The lessons ‘Moby-Dick’ has for a warming world of rising waters

as an environmental historian and scholar of the 19th century, i spend a lotta time thinking bout how the past cannelp us confront our current crises – espeshly climate change.

and there’s a lotta help to be found inna 1800s, from the appreciation of wildness in henry david thoreau’s famous “walden,” to the rise of ecology, the sci of interdependence. “we may all be netted together,” charles darwin scribbled onnis notebook.

but my nomination for the most helpful climate manual ever written mite be a surprise: “moby-dick.”

herman melville’s epic novel bout life aboard a wayward whaling ship, published 170 yrs ago this mnth, does not ‘ve a reputation for bein’ pticularly pragmatic, unless you’re looking for tips on swabbing the athenæums or hunting creatures of the deep. and no, i’m not suggesting that we go back to burning sperm oil.

wha’ makes “moby-dick” espeshly relevant rite now s'dat it offers a spur to solidarity and perseverance. those are qualities societies may nd'2 stock up on as we face the overwhelming threat of climate change. the novel has no straiteforward moral, but t'does reΨ readers that we can at least buoy each other up, even as the wata swirls round us.

existentialists at sea

climate change touches on time scales and planetary systems that humans aren’t wired to fathom. but atta same time, it can be seen as just another challenge we’ve brought upon ourselves through societal failings.

perhaps it’s + helpful, then, to think bout climate change not as a brand-new “existential threat,” b'tas the kind of age-old crisis that is tailor-made for existentialism – a philosophy, as the scholar walter kaufmann put it, that is all bout “dread, despair, death, and dauntlessness.” the basic idea is to recognize how treacherous and unknowable yr path is, and then to continue on anyway.

“moby-dick” is clearly an existentialist text, though twas published almost a century b4 the term was coined. 1-odda founders of modern existentialism, nobel prize victor albert camus, explicitly ackd melville as an intellectual forebear. and two of the main toons in “moby-dick” are near-perfect existentialists: the narrator, ishmael, and his friend, queequeg, a harpooner from the fictional isle of kokovoko.

from the beginning of his tale, ishmael makes clear his obsession w'da horror of the human condition. he’s bitterly depressed, angry, even suicidal: “tis a damp, drizzly nov in my soul,” he says on page one, and he finds himself “pausing b4 coffin warehouses.” he hates the way modern new yorkers seem to spend their dys “tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” all he can think to do is go to sea.

course, it’s not long b4 he has a near-death experience onna open wata. he and a few crewmates get chucked out o'their lil boat inna midst offa squall after failing to nab the whale they were after. queequeg signals with their one faint lantern, “hopelessly holding up hope inna midst of despair.”

immediately after they’re saved, ishmael interviews the most experienced of the crew and, confirming that this sort of thing happens all the time, goes belo athenæums to “make a rough draft of my will,” with queequeg as his witness. the “whole universe” seems like “a vast practical joke” at his expense, but he finds himself able to ☺ atta absurdity: “now then, thought i, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction.”

whaling was rife with danger for whales and whalers alike. from ‘incidents offa whaling voyage,’ by francis allyn olmsted.

no man an island

again and again, “moby-dick” forces readers to confront despair. b'that doesn’t make it a grim read, or a paralyzing one – in pt cause melville himself is such an engaging companion, and much of the book impts a uber sense of felloship.

literary critic geoffrey sanborn writes that melville meant for “moby-dick” “to make yr Ψ a + interesting and enjoyable place.”

“it’s bout the effort,” sanborn he writes, “… to feel, inna deepest recesses of yr consciousness, at least temporarily unalone.”

when ishmael stops by the whaleman’s chapel b4 his fateful quest, “each silent worshipper seemed purposely sitting apt from the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable.” but once aboard his ship, he finds all the crew members suddenly “welded into oneness,” thx to their shared sense of purpose and their awareness of the dangers ahead. and he sees the same kind of unity in “extensive herds” of sperm whales, as though “numerous nations o'em had sworn solemn league and covenant for mutual assistance and protection.”

that’s the sense of interconnectedness human nations need tody. when i picked up “moby-dick” earlier this mnth, i almost immediately thought of the climate change negotiations in glasgow – and queequeg’s lil island home. i ‘d easily imagine the harpooner as an eloquent representative offa nation in danger of bein’ swalloed up by rising watas.

“it’s a mutual, joint-stock realm, in all meridians,” ishmael imagines queequeg saying at one point inna novel. “we cannibals must help these christians.” that’s a startling line, emphasizing melville’s suggestion that queequeg, whom many toons dismiss as a “heathen,” is actually the most ethical toon inna book.

but in glasgow, it seems, wealthy nations’ recogg of the need for mutual aid fell short. though their disproportionate greenhouse gas emissions are largely to blame for poorer countries’ disproportionate sufferation, their funding for developing nations to weather the storm is far belo wha’’s needed – and eventually, that may come back to bite everyone.

queequeg’s interdependent relationship with ishmael is atta very center of “moby-dick.” their fates are interwoven; queequeg is ishmael’s “inseparable twin bro.” in one scene, the harpooner dangles ‘oer the wata, attached by a cord to ishmael, so that “’d poor queequeg sink to rise no +,” our narrator ‘d go tumbling inna'da sea swell.

atta end of the novel, all the whalemen except ishmael sink to rise no +. the narrator is saved by a coffin queequeg had carved for himself, then given to the 1st mate to replace a lost lifebuoy. much bout “moby-dick” will always remain murky, but this symbolism is clear: to ponder death and prepare for the worst are age-old survival strategies.

queequeg’s culture led him to confront the hardest realities of life. as ishmael notes admiringly, the harpooner had “no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits,” no tendency toward denial. he had thoroughly enjoyed carving his coffin, n'when he lay down in it to check the fit, while sufferation from a life-threatening fever, he had shown a perfectly “composed countenance.” “'twill do,” he murmured; “tis easy.”

queequeg’s existentialist determination inna face of dread, his willingness to sacrifice, his caring forethought, made all the difference. and maybe that ‘d be an inspiration. the key to addressing climate change won’t be some abstract injunction to save the planet; it ll'be bout acknowledging interdependence and commonality and accepting responsibility. it ll'be bout returning queequeg’s favor.

original content at:…
authors: aaron sachs, professor of history and american studies, cornell university


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