Amid calls to reopen the economy as the Covid-19 pandemic still rages, Herman Melville’s novel remains a potent political allegory.
As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, the question of when and how the economy will reopen looms ever larger in the public consciousness. On one side, those who object to anti-virus measures—such as masks, quarantines, and curtailment of large gatherings and business activity—argue for the need to reopen. In April, gun-wielding demonstrators called on governors and state legislators to lift quarantines and allow people to return to work, using a mix of civil libertarian rhetoric and appeals to economic necessity. They feel that their freedom is being infringed upon by government mandated shutdowns and masks. Some complain that they need to work to make enough money to pay their bills but are prevented from doing so by the lockdowns—a lament not entirely without justification in the absence of robust income support. Trump, whose electoral success hinges on reopening the economy, was naturally happy to encourage the protestors with tweets calling on them to “liberate” their state capitals.
Meanwhile, the question of liberty is likely viewed differently by essential workers—healthcare workers, grocery store workers, farmworkers, meatpackers, bus drivers, and the myriad others who enable daily life—who must work both to maintain themselves and their families and to provide the services and products on which everyone else depends. Unlike their more affluent white-collar counterparts, they do not have the luxury of working from home, and their irreplaceability is not reflected in their paltry remuneration and lack of workplace protections. As has been widely reported, the situation in meat processing plants is especially dire. Trump, reluctant to invoke the Defense Production Act in order to produce more masks and ventilators, has nevertheless called on the law to keep a steady supply of meat flowing, despite reports of widespread infection in plants where employees are required to work on the line for long stretches in extremely close quarters. This has rightly reminded some of Upton Sinclair’s notorious depiction of the meat industry in The Jungle. While this is indeed an apt comparison, the situation reminded me of a different American novel: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Moby Dick is many things. Most simply, it is an adventure story in which Ahab, the monomaniacal captain of a Nantucket whaling ship, the Pequod, relentlessly pursues a legendary white whale, Moby Dick, who had bitten off Ahab’s leg in an earlier encounter. Hellbent on revenge, Ahab ignores his prudent first officer, Starbuck—who just wants to get on with the business of whaling—leading the ship and crew to their doom. As many a reader of the novel would point out, however (perhaps somewhat ruefully), to describe Moby Dick as merely an adventure story is to overlook at least half the book. Ishmael can barely relate his experiences without launching into excruciatingly detailed descriptions of whales and whaling. This oddly digressive structure, as the literary critic Northrop Frye observes, results from the novel’s blending of literary forms, so that “the romantic theme of the hunt expands into the encyclopedic anatomy of the whale.” In Frye’s terms, the literary form of the romance, which is associated with heroic tales, gives way to the anatomy, the type of satire exhibited in works like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (both of which Melville read as he began composing Moby Dick). The romantic adventure story provides Melville with a loose structure on which to rely while through Ishmael he humorously probes all manner of subjects, from philosophical musings on the nature of time and free will, to the importance of the whale’s anatomy to the larger New England economy, to labor relations on board a whaling ship.
One of the hallmarks of the anatomy is the constant subversion of highfalutin philosophical pontification by low humor, which often emphasizes bodily functions. Melville’s self-conscious use of such conventions must be grasped if Moby Dick’s broader satirical ambitions are to be understood. We see these at work from the book’s opening pages. Moby Dick has one of the most famous first lines in all of literature: “Call me Ishmael.” But the fame of the first line overshadows the second, which, by foregrounding work and its pecuniary motivations, immediately undercuts any sense of romantic adventure through its appeal to vulgar economic necessity. “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely,” Ishmael recounts, “having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
Ishmael’s desires stem as much from his lack of funds as they do from the ocean’s intoxicating allure. He must go to sea as a sailor rather than as a passenger because “to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it.” The novel’s first chapter, “Loomings,” contains further reflections on the labor relations of whaling which solidify its status as an anatomy in Frye’s definition. For example, as Ishmael explains why he prefers to go to sea as a sailor rather than as a passenger, he cites the “wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck.” “For as in this world,” Ishmael continues,
head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it.
Though Ishmael’s invocation of the “Pythagorean maxim” may remind some readers of high school geometry, conjuring images of right triangles, Pythagoras’s maxim is distinct from his theorem. As the Norton edition of Moby Dick notes, the maxim recommends avoiding beans because they cause flatulence. The wind from astern, in other words, is a fart. From here, Ishmael deftly pivots to reflecting on the class relations of the crew, musing that on a ship, as in many other affairs, the common people determine the course of things, their leaders’ pretensions notwithstanding. This combination of low bodily humor with a class analysis of whaling ships epitomizes the anatomy’s satirical sensibility.
