No Firm Fortress, No Retreat: Reading, and Mourning, “Moby-Dick” on the Cusp of Climate Catastrophe




IF HERMAN MELVILLE were still alive, he would turn 200 years old on Thursday, August 1, 2019. This anniversary presents an occasion to reconsider Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, which Richard Bentley first published in the United Kingdom in 1851. Accordingly, this past January, snowfall making the ground as white as Melville’s sea beast, the Newberry Library here in Chicago hosted a 25-hour Moby-Dick read-a-thon. By the end, a series of performers had collectively read the masterpiece aloud from cover to cover.

My spouse and fellow writer, Martin Seay, and I served as two of the readers, choosing passages from Chapter 32: “Cetology.” These infinitesimal observations on the characteristics of the various species of the order Cetacea are reportedly the most likely to be omitted in abridged versions. What a loss that would be; one would miss hearing, for instance, Melville’s glorious description of the porpoise: “[H]e always swims in hilarious shoals, which upon the broad sea keep tossing themselves to heaven like caps in a Fourth-of-July crowd.”

As Ishmael concludes, “If you yourself can withstand three cheers at beholding these vivacious fish, then heaven help ye; the spirit of godly gamesomeness is not in ye.” Moreover, Chapter 32 is Martin’s favorite; he’s had hung next to his desk for as long as I’ve known him its concluding exclamation: “This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”

A confession, however: despite my enthusiastic agreement to participate in the read-a-thon and my strenuous assertion leading up to our performance that the cetology chapter was one of the finest, I had never read Moby-Dick in its entirety. I had attempted it one summer in high school, and once again during grad school, but never connected with it fully, though I could tell each time that I was in the presence of greatness. The looming read-a-thon and an attendant desire not to be a hypocrite caused me to endeavor the novel once more, and to be — at last — totally harpooned by it.

Reading Moby-Dick cover to cover turned out to be the best 10-day reading experience of my life. This novel is flawless and not to be abridged. I had failed before to apprehend how laugh-out-loud funny Melville is, and to admire the density and brilliance of every paragraph. It’s the kind of book that feels like a friend. The kind of book that you miss when you’re away from it. The kind of book where you know there are activities in life that may be as good as it is but none better. The kind of book where you don’t understand why anybody does anything other than just read it all the time. It’s the novel that William Shakespeare would have written if the novel had existed in English during the era in which he lived. Melville’s masterpiece makes me deliriously, consumingly, uncontainably happy.

But it also makes me almost unbearably sad. Because the book is a lot of things to a lot of people, but in its deepest core it’s a book about a whale, and reading about whales in 2019 is an ineluctable downer.

In the years since Melville wrote the book in the mid-19th century (admittedly to an underwhelming reception), the whale has been construed as possessing almost endless symbolic meanings. The chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” alone must have launched an infinite fleet of PhD theses: so many vessels on the seas of interpretation. But the most profound answer to the question, What does the whale represent?, is: A whale. An actual flesh-and-blubber, swimming, breathing, miraculous mystery of the watery deep.

In her 2000 biography of Melville, Elizabeth Hardwick notes, “The White Whale, ambiguously innocent as a virgin bride, ambiguously rapacious as a white shark of the tropics, is here a fictional creation of unparalleled inspiration.” Advocating in favor of the oft-cut cetology chapter and against reducing the whale to a symbol, she writes, “In this imaginative, developing story the whale is a central character, a human antagonist, as it were.”

I’d go so far as to say that Melville characterizes Moby Dick as an inhuman protagonist, too. He continually gives us glimpses of the ecosystem in which the animal may be the hero of his own story, trying to live free of human predation.

Attempting to dissuade his captain from the lunacy of his actions, the first mate, Starbuck, cries to Ahab, “Vengeance on a dumb brute that simply smote thee from the blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

Starbuck is right that Ahab’s behavior is mad, but he’s wrong about Moby Dick. This highly perceptive and rationally motivated whale pursues his aim of staving the Pequod out of intelligence and ethical drive.

