Shall we trade monsters?

Upon the heel of the last scene, Melville and Lovecraft enter the blog, mutual benedictions on their lips.

I’ll add a few more words on Melville’s Moby Dick, will then segue the discussion into more theoretical waters, until it finally arrives at Lovecraft – Melville, of all people, as he is closer to Lovecraft in pace, tone, and scale of his narratives as most other writers, the Puritan poets and preachers excluded here, but that is another, far-outreaching issue: Lovecraft’s Puritan heritage – an issue I’ll postpone to some definite future.

I stopped, in my second-to-last-post, when Melville’s Ishmael just had his hands up to the elbow in whale grease. His sensuous experience is, as was seen, not shared by the shipmates whose hands he is reaching out for. In fact, he seems to be the only person investing into an image of the whale per se that transcends the commercial into the spiritual –

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma, — literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

The sperm-bath turns into a sacrament that absolves him from sin – a hostie, if you will, that the other sailors refuse to ingest: the apocalyptic community spirit falters in their refusal to experience the sperm bath as Ishmael does, and consequently salvation is imbued only to the faithful narrator. His narration, I would propose, will also be an attempt to re-validate the participation mystique, à la C.G. Jung, for himself, and for that to be a possibility he needs to recruit the audience into complicity with his reading of the whale, that particular reading with the hands in the fat.

Participation mystique, in Jung’s definition(s) of the term that he borrowed originally from French anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, is a term descriptive of the identification a subject builds with a totem-object, thereby projecting unconscious content onto the object. Hence, Moby Dick is not just a repository for barrel loads of lamp oil (and oh, is Ishmael ever prone to slip into cynicism when he had to touch on that most prosaic and pragmatic area of the whaling business: the Leviathan processed into lamp oil! –

But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory! (chapter 24)


– not just a repository for lamp oil but also for the sailors’ projections, and in sending out these, the crew enter the participation mystique proper: they assume Ahab’s anger and hatred for themselves and are thereby not only obliged, but elect to do battle against the whale.

Save Ishmael, of course: the boat’s leading intellectual & story teller cannot quite bring himself to digest anger and hatred, is therefore excluded from the experience of the crew’s primitive and fatal participation mystique – and has that fact save his life.

Jung went on to refine his notion of participation mystique, when he applied it, in The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, to theater audiences –

The mass is swayed by a participation mystique, which is nothing other than an unconscious identity. Supposing, for example, you go to the theatre: glance meets glance, everybody observes everybody else, so that those who are present are caught up in an invisible web of a mutual unconscious relationship.

The “mass” is united in a focus on a non-human entity, on the Pequod: the whale, in the theater: the play, for and with the audience, which is engaging a dialog in aesthetic terms that it adresses to the audience, and rather than responding to the entity of the play, as represented by its actors, the audience enter a mutual participation mystique to play out the play’s effects on themselves.

Ishmael’s role in the Moby Dick play is not all that ambiguous: he is not actor (on the whaling-stage) and narrator (on the book-narrative-stage) rolled into one, incoherently, but quite definitely and exclusively – narrator, who lives by and through and for his narration. As he puts it in the Epilogue

The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?- Because one did survive the wreck. (not my cursives, but Melville’s)

and, half an inch above that, attached as a header, the biblical reference –

“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” (Job)


I feel slighted, by myself, for upping these botched, half-finished arguments all the time that drool on into subsequent posts – like this one inevitably will – quite directly correspondent to my sleep circle: I figure it will kick in, for my eyes keep dropping on me. Had I but caffeine enough! And time!



  1. I have always wanted to read Melville’s MOBY DICK but it’s one of those books–like CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, WAR AND PEACE–that due to time constraints defies me. Jung’s theories have always fascinated me but I have a feeling I’d have to take a university-level class to have a hope of grasping his arcane philosophy. On the other hand, I have NEVER understood the attraction to Lovecraft, one of the worst writers in the English language. It must be his ideas and quasi-theology that draws people, the Old Ones scheming their return and the enslavement of the human usurpers. I should do a posting on Lovecraft…ah, but then I’d have to read even more of his work and that would inflict untold punishment on my critical faculties, melting my frontal lobes…

  2. For me it’s neither so much his ideas, and certainly not his quasi-theology…it’s not even the Old Ones and all that elaborate mythos culture they draw. It’s his terribly warbling, undulating, elaborate prose that is, for all these attributes, precise about the end it wants to narrate: the end of all the world, and no salvific exceptions granted. Sure, read or re-read some of his work: my recommendation on it goes out. He keeps making me as sick as he made me 10 years ago, or so: you never get quite rid of that prose, once you accept it as deliberate art, not over-the-top-rambling.

    Melville…is different, more wholesome. I can’t say how much I love the man’s works, and The Whale, in particular. Somewhere on the net I remember seeing the book split down into a one-chapter-per-day-version, Scriptures-like. Here it is – – I don’t know. I find it sort of disrespectful toward living authors – like you – to call him the greatest of all time and whatever superlatives are at hand, but: DAMN IT! He is the Greatest! Cheers! 😉

  3. Well, if you’re picking the greatest, Melville will do…much more than other names you could have dropped that have gained a disproportionate amount of praise. I have a very nice edition of MOBY DICK, it’s just freeing up the TIME that is the problem.
    Work, family, too many distractions. I think Lovecraft, like a few other authors I can name (Kerouac, Bradbury) are best read when you’re young, before your critical faculties are fully formed and you start to notice the flaws and cracks in the facade. Personal opinion. Good post, food for thought.

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