Call me Ahab

Jeremy Harding

  • Moby-Dick, or, The Whale by Herman Melville, edited by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker
    Northwestern, 573 pp, £14.95, September 2001, ISBN 0 8101 1911 0
  • Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live in by C.L.R. James
    New England, 245 pp, £17.95, July 2001, ISBN 1 58465 094 X
  • Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival by Clare Spark
    Kent State, 744 pp, £46.50, May 2001, ISBN 0 87338 674 4
  • Lucchesi and the Whale by Frank Lentricchia
    Duke, 104 pp, £14.50, February 2001, ISBN 0 8223 2654 X

The noises of the sperm whale are unlike the lyric hootings and musings of the humpback, whose ‘songs’ won him a place in the LP charts in the 1970s. Recordings of the humpback were no doubt helped by the fact that ‘true whales’ – those species, to which he belongs, equipped with strips of whalebone and long pelmets of baleen in their mouths for sieving their food – seldom dive more than a few hundred metres. The sperm whale, a toothed mammal whose lower jaw resembles a vast surfboard with peaked crenellations at its edges, has been found at 3000 metres. The sounds emitted under water by the sperm whale have little charm to the human ear: a series of clicks and clacks, wan rustlings and whirrings, which can sound aimless and even faintly stupid. One thinks of a large stapling device being applied to the edge of a pappadum, or a feral child fiddling with the controls of a rusting dishwasher.

In fact, we can fairly ascertain that sperm whales are neither stupid nor especially aimless. In the heyday of industrial whaling, it was his malign behaviour that signalled what we like to think of as intelligence in the sperm whale. There was no shortage of evidence of such behaviour. Mocha Dick, Moby Dick’s real-life precursor, named after a small island off the coast of Chile, was supposed to have pursued a whaleboat lowered from an English whaling ship back to the side of the vessel and thrashed at it with his tail as it was being raised on the davits. And Melville, or rather Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, tells a story in Chapter 45 of Moby-Dick about a ‘portly sperm whale’ fetching an American sloop-of-war ‘such a thwack that with all his pumps going he made straight for the nearest port to heave down and repair.’ Then there’s the famous story of the Essex, sunk to the west of the Galapagos Islands in 1820. Owen Chase, its Chief Mate, published a Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship ‘Essex’, of Nantucket in 1821. Melville, who footnotes four quotations from Chase in Chapter 45, was less interested in the ordeal of the men in the whaling boats after the Essex had been sunk than in the actual sinking. On sighting a pod of sperm whales, the Essex lowered her boats and gave pursuit. A couple of whales were fastened or wounded. Then a larger member of the group broke away from the mêlée in order to attack the ship itself. It ploughed into the bows with its enormous forehead, swam a distance off, turned and repeated the manoeuvre. Within ten minutes, the Essex was lying on her side.

This is an attractive tale for modern admirers of the whale. It confirms our loftiest suspicions about the range of its reactions, and even hints at a penchant for strategy: rather than lash about in the fray, it goes for the source of its anguish with a rapid flanking action that aims at the enemy’s battlefield headquarters. Chase, for his part, felt a ‘decided, calculating mischief on the part of the whale’, whose ‘aspect’ suggested ‘resentment and fury’ at the wounding of its ‘companions’. Hunters aren’t always wrong to impute their own ways and wiles to members of other species, but they give themselves away when they do. Moby-Dick avoids anything too obvious by devising the white whale as an enormous marine pallet, which is then stacked with anxieties about God and nature and human ambition, offset from time to time by Ishmael’s debunkings (‘Genius in the Sperm Whale? Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech?’). Even so, the story remains a contest between Moby Dick, the thinking man’s whale, in his ‘pyramidal silence’, and Captain Ahab, the thinking whale’s man. For Melville, as for Chase, malice is the authentic mark of the whale’s intelligence.

A century and a half after the book was published, that association has become harder to sustain. The malign and the dangerous haven’t disappeared from the picture – far from it – but they’ve fallen away from the natural world and been reassigned to human beings. Paul Keegan put this well in a remark about the changing temper of ‘nature writing’ in recent years. ‘The threatening in nature,’ he wrote, ‘has been exchanged for the idea of nature under threat’ (LRB, 20 July 1995). At the same time, Keegan felt, older, more robust ways of thinking about the world had become subdued: ‘The Enlightenment sublime has been refashioned into the Environmentalist sublime.’ Two centuries of confident reflection on nature had given way to an uneasy hush, which was then followed by a frenzy of alarms and self-recriminations as Homo sapiens, the bad steward, ran riot through the estate.

