Thursday, 5 May 2016

Why is Ishmael saved?

1/ In A Reading of Moby-Dick, M. O. Percival raises the question: Why is Ishmael chosen to survive, rather than another?
“The man to be saved should be a man of a little faith, could such a one be found, especially since it was a lack of faith that ruined Ahab.”
Can it be Starbuck?
“He has moral instincts and moral insight. He alone is reluctant to take the oath, and when, having given in, his stubbornness flares up again, the low, triumphant laugh of the Parsee, still hidden in the hold, dies away. From the 1st Starbuck knows that Ahab is mad; he once considers murder in order to avert the fate which he foresees for all the crew; he pleads with Ahab to return. It is in the light of Starbuck’s eyes that Ahab reads the story of his life aright.”
However, Starbuck is weak. He has neither the strength of mind to comprehend Ahab’s problem (as Ishmael does) nor the strength of will to do what he knows is right, Percival remarks. His tragedy stands out more clearly when polarised with the weakness of Stubb.
“Stubb could be a character in a comedy of humors, his humor being jollity. He goes down to Davy Jones’s locker, jesting, grinning at the grinning whale, reading Moby Dick, as Ahab does, in terms of his ruling passion. […] But in a crisis a laugh evades the issue as much as sentimentalism does.”
As Ahab says, they are “the opposite poles of 1 thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck”.
Ishmael is different.
“It must be remembered that he went to sea in order to meditate upon the world and the occupants thereof, including the white whale. He solved his problem day by day, responding with a poet’s sensitivity to mood and character and situation and with a poet’s disdain of logical consistency. If a pattern can be discovered in a bewildering variety of musings and meditations, it is 1 that might be thought of, in musical metaphor, as divisions upon a ground. The ground has been laid down by Solomon and Ecclesiastes. The theme is weariness and disillusion. All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it. It is wise to live sparely. Be like the whale, Ishmael advises, equalize your temperature. If an even balance proves difficult, lean to the sad side. But don’t lean too far over.”
Percival refers to the eagle quote—a wisdom that is woe (Ecclesiastes’) and a woe that is madness (Ahab’s), and says:
“Ishmael admires the souls that can soar like the Catskill eagle, and his own soul can take flight occasionally.”
More importantly:
“The essential thing about [his] character is its apparently limitless understanding and compassion. Ishmael lends his own identity to others, even to the point of having little of none himself. He pulls an oar in Queequeg’s boat when boats are lowered, but he is seldom seen in this or any other physical activity. But spiritually he is everywhere and nowhere, observing and comprehending. In a dictator’s way it is Ahab’s crew; they jump when he commands. In a poet’s way the crew is Ishmael’s; they are his by assimilation.”
An acceptance of all men is a kind of religious faith, something that Ishmael has and which he shares with Queequeg. “This is the bond that makes them brothers”, and their relationship becomes metaphysical.
“On the morning after their 1st night together, Ishmael awoke to find Queequeg’s arm thrown round him. That arm was again thrown round him when he floated off to safety on Queequeg’s life-buoy.”
2/ James McIntosh makes a similar point in “The Mariner’s Multiple Quest”:
“… Melville leaves it ambiguous as to whether [Ishmael] survives because of his superior virtue. He is both morally involved in the doomed crew and set apart from it in the story. […] On the Pequod he joins his shipmates in their pleasures and aspirations, but also separates himself from them. He shares in their work and recreation, never missing a chance for carousing even after he leaves the ship. At the same time, his narrative of bloodthirsty scenes in the middle of the book shows repeatedly that he can learn compassion for the whale from observing his murder by man. And he appears to renounce Ahab’s feud before his final chase.
He participates in their imaginations; their different renderings of the voyage as part of what he learns in his own search for knowledge. […] Successively he takes on the coloration of a Father Mapple, a Queequeg, an Ahab, or a Stubb. As such, he is the right recording angel for the many possibilities of the soul these characters represent. […] Because he loves Queequeg, he can share Queequeg’s sense of peace with the world and participate at least once in his inscrutable understanding of the prospect of death. Because he distances himself through pity from the crew and from Ahab, he can also maintain his distance from their predatory feuds. And yet not wholly. As their narrative vehicle, they continue to be part of him even after he has apparently renounced them. Functionally, it is impossible for him to take an active stand against them. […] [T]he result for Ishmael is that he is a passive, shifty, elusive character, with moments of moral virtue that disappear into the flow of his consciousness. He learns from his multiple perspectives to be not only a moralist but also an ironist whose irony incapacitates him for action. Aware of the possible meaninglessness of his aggregate of perspectives, he takes refuge in ironic loquaciousness.”
McIntosh concludes:
“Ishmael is no hero. Yet 1 implication of my approach is that Moby-Dick has no single hero. Ishmael at least is a visionary survivor, which may be all one can ask for on this evening sea.”
However, McIntosh notes “Melville, I believe, was intuitively aware of Ishmael’s drawbacks and possibilities, for he splendidly sustains his ambiguous characterization of him in the Epilogue.”
It seems that Melville doesn’t want his book to be “comfortably resolved”, and “Ishmael continues to have several roles even when he has no shipmates to project himself on imaginatively”.
1st, as “an insignificant and passive member of the crew”, “he is a mere chance fugitive from the wreck of the Pequod, owing his survival to ‘the Fates’.”
2nd, as “a lover of Queequeg and of natural beauty”, he survives through “friendship and natural magic”. “He thus renews his bosom friendship with Queequeg even after Queequeg takes his last long dive”. The coffin is Queequeg’s last gift to him. “Ishmael is saved by love and mysterious knowledge”.
3rd, he survives “as a witness of a disaster”. “As messenger he does not act, has no positive character. Yet as the teller of the tragic saga of the Pequod, Ishmael is potentially a tragic and ironic artist who can pitch his story to the reader-as-Job, the reader who should by now be aware that man’s aspirations for knowledge bring misery as well as wonder.”
In McIntosh’s view, “Ishmael remains Protean, in keeping with his Protean nature as narrator of a multiple quest”.


  1. The last time I read the novel, I became strongly convinced by #3, that Ishmael is there to bear witness for the water god. "Protean" is funny - Proteus was also a water god. They're everywhere.

    1. I've just come across this:
      It's just ridiculous. As though all the "digressions" are nothing but a way of killing time and filling the pages until the Pequod is sunk!