Moby Dick as an anti-Leviticus

My book club just read through Moby Dick, a fascinating novel that operates on many levels below the surface narrative of the hunt for a whale. James Jordan offers a unique take on the book which I wish someone would expand on and dig into further in an old newsletter. He writes:

Ishmael is the narrator of Melville’s fantasy-romance Moby Dick. Melville takes up the traditional view of Ishmael as a wayward son of Abraham, driven out solely because of the Divine “caprice” of election, an angry man with his hand raised against all other men. He is a fitting “anti-hero,” or at least “anti-character,” in a book full of inversions.

Melville objected to calling Moby Dick a novel. He knew that the persons on board the Pequod are anything but real people — they are symbols much more than characters — and that the situation he describes is fantastic. Moby Dick is a fantasy-narrative like Homer’s Odyssey and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Ahab, carrying the name of Israel’s wicked king, is an anti-Christ. Like Jacob (Israel), Ahab has the messianic foot-wound, but he has no interest in submitting to God. Rather, he wants to kill God, the “vengeful,” “predestinating,” and capitalized White Whale. The whiteness of the whale is both the whiteness of God’s holy throne and the whiteness of leprosy. The long exposition of how to kill a whale in the many chapters on whaling is a kind of anti-Leviticus: Instead of rituals showing us how to kill ourselves and submit to God, Melville gives us a long survey of the rites by which to act titanically and kill “god.” The White Whale wins in the end, but only because He is all-powerful, not because He is good or fair. Ahab, his “Satan”-like ship, and his crew of pagans and estranged New Englanders is drowned in the ancient flood.

Ahab rages against New England’s Calvinistic God, the God of Melville’s rejected Dutch Reformed upbringing. The Antichrist Ahab had lain “like dead for three days and nights” in his great crisis, and now “resurrected” he gathers his anti-church with anti-rituals and leads them in an attempt to kill the “god” who put him through his “crucifixion.” Ishmael is part of this anti-church.

This would be a great project to take on as an investigation: the Levitical themes of the book.

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