Comment on the existential anguish in Moby Dick.

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herappleness's profile pic

M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Part of the existential anguish in Moby Dick is framed by the all-well-known culture of the sailor. Sailors have a unique sense of the world, as they sail constantly in seas in which anything can happen, and nobody has control over it. Should the sea send a rogue wave, or hide a hideous whale in its depth, or suck a boat down on a maelstrom, it is entirely an existential play of fate, and we are all doomed to it.

Another part of it is the impending feeling of doom, of death, and of the end of life as they know it. In the quest for Moby Dick, each sailor is actually exploring their inner selves, and they are also questioning themselves as human beings. It is a matter of self realization vs. self fulfilliing profecy, especially on CH.99 when each demonstrated a clearly different interpretation of the same common fact. This shows the journey into self knowledge and the impossibility to control fate that lurks in the minds of all men of the sea.

“This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne'er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!.” (p165)

 

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mstultz72 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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According to Walter Kaufmann, existentialism is by nature a "revolt" against traditional philosophy, not "reducible to any set of tenets," instead relying on a "timeless sensibility" only recently evolved into a "sustained protest."

I'm not sure there is explicit existentialism in Moby Dick, but there is an antinomian protest there.  Antinomianism in American literature is summed up in the following statement: “through faith or experience of God’s grace, you live outside the law.”  Most of the characters in the novel, as sailors on the sea, live (literally and metaphorically) outside society.  They have moral, religious, and civil complaints against society, as it limits their freedom.  Their complaints are existential echoes: Melville's “No in Thunder” is akin to his Bartelby the Scrivener's "I prefer not to" and Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne and Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Salinger's Holden Caulfield.  All these characters choose to live outside the corrupt mainstream society.

Accoring to David Ives, "Moby is a metphor for God, Nature, Truth, obsessisical love, the world, and the past."  So, Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab leave society in search of metaphorical truth in religious waters.  Ahab is obsessed with it; Harold Bloom calls him “one of the fictive founders of what should be called the American Religion.”  He is hell-bent on defining his own choices--this is an existential blessing and a curse.  Enotes says, "Ahab is both a hero and a villain. In making a choice and sticking by it, he can be seen as valiantly exercising free will."  But, it costs him his leg and then his life.  Melville may be saying that the pursuit of free will is worth it.

The others characters are certainly less maniacal, but they have complaints against society and want to forge their own paths according to intensely personal belief in free will.

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fir23 | (Level 2) eNoter

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"Part of the existential anguish in Moby Dick is framed by the all-well-known culture of the sailor. Sailors have a unique sense of the world, as they sail constantly in seas in which anything can happen, and nobody has control over it. Should the sea send a rogue wave, or hide a hideous whale in its depth, or suck a boat down on a maelstrom, it is entirely an existential play of fate, and we are all doomed to it." Thanks for sharing this info...Online Excel Training, Excel Formulas

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