp my unwholesome beer and dream my insignificant and silly dreams?

Joseph Conrad was wise. After reading Heart of Darkness we might be a little wiser too. This book is well worth the read.




The Final Dark Truth


In his novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad tried to show us what he thought was a dark truth. It is not just a truth about European society, he showed it was a truth about all of us. You and I too.

Bu how can a person face this horrifying darkness?  Marlow has some advice. Clearly pious phrases are not the answer. Nor noble truths.

“Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look without a wink. But he must at least be as much of man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true self—with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags,–rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief.”


You need deep inner strength to face such horror. It takes strength of character and courage. It reminds me of the person Leslie Fiedler, an American literary critic described in his bookLove and Death in the American Novel—the person who had the courage to go the end of the dark cave with a torch to see the tragic.  Fiedler like Conrad, realized that “The final horrors, as the modern society has come to realize, are neither gods nor demons, but intimate aspects of our own minds,” Fiedler said in his book.  We are the final horror! What an awful truth to face.

Fiedler saw this as the final consequence of the age of reason. I disagree. I think it is the final consequence of the abandonment of reason. Racism, white privilege and exploitation on an insane scale,  were the result of reason being forsaken in favour monstrous desires. The age of reason Fielder said, dissolved in sentimentalism, “in a debauch of tearfulness; sensibility, seduction, and suicide.”  Fiedler noted how the French philosopher Diderot wrote about Richardson the author of that classic novel, Clarissa: “It is he who carries the torch to the back of the cave… He blows upon the glorious phantom who presents himself at the entrance to the cave; and the hideous Moor whom he was masking reveals himself.”  Surely, “the hideous Moor” is a striking symbol of the demonic in ourselves, which the Enlightenment inadvertently discovered in its quest for light.”  Not that dissimilar from Kurtz who found that demon in his pursuit of noble ideals in the deepest jungle of Africa. We have created that image of the hideous Moor.  He is not real except in our own minds.

 The racial component here is not accidental either. The hideous Moor is, of course, black. He is at the heart of darkness. It is the black Moor that we fear the most and will do anything to stamp out. But that Moor is Us! He is the product of our original sin!

Kurtz found that demon when he looked at those shrunken shriveled heads on poles.  Heads that showed shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of teeth grinning horribly and “continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.”  Those heads “only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts.”

From that came the understanding only at the last that “the wilderness had found him out early and had taken him on a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it whispered to him things which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.”

As I said earlier, the horrors perpetrated by Kurtz in the jungle were never described by Marlow. That was because he did not know what they were. He just knew that they would be even worse than the heads on spikes. Marlow had the feeling that

“such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz’s window.  After all, that was only a savage sight, while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief.”


The heart of darkness within the human mind was much, much worse. That was what Marlow could not bear.  He could not carry the torch into the back of the cave and confront that horror, as Kurtz had done. He did not want to know. He did not want to know the truth about himself. Do we want to know truth either?


Philanthropic and Missionary Enterprises


In the novel Heart of Darkness, Marlow had no regard for the philanthropic or missionary enterprise.  The marauders used such concepts as camouflageto fool their prey and even themselves. They used such words to convince themselves that they were doing good—God’s work. Kurtz first, and Marlow second, saw through that hideous lie. They thought of themselves as exploring the world in search of Eldorado—the city of gold. Yet according to Marlow, they were “reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage.”  They were worthy of no respect—only shame.  All they really wanted to do was loot, pillage no matter what the cost.  “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.


Then astonishingly the natives treated these rapacious burglars like gods. Imagine that!  The whites no doubt could hardly believe what they saw. Marlow compared that to how “sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.” That is exactly it.  It is entirely unreal—fantastical. Horribly fantastic. Marlow described the scene this way,


The earth seemed unearthly.  We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.  It was unearthly, and the men were,–No, they were not inhuman.  Well you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.  They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours  the thought of remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes it was ugly; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in which you—you remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.


Marlowe also calls it the “edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.”    Again, he is vague and circumspect, but all the more chilling and terrifying for that. It is an incomprehensible horror. And the real horror is that this is the result of our humanity. It is not inhuman; it is human incarnate. No matter how frightful that seems. This is the heart of darkness. Our own dark centre.


Exterminate all the Brutes

Kurtz, the central disturbing character in Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, was a product of Europe.  He was the child of Europe, believing naturally, without thinking about it, that Europeans were naturally superior to and could help the native savages achieve civilization. All the Africans had to do was assimilate to the superior Europeans. Europeans of course, are famous for this point of view though it is shared by many peoples.

Kurtz had been given the task by his company of preparing a manual to help new Europeans learn about the job of “helping” the native inferiors.  As Marlow, the narrator of the novel,  said, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.” He wrote it.  “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.  ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’  The reader, like Marlow got the idea reading this pamphlet of “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.”  It made Marlow tingle with enthusiasm.  No doubt it had the same desired effect on new recruits.  Marlow noted “that this was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.”


