My Finite Life Unbound

24 03 2005

I will be beginning a series on posting my essays for classwork… This one is about the human search for meaning in a seemingly infinite world in relation to a small novel Moby Dick.

My Finite Life Unbound

Perhaps the most daunting piece of American literature faced me on one “damp, drizzly November” night. Well, so it wasn’t damp, or drizzly, or even perhaps November, but it was, nonetheless, daunting. Paperback, one inch thick, four-hundred twenty seven pages, infamously complex and dry, this wonderfully wicked wet novel presented to me a paradox of maniacal proportions: on the one hand I was privy to read one of our nation’s most beloved stories about some man who, through some amazing adventure comes across the great White Whale and yet on the other hand lay the fifty-page journal horror stories of last year’s Juniors – a fear only fed by an instinctive, unsaid cry that cautioned me of merciless hours and unknown depths of boredom. We do not read this novel, we face it. And in this confrontation, I realized that this book was both drunk with the gripping story of Ishmael’s out-of-this-world adventure and sobered by its pervasive accounts of whaling and concrete realism. Both existed mutually propelling the importance of each; it was this novel’s intricate blending of paradox, at the literal, physical, and figurative level, that unequivocally led me to confront a question I, frankly, wasn’t prepared to confront. Rather than be confronted with a mere proposition, some unique idea, Moby Dick presented to me a difficult paradox. In life, must we fight to assert ourselves in the face of existence or is it heroic to understand one’s own position in the universe and like a Taoist, allow existence to be? These are two implicitly different ways to view life; and although each appears to make sense, both cannot be true as each directly contradicts the other. In the conscious and unconscious depths of my mind, in the struggle between reason and morality, in choosing an aggressive and a passive approach towards life, I was grounded, lost in an incoherent vortex of heroism, consciousness, and, simmering at the top, the intangible union of paradox. It was me and Moby Dick, and before I knew it, the Pequod had sailed.

Ahoy there, Ahab! Ahab’s “quenchless feud” (152) with Moby Dick is passionate, driven, Promethean, and courageous, albeit arrogant. But this arrogance arrives solely from an assertion of independent existence. Why do I not believe in fate or destiny? Because I choose to believe that I have control over my future; that I am who I am. The unknown future doesn’t only exist for me, but that unless I act, that future will be an incoherent hodgepodge of circumstance and missed opportunity. “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul” (152). Undoubtedly, I, too became one of that crew, fearing a pointless existence in my soul, but choosing to find meaning existentially, in what I do and the things that I find give meaning to my life. What power dare Reality have?
“All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!” (140)

Definitely, go for it. Strike at it. Destroy it! Bring that mask down! Perhaps I wasn’t so fervent, but there is no denying that I was settled on Ahab’s side. If I had had my way, Moby would be nobody by the end of this book. Alas! What does Reality think it is? Am I supposed to sit here and take it? No, I felt. I wasn’t going to be someone’s papier-mâché mask.
Ahab, captain of his own accord, concerned me gravely for the stunning implications of this statement near the epic novel’s end:
“What is it … what cozening hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against … Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” (406)

If all exists in terms of God (or Reality) then do we exist at all? I mean are we us; do we exist on our own terms at all? Since we know we have some free will, be it perhaps of immaterial origins, we cannot deny our consciousness and thus our ability to alter our existence. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”, implying that our existence is defined by its conscious, rational nature. Following Ahab, shouldn’t we dream to differ from the hollow shell we exist in? Shouldn’t we use that which we know to be true to our individuality, our minds, and construct meaning into our existence through assertion of this individuality? Regardless of the fact that we are, like the whale Moby Dick, Platonian shadows of a deeper existence, meaning can be found through a Promethean fight against God, against deeper Reality, and against anything that inhibits my ability to act on my own terms.

Ishmael is a complex hero; most in my class initially said that he wasn’t a hero at all. His heroism is epic, but subtly so. Melville portrays Ishmael’s heroism as triumphant yes, with its tribulations, but unlike Odysseus who triumphs over many physical ordeals, concluding with the destruction of the Suitors, Ishmael triumphs through his ability to use his mind to understand rather than to dominate. Throughout Moby Dick, Ishmael searches to describe the infinity of the realm of Reality through concrete terms; Ishmael seeks to illustrate an infinite totality that, while at times mundane and seemingly useless, conveys the deep personal struggle to assess and evaluate the undefined Reality. Take, for example, the chapter on Cetology, which Ishmael introduces by stating: “Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities” (115). Ishmael acknowledges the profundities of Reality to the extent that these explanations can signify two different meanings and still arrive at the same conclusion. When I read this I thought that he meant to describe the limitlessness of Moby Dick, which I had equated to a physical manifestation of God or Reality. Thus, God (or Reality) transcends the finite boundaries of human description. Later, I realized that my thought on infinity had, in some sense, been quantified; Ishmael only uses whaling and Moby Dick as examples of the infinitude, Melville uses a single real, physical being and shows that Reality is so limitless that all aspects that transcend into reality are only finite constructs of many infinities.

