Moby-Dick and Schopenhauer

R.K. Gupta, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur

For it is the case with regard to everything, that each man can only prize that which to a certain extent is analogous to him and for which he has at least a slight inclination.
- Arthur Schopenhauer

In his last years, Herman Melville (18191891) avidly read Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), the German philosopher whose works first became available in English translation only in 1883. Melville acquired personal copies of many of these worksthe three-volume The World as Will and Idea, The Wisdom of Life, Studies in Pessimism, Religion: A Dialogue and Other Essays, and Counsels and Maximsand made extensive markings and some annotations in them. He borrowed Counsels and Maxims from the New York Society Library in February 1891, a few months before his death.1

In "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Parable of Pessimism," Daniel Stempel and Bruce M. Stillians have suggested the possibility of Melville learning about Schopenhauer during his 1849 trip to Europe from his traveling companion George J. Adler (18211868), Professor of German at New York University and "an enthusiastic student of German philosophy"; and again through John Oxenford's (18121877) comprehensive survey of Schopenhauer's works in the 1 April 1853 issue of the Westminster Review, a magazine Melville was likely to be familiar with.2 If in absence of conclusive evidence the theory remains conjectural, the question still arises why in his final years Melville turned to Schopenhauer with such passion.

The explanation, I think, lies in the remarkable congruence of views between the two writers. Since the late 1840s Melville had been moving toward a Schopenhauerian view of human life and the world. The process, adumbrated in the change of course in Mardi from travel and adventure to metaphysical speculation, came to fruition with Moby-Dick, which is shot through and through with Schopenhauerian images, ideas, and motifs, a study of which promises to throw new light on the novel and on Melville's intellectual relationship with the German philosopher.

Dissenting from the Western philosophical tradition that identifies reason as the defining trait of man, Schopenhauer posited the ultimate reality as a blind and involuntary force which he called the will. The will is the "inside" of the world, the noumenon. It objectifies itself through the operation of the principium individuationis of time and space in the phenomenon, the multiplicity of phenomena being the "idea" (or "representation," as Schopenhauer's recent translator E. F. J. Payne would have it). Like Freud's id, Schopenhauer's will is not purposeful volition but a primitive force inaccessible to rational admonishment. Being unassuageablean endless, restless, tormented striving for satisfactionthe will is the chief source of the pain and suffering of life: "The wish is, in its nature, pain; the attainment soon begets satiety: the end was only apparent; possession takes away the charm; the wish, the need, presents itself under a new form; when it does not, then follows desolateness, emptiness, ennui, against which the conflict is just as painful as against want."3

In Moby-Dick, Schopenhauer's willan unconscious force of great potency, insatiable, and imperious in its demands on the individualis seen in operation, time and again. Thus Ishmael finds that his decision to go on a whaling voyage is not an act of conscious choice but involuntary. Ishmael is also unable to explain how the crew fall under Ahab's spell and make his cause their own, identifying the White Whale with evil. In the crucial quarter-deck scene, when Ahab tries to win over the three mates, including the recalcitrant Starbuck, "it seemed as though, by some nameless, interior volition, he would fain have shocked into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life." Ahab then asks the mates to be cupbearers to "my three pagan kinsmen there ... my valiant harpooneers," adding: "I do not order ye; ye will it."4 Sitting alone in the cabin, Ahab soliloquizes: "What I've dared, I've willed; and what I've willed, I'll do! ... I'm demoniac, I am madness maddened!" (7: 210).

To be sure, Melville does not use the term "will" in Schopenhauer's technical philosophical sense. But the idea of an imperious, subterranean force controlling human behavior is common to both writers. Starbuck thus speculates on Ahab's inexplicable hold over him: "he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me! ... Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut" (7: 211).

