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literature

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Melville, Herman (1819-1891)  
 
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In their "hearts' honeymoon," Queequeg and Ishmael unwrite many of the cultural fears that prevent communication across the boundaries of race and culture. Although presented in a tone of comic exaggeration, the wedding of Ishmael and Queequeg as a symbolic miscegenation that strikes at the heart of American and Western history possesses real potential to undercut a system of authority.

One of Melville's most daring insights in Moby-Dick is the recognition of as a force linked to racism and required by patriarchal society just as much as the suppression of women. Male friendship, as Melville presents it, has the capacity of interrupting an economy of production.

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Like his contemporary Whitman, Melville sees in male friendship a social potential that is linked to the democratic mission of America. But Melville's view is much darker than Whitman's, for he places the scene of racial and sexual harmony prior to the death-driven journey of the Pequod.

For Melville, the democratic potential is threatened not so much by a reassertion of traditional political authority as by the persistence of structures of hierarchy and abuse in a democratic culture or by the capacity of democratic culture to spawn monsters like Ahab, demagogues who play upon the weakness of the mob.

Language use varies radically in the text of Moby-Dick, from Queequeg's simple "pidgin" to Ishmael's matter-of-fact everyday speech to Ahab's grandiloquent speeches that echo their Renaissance sources. The "elevated" language of Ahab's soliloquies is the most dangerous since it operates by a kind of mesmerism, demanding participation and assent by the listener.

In the chapter "The Doubloon," Melville has almost all of his characters read the coin nailed to the masthead. Although there is but "one text," there are many "rendering[s]." Queequeg is not only a reader of these signs, but a porter of them; language and body are one. Unlike the others, who establish a radical distance between self and world, between subject and object, Queequeg represents an unbroken unity of experience.

The nature of that body-consciousness is then turned comically into a discussion of what Queequeg discovers in looking at his own body, "something there in the vicinity of his thigh--I guess it's Sagittarius or the Archer." Such bawdy humor in Melville always signals a release of repression. By identifying his own body as a double of the inscribed coin, Queequeg asserts his own reclaimed phallus.

As the Etymology section of the novel hints, the baleine or whale is also the phallena or phallus. Faced with a culture that he perceived as increasingly removed from the body and from pleasure, Melville calls repeatedly for a reclamation of pleasure.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the chapter, "A Squeeze of the Hand." In an amazing progression of images, Melville moves from Pip's isolation and madness to the possibility of social harmony in mutual masturbation. The passage derives its transgressive power in part from the moral purity campaign of the mid-nineteenth century that sought to suppress all eroticism, including masturbation, seen in economic terms as a "spending" or wasting of sperm.

But its power to trouble does not depend entirely on its historical context. In the middle of a factory scene of alienated labor, Melville imagines a scene of reclaimed fraternity. The "sperm" of the whale becomes the shared sperm of the men who are able to return in imagination at least to a "musky meadow."

This pastoral vision cannot last, of course, but its potential is enormous. It is a brief interlude in the drive of the novel toward its apocalyptic conclusion. The chapters following "A Squeeze of the Hand" remind us of the role played by the church and industry in the suppression of desire. (Melville would return to this theme in "A Tartarus of Maids.")

Against the pagan celebration of fertility in the worship of the phallus by a matriarchal culture, Melville sets the antibody culture of the Jewish and Christian traditions, with their emphasis on ritual mutilation or circumcision. Against a culture of work, Melville imagines a culture of play, just as he opposes a world of linguistic play to one of fixed meaning, or of compulsory reproduction to polymorphous pleasure.

Melville imagines the possibility of individual change--Ishmael is altered by his contact with Queequeg--but it is hard to see how larger social change can take place. All he can do is warn of the consequences of a will to power that apparently knows no bounds.

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