The alluring “watery part of the world” (Melville, Moby-Dick 18) can soothe or stir the soul and awaken within people their desired and feared journey into the Self. Ishmael, like many of us, goes to the sea where he can get beyond the thin veil of his identity to reach the primary springs of human life and thought, the key to the soul’s destination.
In Ishmael, I confront an archetypal image that intrigues me, as I also am drawn to water and the sea. Ishmael, the voice of our own knowing, goes to the sea whenever he needs to be revived and refreshed or, as he puts it, when he finds himself “growing grim about the mouth.” For him, getting to the sea is essential for survival, a “substitute for pistol and ball” (18). At the sea, he can engage the soul for, as he asserts, “meditation and water are wedded for ever” (19). For Ishmael, water contains the “image of the ungraspable phantom of life; […] the key to it all” (20). For as a mirror or polished stone, the water reflects and reveals truth; its transparency enables us to see it and see through it.
Rather like Ishmael, I often must leave my work to go for a sail or jump into a pool for a refreshing swim. Doing so, I reflect upon Ishmael, the embodiment and archetype of the nuclear Self setting himself apart from the masses of land dwellers to “get to the sea” to imagine the depths and meaning of existence and soul (18). Reading Moby-Dick, I reflect upon how I seek avenues for separating and freeing myself from e-mails, ringing phones, and life’s obligations. I go to the sea, pool, shower, and bath to be cleansed by and reconnect with the water, the womb, my psyche, my soul, and my Self.
An insightful narrative voice, a character both enigmatic and decisively clear, like the waters of the sea, is Ishmael. The story begins, “Call me Ishmael” (18) and readers are at once engaged; as Jung suggests, human experiences tend to form themselves into story or mythological characters. Ishmael goes to the sea, not as a captain or cook with a defined purpose and care-giving responsibility; he goes instead as in reduction mode from schoolmaster to a “simple sailor” that is, at least, paid for the privilege of being at sea, unlike passengers that pay fares (20-21). He goes to the sea for the wholesome exercise, pure air, and the triumph of catching the first winds on the foredeck (21). So the epic begins with Ishmael, almost at once as spiritual seeker and guru, who yearns for and seeks the sea, as if the pending whaling voyage is fated and at the same time knowing that he goes out of free choice, “unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment” (22), proclivities that could also be his fate.
According to Jung, there is a universal longing to return to the womb, a longing for reconnection to one’s potential wholeness, Self, and collective unconscious. This may be an aspect of Ishmael’s need to go “waterward” (24). The theme is reiterated at the epic’s end when Ishmael, the sole survivor, in the words of Job: “…escaped alone to tell thee” (427). A coffin life-buoy surfaces at his side for him to safely hold until the “devious-cruising Rachael” (427) in search of her missing children, signifying a search of self‑discovery, rescues Ishmael like a mother finding a son.
The lure of the sea resonates within us all, giving expression to the impulse to complete one’s Self, destiny, and god within. As Jung suggests, consciousness is but a small boat within a sea of unconsciousness and rather than be masters of their own ships, people are ruled by creative and destructive forces and energy sources operating through them. Like other myths, this epic suggests universality and ways to understand the shared human experience and truths that transcend time and place.