Writing Catalog

Brody Weinfurtner

Grade: 12

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Jim Garrett

Moby Dick: The Inscrutable Truth

Critical Essay

Moby Dick: The Inscrutable Truth

In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the white whale, Moby Dick is a central character in the novel, despite hardly being present in the actual action of the text. This is because it is not the actual character of the whale that makes it a main character, but instead, it is its symbolism for the great power that limits and controls man, the power of fear, and the power of fate. It is these powers that Captain Ahab is attracted to and obsessed with, and his journey to kill the whale becomes the central focus of the novel. In this novel, a novel that deals with complex themes of religion and truth, Moby Dick is the incarnation of Ahab's truth, Ahab's religion. Although many religions may believe that they have the truth, that they understand the great unknown, Ahab wants to go beyond this and uncover the great inscrutable force that he feels has been dismembering him his whole life. The terrifying white whale is Ahab's sculpted pasteboard mask, his jailer that blocks the light of truth, enlightenment, and a greater spiritual understanding—and he will do anything to break through him into the light.

Captain Ahab's quest in this story is not to defeat Moby Dick, but rather to uncover and defeat fate and the great spiritual force behind life. Killing Moby Dick is simply the means that Ahab feels necessary to do so. Moby Dick, to Ahab, is his jailer in the allegory of the cave, the incarnation of his pain and the dark twisted force that he feels has controlled and ruined his life. This force has dismembered his leg and driven him out to sea for countless many years. According to Ahab, all objects are pasteboard masks, and the whale is his, crafted by "some unknown but still reasoning thing [that] puts forth the moldings…behind a (sic) unreasoning mask( Melville 133) "In Ahab's case, he desires the light outside of the cave, the face behind the mask, and the last task in his way to reaching it, to a getting a better understanding of reality, is Moby Dick. "If man will strike, strike through the mask!" Ahab exclaims, "How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me (Melville 133)." By employing a metaphor of the whale as a pasteboard mask or wall, Melville effectively describes Ahab's sense that by killing Moby Dick, he will uncover the mystery of the universe that has troubled so many, that he will defeat the great force of fate that he has resented for so long. To Ahab, Moby Dick becomes the personification of his spiritual belief, and as this is true, Moby Dick becomes a sort of God to him.

Is religion not the belief in the unknown? Queequeg believes in his pagan idol; Father Mapple, and Christians, in the bible and Jesus, and even Ishmael has a spiritual reckoning of his own between all forms of religion on the Pequod. All of these religions attempt to answer the questions of the universe; why we exist, what drives our existence, and what fate controls our lives. Mapple, Queequeg, and countless others claim to have the answers to these questions, and many claim that their answers are better than the others. However, Ahab wants to go beyond religions such as Christianity or Paganism, he wants to find the truth himself and conquer the "inscrutable tides of God (Mellville 129)." It is this inscrutability that frustrates Ahab, that drives him on his adventure to kill Moby Dick. In chapter 132, the symphony, Ahab describes this mysterious force that seemingly pulls him out to sea. Ahab says, "What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? (Melville 390)" Ahab desires to be at home with his family and to have human connection, to Starbuck he sobs "let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon god (Melville 389)." Ahab desires what all humans do, a connection with others and to look into a human eye rather than chase after the eye of God; however, as described in the first quotation, there is a great, unknown "cozening hidden lord and master" that drives Ahab onwards—away from human connection towards a greater unknown goal. An important word in that passage of the Symphony is "inscrutable". This word's repetition throughout the book depicts how fully understanding that great mysterious force of Ahab's fate is, as the Oxford dictionary defines the word inscrutable, "impossible to understand or interpret." However, for Ahab, inscrutable does not have that same meaning. He seeks to hold that great force in his hand, not only to understand it, but to conquer it, and in his eyes, that is by taking down the whale that nobody else can. That same driving spiritual desire for the truth, present among so many others in Moby Dick, but so much more prevalent in Ahab, pushes him out into the ocean away from the comfort of his home out into the inscrutable, vast depths of the ocean.