Marlow explains though that this report was started “before his—let us say nerves–, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which …were offered up to him.   After all Kurtz, as Marlow said, “had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour.” Those rites are merely hinted at. Conrad never explains exactly what happened, we just know that Kurtz was treated like a god, and withered black human  heads were attached to the end of spikes on poles in the dark jungle. How that happened we are left to imagine, and our imagination is no doubt more effective than any bald statements would be.  Good novels can do that.  As a result, at the end of that report Kurtz abandoned  his noble ideals, and his noble words.

As Marlow said,

“…at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’”

In Kurtz’s case, that was the inevitable result of all those noble ideals. Just as it was the inevitable result of all the pious talk of civilizing the natives. It was all a lie—a cunning, false rapacious lie!  That was the end of the noble philanthropic enterprise of European colonialism.  That was the end of noble lies everywhere. That was the heart of darkness we all carry within us and which we have to guard against. Or we too will end up exterminating the brutes!

This has significance far beyond European colonization. It is a chastening for all enterprises with excessive hubris. We would do well to be modest. Humility always becomes us. Over confidence not so much.

Kurtz is us. We are no different. That is the most terrifying part of his story.

The Real Prince of Darkness and the False Gods


When Marlow found Kurtz in the centre of the heart of darkness, he had already given in to the powerful forces of darkness. He fell under the spell of the prince of darkness within his own heart. This was no bogey man devil created by religious zealots to scare us into submission. This was the real prince of darkness who resides in us all and who can conquer us as he did Kurtz if we allow it to do that.

Joseph Conrad, through his protagonist Marlow, described Kurtz this way,

“The wilderness has patted him on the head, and behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and—lo!—he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation. He was its spoiled and pampered favorite.”


Kurtz had become the pampered favorite of the forces of darkness.  As a result, he found unimaginable heaps of ivory. Stacks of it. “You would think there was not a single tusk left either above, or below the ground in the whole country,” Marlow said. That was his ivory.  That was what he got in exchange for his soul.

When the Europeans arrived in Africa, as when they arrived in the New World, they were seen as gods. At least some Europeans thought they were seen as gods. Evil gods perhaps, but gods nonetheless. That is what happened after the good intentions of men like Kurtz failed. Many white men succumbed to this dangerous illusion that compared to the indigenous people they were Gods.

This was the original sin! The sin of believing they were superior!

 Some whites still suffer from that sin. It continues to stain some of them.

Noble Causes


Joseph Conrad in his short novel shreds western illusions viscerally. For example,  Fresleven, was the most gentle and quiet creature enthralled by the “noble cause,” but he was seen whacking an old black chief with a stick.   Conrad knew that the illusions would fail and then something brutal would happen.  I want to warn you there is an awful word coming here. Conrad described it this way, “he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched.” That tells you a lot about Fresleven. It wouldn’t be the same without that awful word.

Kurtz came to the centre of Africa thinking he would do good work. He had the best of intentions.  Yet those intentions ended with a ring  of hideous human heads on spikes around a campfire in the centre of the dark jungle. This was a place where Kurtz came to be worshipped like some evil god. That is where his good intentions and illusions inexorably led.

After being in the jungle, in that darkness, Kurtz came to see everything as belonging to him.  It was all his.  As we know that is a common western attitude. As Kurtz said,

“‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my’– everything belonged to him It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places.  Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.  That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible—it was not good for one either—trying to imagine.  He had taken a high seat among the devils of the land—I mean literally. You can’t understand with pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence—utter silence where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion?”

The Europeans thought they owned everything. There was a big illusion.

In that dark place people no longer have their illusions to protect them. They are naked subject to the devilish forces hiding in the dark terrible forest. No policeman can help us there, for none is available.  We have to rely on our own inner strength and convictions genuinely held. False pretenses of doing charitable work will not save us.  No cause no matter how noble will be enough. Only the truth can save us.

Guarding the Door of Darkness


In the novel the Heart of Darkness, Marlow, like Kurtz before him, and like countless Europeans before them too, ventured out from safe London to journey up that river into the heart of the continent.

That big river that “resembled an immense snake uncoiled” had a powerful attraction for Marlow. He admitted that, “it fascinated me as a snake would a bird.”  It was the fascination of the abomination.

Most of such adventurers were dreaming of the glories of exploration.  Some were lusting for exploitation. Many succumbed to the lures of treasure, and power, and unspeakable gratifications. Some sought the salvation of souls. Kurtz was one of them.

Many of those who came to the river where their journey began were, according to Conrad, “the joy pioneers of progress” who could drink their “jolly lager-beer.”  They had no idea what they were getting in for, but they would find out.

In the outer room of the company office where these journeys began sat two old women knitting. They reminded me of Dickens’ old women knitting beside the guillotine as heads rolled in a Tale of Two Cities. A cat sat on the lap of one of them.  When she looked at Marlow her glance over her glasses was described by him as follows, “The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me.” It was a simple but ominously elegant description.  Marlow often thought of them when he was far away.:

“Often far away there, I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes.   Ave!  Old knitter of black wool.  Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again—not half by a long way.”


