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Thread: Was Melville alluding to wars with Native Americans in Moby Dick?

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Was Melville alluding to wars with Native Americans in Moby Dick?

    Maybe this is not a very original observation. In chapter 87, The Grand Armada, The Pequod and its crew come across a mass of whales. There's a sort of circle of them, inside of which there are mother whales with their babies. It seems like the whales on the perimeter are trying to protect the more vulnerable whales in the centre. I believe other herd animals do this as well, but it seems rather human. Captain Ahab believes Moby Dick has a malign cunning, that his actions are deliberate, that he is not just thrashing about. In another chapter Ahab meets the captain of an English whaler, who lost his arm to Moby Dick. The captain tells Ahab that Moby Dick bit through a harpoon line that had been launched at another whale, as if Moby Dick had tried to save that whale. Captain Ahab thinks so. In that case, if Ahab believes Sperm Whales to be intelligent creatures, who live in communities and look after each other, doesn't that make what they are doing pretty close to murder? They certainly don't doubt their method of hunting the animals is very cruel. I wonder whether Melville was thinking about what the white settlers had been doing to Native Americans. There you had a people who might have seemed rather alien with different beliefs, language and culture. Some Native Americans may have behaved very violently and made themselves feared and hated, but from their point of view they were defending themselves against aggresors. I looked up 'Pequod'. According to Wikipedia, they were a Native American tribe who were wiped out in a war with white settlers and other Native American tribes. Maybe it is not a fair analogy because the white settlers in New England did actually have talks with the local Native Americans, and sometimes made alliances with them, where as we still cannot talk to whales.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    Maybe this is not a very original observation. In chapter 87, The Grand Armada, The Pequod and its crew come across a mass of whales. There's a sort of circle of them, inside of which there are mother whales with their babies. It seems like the whales on the perimeter are trying to protect the more vulnerable whales in the centre. I believe other herd animals do this as well, but it seems rather human.
    It reminds me of the American bison, who do this when wolves harass the mother bison and their vulnerable offspring. I remember seeing a nature programme on this. Wolves have to beware the bison horns and the tough hides of living bison.

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    In the same nature programme I also saw the different technique and problems of gorillas, where there is one alpha male who dominates all the other gorillas in the group. As long as he can maintain his position he has unlimited access to all the females. Once he loses that position he just becomes another gorilla in the group. The successor then kills all the infants in the group who were sired by the previous alpha male. The knack has to be to maintain the alpha male status for as long as possible, at least until "his" infants have become old enough to attempt to challenge him for the alpha male position. Much of this involves bluff, facing up to the rival, with chest-thumping, teeth-baring, and hoping that the rival will back off.

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    I saw a nature programme in which a pack of walruses protected their young against a polar bear by forming a circle around them. The polar bear was desparate or it would not have taken them on. Unfortunately for it, it was stabbed by one of the walruses, did not succeed in snatching one of the cubs, and laid down to die.

    Herd animals if they are sufficiently big can do this. I am pretty sure cattle do this. As a lad, I once went into a field with a dog and all the cattle surrounded it. At the time I thought it was just curiosity, but I suppose they considered it a threat. It was alarming for the poor labrador, but at least they did not have horns.

    I was surprised sperm whales did this because I would not have thought they had any natural predators, but apparently killer whales can be a threat to young sperm whales.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Moby-Dick has nothing to do with the plight of American Indians, which is to say it may as well have everything to do with it. The whiteness of the whale will absorb and render meaningless (but also pure) any harpoon we cast at it. I am convinced that if Moby-Dick is about anything besides a whale hunt, it is about the human failure to penetrate the facade of reality in any meaningful way. The harpoon I cast (of course) is that the whale is God--or is he the devil? And which is the god of the earth and the sea in any case? Which is the god of evolution? Why is our metaphor failing? Why can't we see beyond (or even through) the endless empty waves our mother ship rides on? Why can't we break through the whiteness of the whale? And, oh God, where is the ship?

