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L’Imaginaire-Melville

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Viola Sachs

Melville’s Leviathan: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale and the Body Politic

Agnès Derail

Résumé

Moby-Dick, dans le sillage du Leviathan de Hobbes, constitue une réflexion sur le corps politique de la jeune démocratie américaine. L’industrie baleinière, littéralement porteuse des lumières, rassemble à bord du Pequod quelques trente damnés de la terre soudés en une corporation. Le remembrement de cet équipage cosmopolite, qui figure les trente états désunis de l’époque, s’opère au fil du travail d’extraction du spermaceti qui commence par la décapitation de la baleine et s’achève par un bain de foule dans le spermaceti utilisé pour oindre les rois. Les membres de l’équipage s’approprient le saint chrême, mais cette effusion fraternelle ne va pas sans séquelles et ne peut donner naissance à un véritable corps politique. A défaut de se fondre dans le Leviathan, c’est en se mobilisant contre Moby-Dick et en s’identifiant à Achab que la communauté des exclus va prendre corps. Achab s’annexe ainsi les membres de l’équipage et s’attribue, à l’instar des rois, un corps mystique intact malgré ses infirmités. Le capitaine Achab qui se proclame solidaire du solitaire par excellence, Pip, le mousse noir devenu fou, s’arroge les insignes royaux. Pourtant, la symbiose des deux corps qu’il prétend incarner se disloque. Achab s’avère tributaire de son corps défaillant et la figure du roi souffrant finit par se confondre avec celle du fou, son double honni. A l’instar du Léviathan de Hobbes, décrit comme un automate, les membres de l’équipage du Pequod incorporés au capitaine, sont autant de prothèses sur lesquelles Achab s’appuie, autant de substituts artificiels qui pallient l’absence d’un corps politique véritablement organique. Moby-Dick représente cette « foule de doubles inutiles » (mob of unnecessary duplicates) qui aliènent le souverain au risque de le réduire à un simple figurant de l’histoire voué à répéter théâtralement et machinalement le destin de son homonyme biblique, le roi Achab. Ishmael, le survivant du naufrage, en devenant le délégué des disparus ne sera qu’un substitut supplémentaire du corps politique utopique.

Texte intégral

By art is created that great Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State – (in Latin, Civitas) which is but an artificial man (Hobbes, Leviathan)

1Little attention has ben paid so far to Melville’s references to Hobbes’ s Leviathan. Although it is only explicitly mentioned once, in the « Extracts », my assumption is that Melville draws heavily on Hobbes’ s comparison of the body polite to an artificial man, but the set phrase of the body politic is explored in its literal meaning. The novel consists in an anatomy of the new nation, an inquiry into the body politic of a dawning democracy.

2Emerson had already hinted at the literal dislocation of the social body which the division of labour entailed. Democracy appeared as an aggregate of separate individuals which failed to cohere into an organic whole; the body politic seemed to be atomized into disintegrated selves as is suggested in The American Scholar:

  • 1 R. W. Emerson, Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1982, p 84 On (...)

The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, – a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man1.

3The democratic man steps in, awfully maimed and

marred.

  • 2 “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” (...)
  • 3 All references to Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale are from the edition by Harold Beaver, Pengui (...)

4Similarly, the motley crew of the Pequod is made up of outcasts; Melville takes up Donne’s metaphor of the self as an island2 and the insular seamen are compared to so many “isolatoes”3 in search of “the common continent of men” (Ch. 27, p. 216), as so many toes of a common corporate body.

5The thirty members of the crew “federated along one keel” (Ch. 27, p. 216) embody the thirty odd disunited states of the time, as it were. The narrative is concerned with the formation of a new body politic: the outset of the novel coincides with election time and Ishmael mockingly assuming the US presidency, turns into a spokesman for the renegades on board the Pequod. The dregs of humanity are assigned a messianic mission: they appear to be destined to establish democracy. Ishmael expresses the wish to topple the Ancien régime and to install the sub-subs and the underpriviledged in the royal palaces of Windsor and the Tuileries.

6Ishmael, very much in the tradition of the age of Enlightenment, extols the whaling industry as the herald of democracy and praises commerce which was instrumental in the emancipation of colonies under the yoke of Old Spain (Ch. 24, p. 206). Significantly enough, Ishmael traces back the origin of the whaling industry to 1775 (Ch. 101, p. 554), that is, just a year before the American Declaration of Independence. The British trading-company which initiated this long-standing tradition of freedom seems somehow on a par with the House of Bourbon or Tudor. Ishmael points out that Louis XVI fitted out whaling ships from Dunkirk “at his own personal expense” (Ch. 24, p. 204) as if the revolutionary whaling industry had eventually cost him his royal life. The whale hunt actually turns into a revolutionary celebration as the beheading of the whale marks the beginning of the ritual of extracting and refining spermaceti. Blubber is boiled down to oil and the remaining scraps are jettisoned overboard as if the crew sought to obliterate any trace of the former feudal order:

