The Conscious Ape

The Whale, the Judge and the Yarn

Unspooling the thread

Moby-Dick and Blood Meridian are some of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. Both of them are sure contenders for the position of the “great American novel”. They are both complex and multi-layered novels that explore various philosophical themes, and to a large degree they converge on the principal topic; the delicate balance between humanity and the natural world. The threads don't end there, the interwoven yarn of these two novels is as intricate as the Minotaur's labyrinth. In the following paragraphs, I will do my best to unspool the separate threads of each novel and then weave them into a single yarn of comparative clarity.

The Whale:

Moby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville is one of the greatest works of fiction in literary history. It is a blend of serious nautical essays blended with cogent philosophical thought distilled through Melville's beautiful writing, it is also worth mentioning that the book is hilarious, even 173 years after publication and almost two centuries distant in a cultural sense this book remains utterly humorous. This is not a plot-heavy book, nor is there any real sense of direction, Moby Dick should be more seen as Ishmaels recounting his observations of the world.

The plot of the novel is spread across only four or six chapters or so, of the actual book which comprises 135 chapters in total, the rest is the observations of the main character about the history of whales, the whaling industry, religion, philosophy and humanity as a whole. It is essentially a proto-meta-fiction novel akin to Don Quixote by Cervantes. For me, it stands as one of the most rewarding reading experiences I have ever undertaken. The language and prose alone are worth it.

At its core, the novel delves into the nature of obsession, the consequences of revenge, and the relationship between humanity and the natural world.

  • Obsession and Hubris are primarily shown to us through the lens of Captain Ahab's relentless pursuit of the white whale. Ahab is a symbol of the destructive power of unchecked obsession and biblical pride that goeth before the destruction. Ahab's monomaniacal quest for revenge devours him and leads him to his downfall and the brutal demise of his crew. To pull a quote to vividly show you the enormity of Ahab’s megalomaniacal insanity there is no better one than this; "Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me"
  • The Unknowable Nature of the Universe is the next key motif in this sagacious mosaic. The vastness and mystery of the ocean serve as a metaphor for the unknowable aspects of existence. Moby Dick, as a symbol of nature's titanic power, represents the inscrutable forces that humans may never fully comprehend. The novel suggests humility in the face of the immense and mysterious universe. And Melville goes a step further and links Moby Dick (or whales in general) with God, in the way that neither of them can be looked into. You cannot see the face of God and neither can you look a (sperm)whale in the face with its wide front and low-set eyes on the sides.
  • The novel explores the dual nature of the sea, both beautiful and perilous. This duality is again reflected in Moby Dick himself, who is simultaneously a majestic and terrifying force of nature. Melville contemplates the idea that nature embodies both creation and destruction, and humans must navigate this duality.
  • The setting of a whaling voyage in the vast ocean underscores the theme of isolation. The characters are isolated not only physically but also existentially. Each character grapples with their own internal struggles, reflecting the broader human condition of loneliness and the search for meaning. We get scene upon scene of characters caught in deep reveries and full-on dissociations from their surroundings to the point of forgetting where they are. Pip is the primary symbol of this dissociation - where his personality splits after being abandoned by the crew in the middle of the sea, he survives in body yet madness consumes him.
  • The hunt for the white whale becomes a symbolic quest for truth and meaning in life. The characters, especially Ishmael, seek to understand their place in the world and grapple with existential questions. The novel suggests that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is a noble but challenging endeavour. This search for the truth comes in many forms, from personal want to understand yourself to the question of purpose and meaning. Even characters as rigid as Ahab have these small vignettes of perfect clarity where he hesitates and starts with recriminations of himself.
  • And finally, we have the symbolism of the White Whale itself, Moby Dick can be seen as a symbol of the sublime, representing the awe-inspiring yet terrifying aspects of nature in its full destructive forcefulness. Additionally, Moby Dick could be seen as a symbol of the unconquerable and the elusive, and challenging humanity's desire for mastery over the natural world - which in 1851 when the book was originally published was only getting out of its industrial infancy - today we can fully see this symbolism turning into a harsh reality.