    So Native Americans? Sure, fire away.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 09-14-2016 at 07:53 PM.
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    I watched a woman on YouTube say it was all about cannibalism, which was a stretch for me.
    Still, you have a man who chases an animal half way around the world to take revenge on it. You have an animal that appears to behave intelligently, and fights back. You have descriptions of terrible cruelty inflicted on animals for profit. The crew is indifferent to the suffering, the narrator included, but maybe readers are allowed to think Moby Dick was the good guy.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    My ancient computer posted twice, and I can't delete posts on here.
    Last edited by kev67; 09-15-2016 at 05:35 PM.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Conversly, doesn't it also remind you of "circling the wagons" in those old pioneer days - which asks the question who are the Indians?

    I recently saw one of those short animated (I mean cartoon animation) BBC discourses titled "Know Thyself" (BBC 'A history of ideas.' ) When Freud's Unconscious Forces were mentioned, Moby Dick swam across the screen. Perhaps the Pequod is journeying through Ahab's subconscious. It is Ahab who creates Moby Dick for us - his presence is strong throughout all of the voyage, before he actually turns up.
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 09-20-2016 at 06:53 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by prendrelemick View Post
    I recently saw one of those short animated (I mean cartoon animation) BBC discourses titled "Know Thyself" (BBC 'A history of ideas.' ) When Freud's Unconscious Forces were mentioned, Moby Dick swam across the screen. Perhaps the Pequod is journeying through Ahab's subconscious. It is Ahab who creates Moby Dick for us - his presence is strong throughout all of the voyage, before he actually turns up.
    It's an interesting idea, prendrelemick. The multi-racial, multi-national Pequod has sometimes been seen as a microcosm of humanity, but I suppose it could also be represent the human psyche. (That interpretation would be more consistent with the Pequod's occasionally encountering other ships). I am hesitant to reduce the analogy to Freudian categories (which seem somewhat antiquated), but I suppose the tyrannical Ahab--the bad king of the Hebrew Scriptures--could be taken as a kind of super-ego character, with Ishmael, the reader's interface, as the embattled ego. Would that make Moby-Dick the dangerous, defiant, and unpredictable id? I think that's over interpreting. But the Pequod is, at least, a world haunted by symbols, as is the human psyche.

    The more I think about the white whale, the more I become convinced it is an anti-symbol of a God or reality whose secrets cannot be penetrated without the destruction of the entire ship (which is what happens at the end). In the meantime Moby-Dick's message is: Sure, cast another guess my way: I have lots of rusty old harpoons stuck in me.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 09-21-2016 at 11:29 AM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Quote Originally Posted by prendrelemick View Post
    Conversly, doesn't it also remind you of "circling the wagons" in those old pioneer days - which asks the question who are the Indians?
    That is what we might be reminded of now, but I don't suppose Melville watched those Westerns. Maybe that does not matter.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    Moby-Dick has nothing to do with the plight of American Indians, which is to say it may as well have everything to do with it. The whiteness of the whale will absorb and render meaningless (but also pure) any harpoon we cast at it. I am convinced that if Moby-Dick is about anything besides a whale hunt, it is about the human failure to penetrate the facade of reality in any meaningful way. The harpoon I cast (of course) is that the whale is God--or is he the devil? And which is the god of the earth and the sea in any case? Which is the god of evolution? Why is our metaphor failing? Why can't we see beyond (or even through) the endless empty waves our mother ship rides on? Why can't we break through the whiteness of the whale? And, oh God, where is the ship?

    So Native Americans? Sure, fire away.
    Ahab is the devil .

    I remember thinking there is a thread in Moby Dick that reminds me of Milton's Paradise Lost. The build up to the last battle - we,ve got the men, the ship, the rhetoric, the weapons, ( big harpoons annointed in mystic fire), we can take him! Let's do it! Yeah! Then along comes Moby Dick or Milton's 'Son' like a dose of reality and destroys them easily. We always knew he would.
    Ahab as the charismatic Satan leading his crew to disaster is not a stretch too far. Starbuck is constantly warning Ahab he is going against God in his lust for revenge. Moby Dick is God's instrument of punishment for their conceit.