In wealthier parts of the world, the perils of Nature (and work) are no longer what they were, so it’s difficult to grasp that in earlier readings of Moby-Dick, the Nantucket whaleman, rather than the whale, looked like the endangered species. Largely because he knew and admired the life of the whalemen, but also because he loved the detail of whaling (even the last detail), and had a proselytising documentary urge to set it all down, Melville makes much of the dangers attending the job. Some are what you’d call industrial hazards: falling asleep in the maintop look-out post and crashing to the deck; being torn from the whale boat by the harpoon-line when the catch, with barb engaged, moves off at such speed that the rope smokes slightly as it’s played out from the loggerhead. Then there are the main dangers that the arts of sailing and whaling are intended to overcome: the sea – this ‘critical ocean’, as Starbuck, the Chief Mate, calls it – and the sperm whale itself. Leviathan is dangerous at both ends – the jaws and battering-ram forehead at the front, the flukes at the back – and even in the middle. Melville tells us that John D’Wolf, one of his uncles, was in charge of a ship raised clean out of the water by a whale slipping beneath it and then ‘setting up its back’. During his time on the Essex, Owen Chase had a similar experience in one of the ship’s boats, when a whale rose beneath it and lofted it out of the water.

Greater risks arose once the harpoon had been thrown and lodged: the boats might be minutes or hours from a kill, dragged hither and thither by the wounded animal until it was exhausted or sounded so deep that the boatmen were obliged to cut the line. This option involved some nasty, split-second choices, very difficult after a long ‘sleighride’ behind the whale, bouncing around like a tin kettle ‘at the tail of a mad cougar’ – as Stubb, the Second Mate, says. To cut the line was to lose the catch. Not doing so could mean being plunged bows-first below the waves and dragged still deeper – losing the boat, and perhaps the men, to the catch.

There are many 19th-century illustrations of the disastrous possibilities that could befall a whaling boat at close quarters with a whale. In the best of them, the overriding sense is of physical disproportion, as if the boats and the men belong in the background of the composition but have unaccountably crept forward, becoming minuscule beside this or that part of their adversary. Yet the terrifying quality of the whale – ‘an enormous creature of enormous power’, Ishmael calls it – is elusive. Ishmael remarks of ‘people ashore’: ‘I have ever found that when narrating to them some specific example of this twofold enormousness, they have significantly complimented me on my facetiousness.’ They couldn’t get it then and we can’t get it now, any more than we can really imagine a whale – we tend to think of the hit-parade humpback or the disappearing blue whale – taking off a man’s leg.

By the middle of the 1860s, some of these dangers were being circumvented by the use of harpoons with explosive heads. With its range of roughly fifty metres, the earliest harpoon-gun put the whalemen beyond the reach of their prey. By the time of the First World War it had evolved into a powerful weapon, with a delayed-action explosive mechanism that allowed the missile to penetrate deep inside the prey before it detonated. Ishmael tells us that in his day, sperm whales, ‘influenced by some views to safety’, had taken to swimming in ‘immense caravans’ and that the ‘yokes, and pods, and schools of other days are now aggregated into vast but widely separated, unfrequent armies’. But barring permanent evasive action – becoming a disappearing species, for instance – there is little an ‘intelligent’ creature can do against a weapon of this kind. To the whalers on the Pequod c.1840, the harpoon-gun would have seemed as outlandish as a flying-boat; for them the prey remained a fearsome adversary that could only be defeated at close range and enormous risk.

No wonder Melville lavishes so much hyperbole on Ahab. In a structural sense it’s about trying to redress the apparent imbalance of power by talking up the whale’s opponent, much as the manager of a hapless contender talks up his boy before the fight. But this is only part of it. Melville devotees relish the author’s concoction of tragic grandeur from Ahab’s madness, even when it seems too thick, while any reader will be won over by Ishmael’s summary weather reports every time he sets eyes on the Captain or considers his brooding presence somewhere offstage: ‘dark Ahab’, ‘wild Ahab’, ‘moody stricken Ahab’, ‘black terrific Ahab’, ‘crazy Ahab’, ‘inflexible Ahab’, ‘untottering Ahab’, Ahab with his ‘despot eye’. It would be strange, all the same, if our appreciation of his tragic character, his Promethean ambition and his radicalism – the ability to think ‘untraditionally and independently’, as Ishmael says – had not been blunted, in the last twenty or thirty years, by our anxieties about environmental damage and species depletion.

Ahab, after all, is something of an ecocidal maniac, or that’s how it looks on cursory inspection: a human prequel to the harpoon-gun and, poring over his charts in his high-alert dream-state, a shamanic precursor of sonar tracking, another technology that drastically lengthened the odds against the whale from the 1920s onwards. He is also a literary avatar of the great whale carnage that took place between (and during) the two world wars, and of the semi-regulated slaughter that went on after that. He gets blamed, too, for the way onshore suppliers and manufacturers turned the matter of the whale into a guts-and-grease bazaar of ugly accessories for an ugly consumer-species: everything from explosives (glycerine was the whale’s contribution) to bicycle saddles. There is much, in the prejudicial eye of the modern reader, to commend the death of the whaleman over that of the whale.