Moby Dick is an incarnation of Ahab's desire; an elusive, powerful, and seemingly bloodthirsty whale, one that nobody has ever harmed— one that is seemingly immortal. Moby Dick represents Ahab's Pagan idol. Although he may not worship the whale, to him it is the truth, inside the white flesh of the whale is his gospel—his bible. However, differently than Father Mapple and Queequeg, Ahab pits himself against his religion, against his own God. In chapter 41, the spiritual connection between Ahab and the whale is highlighted. "Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale", Melville writes, "he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. The intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; (Melville 148)" In this passage, Melville explains the deep spiritual connection that Ahab has with Moby Dick. Moby Dick is the "monomaniac incarnation" of the "intangible malignity" that has challenged so many people like him before. This intangible malignity is a greater philosophical understanding of the world around him, and of the great force of fate that seems to control him. This greater spiritual understanding is something that is intangible, however, Ahab doesn't see this, and is driven to find it anyways. Unlike the "ancient Ophites" "Ahab does (sic) not fall down and worship it [fate/the force behind the universe] like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it (Melville 148)." This passage is extremely important in depicting Ahab's relationship with Moby Dick beyond just a hunter and whale. Moby Dick is the incarnation of evil to Ahab— the incarnation of the great questions of the universe that millions across history have attempted to answer. However, this incarnation, this symbolism of Ahab's God, is different than the people of the past for instead of praying and worshipping Moby Dick, he instead seeks to forcefully wrench spiritual satisfaction out of his lifeless, white body.

The white whale in Melville's Moby Dick represents the great pursuit of truth across the world. As Ahab boards the Pequod in search of Moby Dick, and on a mission to discover the face behind the pasteboard mask controlling his life, he travels across the world in search of a singular, intangible animal and an inscrutable revelation of life. As Ahab becomes obsessed with this hatred and desire, he embarks on a monomaniac pursuit to defeat Moby Dick where seemingly nothing else, humanity, other people, his family back home and even his own life, matters—other than killing Moby Dick. As Ahab's obsessive pursuit comes to an abrupt, tragic ending in the closing of the book, this novel, and the whale, warn against the dangers of not respecting the great, inscrutable force of fate hidden away behind the pasteboard masks of life.

James Baldwin's Two Diseases

Critical Essay

James Baldwin's Two Diseases

In James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son", Baldwin's father holds a hatred—a "rage in his blood" towards white people. This hatred is likened to that of a "chronic disease", one that takes over his entire body—plaguing his spirit. In "Sonny's Blues" another disease is detailed: the literal drug addiction of Sonny. Despite their literal situations being different, these "diseases" are very similar to one another. In both cases, they are formed out of a lack of control, are self-destructive, and the treatment for both allows a community to be built with people who have similar backgrounds and suffering.

In James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son", Baldwin sees his father possessed by a hatred of white people. His father doesn't trust anybody white—not even people that are trying to help him like his son's 4th-grade teacher. Baldwin's father grew up in an environment where he experienced, firsthand, American racism. Baldwin's father didn't feel like he could control the white world that he lived in and so resorted to the only thing he could control—his feelings towards white people themselves. He forced himself to hate all whites. The "disease" of this hatred took over his entire body, causing him to blot all the good white people around him out of his heart and mind. This hatred possessed his father and pushed him to a point of self-destruction. Baldwin sees this, and fears that he too will feel the "chronic disease" of his father's hatred. Near the end of the essay, Baldwin discovers not a cure, but a treatment for this feared hatred consisting of two ideals. The first was acceptance. Acceptance of life and reality without letting your judgment be clouded by hate, and the second was to never simply accept injustice and to fight it "with all one's strength."

