Saturday, November 27, 2021

Climate Change, Existentialism and Moby Dick


“…Climate change touches on time scales and planetary systems that humans aren’t wired to fathom. But at the same time, it can be seen as just another challenge we’ve brought upon ourselves through societal failings.

“Perhaps it’s more helpful, then, to think about climate change not as a brand-new “existential threat,” but as the kind of age-old crisis that is tailor-made for existentialism – a philosophy, as the scholar Walter Kaufmann put it, that is all about ‘dread, despair, death, and dauntlessness.’ The basic idea is to recognize how treacherous and unknowable your path is, and then to continue on anyway.

“Moby Dick is clearly an existentialist text, though it was published almost a century before the term was coined. One of the founders of modern existentialism, Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, explicitly acknowledged Melville as an intellectual forebear. And two of the main characters in ‘Moby-Dick’ are near-perfect existentialists: the narrator, Ishmael, and his friend, Queequeg, a harpooner from the fictional isle of Kokovoko.

“From the beginning of his tale, Ishmael makes clear his obsession with the horror of the human condition. He’s bitterly depressed, angry, even suicidal: ‘it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,’ he says on page one, and he finds himself ‘pausing before coffin warehouses.’ He hates the way modern New Yorkers seem to spend their days ‘tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.’ All he can think to do is go to sea.

“Of course, it’s not long before he has a near-death experience on the open water. He and a few crewmates get chucked out of their small boat in the midst of a squall after failing to nab the whale they were after. Queequeg signals with their one faint lantern, ‘hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair.’

“Immediately after they’re saved, Ishmael interviews the most experienced of the crew and, confirming that this sort of thing happens all the time, goes below decks to ‘make a rough draft of my will,’ with Queequeg as his witness. The ‘whole universe’ seems like ‘a vast practical joke’ at his expense, but he finds himself able to smile at the absurdity: ‘Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction.’

No man is an island

“Again and again, Moby Dick forces readers to confront despair. But that doesn’t make it a grim read, or a paralyzing one – in part because Melville himself is such an engaging companion, and much of the book imparts a powerful sense of fellowship.

“Literary critic Geoffrey Sanborn writes that Melville meant for Moby Dick ‘to make your mind a more interesting and enjoyable place.’

“‘It’s about the effort,’ Sanborn he writes, ‘… to feel, in the deepest recesses of your consciousness, at least temporarily un-alone.’ When Ishmael stops by the Whaleman’s Chapel before his fateful journey, ‘each silent worshipper seemed purposely sitting apart from the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable.’

“But once aboard his ship, he finds all the crew members suddenly ‘welded into oneness,’ thanks to their shared sense of purpose and their awareness of the dangers ahead. And he sees the same kind of unity in ‘extensive herds’ of sperm whales, as though ‘numerous nations of them had sworn solemn league and covenant for mutual assistance and protection.’

“That’s the sense of interconnectedness human nations need today. When I picked up Moby Dick earlier this month, I almost immediately thought of the climate change negotiations in Glasgow – and Queequeg’s small island home. I could easily imagine the harpooner as an eloquent representative of a nation in danger of being swallowed up by rising waters. ‘It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians,’ Ishmael imagines Queequeg saying at one point in the novel. ‘We cannibals must help these Christians.’ That’s a startling line, emphasizing Melville’s suggestion that Queequeg, whom many characters dismiss as a ‘heathen,’ is actually the most ethical character in the book.

“But in Glasgow, it seems, wealthy nations’ recognition of the need for mutual aid fell short. Though their disproportionate greenhouse gas emissions are largely to blame for poorer countries’ disproportionate suffering, their funding for developing nations to weather the storm is far below what’s needed – and eventually, that may come back to bite everyone.

“Queequeg’s interdependent relationship with Ishmael is at the very center of Moby Dick. Their fates are interwoven; Queequeg is Ishmael’s inseparable twin brother.’ In one scene, the harpooner dangles over the water, attached by a cord to Ishmael, so that ‘should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more,’ our narrator would go tumbling into the sea as well.

“At the end of the novel, all the whalemen except Ishmael sink to rise no more. The narrator is saved by a coffin Queequeg had carved for himself, then given to the First Mate to replace a lost lifebuoy. Much about ‘Moby-Dick’ will always remain murky, but this symbolism is clear: To ponder death and prepare for the worst are age-old survival strategies.

“Queequeg’s culture led him to confront the hardest realities of life. As Ishmael notes admiringly, the harpooner had ‘no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits,’ no tendency toward denial. He had thoroughly enjoyed carving his coffin, and when he lay down in it to check the fit, while suffering from a life-threatening fever, he had shown a perfectly ‘composed countenance.’ ‘It will do,’ he murmured; it is easy.’

“Queequeg’s existentialist determination in the face of dread, his willingness to sacrifice, his caring forethought, made all the difference. And maybe that could be an inspiration. The key to addressing climate change won’t be some abstract injunction to save the planet; it will be about acknowledging interdependence and commonality and accepting responsibility. It will be about returning Queequeg’s favor.” -Aaron Sachs, Professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University

The Conversation



  1. "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 moldings 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 beyond.”

    -from Herman Melville, Moby Dick: Chapter 36, “The Quarter-Deck” p.144

    "Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows - a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues - every stately or lovely emblazoning - the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, forever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge - pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like willful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino Whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?"

    -from Herman Melville, Moby Dick: Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale” pgs.169-70

  2. It’s not the way I read Moby Dick a long time ago. Queequeg seemed also to embody horror on earth, via the head he carried in a bag and his, sometimes, capricious cruelty. Perhaps conscientious Starbuck is a better choice to use for “caring forethought” and prudent responsibility. Ahab, despite his maddening obsession, revealed a defiance against the purposeless, meaningless world. It was Ahab who had “welded into oneness” his crew with determination, however disastrous it was. The whale was the embodiment of an indifferent, precarious, and inscrutable universe. Among many interpretations, the book can be deemed a parable on the mystery of fortuitous evil and malice harboring within us. Indeed, Queequeg’s “We [heathens] must help these Christians” appears to be quite relevant today.