How we allow environmental issues to affect our reading of Moby-Dick depends on how we think of the Pequod, which usually depends on what we make of Ahab and Ishmael and their mostly invisible relationship. Are they revolutionary and moderate? Master and slave? Dictator and compliant intellectual? (This was how C.L.R. James saw them in Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, written during his detention on Ellis Island in 1952 and republished last year.) Or are they merely chalk and cheese? Would the debates of the 1930s and 1940s, which cast Ahab as a Hitler or a Stalin and Ishmael as a respectable liberal or even a respectable Communist, find an echo nowadays in the idea that Ahab is a compulsive violator of animal rights while Ishmael is ozone-friendly? Towards the end of Moby-Dick, in a chapter called ‘The Try-Works’, there is a prophetic piece of literary driftwood that seems to have found its way back into Melville from Zola, or forward from Blake: a shocking marine-industrial scene that shows how the venture of whaling itself, against which Ahab has turned so ruthlessly, is part of the madness that touches him and everyone else on the Pequod, including Ishmael. It will take a while to get to this moment, across many other moments and arguments that suggest otherwise, but it’s the one (I find) that puts Ahab squarely in his place.

The fashion for greenery and animal rights is not the first cultural climate change that Ahab, the ‘thunder-cloven old oak’, will have had to weather, but it is a dramatic one. At the time of the book’s publication in 1851, Ahab clearly appealed to lovers of the Enlightenment sublime. Melville’s friend Evert Duyckinck called him the ‘Faust of the quarter-deck’; another critic spoke of him ‘looming out of a halo of terrors . . . an ancient mariner’. Coleridge’s name cropped up more than once (it crops up in Moby-Dick). Shakespeare’s too, of course. Duyckinck, whose review angered Melville, rightly complained of Ahab that he is ‘too long drawn out’: ‘if we had as much of Hamlet and Macbeth as Mr Melville gives us of Ahab, we should be tired even of their sublime company.’

A hundred years after the novel’s publication – no one had paid much attention for the first fifty – the character of Ahab was in hot contention. His admirers likened him, quite reasonably, to Satan, the fallen radical, while those with reservations, including the Popular Front critic F.O. Matthiessen and the poet Charles Olson, preferred to align him with Shakespeare, his revolutionary Miltonic essence giving way to a more properly tragic register, with its evocations of madness and fallibility (Lear is Olson’s big parallel) and over-reaching. This was, in a sense, to rob Ahab of his metaphysical glamour and to think, rather, about his effect on the world around him: the new, politicised reading of Moby-Dick was a critical celebration of America’s vigorous adolescence as an economic power and a dark premonition of its destiny.

Clare Spark is a devotee of Ahab the fallen angel. She believes that Ishmael has been puffed at the expense of Ahab, largely because Ahab’s free spirit is too anti-social. She objects especially to the idea that he is a one-legged Führer hobbling up and down the bunker of the quarterdeck – to some extent the view of C.L.R. James – which she considers a misrepresentation for socially proscriptive, leftish-centrist ends. Her tale of scholarly intrigue and Cold War defamation finds a useful counterpoint in Michael Rogin’s Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (1979). In this account, Moby-Dick is not about what 20th-century scholars thought America should become, but about what it became in any case. Ishmael warns us against ‘scouting at Moby Dick as a . . . hideous and intolerable allegory’ – he means the story as much as the whale, and Rogin’s interpretation seems at times to be allegorical. Yet it probes so hard for the implacable detail that it is closer, in the end, to a concordance, cross-referencing the Pequod’s voyage with a series of turning points and crises in American history.

For Rogin’s Ahab to become the galvanising spirit of post-Revolutionary America, his Wandering Jewish aspect is cancelled; he is restored, instead, to the Book of Elijah and to the idolatrous King Ahab, whose hankering for Naboth’s vineyards – and his decision to do away with Naboth when he refused to sell them – becomes a story about the American Indian. In ‘coveting native land’, Rogin believes, Ahab the American becomes the ‘savage’ he seeks to replace. Ahab’s adamantine will, successfully imposed on the ship, is a will to unity of purpose at all costs – in Rogin’s national parallel, a will to ‘Union’, set against the impulse both of the slavers, with their threats of secession, and of those abolitionists who could not accept Clay’s Compromise of 1850, which delayed civil war by a decade. Just as Ahab’s monomaniac project entails the enslavement of the crew, so slavery is a prerequisite of Union. And it is destined to remain a fact of Union: in the North, the capitalists’ ‘natural right to buy labour’ is already preparing a new form of subjection, which the advance of machine industry, hailed by many abolitionists as a force for freedom, will only hasten. Ahab’s regime on the Pequod embodies this continuity. ‘Far from separating the exploitation of nature . . . from control over men’, Ahab shows ‘how the one facilitated the other’. Not only is he a slaver: he also has a devilish mastery of technology that allows him to consolidate his hold over the crew. He ‘refuses to navigate with scientific instruments,’ Rogin remarks, ‘and throws away the quadrant . . . because he has acquired its power for himself’. For Rogin, the Pequod is the Union that cannot speak its real name: an enterprise built on Indian dispossession, plantation slavery and the exploitation of labour, forced by a tremendous synthetic energy into the outline of a national project – and one that can only end badly.

