The Quest for God


Some of you may think I am seeing things when I say the whale being pursued by Ahab and his crew in the novel Moby Dick is God.  Perhaps you think I have been on the deck of the ship in the hot sun for too long. Perhaps. But perhaps not.

Here is what the narrator of the novel, Ishmael had to say. The men on the voyage are pursuing the white whale, but he  described this as “on the road to heaven.” In fact, if there was any doubt about this, the whale is described as “thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness.”  ?

Ishmael describes the whale in clearly religious terms. He says the head of the whale is “sublime.” He says, in the brow of the whale “this high and mighty and god-like dignity inherent in the brow so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature.” Ishmael also says the people of the Orient would have recognized a god in the whale. “Had the great Sperm Whale been known to the young Orient World, he would have been deified by their child-magian thoughts.” In other words just as in the Magi’s account of meeting Jesus,  they fell down and worshipped him, Ishmael says the people of the orient would have worshipped the white whale. They “were now in valiant chase of this unnearable brute.” He says the whale is “both ponderous and profound.”

Yet,  the pursuit of God, at times  becomes a Satanic . How is that possible?  This is to me is the most interesting question  in the novel. What brings about this transformation

It is not clear whether what is being faithfully pursued by the 30 men in the boat is God or the devil.  Ishmael describes the whale rising from the deep and breaching above the surface of the sea this way:

“…this peaking of the whale’s flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature. Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven. So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his colossal claw from the flame of Baltic Hell. But in gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels. Standing at the masthead of my ship during a sunrise that crimsoned sky and sea, I once saw a large herd of whales in the east all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld, even in Persia, the home of the fire worshippers. As Ptolemy Philopater testified of the African elephant, I then testified of the whale, pronouncing him the most devout of all beings. For according to King Juba, the military elephants of antiquity often hailed the morning with their trunks uplifted in the profoundest silence.”

Therefore, it is up to the pursuer whether he or she is pursuing God or Satan. The seekers determine whether they are on a voyage of the damned or a voyage of the saved. I think that is profoundly true. Melville expands upon that in the novel.

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