YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 8, 2013

Is Ahab, Ahab? The Free Will Debate

Royal Doulton Ahab Jug

Royal Doulton Ahab Jug

I take it for granted that readers know that Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and some Jews believe, to various degrees, in free will, while atheists, Freudians, other Jews, and the Left lean toward determinism, turning our “choices” into problems to be solved, perhaps never. This blog discloses the evasiveness of the Melville industry in confronting Herman Melville’s most painful quandary.

There are two competing narratives in academic studies of Herman Melville:

1. The Narcissis/Icarus myth.  In this narrative, Melville, identified too closely with his romantic characters Ahab and Pierre, crashed or drowned after completing Moby-Dick (1851) and its sequel  Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852). The short stories of the 1850s begin what Melville’s first 20th century biographer, Raymond M. Weaver, named “the long quietus.” This narrative was taken up by Lewis Mumford, Henry Murray, and some New Leftists who would read “Billy Budd” as an ironic text, a work of protest not to be taken literally, notwithstanding Billy’s blessing of Captain Vere. But what these critics ignore is the unresolved character of the issue that most exercised Melville: the competing claims of science and religion that, unlike, say, cultural historian Peter Gay or the philosopher William James, he could not reconcile in some form of cultural pluralism. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/01/07/some-backstory-for-hunting-captain-ahab/.)

Here is an example of the author’s quandary: In “The Symphony” one of the final chapters of Moby-Dick, Starbuck has urged Ahab to give up the hunt for the White Whale and to return to the (ordered) family. Ahab replies, putting on the table the question that tormented Melville through life: Is it Fate (pagan), free will (Christian), or determinism (Spinoza style modernity) that informs “his” decisions. To leave this question unresolved, links Melville/Ahab with the demonic Fedallah (and perhaps the Wandering Jew).

[Melville quote:] “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, 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 own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new- mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths – Starbuck!”

But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.

Ahab crossed the deck to gaze over the other side; but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there. Fedallah* was motionlessly leaning over the same rail. [Moby-Dick, Chapter 132, my emph.]

fedallah

*One internet source links Fedallah with Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book One: “Wandering o’re the earth, Through God’s high sufferance, for the trial of man, By falsities and lies the greatest part Of mankind they corrupted to forsake God their Creator, and the invisible Glory of Him that made them to transform Oft to the image of a brute, adorned With gay religions full of pomp and gold, And devils to adore for deities.” Another “deviant” painting suggests an affinity with the Wandering Jew, who is seen as daemonic, like Nature herself.

Fedallah as Wandering Jew: Behnone

Fedallah as Wandering Jew: Behnone

2. The Conversion Narrative. The second wave of Melville studies wrote a far different story of Melville’s rise and fall (and rise). Narcissus and Icarus were abandoned in favor of a Christian-neoclassical narrative, one that returned Melville/Ahab to the conservative family, by returning doubting Herman to conservative religion. It chief accomplishment was in rehabilitating “Billy Budd” through defending Captain Vere’s judgment in condemning Billy to death, and in declaring the Civil War as the turning point in Melville’s biography. No longer the whacko Romantic, the bloody catharsis of North versus South sobered up crazy Ahab; Melville was now a proper believer, as his long poem Clarel, a poem and pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1876) “proved.”  The chief perpetrators of this narrative have been the Yale graduate students of Stanley Williams, curiously led by autodidact Jay Leyda, an unabashed, unreconstructed Stalinist and lover of Sergei Eisenstein (who had made his own journey from early romanticism to neoclassicism at Stalin’s behest).

Implications for teachers and readers of Herman Melville’s oeuvre. Except for the primitivist early books that made Melville famous and that offer few problems of interpretation once the reader identifies the appealing primitivism in Typee and Omoo, teachers are at the mercy of their teaching guides and prominent academics, many of them blatantly on the Left. Andrew Delbanco & Co. are out to get Captain Ahab as the image of war-mongering Amerikkka, personified in George W. Bush, while other leftists praise Melville’s noble savages as premature anti-racism.

Sadly, if this tirade against American “identity” is all there is to Herman Melville, we might as well watch Oliver Stone‘s revisionist Showtime series on post-WW2 history, or read Howard Zinn, rather than wading through the sometimes difficult prose of an author who was coming to grips with a confusing family and confusing culture that was pulled in sharply different directions. Melville’s family, no less than our own polity, pretended to serene unity and provided its [prisoners? Bartlebys?] with road maps to achieve the almost painless resolution of conflict, i.e. the conflict between science and religion, with the unresolved question of personal identity and motivation for every “rational choice.”

Is Ahab, Ahab? Am I who I think I am, and how did I get this way? Ask your students or family members that one in class or at a family gathering and see how far you get. (For some related blogs that explain why I wrote this one, see  https://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/,  or https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, or https://clarespark.com/2013/02/23/peter-gays-freud/.)