Rogin sketched his genealogy more than twenty years ago. Inevitably, we can feel our own, revised fable coalescing now, with new destinies for Ahab, and for the book; simpler ones, no doubt, at a time when America is so tarnished by the brusque assertion of its might abroad and the steady servicing of its appetites at home. There is no hint in Moby-Dick, for all its sanguine anticipation of both, that either is a God-given right. Everything is too hard won, every toss interminably argued by Ishmael, every calm – as Ahab will remark in Chapter 114, ‘The Gilder’ – a corollary of storm and tempest.

In his discourse on cetology, Ishmael describes himself in passing as ‘an American whaleman’. To read this little phrase nowadays is to feel stunned, abandoned even. It serves as a shorthand for so much of what today seems smothered beneath a cloud of boorish American self-projection, but which so many commentators have long admired about the book, and thought specifically American: a cultivated, democratic form of bravado which draws loss and danger fluently into the narrative of life and work. Yet if Ishmael the American whaleman were restored to us now, we would scarcely describe him as a heroic stranger. He would quickly adapt to the new environmentalism, as well as to the root-and-branch allocation of ‘rights’ (animal rights, plant rights) that goes with it. He is, as Spark says, a ‘corporatist’ – a non-revolutionary, consensual figure – whose star has risen as Ahab’s has declined; and, of course, he is a ‘multiculturalist’ (another form of conformism) who condescends, like Melville, to all races, as to most species, more or less impartially. He is also given to hair-splitting and the patient telling of like from like, while basking, too, in the reconciliation of opposites. He is the dialectician of the piece, and the great procrastinator. ‘God keep me,’ he says, ‘from ever completing anything.’ He is a lover of argument without being argumentative. More often he’s caught up not in the rights and wrongs of a view, or an attitude, but in its ecology: how it came about and what sustains it; what changes it has undergone in what conditions; what merits the alternative position might be said to have.

Against the dalliance of this endless statement and qualification, this circumnavigation of every thought by other, rugged little thoughts, is set the grim forward march of Ahab’s will, or, as Ishmael says, his ‘intense bigotry of purpose’. Ahab is anti-dialectical and absolutist. His approach (it’s all in the approach) wants to strike terror into the non-existent heart of nature. It’s as though Ishmael’s narrative voice had dropped us deep into virgin forest, where the first sign of the Captain will be a distant clinking of hammers as the track-laying advances. Then, sure enough, the fulmination of the pistons.

Ahab himself uses the railroad metaphor in Chapter 37: ‘The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails. Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way.’ It’s one of many figures in the book that represent the business of the sea in terms of the land. From time to time there is an undercurrent of remorselessness, and it is obvious here. More often, however, the land imagery is serene – we’re told of ‘watery prairies’, ‘watery moors’, ‘watery pastures’, or the ‘savannahs and glades of the middle seas’. It is beautifully done, and much of it belongs not to Ahab, but to Ishmael, who loves the Pacific, with its ‘sweet mystery’ and ‘gentle awful stirrings’, and who will warm to almost any subject, grazing at large or laying up as the fancy takes him.

Ishmael is endlessly productive, not only as a novice whaleman, but as a talker and writer whose garrulousness is a hindrance to the telling of Ahab’s story. The effect of his discursive freedom (and Melville’s virtuosity) is to slow up the pursuit of the white whale almost to the point of stasis, bogging down the narrative in an eco-friendly, minimal-to-zero rate of growth. For mile after mile of the book, spanning month upon month of so-called ‘action’, there is nothing but prose. The campus professor hero of Frank Lentricchia’s novel Lucchesi and the Whale – a ‘mad Ahab of reading’ – remarks that ‘Melville is world famous not for his writing but for the story of Ahab which . . . constitutes maybe 20 per cent’ of the work.

Yet in any environmentalist reading, it wouldn’t be enough to see Ishmael as a likable captive whose intentions, along with the Pequod and the rest of the crew, have been hijacked by a wicked eco-slayer. All those land-metaphors, evoking huge tracts ripe for exploration and taming, announce Ishmael’s parti pris as ‘an American whaleman’. Consider this pointed evocation of westward settlement from ‘The Gilder’ (the Pequod is cruising the whaling grounds off Japan and her boats have been lowered):

These are the times, when in his whale-boat the rover softly feels a certain filial, confident, land-like feeling towards the sea; that he regards it as so much flowery earth; and the distant ship revealing only the tops of her masts, seems struggling forward, not through high rolling waves, but through the tall grass of a rolling prairie: as when the western emigrants’ horses only show their erected ears, while their hidden bodies widely wade through the amazing verdure.

