Moby Dick's Racial Unconscious

Randy Bass (instructor's sample hypertext paper)

For American Literary Traditions

Although Moby-Dick is not explicitly about race or racial issues--in the same way, for example, that its contemporary Uncle Tom's Cabin is--it does possess what we might call a "racial unconscious." Throughout the novel there are many different representations of race: through the cross-cultural homoeroticism of Ishmael and Queequeg's relationship, the presence of Fedallah and his men as Ahab's personal crew, the presence of Pip--at first as a Shakespearean Fool, and later as the image of "weak madness" that contrasts to Ahab's towering monomania. These are all important parts of the novel that add both to the "realism' of Moby-Dick as a portrait of the globalized whaling industry, and to the "romaniticism" of Moby-Dick as a sea-faring adventure story that is at once gothic intrigue and philosophical speculation.

But by "racial unconscious' I refer to a larger, more distributed p henomenon that results not only from the presence and interplay of the "black" and "dark" characters with the rest of the crew, but by a chain of associations that continuously build linkages among images of blackness and darkness, primitivism and savagism, danger and predation, devlishness and evil.

There are times when Melville seems quite self-conscious about his such imagery in raising issues of race and cultural difference; but there are other times when his use of language invoking images of "blackness," the "savage," "cannibals," and the characteristics of the "subtle" races appears unselfconsciously. In these latter instances, we see less Melville's direct treatment of race as we get revealing glimpse into the cultural associations and inevitabilities that race matters had in his cultural environment. In this sense, there is a whole range of language and examples where a racial "unconscious" forces its way into the text. This unconscious reveals the context of the 1840's and 1850, when Melville was authoring Moby-Dick, including not only the growing abolitionist debates, but the growing sectional tension (resulting the Compromise of 1850), the use of an ethnic and racialized underclass in building projects of an industrializing America, as well as the racial dimensions of Manifest Destiny, especially as they arose from the U.S. war with Mexico.

The following passage is an example where Melville gives the reader one of his philosophical reflections about the relation between land and sea (and its analogy for the soul), but at the same time reveals that the language of danger, the unseen, and animal nature reveal a set of associations linking constructions of primitivism, mystery, and predatorial nature.

    Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

    Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. Go keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return. ("Brit")

Explicitly, the passage raises the similar themes of "The Lee Shore," where Melville presents the argument although the "land" offers comfort and safety, the sea is somehow more enticing and attractive, despite its status as the "howling infinite." But what is especially interesting in the passage is the language with which the sea and the land is represented. Drawing on the language of reform from the 1840's, the "hidden" portions of the sea are full of danger, and in fact, what makes it an ominous force is that all but the surface is hidden to humankind. Underneath the surface there lurks both beauty and treachery; but the dangerous and beautiful underworld of the sea is also associated with images of "tribes," and "cannibalism," as well as being depicted as a predatorial world or eternal war. All of this is contrast in the second paragraph with the "insular Tahiti" that is the analogy of a small and verdant island of the soul. The invocation of Tahiti, as with the invocation of canniblism and tribes, uses the metaphor of primitivism to stand both for hidden danger and for a lost edenic world. Altogether, the passage suggests an association of meaning that appears in many ways throughout Moby-Dick: primitive, racialized imagery that stands for the dark and hidden side of existence, along with the constant lurking threat of war and predation.

In his essay on "Difference in Moby-Dick," Trevor Patterson argues that "Melville uses the theme of difference to call into question society's beliefs and to examine what is at the root of these preconceived concepts and in turn criticize it." I agree that there are times when Melville invokes images of race and prejudice to explicitly critique rigid cultural stereotypes and biases; however, I also think that Melville's text reflects his own culture's possession of a racial unconscious, where racial imagery and preoccupations are related to other kinds of ideas in subtle and "naturalized" ways. Throughout Moby-Dick, the relationships among the ideas of primitivism, darkness, danger, the irrational, mystery, and predation are so interdependent that there are times when Melville relies on their mutual signification without any sense of irony or self-consciousness. It is the total usage of these images, and their existence throughout the book as part of its basic web of meaning, that forms what I'm calling the "racial unconscious."

Branching themes:

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