In his 2018 book, We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change, Roy Scranton writes,

[W]e need to give up defending and protecting our truth, our perspective […] and understand that truth is found not in one perspective but in its multiplication, not in one point of view, but in the aggregate, not in opposition but in the whole. We need to learn to see […] not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes, and not even just with eyes but the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars.

Moby-Dick invites the reader to imagine the world as it appears to whale eyes.

An incredibly charismatic novel about an incredibly charismatic megafauna, Moby-Dick smites me with love for the whale himself. I feel more magnetically drawn to him than to any literary character since I read A Tale of Two Cities and discovered righteous antihero Sydney Carton. The way Melville has Ishmael speak about the whale is almost intoxicated, and certainly intoxicating. At the end of the first chapter, when Ishmael accounts for his motives for signing onto a whaling ship, he cites above all “the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself” and “the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk,” declaring, “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”

Ecstasy aside, with global warming as dire as it’s ever been and getting direr, my inmost soul was hit by how eerie and sad it feels to encounter Moby Dick, the exquisitely characterized white whale, in the Anthropocene, a term that the Nobel Prize–winning Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen began popularizing at the turn of this century. Crutzen, who won his award in 1995 for his work on the hole in the ozone layer, uses the label to describe this new epoch in which humans comprise a geologic force negatively affecting Earth and all its forms of life.

Melville’s 200th birthday coincides with the human-made sixth extinction, as well as with the emptying, warming, and clogging up of the world’s oceans via overfishing and the dumping of plastics. Such facts imbue his novel with renewed and melancholy relevance. Reading his book about a sentient, majestic, and desperate-to-live marine mammal in a period when the planet’s whales — and all other creatures — are under such threat grants the work a grim ecological cast.

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Melville seems neither to want to limit his leviathan to the antagonist role nor to want to consign him to the enemy side in a high-school-level categorization of conflicts, e.g., Man Versus Nature. Rather, Moby Dick possesses agency in his own right, troubling Ahab only because Ahab and the fleets of other whalemen have invaded Moby Dick’s home in an effort to kill him and every other whale he knows and loves.

In giving his exemplar whale a name, Melville pays him an honor. The appellation derives from J. N. Reynolds’s Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific, published in The Knickerbocker in 1839. Melville also borrowed from the story the idea that a whale could calculate revenge against hunters and their ships. From this inspiration rises Ahab’s “white-headed whale, with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw,” suffering protractedly from the onslaughts of man “with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke.”

But Melville is not interested in Moby Dick as singular; all of his whales are capable of both cognition and affect in patterns easily recognizable to humans. In Chapter 87, “The Grand Armada,” he describes a pod of whales with such tenderness and admiration that it’s worth citing at length. In the midst of a spate of their routine insatiable violence, the men of the Pequod spy a group of male whales exhibiting “a wondrous fearlessness and confidence, or else a still becharmed panic which it was impossible not to marvel at” as they circle together around female whales tending to their young and preparing to give birth:

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and 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 still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; — even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.

The paragraph concludes its identification of infant whales with infant humans thus: “The delicate side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby’s ears newly arrived from foreign parts.”

Yet even as he gives a meticulous account of the natural world and its seldom seen features, Melville grapples with the mysteries and unknowability that it ultimately retains — how humans can scarcely comprehend what it is they’re destroying. Ishmael sums this up in Chapter 79, “The Prairie,” when he puts the sublime brow of the sperm whale before his audience and dares, “Read it if you can.”

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Melville assuredly did not intend his novel as a cri de coeur against climate catastrophe given that no one alive then knew the phenomenon existed, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t become one. In the introduction to his 1960 book Permanent Red, John Berger writes,

[I]t is essential to remember that the specific meaning of a work of art changes — if it didn’t, no work could outlive its period, and no agnostic could appreciate a Bellini. The meaning of the improvement, of the increase promised by a work of art, depends upon who is looking at it when. Or to put it dialectically, it depends upon what obstacles are impeding human progress at any given time.

Climate catastrophe and the irreversible mass death of countless species with which we share the planet are a monumental set of obstacles. A new use to which latter-day readers can put Moby-Dick is as a meditation for thinking about and grieving the Anthropocene. We probably can’t atone for causing the horror, but we can consider Melville’s novel as a conduit for processing our complicity, as well as for seeing the wonder in the ecology we were part of and violated.