"Human nature," observes Schopenhauer, "has depths, obscurities, and perplexities, the analysis and elucidation of which is a matter of the very greatest difficulty" (1: 520). The truth of human nature is so profound that even a deep diver like Ishmael cannot fathom it. "As touching all Ahab's deeper part," he remarks, "every revelation partook more of significant darkness than of explanatory light" (8: 231). Although Ahab at times believes himself his own master, many of his actions seem the product of forces beyond his control. The ceaseless torment of an unsatisfied will allows Ahab no respite even in sleep (cf. 7: 25152). Ahab's quest for vengeance, which by "its own sheer inveteracy of will" assumes "an independent being of its own" (7: 25253), substantiates Schopenhauer's view that "the more intense the will is, the more glaring is the conflict of its manifestation, and thus the greater is the suffering" (1: 511). Unlike Schopenhauer, however, Melville associates capacity for intense suffering with nobility of character: "In an instant's compass, great hearts sometimes condense to one deep pang, the sum total of those shallow pains kindly diffused through feebler men's whole lives" (8: 339).

Some characters in Moby-Dick attribute events to an external agency they call fate or the gods. Ishmael thus ascribes his going on a whaling voyage to "those stage managers, the Fates" (7: 6). Stubb finds comfort in the thought that "it's all predestinated" (7: 213). Ahab persistently holds supernatural powers responsible for his self-destructive quest. Stubb reports to Starbuck that he heard Ahab mutter: "Here someone thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others" (8: 275). Ahab tells Starbuck just before the chase begins: "By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike" (8: 330). A little later Ahab harangues Starbuck: "This whole act's immutably decreed. 'Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders" (8: 352).

Although Ahab identifies the force that propels him with a supernatural agency, his description closely fits Schopenhauer's will, to which he might as well have traced the source of his action. According to Richard Brodhead, "Ahab's disease is that he can't keep from extrapolating from local experiences to their cosmological implications."5 Ahab's vulnerability, however, may be more fittingly characterized as a "tragic flaw" and located in his attribution of that which is essentially inborn and innate to external, supernatural agencies. Ahab's remarkable capacity for self-analysis does not prevent his remaining deluded to the end or failing to realize that the "hidden lord and master" (8: 330) who commands him is nothing but his own will. He is unable to grasp that the "shadows" that haunt him are no more than "verifications of the foregoing things within," that "with little external to constrain us, the innermost necessities in our being, these still drive us on" (7: 205). Ahab presents the rare phenomenon of the will-to-live being supplanted by, and subsumed in, the service of an all-consuming passion.

Schopenhauer's will is amoral and its domain is frequently the unconscious. In Moby-Dick Ahab ignores all moral considerations in his obsessive pursuit. The unconscious nature of the operation of the will is, as in Pierre, emphasized by recurrent images of diving, drilling, and mining.

Schopenhauer suggests that although permanent escape from the will is possible only through asceticism and renunciation, temporary respite can be obtained through dispassionate, will-less contemplation of art or nature. That is why "the man who is tormented by passion, or want, or care, is so suddenly revived, cheered, and restored by a single free glance into nature: The storm of passion, the pressure of desire or fear, and all the miseries of willing are then at once, and in a marvellous manner, calmed and appeased" (1: 25556). In Moby-Dick Ishmael often experiences this elevated state in which one at last "loses his identity" and "takes the mystic ocean to his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature." In this "enchanted mood," the "spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space" (7: 198). Standing at the foremast-head, and idly swaying in "what seemed an enchanted air," Ishmael experiences that epiphanic suspension of individuality that lulls the gnawing pain of constant willing: "losing all consciousness, at last my soul went out of my body; though my body still continued to sway as a pendulum will" (8: 1). At times, notably in "The Symphony," even Ahab is moved by the calm serenity of nature, by the "mild, mild wind, and a mild-looking sky" (8: 327), so far as to forget himself, soon, however, to relapse into habitual defiance.