Pioneering and frontiersmanship – quintessential Pequod business before she is redirected to the ontological frontier by Ahab – is mostly about livelihood: the courageous, insatiable quest for gain. And one could do worse than think of Melville’s Pacific as a huge series of oilfields provisioned by the sperm whale. The American whaleman was a kind of prospector, the ancestor of the oilman, while the New England whaling industry itself – which had lengthened America’s working day at either end by providing a simple, reliable source of artificial light – was killed off by the refining of kerosene from fossil fuel. Ishmael is an active participant in the process of extraction for profit, turning the wheels of production at home while extending the frontier abroad.

Ahab, on the other hand, is a spoiler, whose obsession with the white whale sets him against this process, morally and materially. The laws of capital and enterprise mean nothing to him. His crew makes a kill here and there, but in the meantime he is moving wilfully, almost mockingly, towards the dispatch of the ship, and with it the hopes of its Nantucket shareholders. True, in seeking to challenge the godhead of the white whale – its ‘mask’ and ‘whiteness’ and so on – to blast through the mystifications and have it all out in the open, Ahab is prepared to take everything down with him. But this deicidal urge is only incidentally ecocidal. He is not complicit in the grinding, day-in-day-out extractive process of whaling (or working oilfields) that we now believe to be the greater hubris. On the contrary, he has ceased to be a producer in good faith.

For the twins they are sometimes supposed to be, Ishmael and Ahab have only very rare moments of contiguity or overlapping. One of them can be found in ‘The Gilder’, when Ahab speaks of the ‘mingling threads of life’ which enable the calm and the storm, but never the one without the other. It is very like Ishmael, and very unlike Ahab, to be so antithetical. (The passage was more often read as Ishmael’s until the Melville scholars Heyford and Parker interpolated speech marks around it in the 1967 Norton Critical edition of Moby-Dick – they remain in place in the Northwestern 150th anniversary edition.) A little further on, Ahab takes up another of Ishmael’s images: that of knowing oneself orphaned, in and by the world – a powerful sense of solitude which leads, in the amenable narrative voice of the book, not to closure and isolation, as C.L.R. James believes, but to open-endedness and idealised forms of companionship. In Ahab, however, the absence of the father is not a liberation, so much as clearance to proceed with the fatal quest, and this, too, serves to mark off the bluff producer from the figure who wants no more of production, because it stands between him and his destiny. ‘Where is the foundling’s father hidden?’ Ahab asks. ‘Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in the grave, and we must there to learn it.’

So we can still distinguish the purist Ahab from the compromised Ishmael and, if we wish, prefer the one over the other. For many reasons, we find ourselves (I find myself) at home with Ishmael – with the tone of voice, and with the man. This is, to some extent, political fashion: since the 1930s, we’ve unlearned our adulation for Prometheans. Ahab might work better for us as a rebel without a cause, a young Turk with a high opinion of himself. In fact he’s a vanguard figure and a bully, whereas Ishmael the consensualist is aggressively democratic. His solidarity extends beyond the society of men to express itself in a range of imaginative affinities with the natural world he is busy ‘overcoming’ in a far more complex manner than Ahab, for whom nature has been hollowed out by the supernatural. Ahab has one pact, but Ishmael has many. He can be found ‘sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves’, or revelling in a promiscuous trance that links him to nature and the social world at the same time. In a famous passage, he squeezes the hands of his fellow labourers in a tub of lumpy sperm oil, which they are kneading back to its proper, fluid consistency.

Some of Ishmael’s most poetical flights are reserved for the creatures he culls; in his congenial way he can incline the whale to any likeness. The smell of it strikes him forcibly: ‘I say, that the motion of a Sperm Whale’s flukes above water dispenses a perfume, as when a musk-scented lady rustles her dress in a warm parlour.’ He domesticates the whale – much as Ahab deifies it – only to reinforce our sense of its strength.

In the middle of solitary seas, you find him unbent from the vast corpulence of his dignity, and kitten-like he plays on the ocean as if it were a hearth. But still you see his power in his play. The broad palms of his tail are flirted high in the air; then smiting the surface, the thunderous concussion resounds for miles.

This evocation of a gambolling gigantism, which has its counterpart in Ishmael’s ludic prose ramblings and all-but-free associations (Melville read Tristram Shandy shortly before he got down to Moby-Dick), reaches its height in the stunning set-piece that pulls the white whale forward from first sighting (‘a hump like a snow-hill’) into a recognisable shape ‘far out on the soft Turkish-rugged waters’; then, the whale appears in front of Ishmael: ‘the glistening white shadow from his broad, milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade . . . A gentle joyousness, a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale.’