To make a pithy summary of "Moby-Dick", at a surface level it is a story of a whaling expedition gone terribly awry, and on a deeper more profound level unseen to the naked eye as much as the face of a whale it is a detailed philosophical exploration of the human condition, the inscrutability of mysteries of the universe, and the consequences of unchecked obsession. It invites readers to reflect on the subtle complexities of life, the limits of human knowledge, and the ethereal balance between humanity and the natural world.

The Judge:

On the other end of this essay, we have Blood Meridian, or, the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. On the surface level, this is a much darker and sombre novel at first glance when compared to Moby Dick. Not that with a second look, Blood Meridian becomes a prettier sight, only that Moby Dick can pass as a lighter novel due to its humorous nature when compared. There is no humour here, McCarthy is relentless in his brutality. It is a novel that delves into the darker aspects of human nature and the unforgiving pursuit of violence in the American West during the mid-19th century. The story follows an unnamed protagonist known as "the Kid", whereas in Moby Dick we had Ishmael (though his identity lacks proof of veracity with his immortal first line “Call me Ishmael”) as he joins a scalp-hunting expedition led by an enigmatic and sinister figure named Judge Holden.

Stylistically we immediately see similarities between the two novels. As with Moby Dick, the plot of the novel is loose at best, and we primarily follow episodical happenings. The language is even more florid and the prose is as purple as purple gets. This novel from 1985 is more ornate and hard to follow than its older influence, but this is not a detractor, this ornate prose serves a definite purpose on which I will expand more in the following paragraphs.

To give you a similar breakdown of philosophical thought as in the first part it is as follows:

  • The first thing that smacks us hard in the face is The Nature of Violence. McCarthy explores the intrinsic violence within humanity, portraying it as an unrelenting force that pervades the American frontier and the human soul. The novel suggests that violence is not only physical but also deeply embedded in the human psyche, manifesting as a destructive and uncontrollable urge. To quote directly from the book; “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaits its ultimate practitioner. ”
  • Tied into this is The Absence of Morality. Blood Meridian presents a world where traditional moral values are absent. The characters, especially the Judge, exhibit a lack of empathy and moral restraint. The novel raises questions about the nature of good and evil, suggesting that in the harsh and lawless landscape of the West, morality becomes a fragile and ultimately irrelevant concept. And it is not only limited to the harsh frontier, it permeates humanity’s shared consciousness, we all are shown as dirty specks of creation.
  • Like Moby Dick, this book touches on pride through The Judge. The enigmatic character of Judge Holden serves as a philosophical embodiment of the darker aspects of human nature. The Judge is an intellectual and physically imposing figure who embodies both intelligence and malevolence and its destructive pride. His character raises questions about the inherent capacity for evil within individuals and the seductive power of nihilism and prideful totality in ownership of the observable world. To boil him down to a single quote: “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.”
  • McCarthy portrays the American West as a brutal and unforgiving landscape, suggesting that the quest for progress and civilization often comes at the expense of human decency. The novel challenges the notion of manifest destiny and highlights the futility of trying to impose order on a chaotic and indifferent world. The Futility of Progress is not shown in a way that progress is impossible but in that, that progress is a self-defeating system that destroys itself and ultimately crushes the humans perpetuating it like ants.
  • McCarthy suggests a fatalistic view of life, where characters seem bound by a destiny that leads them to violence and destruction, it upends the concept of free will brought up by the Bible and effectively nullifies God's existence in the classical way. The cycle of brutality appears to be inescapable, emphasizing the bleak and deterministic nature of human existence. This Inescapability of Fate is a stark pillar in this temple built on heavy gnostic elements of Christianity, considering that Judge Holden could be seen as an archon; the ruler of a realm within the "Kingdom of Darkness", who together make up the Prince of Darkness. In The Reality of the Rulers, the physical appearance of Archons is described as hermaphroditic, which lends itself to Judges' appearance of a large hairless baby.
  • And lastly, we come to the language and desolation. McCarthy's “sparse” and poetic language contributes to the novel's philosophical depth. The bleak and desolate landscapes mirror the existential emptiness of the characters. The novel raises questions about the limitations of language in capturing the brutality and meaninglessness of human experience.