Schopenhauer's worldview, his most telling aspect, Melville came to share progressively as he matured. Moby-Dick depicts the predominance of evil and destructive forces, and human impotence in the face of them. "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love," says Ishmael, "the invisible spheres were formed in fright" (7: 243). Ishmael draws repeated attention to "the full awfulness of the sea," its "universal cannibalism" (7: 348), which, in turn, becomes symbolic of "the demonism in the world" (7: 243), of which even the dumb brute seems instinctively aware. The tranquil beauty of the sea only conceals "the tiger heart that pants beneath it" (8: 263). The capture and killing of the whale brings out the full horror and pity of the exercise (8: 9697). Not only is nature indifferent to human affairs"The Castaway" presents a world formed through a natural process heedless of human concerns, while Ishmael comments on "the general stolidity discernible in the whole visible world" (8: 234)but its very beauty is deceptive. Starbuck exclaims: "Oh, life! 'tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee!" (7: 212). While his biblical name makes Ishmael represent a disenfranchised mankind, a general sense of futility, decay, and death pervades the world of Moby-Dick. Neal Tolchin argues that Moby-Dick is a novel permeated by unresolved grief,6 while according to John T. Matteson, in Moby-Dick Melville declares "the natural world to be just a screen for pervading, all-consuming death."7 Brodhead points out that "The Chapel," in particular, presents "a world peopled with the dead, filled with the void of the nonexistent."8 As in Schopenhauer (1: 254), Ixion and Tantalus seem the most apt symbols for the human condition in Moby-Dick (8: 251; 368).

Schopenhauer had such an overwhelming sense of human suffering that a note of horror creeps into his voice when dealing with it: "if we were to conduct the confirmed optimist through the hospitals, infirmaries, and surgical operating-rooms, through the prisons, torture-chambers, and slave-kennels, over battle-fields and places of execution; if we were to open to him all the dark abodes of misery, where it hides itself from the glance of cold curiosity ... he, too, would understand at last the nature of this 'best of possible worlds'" (1: 419). Schopenhauer concludes that "the life of every individual, if we survey it as a whole and in general, and only lay stress upon its most significant features, is really always a tragedy, but gone through in detail, it has the character of a comedy" (1: 415). In a similar vein Ishmael remarks: "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own" (7: 286).

As early as "Hawthorne and His Mosses" Melville had given a Schopenhauerian interpretation to Shakespeare and Hawthorne, stressing their tragic vision but ignoring their humor and comedy. The preacher in the New Bedford Negro church Ishmael stumbles upon has as his theme "the blackness of darkness" (7: 10), a "blackness of darkness" Ishmael later comes to consider "the material counterpart" of Pequod's "monomaniac commander's soul" (8: 180). Ahab broods: "Born in throes, 'tis fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs!" (8: 190). Later Ahab thinks: "both the ancestry and posterity of Grief go further than the ancestry and posterity of Joy" (8: 230). Ahab concludes that "the ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers," the gods, who "themselves are not for ever glad" (8: 230). Schopenhauer scorned Leibnizean optimism as "not merely ... an absurd, but also ... a really wicked way of thinking ... a bitter mockery of the unspeakable suffering of humanity" (1: 420; original emphasis). For Ishmael, the man "who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards ... not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon" (8: 182). On the last day of the chase Ahab finds even the wind "tainted": "A vile wind that has no doubt blown ere this through prison corridors and cells, and wards of hospitals.... Were I the wind, I'd blow no more on such a wicked, miserable world. I'd crawl somewhere to a cave, and slink there" (8: 355). As in Schopenhauer, references to hospitals and prisons in Moby-Dick quintessentially signify human suffering.

Human life consists largely of repetitive labor and drudgery. In a Thoreau-like vein Ishmael points out how on week-days landsmen remain "pent up in lath and plastertied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks" (7: 2), asking rhetorically: "Who aint a slave? Tell me that" (7: 5). "All men," he comments later, "live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks" (7: 357). But then "this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from the world's vast bulk its small but valuable sperm ... when ... away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life's old routine again" (8: 18687).