    So;
    Ahab = pure id. Starbuck the Ego. Moby Dick the Super Ego. Now that's a failing metaphor!
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 09-21-2016 at 07:16 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    It's an interesting idea, prendrelemick. The multi-racial, multi-national Pequod has sometimes been seen as a microcosm of humanity, but I suppose it could also be represent the human psyche. (That interpretation would be more constant with the Pequod's occasionally encountering other ships). I am hesitant to reduce the analogy to Freudian categories (which seem somewhat antiquated), but I suppose the tyrannical Ahab--the bad king of the Hebrew Scriptures--could be taken as a kind of super-ego character, with Ishmael, the reader's interface, as the embattled ego. Would that make Moby-Dick the dangerous, defiant, and unpredictable id? I think that's over interpreting. But the Pequod is, at least, a world haunted by symbols, as is the human psyche.

    The more I think about the white whale, the more I become convinced it is an anti-symbol of a God or reality whose secrets cannot be penetrated without the destruction of the entire ship (which is what happens at the end). In the meantime Moby-Dick's message is: Sure, cast another guess my way: I have lots of rusty old harpoons stuck in me.
    Borges has a theory that Moby Dick is a version of the episode of Ulysses in the Divine Comedy (which ended as basis to Tennyson poem). Ulysses, according to borges, was not there because he was a liar (a commun interpretation because that is how Virgil understood him), that was a trick. His story tells not about his "sins", but about his last trip, when he goes to a last travel and see on the horizon a moutain, see the mount purgatory, etc. To Borges Ulysses challenged the divine order trying to reach what was denied to him (in a cat-rat chase, as Borges also sees Moby Dick as kafkanesque tale) therefore punished. Ahab and the crew do something similar, trying to reach the unreachable Moby Dick.
    #foratemer

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    Thanks, prendrelmick and JC, for the interesting ideas about Dante and Milton. There is certainly something cosmic about the Pequod's final confrontation with Moby-Dick. I especially like the idea that there was always something unnatural or sinful in the pursuit. I think Melville saw it that way. But paradoxically he also saw it as heroic.

    Quote Originally Posted by prendrelemick View Post
    Ahab is the devil
    I'm not sure Ahab is supposed to be the devil exactly, but he is fueled by a demonic energy. The Biblical Ahab was an Israelite king who "paganized" by marrying the foreign princess Jezebel and adopting her idols. (In that Ahab's case it was Elijah who warned him that he was going against God). Do Starbuck's warnings amount to the idea that Ahab's vengeance is a way of objectifying God--of turning God into a fetish--by replacing mystery and purity (the terrifying whiteness of the whale) with a physical whale that can be harvested for its blubber and spermaceti?

    And so another harpoon is cast.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    If his Whiteness (His pure inviolate flesh) is the key, then when the physical whale appears close up and that whiteness is gnarled, scarred and a bit smelly - is another metaphor.
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 09-22-2016 at 04:05 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by JCamilo View Post
    Borges has a theory that Moby Dick is a version of the episode of Ulysses in the Divine Comedy (which ended as basis to Tennyson poem). Ulysses, according to borges, was not there because he was a liar (a commun interpretation because that is how Virgil understood him), that was a trick. His story tells not about his "sins", but about his last trip, when he goes to a last travel and see on the horizon a moutain, see the mount purgatory, etc. To Borges Ulysses challenged the divine order trying to reach what was denied to him (in a cat-rat chase, as Borges also sees Moby Dick as kafkanesque tale) therefore punished. Ahab and the crew do something similar, trying to reach the unreachable Moby Dick.
    That talk of a mountain is a good fit. It would be interesting to see which other circles of hell the Pequod sailed through. Ulysses passes the Pillars of Hercules into mysterious and forbidden seas. I can't help thinking of Atlantis.
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 09-22-2016 at 05:47 AM.
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