This is Day One of the three-day chase, a preface to the outcome we already know, but it might as well be the crisis itself, just as the calm seems more critical than the storm in Ahab’s brief reconciliation of the two. We know, too, that the final disaster is a blow to the human order, not to the order of nature, and so the grace of the whale is like the grace of the barbarian preparing to ransack the city. But there is a moment of wilder barbarity in Moby-Dick, more explicit because the barbarians are men. It comes earlier, about three-quarters of the way through the book, when the ship drives through the Straits of Sunda into the Java Sea. In the expanse ahead of her lies a mobile colony of sperm whales, ordinary sperm whales, without name or reputation – this is a civilian flotilla, rather than an ‘armada’ as Melville has it. The boats are lowered and chase is given. Ishmael and Queequeg are together in Starbuck’s boat. Queequeg spears a male on the outer rim of the crowd. It tenses the whale line and drags them through a surging press of creatures. Then it tears itself from the harpoon and vanishes. The boat glides quietly into ‘the innermost fold’ of the herd, where the men find themselves becalmed in a huge mammal nursery. It is peaceful here, and very still. Full of ‘a wondrous fearlessness and confidence’, the creatures approach the boat ‘like household dogs’. Queequeg pats their foreheads. In the ‘exceedingly transparent’ water beneath them they can see the mothers and calves. Ishmael is enchanted by the young ones. ‘As human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the same time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; – even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us.’ The mothers, too, ‘seemed quietly eyeing us’. And so it continues, while the other boats are busy raiding on the perimeter of the herd. It might be minutes or hours – impossible to tell how long the men are rapt in this prose-fiction foretaste of a BBC wildlife programme. Time has come to a standstill.

Ishmael reflects on the scene below him and likens it to the ‘mute calm’ deep beneath ‘the tornadoed Atlantic of my being’. The reader thinks, less grandly, of a soldier who has got ahead of the main advance and now finds himself in the enemy’s sanctuary, among non-combatants, where war feels suddenly remote and intolerable. Queequeg points down through the water to a young ‘cub’ still ‘tethered’ to its mother by the umbilical cord, and now we recognise the beginning of the end for this miraculous truce between whaler and whale as Ishmael, mystical and bright-eyed, yet ever the producer, likens the cord to the whale line. In doing so he trades in an image of life for one of death and, with a frightening perversity – we can just make out the allusion in the undertow – proposes the hardy little whaleboat, brutally joined to its vast prey, as the whale’s murderous offspring. We are leaving the birth tank and about to enter the abattoir.

Earlier, while they were being towed towards the centre of the herd, Queequeg had harpooned two more whales in passing, casting druggs – cumbersome wooden blocks attached to the harpoon by lengths of rope – in the hope of getting round to them later. The other boats had done the same. In one case, a large whale had also been speared in the tail with a cutting-spade – the idea being to disable the tail-tendon and weaken the animal. He is thrashing about at large in the flotilla, the whale line tangled around him, part of this in turn caught up with the line from the cutting-spade, which has ‘worked loose from his flesh’. ‘Tormented to madness, he was now churning through the water, violently flailing with his flexible tail, and tossing the keen spade about him, wounding and murdering his own comrades.’ The panic of this creature and others, speared by the various boats and pulling drugged lines behind them, soon spreads through the herd, which now retrenches towards the centre. Starbuck’s boat is left to negotiate a terrifying route out. By the end of the encounter, the Pequod has recovered one whale. The injured survivors have taken off with the rest. Several, towing their druggs, will make easy pickings for other whaling ships.

D.H. Lawrence thought this ‘the most stupendous chapter’ in the book, and quoted at length from the aquarium scenes, stressing the ‘submarine bridal chambers’ within the nursery. Always eager to spell things out (‘amazing monsters . . . in rut’), Lawrence is nonetheless pushed to say why he likes the episode so much. ‘There is something really overwhelming in these whale hunts, almost superhuman or inhuman, bigger than life, more terrific than human activity.’ He doesn’t comment on the carnage, which seems to us the mark of something modern and problematic. So does all the waste and collateral damage, the many cuts for the one kill. Yet the slaughter on the periphery adds power to the revelations at the still centre.

What’s never questioned here, though it might have been, is the biddable character of Ishmael. He is not a vitalist in a butcher’s apron or a naturalist with a high-velocity rifle at the ready, merely a person who can excel in any number of environments. But for that very reason he cannot take possession of the ecological moment that has possessed him. It is swept away by his enthusiastic interest in everyone and everything, and also by his role as a reluctant cog in Ahab’s wheel (by now, the narrative deferral of the stand-off with the white whale is running short of options). In his ability to set aside his epiphanies and get on with things, Ishmael is as familiar to us as the austere, monomaniac Ahab was to an earlier generation. Unlike Ahab, and very like ourselves, Ishmael is smitten with the glories of the planet but devoted to their expenditure.