Most human suffering, Schopenhauer says, is inflicted by men themselves: "homo homini lupus," man is a wolf for man. "In general," Schopenhauer adds, "the conduct of men towards each other is characterised as a rule by injustice, extreme unfairness, hardness, nay, cruelty: an opposite course of conduct appears only as an exception" (3: 388). Although Melville sometimes traced human suffering to a Hardy-like malicious supernatural force, in the last analysis he held human beings themselves responsible for human suffering, as Schopenhauer had done. In this "wolfish world" (7: 62), Ishmael remarks, "we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included" (7: 176). Moby-Dick presents man as a sordid, mercenary creature. "The permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man," thinks Ahab, "is sordidness" (7: 26667). Believing that "man is a money-making animal" (8: 168), Stubb speculates that Pip would be of less value to the crew than the whale. "Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?" asks Ishmael, and brings out human rapacity involved, for example, in the entire colonial enterprise: "What is India to England" but a kind of "Loose-Fish" (8: 147). "There is no folly of the beasts of the earth," he sums up, "which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men" (8: 130).

In Schopenhauer's scheme, while pain is one major fact of life, the other is ennui, which sets in as soon as there is respite from want or struggle. Thus "life swings like a pendulum backwards and forwards between pain and ennui ... after man had transferred all pain and torments to hell, there then remained nothing over for heaven but ennui" (1: 402). Perhaps Melville's most classic portrayal of ennui occurs in Pierre, in which the extravagant bliss of Pierre's early life inevitably invites ennui. In Moby-Dick, ennui could be one of the reasons, perhaps the most salient, why Ishmael goes to sea. To be sure, his motives are mixed, and he has "little or no money" in his purse. But, more importantly, having "nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world" (7: 1).

Schopenhauer believed the way to salvation to lie not in the destruction of the self, but in the denial of the will and in remaining unseduced by its importunities. In such a state, the "will ... turns away from life; it now shudders at the pleasures in which it recognises the assertion of life." Man "now attains to the state of voluntary renunciation, resignation, true indifference, and perfect will-lessness" (1: 48990). The denial of the will is "the only radical cure of the disease of which all other means are only palliations or anodynes" (1: 468).

Critics have shown the presence of Schopenhauerian resignation in characters such as Bartleby and Billy Budd. In Moby-Dick, the dominant mood is struggle and defiance, but the spirit of resignation is not altogether absent. In the celebrated Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita, the ideal man is said to be a sthitpragna, a "steadfast" person, who remains indifferent to pain and pleasure and retains his equilibrium in all circumstances: "He who feels neither excitement nor repulsion ... who is beyond good and evil ... whose soul is the same in honour or disgrace, who is beyond heat or cold or pleasure or pain, who is free from the chain of attachments" is on his way to attain salvation.9 Buddhism, which Schopenhauer greatly admired, locates happiness in detachment from the things of the world.

The ability to retain equipoise and remain unmoved in all situationsa prelude to, as well as a product of, the spirit of renunciation advocated by Schopenhaueris best seen in Ishmael. When being hired as a whaling hand on the Pequod, he does not seem to care what wages he is offered. Later, standing in the masthead to look out for passing whales, he often falls into a meditative reverie and loses track of such mundane concerns as spotting whales. He is painfully conscious of "the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort" (7: 73) and "the vanity of glory ... the insanity of life" (7: 187). He holds that "doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye" (8: 117). Describing the whale's blubber, Ishmael turns the commonplace subject into occasion for high speculation and spiritual admonition: "Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own" (8: 33).

Queequeg also shows this equipoise. Ishmael's initial distrust gives way to increasing admiration for Queequeg's lofty indifference to external events. Ishmael marvels that thrown "some twenty thousand miles from home ... thrown among people as strange to him as though he were in the planet Jupiter," Queequeg "yet seemed entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost serenity; content with his own companionship; always equal to himself. Surely this was a touch of fine philosophy; though no doubt he had never heard there was such a thing as that" (7: 61).