You would have almost thought they were pulling down the cursed Bastile, such wild cries they raised, as the now useless brick and mortar were being hurled into the sea. (Ch. 115, p. 604)

The sacrifice of the “royal fish”, as it is termed (Ch. 24, p. 207), originates the rise of a new body politic; as the seamen squeeze spermaceti, they gradually melt into the seminal substance. A sense of organic wholeness is thus restored:

Come; let us squeeze hands all round; let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. (Ch. 94, p. 527)

  • 4 See Marc Bloch, Les rois thaumaturges: Etude sur le caractere surnaturel attribué à la puissance ro (...)

The agent of such egalitarian effusions is the very spermaceti oil used to anoint kings. “A Squeeze of the Hand” thus takes on the significance of the kingly laying on of hands and the healing virtues of spermaceti are also strongly reminiscent of the miracle-working powers supposedly conferred by royal anointment4:

Think of that, ye loyal Britons! we whalemen supply your kings and queens with coronation stuff! (Ch 25, p. 209)

7The crew thus appropriates the very insignia of kingship. The nascent body politic is duly baptized in a cistern which is compared to emperor Constantin’s baptismal font: paradoxically enough, democracy dawns under the aegis of a monarch by divine right. As Constantin was the first Christian emperor, it is suggested that the formation of the emerging democratic body is still modelled on the mystic body of the kings.

8Democracy appears to be fraught with inner contradictions from the outset. Besides, the egalitarian effusion is but short lived.

  • 5 On the avatars of the mystic body from medieval times to the Age of Enlightenment see Marcel Gauche (...)

9The incorporation of the crew into the whale’s body has only been made possible through the sacrifice of Pip, “the most insignificant of the Pequod’s crew” (Ch. 93, p. 521), who was left behind during the hunt. Being a native of Tolland, Connecticut, Pip stands for the black slaves and the remaining Pequots pent up in the Tolland reservation, both excluded by the new nation. Moreover, the ecstatic communion of the crew in ch.94 ( “A Squeeze of the Hand”) ends with an allusion to the amputated toes of the sailors in the blubber-room, a reminder that the integration of the “isolatoes” into a common body has proved to be inconclusive5.

10The effusions in the sperm-bath are diffuse. Instead of forming a substantial body, the seamen melt into a formless mass. Democracy, like the “great democratic God” (Ch. 26, p. 212) whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, fails to become incarnate and to be circumscribed within the confines of a (de) finite body. Eventually, the dissolution of the self may involve a total disintegration, as in the case of Pip. The Leviathan in the sense of the body politic-to-be remains elusive.

11As no organic whole can be achieved within the whale, the crew seeks to form a body outside the whale under the leadership of Ahab. It is only by being mobilized against Moby Dick and by becoming incorporated into Ahab that the crew members cohere into a whole. For want of an adequate body politic within the whale, it is vicariously through Ahab that the Leviathan is to be attained:

They were one man, not thirty, (Ch. 134, p. 666)
Ye are not other men, but my arms and legs; and so obey me. (Ch. 135, p. 57)

  • 6 See Harold Beaver’s explanatory note: “Constantine’s crown – containing – according to tradition, o (...)

The captain is therefore invested with the insignia of sovereignty: Ahab dons a “royal mantle” (Ch. 26, p. 212) and assumes the crown of Lombardy (Ch. 37, p. 265), which was said to contain relics of Christ6. Captain Ahab is thus identified to a “god-like” king. Like his biblical namesake, Ahab is yet another king.

  • 7 See Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Princeton Uni (...)

12But the king’s body which is dual by definition7, at once the mystic embodiment of the nation and a natural body, turns out to be a dislocated one in the case of Ahab. The king’s two bodies split up. While he integrates the crew into a glorious christ-like body politic, Ahab seems to be also more and more liable to infirmities and to physical suffering. It is not the conjunction but the disjunction of the mystic body and the natural one within the king which is highlighted in the novel.

  • 8 Claude Richard has highlighted the play on the whale/wale: « Il y a done, pour le rigoureux, scient (...)

13Significantly, Ahab is branded from head to toe, bearing the mark of an inner division. The scar, in other words “the wale”8, defeats from the outset the dream of an inclusive social Leviathan. The wale cuts into the whale as a whole. Besides, even the symbol of christ-like kingship, the crown of Lombardy, turns out to be cracked:

Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy...’Tis split, too – that I feel, the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal. (Ch. 37, p. 265-66)

Ahab’s suffering is due to the tension within his two-fold body. The sovereign’s body is subject to the agonies of the natural body. Ahab’s lame body is but an inadequate match for his soul described as “a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs” (Ch. 134, p. 672).