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12 Comments »

  1. […] such. In its stark opposition, it reminds me of a similar conflict: free will versus determinism. (https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.) At least in the free will debate, a thoughtful person will do her best to recognize limited […]

    Pingback by What does “liberty” signify? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 17, 2016 @ 6:51 pm | Reply

  2. […] double-talking, self-erasing texts, and unequivocal assaults on authority, even his own (Ahab! See https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/). “Such a Jew” could not be tolerated in “free Ameriky” as one character mocked in The […]

    Pingback by Where did “free speech” come from? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 21, 2014 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

  3. […] Personal responsibility/free will: I have written before about the ambiguities of assigning praise and blame for our life choices. When Melville did it, his mother thought he was crazy and called in Oliver Wendell Holmes (author of the weird book Elsie Venner) to evaluate his mental health, perhaps to institutionalize him. Yet on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are told to take an inventory of those whom we have harmed, to change our conduct, and to make restitution to the harmed victim of our presumed malice or carelessness. (On Melville and free will see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.) […]

    Pingback by “Taking responsibility” for ourselves and society | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 20, 2014 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  4. […] Modernity is a distinct period in world history, and remains hotly contested. Why? Because technology has wrested control from the old elites, who are now routinely criticized by dissenters.  Historians are professional dissenters. It is our role to unearth materials that change our view of past and present.  We do not throw up road blocks to such adventures into the unknown, nor do we claim that earthly knowledge is inevitably distorted and unreliable. That does not mean that it is child’s play to assign causes and effects, or that there is no ambiguity in separating human agency (free will) from structural imperative. Indeed, Herman Melville wrote a classic book about just that subject: see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/ […]

    Pingback by Culture wars, religion, and the (neurotic?) historian | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 14, 2013 @ 12:18 am | Reply

  5. […] Is it any wonder that Herzog became a best-seller and marked the turning point in Bellow’s reputation? Not only has Bellow tossed overboard the hope of human amelioration as idiotically utopian, we are  supposed to despise Freudians ( because the latter rejected religion for a materialist, historical understanding of human suffering, and even proposed in The Future of an Illusion that a society tolerating unnecessary poverty did not deserve to persist?).  As for Melville and ambiguity, his much-ridiculed novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), limned the conflict between a complacent upper-class life versus one committed to the rescue of abandoned suffering humanity. His hero, the romantic Pierre, does not regret his decision to choose originality in form and content over conventional narratives like Typee, no matter whose ox is gored. The ambiguity lay in the possibly mixed motives in choosing the orphaned Dark Lady “Isabel” over his genteel fiancée, Lucy.  For Freudians, and for Melville in other works, ambiguity lay in separating out free will from determinism.  Is the “truth” we seek a straightforward matter, or is it clouded in subjective dispositions, selective amnesia, and self-interest? (For ambiguity in Melville see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.) […]

    Pingback by The Woman Question in Saul Bellow’s Herzog | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 15, 2013 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

  6. […] Where would Freud fit into this scheme? Some determinists, misappropriating “Freud,” would seize on repression, oppression, and bad families as excuses for anti-social behavior (including sadism and masochism), while the residents of Sinai, in the spirit of the true Freud, would probe the darkness in their minds and bodies, would demand that individuals take a complete family history, then do what is necessary to comprehend both family and social sources of wounds, anxieties, and malfeasance, but then would make the effort to correct or sublimate those impulses (rage, hypersexuality, submitting to illegitimate authority whether that be an abusive state or an abusive sibling or parent). Such efforts constitute a form of atonement and are life-long tasks that may never be completed or fully comprehended. They do not resemble the “adjustment” advised by ego psychologists, but rather distinguish between forms of activism, eschewing utopianism, while embracing the necessary and possible. (On Nirenberg’s indictment of “the West as corrupt to the core, see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/15/nirenbergs-mischievous-anti-judaism/. On free-will vs. determinism, focused on Melville and Moby-Dick see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.) […]

    Pingback by Babel vs. Sinai | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 19, 2013 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

  7. […] When I refer to intellectual freedom in these blogs, I usually mean the freedom of access to all primary source materials that could help us reconstruct the lives of others assessing them as friends or opponents. Whether or not we have access to our own interior lives is the subject of literature and its allied psychotherapies. If Melville, speaking through his character Captain Ahab, couldn’t figure out the free will-fixed fate conundrum, how can any of us? We need to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. Now that is a form of freedom I can live with. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.) […]

    Pingback by Making mobs with bad words and concepts « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 21, 2013 @ 3:57 am | Reply

  8. Judaism is interesting in the sense that Jewish thought (Talmud or even Kabalah) does not attempt to resolve the paradox of free choice and determinism. One should lead his/her life by making the right choices without any sense of fatality while staying aware that nothing escapes God’s knowledge. The Torah is big on personal accountability yet the only way to overcome adversity is to lace one’s efforts with faith. The notion of fatality is emotionally tempting but it can be destructive while the notion that everything is knowable is a delusion. The jewish bet (which has paid off throughout history) is that the gap should be filled with faith and prayer: an irrational solution to an irrational problem….Very Jewish.

    Comment by Maimon Chocron — January 10, 2013 @ 7:33 pm | Reply

    • Maimon, your response suggests why some of the leading Melville scholars read Melville/Ahab as Hebraic or as “Jew.” None did so in public, but in their private communications and notes, or sub-textually. The point is that he left the question of free will vs. determinism unresolved.

      Comment by clarespark — January 10, 2013 @ 7:45 pm | Reply

  9. […] For a summary of my startling research, see https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/, https://clarespark.com/2011/10/01/updated-index-to-melville-blogs/, https://clarespark.com/2011/03/11/review-excerpts-re-hunting-captain-ahab/. The third blog explains why everyone should read my book, not just literary scholars. As to how I organized my thoughts on the Melville pseudo-revival, see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/. […]

    Pingback by Some backstory for Hunting Captain Ahab « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 8, 2013 @ 10:55 pm | Reply


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