Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”: Technology

As C. L. R. James has shown us, Ahab is the tyrannical rejection of civilization – and along with it progress and solidarity.  While he thought little of the oil wasted when the barrels started leaking, from the perspective of the working class this was an immediate threat to their livelihood – less profits means a smaller share at the end of the voyage.  Even when Stubbs discovered ambergris in a dying whale conned from some French whalers, Ahab cuts his profitable search short.  A significant symbol of this rejection is Ahab’s scorn for and violence against technology.  At the last moments, his struggle against the “white whale” is made even without the support of a small boat.  He is alone, straddled to the whale with only a harpoon and his words.

As readers of the novel know, much of the text is bound up with detailed descriptions of the whaling industry, its methods, science, and work regimen.  From the opening “exerts” until the final chapters, technology is a driving force of the novel, but it is always under the control of the collective knowledge of the crew.  Ahab shuns it.  He prefers to conduct his search in more primitive ways – following the mystical advice of Fedallah, asking other ships if they saw the “White Whale,” and sail by his senses.

The sailors indeed have a strong connection to the technological systems that they support with their labor and the technological systems that make their work possible: the harpoon that Queequeg shaves with is one example.  In a chapter called “The Lamp”, Melville describes the aura that an oil lamp holds for whalemen.  “Had you descended from the Pequod’s try-works to the Pequod’s forecastle, where the off duty watch were sleeping, for one single moment you would have almost thought you were standing in some illuminated shrine of canonized kings and consellors.  There they lay in their triangular oaken vaults, each mariner a chiseled muteness; a score of lamps flashing upon his hooded eyes. . . . See with what entire freedom the whaleman takes his handful of lamps–often but old bottles and vials, though — to the copper cooler at the try-works, and replenished them there, as mugs of ale at a vat.  He burns, too, the purest of oil, in its unmanufactured, and, therefore, unvitiated state.” (1249)  Melville’s descriptions of chopping up the whales, clearing up the ship after harvesting the oil, and filling barrels has a certain beauty that can only come from a artisan describing their craft.  Any other observer would pass over these details.  “Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works.  She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constitution the completed ship.  it is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.” (1244)  In chapter forty, when we see the entire crew engaged in revalry and discussion after hearing about Ahab’s mad plan.  This window into the stream of consciousness of the forecastle is not an image of technocrats, but they are worldly and practical.  They pine for women they do not have, they speak of work (“So, be cheery, my lads! may your hearts never fail! While the bold harpooneer is striking the whale!”).  Ahab’s stream of consciousness openly admits madness and irrationality.  While the crew is practical, Ahab is transgressive.  “What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do!  They think me made–Starbuck does; but I’m demonic, I am madness maddened!” (971)   Perhaps this is a powerful sentiment among those in resistance to power, but when held by those with absolute authority is it dangerous.

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He is indifferent to the crew but uses them.  He uses technology in the same way as when he has the carpenter create for him a new leg out of whale bone.

As the novel closes, Ahab’s rejection of technology and along with it reason is symbolized by his destruction of the quadrant.  “Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of they cunning and might; but what after all canast thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no!  not one jot more!  Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with they impotence thou insultest the sun!  Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy: and curse be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heave, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun.” (1327)  Contrast this insanity with the narrators: “While now the fated Pequod had been so long afloat this voyage, the log and line had but very seldom been in use.  Owing to the confident reliance upon other means of determining the vessel’s place, some merchantmen, and many whalemen, especially when cruising, wholly neglect to heave the log.” (1348)

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Now I am not unaffected by Ahab’s transgression, force of will, and ambition, but the rejection of reason, progress, technology, and solidarity makes him a fully odious character and a poor model for radical transformation of society.  Do other characters help us any more?  Not likely.  Moby-Dick may, in the end, be little more than a warning against detached and ungrounded vision.

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7 responses to “Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”: Technology

  1. I would call MD a heavily tiered tome.It seems longer than was necessary to “get the job done”.It was a rambling novel,one I did,but didn’t have to finish….I pushed myself! I was quite impressed by the early chapters,but it became a lugubrious and artless saga.Sorry.

    I was interested in what you said though.Perhaps I just didn’t perceive the other levels.As I’ve said,people don’t think,they just “recklessly” follow their simple instincts,but they don’t really understand what they are doing.There is no introspective thought.

    This could be the model idea for the character of Ahab I think.He lacks all depth of thought,but has a wild lust for destruction,regardless of the consequences of anybody else.He is on a mad quest,that has no certainty of success.As you say,he has no understanding of technology or progress,but is possessed of powerful instincts that propel him on useless schemes.I suppose it’s another atavism rooted in our ancient ancestry.I can’t help feeling there’s shades of Jung in this.

    Those who hate him,are the ones to depend upon with the vision to affect changes in society that modern progress will bring.Ahab is a traditionalist lacking insight I think.It all seems to hinge on the old,stale biscuits of oppression,repression and capitalism though,so I don’t have to go into it here.

    I still don’t think of it as a well crafted,literary novel such as Hawthorne,Hemingway,Orwell or Kerouac wrote though.

    • Putting a dreary Englishman (“The Road to Wigam Pier” is brilliant, I will confess) in the company of Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Kerouac makes tashqueedagg sad.

      As my handle and avatar suggest, I think Moby Dick is the greatest creative work in the American tradition. I do not think there is an artless moment in that book. I think it is the only book I ever read where I actually read every work with steady appreciation and held back tears of joy. Melville is America’s greatest artist. (I celebrate October 18.)