In Baldwin's fictional story "Sonny's Blues", Sonny has a disease as well. Sonny's disease is a literal one of drug addiction. Sonny grew up in a traumatic and painful environment of poverty and suffering. Sonny thinks that because of this unfortunate life that his only solution is to use drugs to escape his misery. As Sonny says, "It makes you feel — in control. Sometimes you've got to have that feeling." In an environment where Sonny has little to no control over his life, he can hardly control his future and is placed in very unfortunate living conditions, Sonny views drugs as a way to somehow control his destiny. He wants to control his life for just a moment——letting the drugs possess his young, formative mind. Soon, this "control" gets out of control. Sonny thinks that the only way to escape this newly painful habit, is to run away from it, and in doing so his family. Sonny must go through a lot to overcome his addiction to heroin, but finally finds a treatment: Jazz Music. Through his Jazz music, Sonny can express his pain and suffering rather than by using drugs. Sonny, who at one time held so little spirit inside of him that he had little to live for, "filled the air with life," with his music, and in doing so the life he expressed "contained so many others." Through his music, Sonny connects himself to a whole community of other musicians and people who feel his pain. When the narrator of the story visits Sonny to watch him play he is surprised by how many people know, love, and appreciate Sonny. While drug use itself is an isolating and sad practice, the treatment of music-making brings him out of the darkness and into the light of recovery.

It is very easy to say that there is no difference between a literal drug addiction and an emotion of hatred. However, to say that is to view the diseases on a surface level. First, both diseases stem from a lack of control over life. Baldwin's father is placed inside an institutionally racist world, a world where he experiences racism that many don't know of—including young Baldwin himself. Sonny's drug use stems from being a black man trapped inside the Harlem slums, experiencing pain and depression from a young age. Both men believe that by hating whites or using drugs, they can control and cope with their own life. By hating white people, Baldwin's father takes control over his opinions towards whites, and by taking drugs, Sonny feels as though he is in control of his life for a brief moment when he uses them. As Baldwin writes, "I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain." This quote strikes true with Sonny vividly as well because feels that if he doesn't use drugs, he will be forced to face the pain that he has tried so long to hide. However, these coping mechanisms for a difficult, powerless, and horrible situation drive the two down a dark path. Both of these unhealthy activities drive the men into isolation, causing them to become separated from reality and break themselves in the process. As Baldwin writes in "Notes of a Native Son", "hatred which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law." This, too, is true for Sonny as his addiction would physically harm him if not treated. Furthermore, what is also true in these two situations is that the two narrators of the stories are unaware, and judgemental and don't understand the state Sonny and Baldwin's father are in. In Baldwin's father's case, Baldwin does not understand the dark American truth that lurks outside of the comfortable house of his innocent ignorance. Baldwin does not understand his father's hatred until he steps into the darkness himself. Baldwin writes of nearly wanting to harm a white waitress for refusing to serve him—momentarily gaining an understanding of his father's feelings. This is true too for the narrator of Sonny's Blues. The narrator of the story, instead of trying to understand Sonny, judges him for his drug addiction and dismisses his music as a silly hobby. He does not let himself look at life through the lens of Sonny and in doing so locks himself inside a house of ignorance, just as Baldwin did during his childhood. When the narrator finally sees Sonny perform he is awakened to his brother's life and struggle and through Sonny's musical expression he views his pain—his "blues." The treatments for the two diseases are similar as well. With Baldwin's treatment of acceptance without complacency to injustice, he is finding control over the situation. In doing so Baldwin creates a community of collective power and connects himself to the millions of black Americans who feel the same pangs of hatred and suffering in their lives. Sonny's treatment of expression through music connects him to a greater community as well. The blues Sonny play allow him to express his pain and suffering to a community of people who have also suffered and endured. Both treatments allow the men to not let their "diseases" control them and to eventually break free from the false reality they were living in.

Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" and "Sonny's Blues", both stories have characters who are critically "diseased." Sonny's literal state of addiction is similar to Baldwin's father's disease of hatred in many ways. Despite, on the surface level, seeming different, the "diseases" contain a plethora of similarities. Not only do they stem from similar bad situations and are self-destructive, but their treatments also cause similar results — expressing pain to communities who feel the same pain, and stepping out of the isolation caused by their "disease". These stories bring forth a theme of the desire for control, and what is the best form of it.