[KB] Burke and Moby Dick

brud0025@umn.edu brud0025 at umn.edu
Wed Dec 5 12:26:44 EST 2007

Reguarding Ed’s comments (12/04/07) on "Conflicted Possession: A Pentadic 
Assessment of T. E. Lawrence's Desert Narrative," by Jason Ingram, and its 
relation to Melville’s story of possession.

Ed says in part:

--It is about how "obsessive purpose" can, and often does, take a 
"self-destructive turn," how action tragically metamorphoses into motion 
when humans heedlessly focus on one or two dimensions of pentadic 
motivation, say "act" and "purpose," without due regard for other 
dimensions, particularly recalcitrant "scene."

The assumption here is that a whole vision would avoid such a tragic 
metamorphosis of action into motion. But I think one can make the opposite 
argument that a “whole vision,” in its very thoroughness, could lead in the 
same direction. I say could, because thoroughness wouldn’t have to lead out 
beyond the human.

So, how to account for Ahab’s obsession? In Chap. 45, The Affidavit, 
Melville strains to make credible the notion that the whale is more than a 
dumb brute, is itself capable of intelligence and design. The narrator 
Ishmael states very clearly the importance of establishing the 
“reasonableness of the whole story of the White Whale, more especially the 
catastrophe. For this is one of those disheartening instances where truth 
requires full as much bolstering as error. So ignorant are most landsmen of 
some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without 
some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the 
fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse 
and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”

I think what counts as non-allegorical in Moby Dick is Ahab’s “belief” that 
he is in mortal combat with the supernatural. David Langston on 10/19/07 
made this critical point, which was very helpful: “Ahab CLAIMS to be 
rending the phenomena and HOPES he is charting a course into the noumenal.” 
Ed refers to the whale as the “recalcitrant scene,” and this is an 
allegorical reading, another way to read the signs.

Melville in The Affidavit, recounts several actual stories of whales 
attacking ships, among these is the Captain Pollard story and the Commodore 
Jay story. Melville wants to emphasize the fact that there were cases in 
which the whale, if allowed to rally, acted not out of blind rage “but with 
willful, deliberate designs of destruction.” We know, however, that animals 
will protect their young, or if cornered will attack, so it is a stretch to 
make the reader believe that Moby Dick is an actual “supernatural” 
antagonist. Therefore we draw the conclusion that it is Ahab’s tragic flaw 
that he has read the supernatural into what is apparently a marvelous tale. 
This is what precipitates the Pequod into the abyss.

What Melville seems to be defending is the reasonableness of the existence 
of madness in the world. That’s my safe reading. Such catastrophes “are 
corroborated by plain facts of the present,” Melville reiterates. “These 
marvels, like all marvels, are mere repetitions of the ages, so that for 
the millionth time we say Amen! With Solomon, ‘verily there is nothing new 
under the sun.’” (My Old Testament knowledge isn’t exact. Perhaps Melville 
is identifying Solomon with Ecclesiastes? Or, since his knowledge was 
supposedly extensive, perhaps he is deliberately misquoting here?).

What aside from obsessive revenge is Melville getting at by enlarging on 
Ahab’s madness? Might it be that a tinge of madness is at the heart of a 
charismatic leader’s power? As the guarantor of the truth and the 
more-than-reasonable-ness of said power? Lump enthusiasm, passion and 
madness together if you will, what they have in common is a seductiveness 
that is near irresistible and commands assent almost as a Dracula or a Pied 
Piper commands a plague of rats. Ahab’s action metamorphoses into rat’s 
motion, a rapid spreading of disease.

>From Chap. 37, Sunset: “They think me mad. Starbuck does. But I’m demoniac; 
I am madness maddened, that wild madness that’s only calmed to comprehend 

This strikes me as not quite madness, pre-madness maybe. Sunset. Ah yes, I 


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