Marlow also described the company accountant who kept up his appearance “in the great demoralization of the land.”  Marlow respected that, for it kept the accountant sane (sort of anyway) in a crazy land where everything else was in a riotous muddle.   The accountant refused to be distracted by the pain around him.  As he said, “The groans of this sick person… distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate.” Clerical errors were more important than lives. One could even expand that to include moral errors!

It was there at the company office that he learned about Kurtz “a first class-agent”.  So he was described to Marlowe, He was remarkable for he sent in more ivory than all the others put together. Of course, at what cost was he able to gather all that ivory? It really didn’t matter.

Marlowe was disturbed by the insanity of the company business in the yard.  He saw many men there. He described it this way, as part of  a strange religious quest:

“I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence.  The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.  By Jove!  I’ve never seen anything so unreal in all my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”


Conrad knew that the entire European invasion was “fantastic” and also, was driven by “imbecile rapacity.”   That is part of the dark center of this dark continent. And it is part of the dark centre of people.  It is not innocent people who are led to imbecile rapacity. It is in their nature.

Conrad was also disturbed by the false consciousness of the European enterprise in Africa. It is astonishing to think that many of them believed they were there to help the downtrodden.  They really believed they were bringing civilization to savages.  They believed the illusions. That created a surreal world. Conrad said “It was as unreal as everything else—as the philanthropic pretense of the whole thing.”

Resurrection Day Three—lone survivor


This may please some of you. This should be my last post on Moby Dick.

Remember the “rainbowed air”? On the third day of the chase (I call it the quest), as in the Bible, there is resurrection. There is one more brief respite from the bleak world of Captain Ahab. That occurs on the very last page of the book in what is called the epilogue. In fact, as I learned from Lara Rae, this one-page chapter was an afterthought. Melville originally published the book without it, but people asked what happened to Ishmael? He was the narrator, but it seemed like everyone perished at sea after Moby Dick attacked the boats and the ship. How could he then tell the story?

So, in one final page Melville,  through his narrator, explains that Ishmael was about to drown with all the others when the coffin Queequeg had made for him when he thought he was dying, “burst upward” from the bottom of the sea and rose with great force beside him. The coffin became a life-buoy and floated by his side, and Ishmael was saved. Resurrected by a coffin. He floated on the coffin while “the unharming sharks, they glide by as if with padlocks on their mouths, the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.” With the death of Ahab, the war of man against nature was over.  Nature won.

After floating on the sea for a day, Ishmael was rescued by the Rachel who was still looking for her lost children in a quest in which Ahab had refused to help.  So, the Rachel “found another orphan.” Ishmael. Here was a genuine connection. Here was a genuine spiritual quest.

As a result, one of the crew of 30 men was not destroyed by Ahab’s monomaniac religious quest. And you can call him Ishmael.

And so ends this religious quest.

A Better Way: The Insular Tahiti


In Moby Dick we saw where hatred led. It led to the apparent death of all the men on the ship and the whaling boats. Total catastrophe. All of this is incredibly bleak.

However, I want to take a slight meander away from all this madness of the quest to something benign. Melville offers some amazing hints about this possibility. The quest need not be malignant. There is a better way.

Ishmael asked us readers to consider an alternative. This is what he said,

“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 remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished 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 wars since the world began.”


That was one side of the story. Those wars are of course waged by sparring creatures such as sharks and men.  They seem interminable. Yet there is an alternative and Melville suggests we consider that. As his narrator Ishmael says,

“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 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.”


We have both the good and bad in us. The land and the sea. Ahab and Starbuck. We have choices. Starbuck offered it to Ahab. Ahab turned it down. This insular Tahiti is not just a far-off dream. It is real. Melville through his narrator Ishmael draws it to our attention at various times in this book to give us relief from the mad quest of Ahab. It is a place of peace in an otherwise often mad world of turmoil and strife.

Earlier in the novel, in pursuit of another whale, in fact a herd of whales, the ship

“glided between 2 whales into the inner most heart of the shoal, as if from some mountain torrent we had slid into a serene valley lake. Here the storms in the roaring glens between the outermost whales, were heard but not felt. In this central expanse the sea presented that smooth satin-like surface called a sleek…we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion.”


There was also the time the ship the Pequod found calm sailing in the heart of the Japanese cruising ground where,

“At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe,; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

Sometimes the turbulence and dangerous upheavals the sea is prone to, are quiet and peaceful and we forget about the monsters gliding by underneath.

Such times, occur even on land, and are dreamy and idyllic:

“The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hill-sides, as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-weaned children there are sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked. And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that the fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.”


Clearly, in Melville’s mind these times of peace are rare and brief. And it was acknowledged that such soothing scenes affected Ahab, though “of temporary effect” and “if these secret golden keys did seem to open in him his own secret golden treasures, yet did his breath upon them prove tarnishing.” Ahab could ruin even such golden days. Such blessed calms don’t last. “A storm for every calm.”

We get moments of peace even in our most mad quests. But they are not long-lasting. And in the end, Moby Dick midst “enticing calm” the hunters “allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes.” The serenity could be hideously deceiving. And woe to the person who forgets that. There is a tiger heart beneath.