“Moby-Dick” Ethics


Today marks the 170th anniversary of the publication of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” or “The Whale”(never forget that hyphen!). What does the 19th century novel with the most famous opening line in American literature have to do with ethics? Oh, only everything…and not just ethics, but leadership, values, perspective, chaos, hubris, and the ethics-related fact that you never know how things will work out, so all you can do is the best you can.

“Moby-Dick” was Jack Marshall, Sr.’s favorite novel by far, and he had read almost every classic of his era and going back 200 years before he was in high school. I read the book in a tattered hard-cover edition full of my dad’s notes in the margins. (If only I could have read his handwriting!) “Moby-Dick” is tough sailing; public schools did Melville no favors by making high-schoolers read it, even in the redacted versions. Hollywood did even more damage: the book cannot be filmed. The best and most profound parts of novel are the narrator, Melville/Ishmael’s philosophical musings, like when he asks what a dead whale might be thinking when a harpooner nearly downs in its brains.

Eventually, I was able to honor both Dad, Melville and Orson Welles by mounting a production of Welles’ brilliant (but flop) theatrical version, “Moby-Dick Rehearsed,” which I repaired thanks to my father’s comments and inspiration. It was, by far, the most successful production of the American Century Theater’s two decades, the most successful professional production Orson’s invention has ever had, and my most satisfying experience as a director.

Melville based his story on a real whale named Mocha Dick that was even more deadly and vengeful than Moby. He’s the whale that sank the Essex, which itself became an ethics parable, as its survivors had to resort to cannibalism to live, only to be haunted by guilt and shame for the rest of their lives. Melville’s concerns were different and more cosmic: mankind’s battle with forces he cannot control, the perils of fanaticism and hubris, how leaders corrupt and betray those who trust them. Perhaps most of all, he explored Kantian ethics, and the evil of using other human beings as a means to an end.

As with so many artists, Melville’s greatest work was a flop, and sank what had been a burgeoning and profitable career as a writer of uncomplicated maritime adventure tales. He wrote “Moby-Dick” after becoming besotted with Shakespeare, especially “King Lear,” and adopted a completely new voice, style, vision and ambition; it was almost as if he was possessed. He produced a work of genius, and it ruined him. Ethics Lesson: Don’t expect justice, rewards or thanks, just do your best.

Melville ended up having to go back to work in a patent office for 20 years, dying unknown and broke. “Moby” was forgotten. Did I imply that Hollywood was unfair to Melville’s masterpiece? Well, not entirely. In 1926, a silent movie called “The Sea Beast” was made starring John Barrymore. Its credits stated in small print that it was based on this obscure novel called “Moby-Dick.” The movie was a popular hit, and it sent critics and others to the source. Suddenly scholars were proclaiming the discovery of a great, and maybe THE great, American novel. The book had been out of print; now it was reissued and being read, debated, analyzed, and put on college literature course reading lists.

As for my father, the ethics lesson Melville’s novel taught him was that followers, subordinates and even soldiers must never completely bury their values, principles and common sense only because a leader demands it. It was “Moby-Dick,’ in part, that inspired my dad to defy illegal or potentially disastrous orders during the Second World War, and which led him to protest, and quit, when civilian jobs required him to defy his conscience.

And my father, in turn, passed his priorities on to me. In a way, one might say that “Moby-Dick” is why I’m writing this blog.

There are many memorable passages in “Moby-Dick.” One that my father pointed out to me, and that defines both of our lives, was this one:

“…the only spout in sight was that of a Fin-Back, belonging to the species of uncapturable whales, because of its incredible power of swimming. Nevertheless, the Fin-Back’s spout is so similar to the Sperm Whale’s that by unskillful fishermen it is often mistaken for it. And consequently Derick and all his host were now in valiant chase of this unnearable brute. The Virgin, crowding all sail, made after her four young keels, and thus they all disappeared far to leeward, still in bold, hopeful chase.

Oh! Many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend.”

9 thoughts on ““Moby-Dick” Ethics

  1. I did sound on the American Century Theater’s production of “Moby Dick Rehearsed”. Of all the shows I’ve been involved with, either as a performer or a ‘techie’, this may be my proudest theatrical effort.

  2. Ah, “Moby-Dick.” A beast indeed. The most beautiful scene is the book is Melville’s description of a heard of whales doing a group ballet in the early morning at sunrise.

    To me, Melville is the typical genius. He figured almost everything out at a very early age. “Moby-Dick” absolutely nails the effect capitalism has upon people. To my mind, Ahab is suffering from PTSD. He started as a harpooner at age twelve or fifteen. I forget. He is now in his thirties or forties and a complete wreck but an absolute expert par excellence when it comes to the one thing he’s good at: tracking whales. Literally all over the entire oceans of the world. In sail powered whaling boats! All the owners of the boat care about is getting the best man for the job so their ROI is as high as possible. All of which leads to catastrophe, of course. How do young geniuses figure this all out and get it down on paper or whatever other medium they’re using? A mystery. A miracle.

    I was just the other day wondering whether “Moby-Dick” would survive wokeness. Has he appropriated or smeared Pacific Islanders or tattoo wearers? Is the crew not sufficiently diverse? Are there enough black crewmen? Are there any trans sexuals on board? Will Greenpeace come after the book for killing whales? Although I do think Melville will get tons of woke points for “Billy Budd.” I think Billy’s a very sympathetically portrayed gay martyr.

    Thanks for the info about the book’s resurrection from the dead. I knew things were dire, but I didn’t realize things were that bad.

    Anyway, great post.

  3. Oh WOW…thanks for rekindling some great memories. Of all the stage plays we’ve seen through the decades – Broadway, outdoor dramas, dinner theaters and small community productions – the American Century’s Theater’s Moby-Dick Rehearsed still looms as one of the best – theater as it should be, churning the imagination in a way that lavish costumed and set productions never could.

  4. I read 800 page doostoppers on the reg and even I find Melville wordy and hard to keep up with. Les Miserables was easier to read, Two Years Before the Mast was easier to read, Clarissa was easier to read.

    • I read Moby-Dick. I struggled with it. I especially grew frustrated with the chapter “Ichthyology”, especially with the narrator’s insistence that a whale was just a fish with horizontal tail. I would place that chapter on par with Hugo’s treatise on Waterloo nestled in Les Miserables.

      I have Two Years Before the Mast, but I haven’t yet tackled it.

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