After a chapter on “The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy” (a phrase that made me want to throw the book across the room even more than “the dangers of nihilism”), the authors of All Things Shining get on to “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art.’” Here the focus is on Moby-Dick, and the claim is that Melville has solved the problems that have led up to this point and found us a way to meaning that works for the post-Enlightenment age. Dreyfus and Kelly are, like me, great fans of Ishmael, so here I started to warm up to them.
After the oddities of some of the discussion of Homer, I was worried that the interpretations presented of various bits and pieces of Melville’s masterpiece would not sit well with me either, but that proved not to be the case. The authors do a fine job discussing Ahab’s obsession, Ishmael’s attitude toward Queequeg’s religion, Queequeg’s place among Christians after leaving his home island, the whiteness of the whale, and especially—here they were truly helpful to me—Pip. And earlier they have a good discussion of Bulkington and his appearance in the chapter “The Lee Shore.”
One passage discussed in the book is the one from Ishmael’s entrance into the Spouter Inn, where there is a painting representing something quite indeterminate in the entryway. Ishmael has his own ideas about what it might be, and discusses it with some other fellows, and comes to a tentative “final theory of my own.”
Ishmael’s satisfaction with his interpretation of the picture at the Spouter Inn reflects Melville’s content with his wicked book. “[N]o hopefulness is in it,” Melville says, “no despair. Content—that is it.” The account is a good one, in both cases, an interpretation that makes much sense of things as they stand.
Continue reading All Things Shining: the good