Subconsciously aware of the suicidal nature of his enterprise, Ahab yet pursues Moby-Dick with determination, undeterred by the prospect of failure. In so doing he epitomizes Gita's ideal that one must act without undue concern as to the outcome. In "The Symphony," Ahab comes close to showing, briefly, a spirit of resignation, soon, however, to fall back into defiance.

It is perhaps Starbuck who comes closest to being the ideal detached and steadfast person. Although only thirty years old, he has the wisdom commonly associated with long experience of life: "Looking into his eyes, you seemed to see there the yet lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life. A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds" (7: 141). Fittingly it is when analyzing Starbuck that Ishmael remarks that "man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes" (7: 143), and justifies his ascribing "high qualities, though dark" to, and "weaving ... tragic graces" around, "meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways" (7: 144).

Schopenhauer presents a bleak view of human sexuality as an ignoble slavery to nature. It is the reproductive hunger of the individual, he suggests, that keeps mankind chained to the wheel of life. In "The Tartarus of Maids," Melville allegorically presents sexuality as vulnerability, and seems with Schopenhauer to hold procreation as a prison house and an enslavement to nature.

Both Schopenhauer and Melville were struck by the illusive nature of female beauty. Schopenhauer argues that nature endows women with a fleeting beauty to further its agenda of perpetuating the species.10 In Moby-Dick, Ishmael concludes his reflections on "The Whiteness of the Whale" with a theory of the "natural philosophers" that all "earthly hues" other than white, including "the butterfly cheeks of young girls," are "but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only lain on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within" (7: 244). Melville, of course, does not share Schopenhauer's pejorative view of women. Yet Ishmael speaks disparagingly of "the mere negative, feminine" quality of "submission and endurance" (8: 119). In the "largely masculine world of Melville's writings,"11 women play only a peripheral role.

Like Freud, Schopenhauer considered excessive repression damaging to personality. If a person repressed his instincts too much, he believed, they tended to become fixed ideas which could lead in the end to the madhouse. Thus Ahab's frenzied vengeance could be partly due to repression. Marrying a young girl when he was past fifty, he sailed for Cape Horn the very next day, "leaving but one dent in my marriage pillowwife? wife?rather a widow with her husband alive!" In his forty years of continual whaling, "forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time," he has not spent three ashore. With "the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow," he has been "more a demon than a man" (8: 32728). Schopenhauer saw madness as an escape from "violent mental suffering or unexpected and terrible calamities." If the sorrow or painful knowledge "becomes altogether unbearable ... then, terrified Nature seizes upon madness as the last resource of life" (1: 250; emphasis Schopenhauer's). Ahab clearsightedly points out to the blacksmith the relation between excruciating misery and madness (cf. 8: 258). Schopenhauer had also been struck by the similarity between madness and genius (1: 251). Pip's near drowning turns him mad in the eyes of his shipmates, but "man's insanity," says Ishmael, is "heaven's sense" (8: 170). Far from being an affliction, madness can thus become a strategy of survival and a means of enhanced insight.

Melville shared Schopenhauer's adverse view of church, dogma, and orthodoxy. Schopenhauer had an interest in, and considerable knowledge of, several religions. He praised Buddhism and Hinduism for their insight and found in them much that was congenial. "The ancient wisdom of the human race," he says, "will not be displaced by what happened in Galilee. On the contrary, Indian philosophy streams back to Europe, and will produce a fundamental change in our knowledge and thought" (1: 46061). Bryan Magee rightly remarks that "of the major figures in Western philosophy Schopenhauer is the one who has most in common with Eastern thought."12