The crew members attempt to make up for this fundamental inadequacy by complementing Ahab’s deficiencies. Pip, for example, offers to replace his missing leg:

“Ye have not a whole body, sir; do ye but use poor me for your one lost leg, only tread upon me, sir; I ask no more, so I remain a part of ye”. (Ch. 129, p. 641-42)

  • 9 Henry V, IV, i, 254.

In fact, though Ahab apparently acknowledges organic ties with the castaway, his obscure double, he soon banishes Pip by sending him away to his cabin. This amounts to dissociating Pip, the fool, from the figure of the king. But despite Pip’s estrangement, Ahab’s body remains basically twin-born as Shakespeare puts it in Henry V: “Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath of every fool”9.

14The figure of the fool gradually overshadows that of the king. Ahab finally seems to acknowledge his foolishness as he faces the whale:

“What a forty years’ fool – fool – old fool, has old Ahab been.” (Ch. 132, p. 651)
“Fool! I’m the Fates’ lieutenant, I act under orders.” (Ch. 134, p 672)

He finally throws up the spear, as if he were symbolically relinquishing a sceptre But the figure of the fool and that of the king have always overlapped, since his mother foolishly called him Ahab:

Ahab did not name himself, “Twas a foolish, ignorant whim of his crazy, widowed mother". (Ch. 16, p. 177)

The new Leviathan can therefore hardly become incarnate in Ahab’s disintegrating body.

15As the natural body is never a whole, its deficiencies can only be compensated by artificial tools or prostheses. For Ahab’s missing leg, the carpenter, a man-maker, will substitute an ivory leg which is but an inadequate duplicate and also a painful reminder of the original limb which is missing. The myth of the oneness of the two bodies – the mystic body and the natural one – is exposed as a tragic discrepancy between the absent leg which is felt to be real and the artificial one:

Here is only one distinct leg to the eye, yet two to the soul. (Ch. 108, p. 583)

The ivory leg can never make up for the original one nor even conceal its loss. Besides, it is likely to be replaced in its turn and duplicated into a series of equally unsuitable substitutes. Ahab orders the carpenter to manufacture an ideal man, a leaden giant which would be an ideal of self-sufficiency, and yet such a perfect achievement amounts to a mere automaton, an artificial contrivance or, as the carpenter puts it, a “cobbling sort of business” (Ch.126, p. 634).

16This image of an artificial man refers to Hobbes’s Leviathan which is explicitly mentioned in "Extracts" though it is wrongly presented as the opening sentence – instead of the fifth – of Hobbes’s work:

By art is created that great Leviathan, called a Commonwealth or State – (in Latin, Civitas) which is but an artificial man. ("Extracts", p. 80)

  • 10 If the engraved title page of the first edition of Leviathan pictures the State as a gigantic king (...)
  • 11 Quoted in the Norton edition of Moby-Dick, eds. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, New York, 1967 (...)

But in lieu of the ideal complementarity of the members of the commonwealth who are able to transcend natural divisions by subjecting themselves to the sovereign state in Hobbes’ s Leviathan10 what we have in Moby Dick11; or, the Whale is an alienating interdependence, an artificial machinery made up of proliferating spare parts, of "unnecessary duplicates” (Ch. 107, p. 577). Because it is not whole, the flesh is always indebted to other bodies which it strives to integrate into a monstrous unnatural medley. Ahab’s imperial self is undermined by the loss of his leg and is thus enslaved to other bodies. The ideal “mutual joint-stock world” (ch.13) thus turns into the horror of “cursed interdebtedness” (Ch. 108, p. 583). Power cannot be centred on a single body, it is disseminated through a series of deputies, thus forming a monstrous Leviathan. The whale’s name, Moby-Dick, may be a hint at that “mob of unnecessary duplicates” (Ch. 107).

17In order to establish his authority, Ahab is compelled to use the crew’s bodies as instruments, which means that the ideal organic body politic gives way to a mechanical contrivance composed of mere spare parts. Captain Bildad asserts that everything has its duplicate on board, except “a spare captain" (Ch. 20, p. 192). But even Ahab, his deputy, turns out to be “the Fates’ lieutenant” (Ch. 134, p. 672), thus commanding in lieu of another. In this respect, Ahab’s protracted withdrawal in the cabin, at the beginning of the voyage, is highly revealing. From the very start, power is delegated to the mates who are only provisional representatives. The management of the Pequod ashore is split up between two vicarious captains, Bildad and Peleg whose very name is related to the complex motif of the leg, emblematic of the body’s deficiencies and of the subsequent devolution of power it entails. The two captains are but the representatives of an anonymous group of shareholders.