Ishmael – Melville, if you like – wasn’t to know how wedded we would become to that expenditure. Or that the problems of petroleum, the triumphalist successor to blubber and spermaceti, might one day rival its advantages. Fossil fuel, unlike coral or ozone, or fresh water or cod, is an overabundant resource, and, though he is good on greed, Melville did not foresee that the excess of anything might turn out badly. He is more concerned with scarcity. Overfishing is the subject of Chapter 105, ‘Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? – Will He Perish?’ Here Ishmael asks whether, with the spread of whaling, ‘Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc’. He reckons the greatest danger to lie in the hunting of true whales, or ‘whalebone whales’, with thirteen thousand killed every year ‘by the Americans alone’. Worldwide, he estimates, true whales are killed at the rate of fifty for every sperm whale. He thinks of the buffalo:

Comparing the humped herds of whales with the humped herds of buffalo, which, not forty years ago, overspread by tens of thousands the prairies of Illinois and Missouri, and shook their iron manes and scowled with their thunder-clotted brows upon the sites of populous river capitals, where now the polite broker sells you land at a dollar an inch; in such a comparison an irresistible argument would seem furnished, to show that the hunted whale cannot now escape speedy extinction.

Ishmael does resist it, however, by citing the relatively low rates of kill, especially of the sperm whale: a boat working for four years would be lucky to take about ten whales a year, while the trapper or the American Indian would have slain thousands of buffalo in a single year. The whale, Ishmael concludes, is ‘immortal in its species, however perishable his individuality . . . he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin’ and will always ‘spout his frothed defiance to the skies’.

The arguments are unconvincing, yet they’re favoured by the facts. The sperm whale population is currently in decline, but thought to stand at a healthy and perhaps sustainable two million. Sixty or seventy years ago, whale products could be found almost everywhere: in paint, printer’s ink, buttons, dice, catfood, soap, machine lubricant, surgical thread, ordnance. When Raymond Chandler found himself stringing tennis rackets for a living, he was probably working with bits of whale tendon. Nowadays, there are substitutes for most whale parts, including the tendon.

The International Whaling Commission, which came into being almost a hundred years after Ishmael pronounced on the immortality of whales, has had a part, along with product substitution, in the survival of many whale species. After nearly half a century of dabbling with quotas, which were ignored or exploited by the Soviet Union, Japan and Norway, the IWC adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in the 1980s. In many former whaling nations, the industry was by then dead or dying. Neither the IWC nor the spread of replacement technologies has failed to arrest the decline in the number of blue whales – the largest of the true whales – from around a quarter of a million in the 1930s to about ten thousand now. Several other species are endangered. So is the IWC, or at least its ability to make the commercial moratorium stick – especially with the readmission of Iceland (by one vote) earlier this month, despite its reservation on the moratorium which means it could well be hunting by 2006. Meanwhile, it appears that the worldwide conversion to fossil fuel, far from allowing whale populations to regenerate in peace, may be threatening them further by contributing to global warming. The population of the Antarctic minke whale is decreasing sharply because it depends on krill, which thrives at the edges of the big ice systems. As the circumference of the Southern ice-cap shrinks, the minke’s staple dwindles with it.

Environmentalists believe they know the moral of this story: that we live in a delicately balanced world – ‘fragile’ and ‘complex’ are favourite words in their vernacular – where one life-form depends on another. But no doubt we’ll manage if the Antarctic minke becomes extinct. By then, like Ishmael, we’ll have a myriad related problems to ponder, including how to minimise our own casualties and confine the worst of the damage to poorer parts of the world. In a symbolic sense, however, the depletion of whale populations touches us closely, somewhere in what’s left of the ‘mute calm’ that Ishmael felt beneath his own turmoil. Like him, we seem to know a great deal but are powerless to alter the course of things as a regiment of Ahabs might.

Many of Ishmael’s deepest insights are provisional, which saves him from becoming tiresome. But among his definitive truths is that freak piece of driftwood, the extraordinary descriptive passage in Chapter 96, ‘The Try-Works’. Long before the end of the book, with about forty chapters and an epilogue to go, it puts Ahab’s role in the ecological story, and the Pequod’s with it, almost beyond doubt.

The try-works is the name for the pair of massive rendering furnaces built of brick and set on the deck of a whaleship between the foremast and mainmast. Two large pots sat in these twin kilns. After a kill, gouts of blubber were cut into strips and lobbed into the pots. Once the oil had boiled off, the remnant, known as the fritter, was used to stoke the fire beneath them. ‘Like a self-consuming misanthrope,’ says Ishmael, and it’s obvious who he has in mind, ‘the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body.’ The smoke was foul. ‘It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.’

The hellish character of a real try-works was vividly described by John Ross Browne, an Irish émigré adventurer and one-time Indian agent, who had done a brief stint on a whaling ship. Browne pictured the try-works at night with ‘dense clouds of lurid smoke . . . curling up to the tops, shrouding the rigging from view . . . There is a murderous appearance about the bloodstained decks and the huge masses of flesh and blubber lying here and there, and a ferocity in the looks of the men, heightened by the red, fierce glare of the fires.’ Melville may or may not have read this account, published in 1846, but he would in any case have conceived the Pequod as a satanic mill with sails and a tiller, hauling the technology out to the frontier so that the raw material could be processed in situ. Ishmael’s description, also at night, evokes Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg’s Bedlam Furnace: a Coalbrookdale afloat, churning out fire and smoke on a lunatic industrial quest to the ends of the earth.