This satirical impulse is present throughout the novel’s myriad disquisitions on whale facts. The products of the whale possess commercial value, so the dissection of the whale’s anatomy becomes a kind of political economy (political economy is, as Marx remarks, the “anatomy of civil society”), which unfolds in the relations of the crew, their division of labor and control on the ship, the nature of their peculiar branch of industry, and the larger social and economic context into which it fits. As Ishmael observes in the novel’s sixth chapter, “The Street,” the opulence of New Bedford, Massachusetts depends upon the labor of the whalers who supply the various products of the whale trade. “Yes, all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans,” Ishmael affirms. “One and all they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” Consistent with the anatomy’s penchant for forcing a confrontation between social decorum and vulgar reality, Moby Dick brings to the surface the latent material facts upon which social appearances depend.
One of these facts is the extreme danger entailed by the whaling enterprise. The perils of life aboard a whaling vessel are the subject of the macabre and sardonic reflections contained in the chapter “The Hyena” in which Ishmael writes his will in order to assuage his anxiety at the constant threat of death, an impulse we see reflected today in the rush by healthcare workers and others to get their affairs in order. As outbreaks of Covid-19 mount in tandem with the nascent reopening of the economy, it is easy to see the appeal of the “desperado philosophy” Ishmael describes in “The Hyena,” which he sums up as, “here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.”
The tension between the imperatives of economic and biological survival recur again in a chapter called “The Castaway” in which the young Black cabin boy Pip falls overboard while pursuing a whale, much to the consternation of his mates who must cut the whale free in order to save him. Stubb, another member of the Pequod’s crew, threatens, “We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama,” which leads Ishmael to reflect, “Hereby perhaps Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loves his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.” Stubb’s valuation of Pip in market terms indicates just how little Black lives matter in a society that practices the dehumanizing institution of slavery. Ishmael’s ensuing observation about the tendency of money to pervert human relationships prompts readers to reflect on the historical nexus of slavery and capitalism, the ill effects of which remain potent sources of injustice today.
That the tensions engendered by the whaling enterprise sometimes explode into outright rebellion is evident in the chapter entitled, “The Town Ho’s Story” in which Ishmael recounts a tale he has been told by his crew mate Tashtego about a dramatic mutiny aboard another whaling ship, the Town Ho. In the story, the Town Ho’s overweening second officer, Radney, threatens to strike a sailor named Steelkit with a hammer if he doesn’t sweep the ship’s deck. Steelkit refuses and hits the first officer, leading to a mutiny as Steelkit’s fellow lakemen (so called because they all hail from the Great Lakes) rally to his cause. Steelkit’s comrades eventually betray him after getting locked below decks. But Steelkit gets the last laugh as Radney is devoured by Moby Dick after the Town Ho encounters the great white whale and gives chase. As well as being a story within a story—yet another hallmark of the anatomy genre—“The Town Ho’s Story” vividly illustrates the hierarchies of whaling and the propensity for the abuse of authority to provoke rebellion.
If, as is often observed, Moby Dick contains many elements of political allegory—the Pequod is a literal embodiment of the metaphorical ship of state; the frequent references to Leviathan of the Book of Job recall Thomas Hobbes’ political treatise of the same name; Ahab is a tyrant— then perhaps we should heed its warning. Trump is a farcical Ahab, of course, but it would be foolish to underestimate his weird charisma. Like Ahab, who woos the Pequod’s crew by appealing to the transcendent nature of his mission to hunt the great white whale, Trump has shown an ability to channel people’s frustrations into a similarly transcendent myth of lost American greatness. Needless to say, like Ahab’s monomania, Trump’s megalomania will only lead to destruction. Yet defeating him will require more than appealing to the status quo ante. Just as Starbuck’s prosaic admonitions to focus on business as usual fail to compete with the poetic thrill of the chase, Democrats’ invocations of a mythical time before Trump when all was well will fail to elicit the enthusiasm necessary to sweep him out of office. The eruption of protest in the wake of the excruciating killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin indicates the yearning for a more ambitious agenda of deep reforms, and it shows, as Ishmael remarks, that more often than not it is the people who must lead.