      I have an entire post somewhere here on Ahab. Yes, he is clearly not a simple repressive capitalist (although that reading stands up on some level if you just look at the power structure of the ship literally).

      • I’m not sure,maybe it’s because I am English,if you don’t already know.By the way,that’s Wigan not Wigam,and yes,it is brilliant.Before he wrote “Nineteen Eighty-four” and “Animal Farm”,he penned two marvelous novels,”Keep the Aspidistra Flying” and “Coming Up for Air”,that chronicled life in Britain between the two world wars with a visual accuracy and exhilaration,that I think are unrivaled for realistic characterization,dialogue and prose.He was a maverick adventurer in literature,who unflinchingly challenged and wrote of our most sacred taboos and foibles,so wasn’t such a dreary Englishman!

        As I said,MB started very well indeed,a very pleasant read as I remember.Perhaps I found the pace too fast or didn’t have the stamina to appreciate it’s epic scale.I don’t know,as I’ve said elsewhere,we all like different books.I’ve had similar disagreements over Frank Herbert’s “Dune”,another long book that I wasn’t all that fond of,but don’t think that I’m trying to compare it to MB.

        No,I didn’t think of him as a capitalist,but he might display a similar greedy and uncaring attitude that parallels the same simplistic and unthinking ruthlessness,that he showers on his crew.You say as much above.Authors such as Melville and Hawthorne knew of this in society,whether it was religious,political or sociological repression,and found it necessary to write of it to alert the populace.

        Philip K.Dick though was undoubtedly one of your greatest writers.He was perhaps the most vivid chronicler of the times in which he lived,not to mention his 1950s mainstream novels,which at the very least,are equal to Kerouac’s “On the Road”,as a definite statement on that decade,if not for a cadence of prose that Kerouac was acclaimed for.He wrote with unflinching detail though.Hopefully,so far as I know from our discussions,he’s an author we both agree upon.It’s strange and a shame that the vast majority of your countrymen and women,didn’t realize it during his lifetime.There’s often such disparity over what everybody likes.

        Another English author I particularly like,is J.G.Ballard.As I’ve said before,he rose from sf confinement to gain mainstream recognition,and is certainly one of his country’s finest authors in the second half of the twentieth century.His position here,is rather similar to that of PKD I think,as an original and uncompromising thinker,who can’t be bracketed.Like him,he wrote of the state of our times,and did it as he felt best,with passion and candour.

        I shudder slightly at the disparity sometimes between us,such as in this case.If I don’t agree,it doesn’t mean i don’t appreciate what you do.I still enjoy your blog pieces and respect your own likes.We all seem to like different books.We do.

      • I suppose my disappointment toward Orwell comes from his most famous anti-totalitarian novels, which seem to suggest he has no idea how power actually works in societies and how people resist them. One common theme on my blog is how American writers seem to understand that there is a basic anarchy in how societies function. Resistance, freedom, and diversity is the norm. Government, hierarchy, power, and class must be imposed.

        I feel the same way about Austen who seems incapable of imagining a world not completely suffocated by class consciousness. I do find it telling that if you want to understand power in its most black and white state, read English writers. While, if you want to understand freedom you need only read Huck Finn.

        I confess, I may sometimes take my preference for the New World to absurd places sometimes, but it is derived from my general theory. If you guys get rid of the monarchy, I might be more forgiving. I may even provide a special post on Milton.

  2. Orwell’s last two novels were satires of anti Stalinism,not directly against capitalism.Orwell’s “prols” are contented and thrive under a totalitarian regime.Life seems to go on in the same way,if not better.I don’t know whether to think there’s irony in that,and don’t want to appear crass,by trying to find any.In is in them however,that his eponymous mouthpiece,Winston,has faith that one day they will be the people to topple the government,so only appear indolent.

    Our monarchy has no real power.It means that our politicians don’t sit in splendor looking down on the state.What would you rather have?

    If you’ve read J.G.Ballard,and I assume you have,you’ll know he had a more liquid view of freedom and what it means in society.

    • I will-like a good American-continue on assuming that J. K. Rowling and Simon Cowell is all that is left of English culture. *wink wink*

      My blog is about anarchism. I think it is obvious what I would prefer to monarchy. No one should sit in splendor over society whether they are bosses, capitalists, kings, presidents, or party elite. The problem with monarchy is not its power over politics or even its odious drain on the commons, is that is supports a society of spectacle and a popular acceptance of hierarchy. Destroying it would be the first step in turning the tide against increasingly inequality and restoring the commons. Of course, if it is too late for England, you will probably not find much disagreement from me.

      • I could say that yours is a hamburger,fries and coca cola society all ruled by the monopolistic McDonald’s.We have that in abundance in our place……perhaps that’s whats wrong with us,yes? Simon Cowell is a simple oligarch of a sort,and I’m not interested in talent shows.

        I’m not a monarchist,and don’t really think royalty benefit society……I personally could do without them.The’re more like just visible figureheads I think,they wield no power mace,and can’t unfortunately think of what would replace them.Of course we’d have a prime minister who would be like your head of state,but considering what they have done,meaning in this case Margaret Thatcher as a synonym,I dread to think what the’d do if placed in high power!

        I don’t want to remind you to look at Ballard again.

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