In the following passage from ‘The Try-Works’, the ‘white bone’ is the play of the waves at the prow of the boat, the ‘savages’ are everyone – the non-white harpooners (Ahab’s troubleshooter Parsee, Fedallah, and his eerie squad) plus the rest of the ‘cannibal’ crew, led by their Captain; the corpse is that of a whale killed a few hours earlier by Stubb, the Second Mate who, in giving chase, had abandoned Ahab’s cross-racial double, Pip the cabin-boy, to his madness in the middle of the ocean:

As the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

Moby-Dick is a torrent of rhetorical figures. Assimilation, metonymy, analogy and metaphor swirl about the reader like brine. By and large it’s a success. But something jars in that image of the fiery Pequod, which ‘seemed the material counterpart’ of Ahab’s soul. The ‘seemed’ is what doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s a ‘was’ got up in collar and tails. What it means to say – what the passage as a whole means to say – is that however distant from the proper enterprise of whaling he is, however fierce his contempt for production and profit, Ahab is in the end its most refined emanation: he is the essence, rather than the semblance, of the whaling business taken to its logical extreme. Man and industry are inseparable not because of the method in Ahab’s madness, but because of the madness in the method – the violence, if you like – at the heart of an epic pillage which, when American whaling was at its height between the 1820s and 1840s, put eighteen thousand people to work on seven hundred vessels at a capital investment of $20 million, and fetched in ‘a well-reaped harvest of $7,000,000’ per annum. Multiply the try-works scene by seven hundred – each sturdy sailing vessel tagged, like a coal-steamer or a modern diesel-engine ferry, with a powdery trail of filth (in this case animal soot) – and you have the measure of it. ‘Butchers we are,’ Ishmael concedes, ‘that is true.’ But then – he turns the argument back on itself – so were the great generals. Ahab is ‘madness maddened’: the grandest of the generals, leading a symbolic assault on the ungovernable alliance of Nature and fate, perfectly embodied in the white whale. Ahab’s relationship with fate is, to say the least, a special one. In his hostility to Nature, however, the renegade is indistinguishable from the livelihood he betrays.

A year ago, as Melville scholars and whaling buffs were preparing to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its appearance, Moby-Dick was dragged to the witness stand to testify on the suicide hijacks of 11 September. A good book about pretty much everything will be prescient on this and that for a century or so, and there was plenty of off-the-cuff commentary, some of it thoughtful. Edward Said noted the ‘suicidal finality’ of Ahab’s longing for vengeance and warned against the dangers of mystifying Osama bin Laden – a course which would only further his purpose – by engaging in a Pequod-style hunt. By the end of last year the United States had become a unilateral agent, more or less, in that hunt, and the sole arbiter of where to take it next. After the legendary quest for sperm whale oil and petroleum, America was about to embark unchecked on another heroic venture: a worldwide geological survey for whatever still has the power to cross or terrify her, followed by massive excavations and uprootings.

A year after 11 September, the Pequod’s encounter with the Rachel, another whale ship, in Chapter 128, is darkly evocative of the new unilateralist ferocity. This brief episode is intended to illustrate how great the moral distance has become between Ahab’s extremism and every other purpose on the high seas. Gardiner, the captain of the Rachel, has lost a whaleboat. His 12-year-old son is one of the crew. He is beside himself and offers to compensate the Pequod for time spent helping him in his frantic search. But there’s nothing here to detain Ahab, who is closing on the white whale.

The sorry Gardiner could nowadays be just about anyone who hasn’t got the Bush Administration’s point. First, the tree-huggers: the marine ecologist in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, who wants to protect a newly formed colony of five hundred sperm whales from the depredations of Sale 181, a pending offshore oil lease of 1.5 million acres that will give substance to the Bush doctrine of increased domestic energy production; or the climatologist anywhere who believes that the Kyoto formula for mandatory reductions of greenhouse gas emissions has the edge over ‘Clear Skies’, a blueprint for an absolute increase on the part of US-based producers and consumers. Next, the bleeding hearts: the explosives expert who is trying to remove landmines from peasant holdings in Cambodia or Angola – the US has not acceded to the international landmine ban – or the barrister in Sierra Leone who can see the purpose of an International Criminal Court; or the opponent of nuclear proliferation who thinks the demise of the ABM treaty a high price to pay for an American defensive shield. Finally, the trouble-makers: the fair-trade activist in the southern hemisphere who worries about the ‘fast-track’ authority to negotiate overseas trade deals that Congress has granted to Bush; or the Palestinian woman in labour whose husband cannot get her through an Israeli roadblock. Ahab, of course, is the master of his own rogue state and hears nothing but the blood beating in his head. He flatly refuses Gardiner’s entreaties and, in ‘a voice that prolongingly moulded every word’, issues instructions to his Chief Mate: ‘In three minutes from this present instant warn off all strangers: then brace forward again, and let the ship sail as before.’