In Chapter 105, “Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? — Will He Perish?,” Melville has Ishmael muse with misplaced optimism, “whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.”

He concludes that a variety of factors forbid “so inglorious an end.” Ishmael argues that although humans have noticed whales’ numbers declining there’s no cause for worry: “[I]f one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.”

Then, in the most brutally sad passage for this 2019 reader, Ishmael asserts,

[The whales] have two firm fortresses, which, in all human probability will for ever remain impregnable. And as upon the invasion of their valleys, the frosty Swiss have retreated to their mountains; so, hunted from the savannas and glades of the middle seas, the whale-bone whales can at last resort to their Polar citadels, and diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls there, come up among icy fields and floes; and in a charmed circle of everlasting December, bid defiance to all pursuit from man.

Writing in the middle of the 19th century, Melville had no way of knowing how badly he’d misplaced his faith, that humans are precisely who have caused the icy fortresses of the poles to become not merely pregnable but virtually nonexistent. The ice caps and sea ice continue melting at appalling rates. Not only is there no longer any “everlasting December” anywhere on the globe, but December itself becomes ever less Decemberish as we log year after year of “hottest on record.”

Contrary to what Melville — or at least Ishmael — believed about the species’s invincibility, the Endangered Species Act lists the sperm whale as endangered and the Marine Mammal Protection Act lists it as depleted. Admittedly, Ishmael is sort of correct in predicting that it’s not exclusively hunting, per se, that will drive whales to extinction. Rather, it’s the fact that they, like every other living creature, will not be able to survive in the over-warm toxic death slurry that human activity has made of the oceans.

The granular texture and frolicsome tone of the lavish attention the book pays to its whales serve to underscore the reality of all that we’re extirpating. In Chapter 81, “The Pequod Meets the Virgin,” second mate Stubb remarks quite cutely upon the marvel of whale farts. Watching “a huge, humped old bull” of a sperm whale, Ishmael notes,

His spout was short, slow, and laborious; coming forth with a choking sort of gush, and spending itself in torn shreds, followed by strange subterranean commotions in him, which seemed to have egress at his other buried extremity, causing the waters behind him to upbubble.

Stubb calls out, “Who’s got some paregoric? […] he has the stomach-ache, I’m afraid. Lord, think of having half an acre of stomach-ache! Adverse winds are holding mad Christmas in him, boys. It’s the first foul wind I ever knew to blow from astern.”

Melville’s obvious affection for these beasts in all their dignity and earthiness alongside his accounts of the whalers’ gluttonous bloodletting resonates sickeningly with news that 87 percent of the world’s oceans are dying because of climate change and reports that our oceans are “on a precipice of a major extinction event.”

Like Ahab, we humans pursue our own demise with a fevered monomania; like Ahab, we could choose to stop, but we won’t. As Hardwick writes, “In this way, Ahab can be seen to have fallen into idolatry, an unwholesome worship of the claims of his private destiny, a blasphemous disregard of nature, the seas, and the creatures within it.”

It’s true that some individuals and smaller groups serve as estimable exceptions, but because climate catastrophe is a collective-action problem it is only solvable on a mass-population level. It’s not defeatist to say that it’s already too late, as the bromides go, to Save the Whales or Save the Earth; it’s a realistic way to deal honestly with the circumstances we’ve created. Our relationship to the natural world is almost exclusively destructive, and our incapacity, as Americans anyway, to be compassionate to migrants at our Southern border affords little reason to hope that we’ll be anything but cruel in our response to climate refugees.

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Climate trauma is a real affliction, and by now you can probably see that I’ve got it. Our present catastrophe is a bummer to bring up. People worry about you if you do, which is kind of them, I guess. But climate trauma, to me, seems a reasonable response to our ongoing, colossal loss. Back in 2009, the National Wildlife Federation convened a forum to assess the effects that global warming would have on the public’s mental health in the United States as a result of the psychological impacts of direct experience and the anticipation of future harm. In February 2012, the NWF issued a report that synthesized the forum’s findings, concluding, “Global warming in the coming years will foster public trauma, depression, violence, alienation, substance abuse, suicide, psychotic episodes, post-traumatic stress disorders and many other mental health-related conditions.”