In summary, "Blood Meridian" is a philosophical exploration of the darker aspects of human nature, the absence of morality, and the futile pursuit of progress in a violent and unforgiving world. McCarthy's evocative prose and intense storytelling contribute to a novel that challenges conventional moral frameworks and delves into the existential depths of the human condition.

The Yarn

Moby-Dick and "Blood Meridian" are at first glance two fully distinct novels, separated by time, style, and narrative focus. Yet this notion barely survives any deeper observation. Thematic and symbolic connections between the two works are hard to dismiss as not being two faces of the same coin. Keep in mind that interpretations may vary from reader to reader, and not all readers or critics may agree with me on these connections. Here are the key points of my analysis:

  • Nature's Indifference and Hostility: Both novels depict nature as a powerful, yet indifferent force that is concurrently awe-inspiring and cataclysmic in its destructiveness. In "Moby-Dick," the sea and the white whale embody this dualistic nature, while in "Blood Meridian," we have the harsh landscapes of the American West as a backdrop for extreme violence conjoined with the figure of Judge Holden as their mirroring doppelganger.
  • The Pursuit of the Unattainable: In both works, there is a central figure (Ahab in "Moby-Dick" and the Judge in "Blood Meridian") whose relentless pursuit of a goal becomes a monomaniacal pilgrimage. Ahab seeks revenge against Moby Dick, and the Judge seeks dominance and power over man. Both pursuits are symbolic of the human condition and the inherent dangers of the unbridled ambition of prideful tyrants who possess absolute certainty in the righteousness of their cause.
  • The symbolism of the White Whale and the Judge: Moby Dick and the Judge are both enigmatic figures with portentous symbolic significance. Moby Dick represents the unknowable forces of nature, while the Judge in "Blood Meridian" is a mysterious and malevolent presence, often associated with violence and chaos. Both characters embody a sort of existential dread and challenge the characters and readers alike to grapple with their significance. And there is also their physical similarity; both are white colossal titans of their species. Judge Holden comes off as a demoniac personification of Moby Dick.
  • Exploration of Violence: Both novels explore the theme of violence in various ways. "Blood Meridian" is known for its stark and brutal portrayal of violence in the American West, while "Moby-Dick" incorporates violence in the context of the whaling industry and Ahab's pursuit of revenge. Yet even here we get glimpses of this similar brutality, most notably in the tragic death of the prophetic Fedallah. The novels delve into the grimmer aspects of human nature and the consequences of rampant aggression.
  • Philosophical Reflections: Both works contain philosophical elements that invite readers to contemplate larger themes such as the nature of good and evil, the meaning of existence, and the role of destiny or fate in human life. Admittedly this might be a weak point to contest, there are many novels delving into philosophical reflections. Yet the influences are undeniably similar in their Abrahamic visage.

While these connections stand, I entirely recognize that "Moby-Dick" and "Blood Meridian" are unique literary works with their own styles, narrative structures, and thematic emphases. This comparative essay serves primarily as a point of discussion and interpretation rather than to draw strict parallels.

To claim with any kind of certainty that McCarthy intended to draw such parallels to his work from Melville would be astoundingly foolish with his known elusiveness from the public eye (barring his appearance at Oprah Winfrey’s show) and total unwillingness to comment on his books or writing unless it dealt with scientific topics worked out at Santa Fe institute like in his essay “The Kekule Problem”.

In any case, even if all these ruminations and conclusions fall short of the truth, and the yarn I tried to weave falls unraveled by your scrutiny, the effect these books had on me is undeniable. Both novels stand out to me as Titans of Old above other books that I read across my life, few other books compare in quality or impact they had on me and my thinking, as far as I am concerned Moby Dick rivals Brothers Karamazov's depth and quality, not that I am taking away from Dostoyevski, both of them dealt with meaning through suffering in a remarkable way. Or to draw one more parallel, with another highly influential book in my life - Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, Cormac McCarthy himself told Francine Prose that without the experience of reading "Butcher's Crossing," he wouldn't have been able to write "Blood Meridian."

What I am driving at here so meanderingly is that among all the great books I had read, these two tower above others in unison. Blood Meridian and Moby Dick are ponderous reads of tremendous substance that I would recommend to everyone to at least try and tackle because there are few books as rewarding to read as these two.

And to end this essay on a bright note, I will leave you with this gem by Melville; “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”