Melville, too, was not at all parochial in his approach to the religions of the world, frequently using ideas, symbols, legends, and myths from many of them in his writings, as critics such as James Baird, Dorothee Finkelstein, and H. Bruce Franklin have shown.13 In Moby-Dick, Melville reaches out to the religions outside the Judeo-Christian tradition and uses them for thematic and structural purposes. He refers to the reincarnation of Vishnu as Leviathan to illustrate pictorial representation of the whale (7: 332) and to enhance "the honor and glory of whaling," and points out that Vishnu himself was "a whaleman" (8: 104). Ishmael, at first suspicious of Queequeg's pagan ways, becomes more liberal when he comes in close contact with him: "a man can be honest in any sort of skin," he thinks (7: 26), adding that Queequeg is a "human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him" (7: 30). Interestingly, Ishmael's recognition of Queequeg's humanity is followed by a traumatic recollection of the harsh and inhuman behavior of his own stepmother (7: 3132). Ishmael not only sheds religious bigotry, but (after, to be sure, an internal debate comparable to Huck's who decides to risk going to hell to save Jim) joins Queequeg in pagan worship. "How elastic our stiff prejudices grow," he sums up, "when love once comes to bend them" (7: 66).

Like Aristotle before and Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951) after him, Schopenhauer was primarily a philosopher who yet showed unusual insight into aesthetic problems as well as an abiding interest in literature and art. According to Schopenhauer, art probes beneath surface reality to get at universal truth. Melville, too, came to regard sensuously perceived objects as "pasteboard masks" behind which lurk deeper meanings that are truth, which it is the artist's prime responsibility to discover and convey. Brodhead rightly says that "Melville increasingly identified literature as a vehicle of revelation."14 Both Schopenhauer and Melville regard the essential truth about human life and the world to be tragic, and hence give pride of place among literary forms to tragedy, which expresses the truth most forcefully. Schopenhauer reserves highest praise for tragedy, calling it "the summit of poetical art" (1: 326), because it portrays "the wail of humanity, the reign of chance and error, the fall of the just, the triumph of the wicked" (3: 212). In "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville praises Hawthorne for his "great power of blackness" (13: 129), for powerfully embodying in his works the tragic experience of mankind. Melville's major novels not only express the tragic spirit but also emulate the form of tragedy, so that Moby-Dick, Pierre, and Billy Budd have all been studied as tragedies. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael refers to "the black tragedy of the melancholy ship" (8: 262), and, since "all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me" (7: 183), justifies weaving "tragic graces" round "meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways" (7: 144). Ahab is elevated to the stature of a tragic hero through an array of devices, most saliently through grandiose imagery.

Schopenhauer believed that Nature was solicitous of the species but negligent of the individual: "For it is not the individual, but only the species that Nature cares for, and for the preservation of which she so earnestly strives" (1: 356). Nature "cares only for the preservation of the species," the individual being "nothing to it" (1: 425). In a similar vein, Ishmael finds "the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water ... if ever the world is to be again flooded ... then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies" (8: 228).

Behind the broad agreement between Schopenhauer and Melville on a range of issues, what serves as a fundamental unifying force is their similar attitude toward life. Schopenhauer looks upon life as "a business which does not cover its expenses," and upon man as "a being whose existence is a punishment and an expiation" (3: 383; 391). In Moby-Dick, Melville brings out the tragic nature of human destiny. His dark vision of man at the mercy of instinctual drives and irrational forces he can neither understand nor control is entirely in consonance with Schopenhauer's thinking.

Moby-Dick, to be sure, also contains elements quite unlike Schopenhauer's mode of expression, such as humor and wit. Moreover, Ishmael distinguishes between "high abstracted man alone" and "mankind in mass" (8: 232), finding that "man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature" (7: 143). Schopenhauer's inflexibly negative view of human nature can accommodate no such distinction. Finally, quite unlike Schopenhauer, Moby-Dick holds out the possibility of joy in human life, even though a slender one. "While ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me," Ishmael remarks, "deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy" (8: 136). Starbuck murmurs to himself: "if we bend down our eyes, the dark vale shows her mouldy soil; but if we lift them, the bright sun meets our glance half-way, to cheer." But he feels constrained to add: "Yet, oh, the great sun is no fixture; and if, at midnight, we would fain snatch some sweet solace from him, we gaze for him in vain!" (8: 19091). Ishmael holds that "there is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces" (8: 182). Even Ahab admits: "So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me" (8: 310; my emphasis). The "bright" side remains merely "theoretic" and pales into insignificance beside the pressing reality of the "dark side."