As Alfred North Whitehead stated, “Our minds are finite and yet even in those circumstances of finitude we are surrounded by possibilities that are infinite, and the purpose of human life is to grasp as much as we can out of the infinitude”. To grasp what Whitehead is saying, imagine a walk down the beach. When we lean over and use our limited hands to grasp as much of the seemingly infinite sand, the sand in our hands isn’t meaningless, it becomes ours. Likewise, the sand represents whatever finite amount of Reality that we can possess in our limited understanding. Regardless of the fact that we cannot collect all of the sand, meaning exists within what we are able to collect and comprehend. Whitehead would agree with Ishmael in that meaning in life is not generated from an impossible complete understanding over all the infinite or a destruction of it, but rather found in acknowledging that the infinity exists and understanding as much as one is humanly possible within the limited nature of reality.

Our conscious is all that defines our existence being separate of Reality. As Richard Tarnas writes about Kant, “In the act of human cognition, the mind does not conform to things; rather, things conform to the mind”. Within our processing minds lies the consciousness organizing Reality into a comprehensible reality. It is our conscious nature that allows us to exist independently from this unconscious Reality. There are few courses of action that can stem from a life concretely separated from Reality, and even fewer flower sensible courses of action.

At first, I struggled to understand at first all of the implications of an indifferent Reality when we read the Book of Job. Reality appears to be indifferent – Moby Dick doesn’t attack unless provoked, Job’s God, rather than be kind chose indifference, allowing Job to suffer at the hands of Satan, justifying it solely with “And have you an arm like God; or can you thunder with a voice like His?” (Job 40:9); essentially God can do whatever he pleases with us, just because he’s the higher authority, the creator and the destroyer, the one who wields the hammer and the blade that we cannot see, cannot understand. This was my dilemma: struggle against the power and die trying, or seek to find meaning in other paths of life. “If you do not become what you believe, then you do not believe” – as Soren Kierkegaard said, I cannot believe one and act the other, for that is not true belief. I could not choose to believe that I should live an otherwise meaningful life and think that fighting Reality was the true path for meaning. One or the other.

When I read this novel, I felt strongly that Ahab was right, but that I certainly could not win. However, I felt I couldn’t simply dismiss it just because it was futile. Many things are noble, but perhaps futile such as Achilles’ grand battle at Troy. I liked Ishmael, but that was too passive, not enough conflict, not enough effort required. Then it dawned on me like a cascade of philosophers, sperm whales, and realities on my pool of consciousness: There is difficulty inherent to the journey towards understanding. I surely had not had the easiest ride in dealing with my understanding of God and the nature of Reality; that in and of itself is my heroic journey. My trip to the glimpses of Reality aboard the Pequod, my struggle with Ahab’s philosophy, my toil to understand the integrations of paradoxical realities are indeed difficult and continue to disorient and confound my mind. Meaning in life is found in the struggle to understand life, not in rebellion of God, but rather in the paths we take to learn. The goals have become clearer, the complexity more meaningful, and Reality more beautiful.

Moby Dick hasn’t taught me everything about whales (although I can tell you straight up that it’s already more than I want to know), nor has it taught me to give up and deny God. No, far from it, God exists; and because our unconscious, Reality, God itself, all lie on a different plane of existence from ours, we can find solace with ourselves that we are finite beings continually searching for Truth. Life is not a singular life or death, one-way win or lose proposition as Ahab sees it; no, I venture to say that there are so many more ways to win in life. Ahab, at last I must depart your ship, for I cannot see life as the uphill struggle against God, but as a way to grow in my understanding of that infinite Reality. In truth, the infinity is beautiful; the infinity provides hop that in my finitude there will always be more, that there never can nor will be an end at which further meaning cannot be found. God doesn’t exist to assail us, rather an indifferent God allows us to live positive, meaningful lives searching for an understanding of Reality and of ourselves. Moby Dick is a journey in itself, a disparate paradox that is unified, unraveled, unbound, through understanding, through searching, through living.

Works Cited
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. Norton Critical Edition. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002
The Book of Job. Literal Translation of the Holy Bible. >.
The Gospel According to Luke. Literal Translation of the Holy Bible. >.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.




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