The Power of Symbol

Auden on Melville

Because all of Creation is arranged “Covenantally,” order is achieved through relationships. There are natural relationships and spiritual relationships.

The Son and the Spirit communicate truth to us using symbols. Symbols themselves are relationships. God uses natural relationships to describe spiritual relationships. Natural sonship (objective, hereditary) is to become spiritual sonship (subjective, voluntary). Our children represent us physically, but we train them to represent us, and our God, spiritually. An ambassador must at the very least speak the language of the nation he represents.

Rebellious sons are still bound by the relationships created by God. The worst that godless actions can achieve in the long run is to throw the Law of God into relief, vindicating that thing exactly which they set out to destroy. Even in the negative, man is the image of God.

English poet W. H. Auden wrote many reviews and critiques of other works. He makes some interesting comments on Melville’s use of the power of symbol, and the ironically Christian worldview undergirding Moby-Dick:

Don Quixote and Moby-Dick Auden treats essentially as he does Pickwick Papers, not as pure parables, but as mytho-poeic secular stores of parabolic religious significance… Auden contrasted Cervantes and Melville at length, interpreting Don Quixote as an ironically mad hero in a comic universe, and Ahab as a tragically made hero in a tragic universe…

Melville’s Ahab Auden treats as Don Quixote’s antitype, a religious hero who is demonic in a tragic universe, where Don Quixote is saintly in a comic one. The whole of Moby-Dick, he argues, is “an elaborate synecdoche” in which whale fishing becomes an image of all men’s lives and is full of parable and typology, including the characters and names of the nine ships.

The white whale, however, is an example of a symbol “in the real sense.” “A symbol is felt to be such,” Auden says, “before any possible meaning is consciously recognized; i.e. an object or event which is felt to be more important than the reason can immediately explain is symbolic.” “Secondly,” Auden continues, “a symbolic correspondence is never one to one but always multiple, and different persons perceive different meanings.” Ahab, who is defined by such symbolic thinking, declares, “All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks.” “To me,” he says, “the white whale is that wall shoved near to me. Sometimes I see there’s naught beyond. I see in him outrageous strength with an insatiable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.”

The extremity of Ahab’s hatred Auden relates to Kierkegaard’s definition of defiant, as opposed to weak, despair in Sickness unto Death. “With hatred for existence,” Kierkegaard says, defiant despair “wills to be itself, to be itself in terms of its misery; it does not even in defiance or defiantly will to be itself, but to be itself in spite.” The defiant despairer “will not hear about what comfort eternity has for him … because that comfort would be the destruction of him as an objection against the whole of existence.” “Of this despair,” Auden comments, “Ahab is a representation, perhaps the greatest in literature.”

Ahab’s earlier loss of his leg to Moby-Dick and his subsequent accident, causing a wound, Melville says, that “all but pierced his groin,” would come at the end of a Greek tragedy, a punishment of the gods for hubris, Auden comments, but in Melville they come at the beginning, so that we watch what kind of individual Ahab becomes, exceptional because of “‘being what others are not,’” not “‘becoming what one wills or God wills for one.’” Auden particularly notes his reaction “when he breaks his leg, jumping off the Enderby, whose captain has lost an arm to Moby-Dick without despairing and whose doctor ascribes Moby-Dick’s apparent malice to clumsiness.” “The example of sanity with authority is too much for Ahab,” Auden says, “and he must again goad himself to his resolution,” vowing, “I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now then, be this prophet and the fulfiller one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were.”

We watch Ahab “enact every ritual of the dedicated Don Quixote life of the Religious Hero, only for negative reasons,” Auden observes. He throws away his pipe, not as an ascetic renunciation, but to prevent distraction from the task he has set himself. He sets up the Doubloon as a reward for the first person to sight Moby-Dick, though he has no intention of letting anyone but himself be the first, and at the same time, violating every spiritual condition of an oath, he coercively makes the harpooneers swear to pursue Moby-Dick to the death.

Later, he baptizes his harpoon, “a perversion of the Knight Errant’s act of dedicating his arms,” and he throws away the ship’s quadrant, cursing science as a “vain toy” that casts “man’s eyes aloft to the heavens,” “a defiant inversion in pride,” Auden remarks, “of the humility which resists the pride of reason, the theologian’s temptation to think that knowledge of God is more important than obeying Him.”

“Next,” Auden says, he places the child Pip in his place in the captain’s cabin and takes the humble position of the lookout, “an inversion of ‘He who would be greatest among you, let him be as the least.’” “Lastly,” Auden remarks, in refusing to help his neighbor, the captain of the Rachel, who asks for help in finding his young son, Ahab “counterfeits the text: ‘If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.’”

Auden’s analysis of Ahab, as of Moby-Dick as a whole, is exceptionally responsive to Melville’s peculiar amalgamation of metaphysical apprehension and concrete psychological and natural detail. It is tempting in interpreting Melville to make a one-to-one allegory of the former or to become immersed in the particulars of the latter. Auden does neither, and though in seeking to make Moby-Dick entirely intelligible in Christian terms he may to some extent ignore the reasons that led Melville … to call his novel a “wicked book,” he may also reveal its essential Christian foundation more clearly.

Excerpts from Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity, pp. 99-105.
Art: Moby Dick by C. M. Butzer.

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