Moby Dick and the Navel of the Milky Ocean

Gazing ever up into heaven’s majestic dome one cannot help but to feel a penetrating awe. For some, the Great Deep that is heaven produces reverence, reflection, and humility. One could say that the “[starry sky] and meditation are wedded forever” (MD 13). For others, an infinite curiosity arouses–a wanting to know–about self, other, and cosmos. Such a moment is like a baptism in water where one is initiated into a new life. For what is the sparkling night sky if not a reflection of the glittering ocean deeps? Both are filled with mystery, life, and inexhaustible possibility. One is a reflection of the other, and just so, is not the ocean—heaven brought down to earth?

We live between two eternal deeps: Heaven and Ocean.

We live between two eternal deeps: Heaven and Ocean.

Certainly in Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, the imagery of sea is pronouncedly everywhere. But curiously, so likewise is the imagery of stars; in so many places the two images blend together as a co-mingling of waters: “the firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all pervading azure…” (MD 442). We are also told that Queequeg’s people believed “that the stars are isles, but that far beyond all visible horizons, their own mild, uncontinented seas, interflow with the blue heavens; and so form the white breakers of the milky way…” (MD 396). Likewise and repeatedly, Melville gives the image of oceans cosmic themes, calling them “wide-rolling prairies… [where] millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming…” (MD 399).

No less, the water’s chief inhabitant, the great white whale, is also a cosmic image wedded to celestial powers. Thus, we are told that most mortals believed Moby Dick to be “ubiquitous” and “immortal” and that his whiteness could be seen “gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings” (MD 158-9). Moby Dick was a creature that had “moved amid this world’s foundations… O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham” (MD 264). Furthermore, the whole worldview of whaling was intimately bound with heavenly (deified) associations. Thus, when the cook preaches a sermon to the gorging sharks he explains: “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned” (MD 251). And when Ishmael processes the spermaceti of the whale he reflects: “In visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti” (MD 349).

The White Whale is a symbol of the above and the below; of the without and the within.

The White Whale is a symbol of the above and the below; of the without and the within.

Behind Melville’s epic sea-tale is an underlying (and overarching) cosmogony. The tale is as much about the creation of cosmos and the soul that can abide in the starry depths as it is anything else. The soul’s place is heaven, thus Ishmael not only seeks, but is drawn to the ocean, heaven’s counterpart (MD 12). Ishmael’s most trusted companion is the dark skinned Queequeg, who is his protector and friend (literally his bed mate), and therefore is an image of his own soul. It is no coincidence then that Queequeg’s skin is covered, head to toe, with tattoos, imprinted upon him by one of his people’s seers and prophets; those tattoos were “hieroglyphic marks… a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth” (MD 399). In Queequeg, Ishmael carries the heavens with him.

Queequeg's skin is covered with the cosmic glyphs of eternal truth. He remains a reflection of Ishmael's soul.

Queequeg’s skin is covered with the cosmic glyphs of eternal truth. He remains a reflection of Ishmael’s soul.

This is markedly different than the rest of the souls upon the Pequod. The Pequod itself is an image of earthly exile, lives adrift in the midst of starry cosmos. And nailed to the Pequod’s center mast is its soul, its hieroglyphic mark and treatise of truth, a gold doubloon! This is no idle comparison, for this doubloon is covered with ancient symbols of the “partitioned zodiac” whose “keystone sun” rose in the “equinoctial point at Libra” (MD 359). The doubloon was the ship’s “navel”, or axis-mundi (MD 363). Thus a chief juxtaposition is made between the zodiac and heavenly marks tattooed upon Queequeg and the zodiac and ancient glyphs of the doubloon for which everyone else sought the white whale.

For all souls who seek the  gold doubloon, the white whale is certain terror. The Pequod remains the materialistic soul of the world.

For all souls who seek the gold doubloon, the white whale is certain terror. The Pequod remains the materialistic soul of the world.

If this analysis is correct, then Moby Dick becomes a tale about the creation and tending of the human soul in a cosmic context. For Ishmael, the soul is ennobled and given new life through an infinite bond of love, friendship, work, and duty (as reflected in his relationship with Queequeg). Ishmael is not concerned about killing the white whale (itself an image of the cosmic soul), nor is he interested in the tender and soul of the world–the gold doubloon. Ishmael goes to sea “as a simple sailor”, to be paid an honest wage, and for “exercise and pure air” (MD 14-5). As a result of this simple and honest worldview and living, everywhere Ishmael turns he sees balance and harmony in the cosmos. Even when the Pequod is destroyed by the white whale, it is the tattooed ark of the starry firmament that becomes his own life preserver against the infinite deep. Ishmael again, carries the heavens with him.

Whereas, for all others who made the golden zodiac their sun, moon and stars, their ship failed them. It was broken apart from the energy and laws of the cosmic navel who abhors the self-centered brute. So it is that the white whale cannot harm the person acclimated to the whale’s environment, but for all others, their meeting is certain death.
Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967.

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