Moby Dick is a sort of Protestant midrash about America’s gods, angels, archangels, demons, etc. Melville is telling a tale about two warring archangels: Moby Dick and Captain Ahab. The whale is the sort of frightening white death angel that has haunted all men through all time. He is as natural as he is startling, especially to American sailors of the 1840s imbued with their hubristic belief they have begun the world again and inaugurated a novus ordo seclorum. Ahab is a fallen archangel furious that his own vision of a perfect moral order, with himself at the top, has been irrevocably ruined by this white aberration. Moby Dick, like death and all the world’s primordial injustices, should not exist and should be eradicated. But instead of dealing with Moby Dick with an appropriate sense of divine grace and Christian awareness that life and existence are imperfect, Ahab tricks the mere mortals under his sway into a pursuit of the white whale that leads his ship and sailors into hell.
Ahab’s seemingly Evangelical obsession with sin and moral failing is evident from the beginning of the book. “Even the highest of earthly felicities”—every human happiness and all the small joys that make life worth living—had in them, according to Ahab, “a certain unsignifying pettiness.” Sin, and the blackness of human disappointment and failure, had in them a “mystical significance.” In some men, Ahab among them, this mystical significance was translated into a truly “archangelic grandeur.” This moral energy dovetailed with the fiery explosion of Christian activism in the wake of the Second Great Awakening. Revivalist and Evangelical religion gave Americans the moral dynamism to actuate democracy, religious liberty, and moral reforms that made the United States, according to the Evangelical Protestants of the era, the moral exemplar of the world. Ahab and American Evangelicals both argued that moral purpose gave them their special near-divine sanction. Evangelicals for 150 years after the Second Great Awakening assured themselves—whether they were conservative or progressive—that their purpose of moral and spiritually reforming and perfecting the United States enjoyed divine sanction. Too late, they have learned that perceived divine sanction is usually nothing more than pietistic delusion.
Ahab also believes he has a divine purpose. And he believes he has a special powers gained from pursuing that purpose. When Fedallah warns him that despite his prowess he can still be killed by hemp—by rope—Ahab assumes the warning is about a hangman’s rope and laughingly mocks the warning. ‘“The gallows, ye mean.—I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;—“Immortal on land and on sea!”’
Perhaps the most galling aspect of the hubris that has typified American reformers is that it is so brazen. Ahab is a reformer, and his reformism has the moral urgency associated with a certain type of American Evangelical Protestantism. Moby Dick is an aberration from a perfect moral order, but it is worth noting that Moby Dick does not operate within a paradigm of human temporality. Melville describes whales as almost angelic beings. They live in a world humans cannot exist in and speak languages humans cannot understand; they are nameless, and according to Melville, faceless beings of terrifying power. To look upon the whales is to look upon a creature more powerful than humans can imagine, with access to worlds humans cannot see. The narrator tells us that “it is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels.” The whales of course aren’t the only angelic beings that inhabit this world—Ishmael bows before an albatross “as Abraham before the angels”—but they are the certainly the only angels humans actively try to control and harness.
Moby Dick’s presence in the seas is not as benign as the presence of the other whales. He is violent and his is dangerous. Melville seems to lead us to the conclusion that Ahab’s sin was not his hatred of the whale, but his pursuit of a certain type of moral reckoning with that hatred. Ahab’s life as a whaler, rightly ordered, would have not precluded him from that hatred. But it would have kept him from–like Lucifer–enticing humans to join him in a quest to assume godlike immortality in order to finally kill the white whale. Do not the gold Spanish dollar on the mainmast and the forbidden fruit serve the same purpose of alluring men away from their natural duties and obedience?
The pursuit of a perfectly moral civil order is a neoliberal totem, and American Ahabs will seek it to dangerous ends. Ahab’s first mate Starbuck pleaded with him that it was not “too late…even now, the third day, to desist.” “See! Moby Dick seeks thee not,” warned Starbuck. “It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” As long as American Ahabs keep seeking white whales to gain moral purpose, they will inevitably lead men to try and become gods themselves, a gateway to hubristic excess and the societal destruction of the ship of state. It would be far better to be simple sailors who do their duties, aware that dangers and even evils exist, but knowing full well that in God’s good time, those too will be sorted out according to His purposes.