Schopenhauer and Melville, understandably, also differ in approach and emphasis. A systematic philosopher, Schopenhauer presents a reasoned, comprehensive, and sweeping image of man and the world within a schematic framework. Melville, notwithstanding his passion for metaphysical speculation, retains the vision, perspective, and method of the literary artist, seeking to convey his vision through indirectionthrough symbols, images, and myths rather than through statement and explication, through intuition rather than through reasoning.

Within these limits, however, the two writers show a remarkable similarity of views on a host of important issues. Since Schopenhauer's direct influence on Melville could have occurred only after the writing and publication of Moby-Dick, what we confront is the phenomenon of two profound and original thinkers, working in different languages and cultures, yet arriving at similar conclusions on fundamental issues of human existence. Schopenhauer, too, had reached philosophical positions that he acknowledged as being very close to those of Buddhism before becoming acquainted with Eastern thought in late 1813 through the orientalist Friedrich Maier.

It is only in terms of their remarkable congeniality of views that one can explain Melville's fascination with Schopenhauer's works when these finally became accessible in the last years of Melville's life, to the extent that in his final illness, what he read "when able to study" was a set of Schopenhauer's writings.15 As Shurr remarks, in Schopenhauer Melville "seems to have found a kindred spirit and confirmation for some of his own most deeply held opinions." While Schopenhauer remains perhaps the most literary among philosophers, Melville, to use Shurr's words, is "the most intellectual and philosophical of our canonical writers."16 As a result, in Moby-Dick "the pressure of passionate philosophical surmise" keeps disrupting the line of narration.17 Like his own Captain Vere in his chosen "line of reading," Melville found in Schopenhauer "confirmation of his own more reserved thoughtsconfirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse" (13: 29). A study of similarities between Schopenhauer and Moby-Dick on matters philosophical and aesthetic, and of the frequent occurrence in the novel of Schopenhauerian ideas and motifs, throws light on important aspects of Melville's thought and art, and helps explore an exciting chapter in crosscultural encounter and the history of ideas.


1. These are items 443 to 448 in Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Melville's Reading: A Check-List of Books Owned and Borrowed (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966) 9. Sealts classifies Melville's copies of Schopenhauer's works as "marked," except Religion, which he classifies as "annotated."
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2. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 27 (1972): 270.
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3. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, 3 vols., trans. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950) 1: 4045. Epigraph 2: 497. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in parentheses in the text with volume and page numbers.
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4. Herman Melville, The Works of Herman Melville, Standard Edition, 16 vols. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963) 7: 2067. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in parentheses in the text with volume and page numbers.
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5. Richard H. Brodhead, "Trying All Things: An Introduction to Moby-Dick," New Essays on Moby-Dick, ed. Richard H. Brodhead (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 4.
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6. Neal L. Tolchin, Mourning, Gender, and Creativity in the Art of Herman Melville (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) 11737.
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7. John T. Matteson, "Grave Discussions: The Image of the Sepulchre in Webster, Emerson, and Melville," New England Quarterly 74 (2001): 438.
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8. Brodhead 5.
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9. The Bhagavad Gita, trans. Juan Mascaro (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968) 9798.
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10. "On Women," The Essential Schopenhauer (London: Unwin Books, 1962) 103.
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11. William H. Shurr, "Melville's Poems: The Late Agenda," A Companion to Melville's Studies, ed. John Bryant (New York: Greenwood, 1986) 371. See also Tolchin 33.
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12. The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) 316.
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13. James R. Baird, Ishmael: A Study of the Symbolic Mode in Primitivism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956); Dorothee Metlitsky Finkelstein, Melville's Orienda (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961); and H. Bruce Franklin, The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963).
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14. Brodhead 15.
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15. Arthur Stedman, qtd. in Sealts 26.
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16. Shurr 345.
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17. Brodhead 4.
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