Moby Dick as a metaphor

Every couple of years, I go back and read Moby Dick. I first read as a university student, and I’ll admit that the first time through was something of a slog. But as I’ve gone through and through again, it’s begun to grow on me.

Moby Dick contains many things that we can view as metaphor; we’ve become familiar of the great white whale as the elusive object of obsession. For me, the great white whale is often a research question, one of the questions on the LIST, which recedes every time I make an attempt.

I haven’t thought too deeply about the metaphor, beyond trying to prevent myself from becoming a mathematical Ahab. I don’t know for instance where Queequeg makes an appearance in this metaphor, or Ismael. But I do often have Starbucks whispering in my ear, advising me, persuading me to spend time on the questions on which I can make some progress, despite the howls of protest from Ahab and his old questions.

The metaphor of Moby Dick also works for aikido and writing. The things to do, the voice of obsession, the dissenting voice and Ismael at the end holding on to the coffin so carefully made and carved by Queequeg.

But this leads me down another line of inquiry (enquiry?) entirely. (In the balance, probably a bit more enquiry than inquiry.) Would Melville be surprised at the metaphors we pull out from his story? Would he be surprised at how Moby Dick and Ahab have become part of the imagery we use and the descriptions we give?

I don’t actually know. I hope he would be appreciative. But I do know, as do we all, that we each read things into stories and novels that the author may not have intended. And that’s just part of the way of things.

~ by Jim Anderson on 12 March 2023.

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