18The centralization of power in Ahab’s hands proves a failure and gradually gives way to a process of dissemination. Even the legitimate crew of the Pequod is duplicated by a clandestine one (the Parsees). Finally, at the end of the voyage, after the Pequod’s apocalypse, Ishmael emerges from the wreck only as the last delegate of a host of sub-subs:

It will be seen that this mere painstaking burrower and grubworm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane. ( “Extracts”, p. 77)

Eventually, he owes his salvation to Queequeg’s coffin, that is to say, to yet another artificial reproduction of a missing living body. We are then made to understand that he can hardly incarnate the body politic-to-come since he merely assumes the “vacant post” ( “Epilogue”, p. 687) in lieu of a castaway.

19Power thus keeps being indefinitely delegated. The endless sundering of the body politic is mirrored by the never-ending mutilations of the body. Ahab’s tyrannical domination has often been commented on by critics as a perversion of the democratic ideal. But as despotism requires devolution it is necessarily both underpinned and undermined by “a mob of unnecessary duplicates” (Ch. 107, p. 577). In his letter to Hawthorne of June 1, 1851, Melville writes:

It seems an inconsistency to assert unconditional democracy in all things, and yet confess a dislike to all mankind – in the mass. But not so.

  • 12 Herman Melville, “The Encantadas” in Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories, edited by H. Beaver, Pen (...)
  • 13 See Marcel Gauchet et Gladys Swain, La pratique de l’esprit humain; L’institution asilaire et la ré (...)

The alternative to “riotocracy” (The Encantadas12) might be a withdrawal into the sovereign self. Ahab is tempted to do so. It is significant that he should dream of condensing himself into “one, small compendious vertebra” (Ch. 108, p. 583), which would amount to circumscribing the body to its undividable core. But coinciding with oneself proves as impossible as adjusting to others. The atomization of the body politic inherent in democracy is bound to extend itself within the individual13. No one can claim to be “an unfractioned integral” (Ch. 107, p. 579), not even the carpenter who is contradictorily described as a “multum in parvo" contrivance.

Notes

1 R. W. Emerson, Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1982, p 84 On social dismemberment in Emerson’s works, see Eric Cheyfitz, The Transparent Eye, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1983.

2 “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” “Meditation XVII”, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, New York, 1974, p. 1215.

3 All references to Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale are from the edition by Harold Beaver, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972. Italics are Melville’s.

4 See Marc Bloch, Les rois thaumaturges: Etude sur le caractere surnaturel attribué à la puissance royale, Armand Colin, Paris, 1961.

5 On the avatars of the mystic body from medieval times to the Age of Enlightenment see Marcel Gauchet, « Des deux corps du roi au pouvoir sans corps (christianisme et politique) », Le Debat, n° 14-15, septembre-octobre 1981.

6 See Harold Beaver’s explanatory note: “Constantine’s crown – containing – according to tradition, one of the nails used at the Crucifixion – now kept at the Cathedral of Monza. Both Charlemagne and Charles V, among Holy Roman Emperors, were crowned with it as kings of Lombardy, and it was this crown that Napoleon assumed when he crowned himself king of Italy in 1805. But the most recent of its wearers (1838) was Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria another monarch, like Ahab, subject to spells of insanity”, (op. cit., p 770)

7 See Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1981.

8 Claude Richard has highlighted the play on the whale/wale: « Il y a done, pour le rigoureux, scientifigue Hackluyt, une vérité de la baleine: vérité dicible, selon lui, dans le mot. Dans le mot whale. Respecté à la lettre. A la lettre H. Prenons done au mot Hackluyt, le nominaliste: omettons le H. A wale “a streak or mark made on the skin, a trace made with a rod” » (Dictionnaire de Webster- du Webster d’alors et d’aujourd’hui). Lettres américaines, Alinéa, Aix-en-Provence, 1987, p. 79.

9 Henry V, IV, i, 254.

10 If the engraved title page of the first edition of Leviathan pictures the State as a gigantic king whose body is made up of diminutive human beings. Hobbes relinquishes the organic metaphor in "the Introduction” and compares the body politic to an artificial machinery: “why may we not say that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart but a Spring, and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheels, giving motion to the Whole Body, such as was intended by the artificer?” Leviathan, Penguin, London 1987, p. 81. Italics are Hobbes’s.

11 Quoted in the Norton edition of Moby-Dick, eds. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, New York, 1967, p. 557.

12 Herman Melville, “The Encantadas” in Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories, edited by H. Beaver, Penguin, 1979, p. 164.

13 See Marcel Gauchet et Gladys Swain, La pratique de l’esprit humain; L’institution asilaire et la révolution démocratique, Gallimard, Paris, 1980. The authors attempt to show how mental alienation disrupts the assumption of self-determination on which democracy is based.

© Presses universitaires de Vincennes, 1992

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