Climate trauma manifests in thousands of small and large ways over the course of a day, but one of its reddest flags is that lately, every time I hear that someone is having a baby, I think, How sad, and every time I hear that someone has died, I think, Lucky. When I express that aloud, friends and acquaintances rush to tell me that such a viewpoint is wrong. That it can’t be as bad as I think. But it is. Admitting the devastation can be a way to maintain the ability to go on.

I thrill to Melville’s awe-filled descriptions of his valiant whale, as when Moby Dick is about to defeat his would-be killers in the book’s final passages:

Suddenly the waters around them slowly swelled in broad circles then quickly upheaved, as if sideways sliding from a submerged berg of ice, swiftly rising to the surface. A low rumbling sound was heard; a subterraneous hum; and then all held their breaths; as bedraggled with trailing ropes, and harpoons, and lances, a vast form shot lengthwise, but obliquely from the sea. Shrouded in a thin drooping veil of mist, it hovered for a moment in the rainbowed air; and then fell swamping back into the deep. Crushed thirty feet upwards, the waters flashed for an instant like heaps of fountains, then brokenly sank in a shower of flakes, leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round the marble trunk of the whale.

But I cannot encounter such passages without other descriptions springing into my mind unwelcome. One from National Geographic in 2018 tells of a 31-foot sperm whale carcass on the coast of eastern Indonesia with 13 pounds of plastic in its stomach. The level of detail in the whale’s abjection feels novelistic: 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, and two flip-flops.

I resent and envy Melville for being dead and therefore not having to contend with this crisis of our making. I am jealous of his having gotten to live in a time when it was possible, however wrongheadedly, to believe that no matter how bad anything else got or how divided we became as people, the planet upon which we all dwelt would remain inexhaustible, eternal, perpetually fine.

Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the 2010 book Why Read Moby-Dick?, delivered the keynote at the Newberry read-a-thon. In his bright and insightful speech, he said that it was something of a mistake to make anyone under 30 read Melville’s masterpiece, even though he read it in high school and was taken on the best possible Nantucket sleighride. I couldn’t disagree, especially as my own experience tracked with that advice.

But hearing him say this made me even sadder, because when I think about young people I think about doom. I refuse to have children for a number of reasons, but a big one is climate catastrophe. Philbrick quoted the passage from the novel in which Ishmael asks, “Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea?”

My nephew, Luka, fits this description at four-and-a-half. He’s crazy to be a marine archaeologist. If you were to visit him at his home in landlocked Oak Park, Illinois, he would climb into your lap with his books on the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald to explain his theories for why the mighty ship sank in Lake Superior just seven or so miles from safety in 1975. He spends a significant portion of each day drawing ocean life, especially sperm whales, their cartoonishly large heads well suited to his tiny hands.

Luka will be 30 in 2044. The United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year that failing immediate and intensive action, the worst effects of the climate crisis — mass coral reef die-offs, food shortages, wildfires, massive coastal flooding — will arrive by 2040. Aesthetically sound as Philbrick’s advice may be, I’m not sure that Luka (or anyone) should wait to read Moby-Dick.

Moby Dick leads the Pequod on a merry, fatal chase through almost every ocean that washes the globe, but in the end, of course, it’s just one massive sea. There is no firm fortress, no retreat for us. However old you are in this year of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday, you should read — or reread — his jocular, perturbing book while you still have a chance. For the “draught of a draught” that we humans have been writing is coming to an end, and it turns out the story is a tragedy, the white whale’s horizontal tail a vanishing horizon.

The only whale left to see may soon be the constellation Cetus — the distant, starry outline of a beast we loved and hated enough to place in the sky while removing it from everywhere else. At least we can never kill that one. At least that celestial memory can remind us, along with Moby-Dick, of what we had and what we did to it.

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A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St Martin’s Press, 2017) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette & Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018). Her novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is forthcoming in fall 2020.

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Banner image: “Dead sperm whale” by Antonio is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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