Most of us have read Moby Dick, or are at least familiar with Herman Melville’s classic. Many of us know the metaphors and symbols and pathos of this great American novel. We heard it all in high school and perhaps found insights once we got older — as the whales of the “real world” oceans began squeezing out our souls to be made into the toothpaste for the Archons.
But Moby Dick a Gnostic tale? There’s nothing like Neo in it! No character looks like Ed Harris in one of his roles as the Demiurge (The Truman Show or Westworld).
It’s there, though, and it’s a big fish with Gnosis in its belly. Don’t take my word for it, but take the insights of one of my favorite books when it comes to an exposition on the Gnostics: The Elements of Gnosticism by Stuart Holroyd.
Raging against Heaven
As Holroyd writes, Melville — like Goethe and William Blake before him — drew upon the Gnostic tradition and contributed to it. Melville himself told his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorn, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as innocent as the lamb.” He also called his novel a “book of secrets.”
Holroyd further states:
In typical Gnostic manner, Melville employed allegory, ambiguity and irony to both reveal and conceal his meaning. The novel is a strange amalgamation of realism and symbolism, of adventure yarn and metaphysical allegory.
Captain Ahab, who is described as “madness maddened” and talks more like an Old Testament prophet than of a seafarer, reveals the Gnostic ethos of the novel toward the end when addressing the Creator God:
Thou knowest not how came ye, hence, callest thyself unbegotten: certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which though knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some usuffusing thing beyond thee to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical.
That’s blasphemous jive talking for 19th-century thinking, but the lion-headed dragon is out of the bag. The Creator God of Moby Dick is the same deficient, tyrannical, and ignorant being the Gnostics warned about, and his earthly manifestation is the White Whale. Ahab is an individual who has attained Gnosis and becomes “maddened” after seeing the cosmos as it truly is: a deterministic and predatory machine disagreeable to humanity.
And he decides to fight back, even if it’s futile except for expanding his understanding. After all, the line with “some usuffusing thing beyond thee” reveals Ahab knows there is a higher reality beyond the domains of the God of this World. According to Holroyd, Melville hid Gnostic philosophy in his work because it was dangerous and because he embraced it. Melville had become liberated and “innocent as a lamb” (the promise of becoming Christlike in the flesh the Gnostics wrote about). As with many Gnostic stories like Blood Meridian or Valis, sometimes it’s the author of the tale that finds liberation, not his characters — just like we’re likely the story of an Alien God trying to figure out what went wrong, often for worse.
In The Gnostics, Sean Martin summarizes well the Gnostic theme of Moby Dick: “Ahab’s quest to destroy the white whale can be seen as nothing less than a comprehensive revolt against the Demiurge and all his works.”
White Whale privilege
There is more Gnosticism in the novel beyond the Jihad against petty deities. Holroyd provides these two other Gnostic elements in Moby Dick:
First, the doomed boat of Ahab and his crew is called the Pequod, which means “orphan.” The Gnostics wrote about being outsiders or strangers in this world, separated from their mother Sophia. The only survivor and narrator of the story, Ishmael, at the end reflects that he is an orphan of the universe (Melville was himself an orphan).
Second, again in those last scenes, Ishmael states that Ahab had transferred the idea of “that intangible malignity which has been from the beginning, which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced…to the abhorred white whale.” The Ophites were an ancient serpent-worshipping Gnostic sect that equated Jesus with the Snake of the Garden. Kinda odd to mention Gnosticism in the last and most emotional speech in your story, eh?
The one weakness in calling Moby Dick a full-blown Gnostic narrative is a lack of a Gnostic Revealer in the vein of Jesus, Sophia, Hermes, or Morpheus. Ahab is not exactly driven by Gnosis, but fury and revenge. His awakening is having lost his leg the first time he encountered the White Whale. His views are borderline nihilistic (a concept the Gnostics have been accused of), seeing the world as a “pasteboard mask with only the void lying behind it.”
In some irony, Ahab becomes like the Demiurge he is defying. Toward the end of Moby Dick, the crew of the Pequod are described as androids controlled by their Ahab: “Like machines, they dumbly moved about the deck, ever conscious that the old man’s despot eye was on them.” This echoes Philip K. Dick’s quote: “To fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement.” I don’t know if wrath can be an element of Gnosis, but the novel is certainly a cautionary tale of mind-breaking, soul-wracking journey of individuals once they have awakened.
Beyond Holroyd’s argument, we have the spanning article Gnostic Mythos in Moby Dick by Thomas Vargish, although the author does contend Melville drew from a deep well of heterodoxy: Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Platonism.
But was Melville a Gnostic?
As Stephan Hoeller explains in his book Gnosticism, Melville was part of the stream of writers that were “beneficiaries of the conscious effort of some of the great luminaries of the Enlightenment to rehabilitate the Gnostics and to take away the ugly image foisted upon through the ages by endless repetitions of the church fathers’ slander.”
In other words, Melville was one of the great artists who uncovered the truth behind the fake news of the victors who wrote history, those who attempted to camouflage the awe and horror of the cosmos and create false Gardens of Eden for humanity. And the truth hits like a whale and those who open their third eye might find themselves floating in the wreckage of their past lives like Ishmael, seemingly lost in a vast ocean of speculation made up of the dreams of an Alien God.
Then again, Melville did write a poem and Cathar homage called “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century”:
Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.
Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.
Matter in end will never abate His ancient brutal claim, eh? Seems Melville’s Sophia doth protest too little…
Also check out The Gnostic Robert Frost