Moby-Dick has been called by some “America’s Rorschach test.” Within the myth of the whale, a vision of the nation can be found.6 Of course, what you divine from its pages can say as much about who you are and what you believe. It has been analyzed to explore a range of national preoccupations, among the most significant being anxiety about totalitarianism, communism, fascism, and Cold War nuclear proliferation; concerns about the pernicious spread of capitalism and its effects on humanity and the environment; and the need to unearth and confront deeply embedded biases about race, class, and homosexuality.

Its very malleability reveals Moby-Dick to be a prototypic “open” text in the sense intended by semiotician Umberto Eco when he examined what he termed “systematically ambiguous” modernist art forms in The Open Work (Opera aperta, 1962). As scholar David Robey explains in his introduction to the English-language edition of The Open Work, a “great variety of potential meanings coexist” in an open work and none can be said to predominate.7 The reader is presented with a “‘field’ of possibilities” and is left in large part to decide what approach to take.8 For Eco, real pleasure results when the reader “abandons himself to the free play of reactions that the work provokes in him.”9

This opportunity, however, does not come without certain responsibilities on the part of the writer and reader. Eco wrote the essays that make up The Open Work in reaction against the hegemonic grip that the beliefs of philosopher Benedetto Croce had on intellectuals in Fascist and post-Fascist Italy.10 Eco disagreed with Croce’s idealistic characterization of artistic expression as the pure “intuition of a feeling,” as it implied that art has “nothing to do with either morality or knowledge.”11 In writings such as “Form as Social Commitment,” Eco sets up openness as resistance to the alienating effects of idealism with its false appearance of continuity and order that can mask a fragmentary, dissociative state of civil crisis.12

During the period when Melville conceived Moby-Dick, the United States was embroiled in crisis. In 1848, the Mexican War ended with Mexico ceding the territories of California, Nevada, and Utah, along with portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. The discovery of gold in California later that same year intensified westward migration. By 1850, California’s petition to enter the Union as a “free state” threatened the tenuous equilibrium of the Missouri Compromise, an agreement made to partition the country into free and slave-owning  states.

Tony De Los Reyes, Pequod, 2008. Red Bister In Paper; Diptych, 91 3/4 X 75 1/4 Inches. Courtesy Of The Artist And Carl Berg Gallery, Los Angeles.

Melville was not personally immune to national politics. His eldest brother Gansevoort, an outspoken proponent of the expansionist doctrine of Manifest Destiny, played an instrumental role in the 1845 election of President James Polk, under whose leadership the nation would first acquire the Oregon Territory from the British and would later annex the Republic of Texas—an action that would lead directly to war with Mexico.13 Melville’s father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw, angered Northern abolitionists when he enforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a law he found morally repugnant yet incontrovertible, instituted as it was to forestall a civil war that leaders from both sides of the slavery issue felt was immanent.14 [14]]See Delbanco, “Chapter S ix: Captain America,” and Rogin, “Moby-Dick and the American 1848.”[[14]] Directly experiencing the implications of its tenets as they played out within his extended family, Melville developed deep ambivalence about Manifest Destiny. The sociopolitical tensions of the era permeated his work-in-progress: the thirty-man crew of the doomed whaler Pequod (named for a vanquished Native American tribe) matched the number of states in the Union, while its racial make up replicated the national labor system of “white overseers and dark underlings.”15

Footnotes

  1. Timothy Marr, quoted by Reed Johnson, “Myth of the W hale: Scholars mark ‘Moby-Dick’s’ 150th birthday and ponder the themes and plot points that evoke the events of recent weeks,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2001, E 1.
  2. David Robey, “Introduction” to Umberto Eco, The Open Work, translated by Anna Cancogni (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989), X.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Umberto Eco, “The Open Work in the Visual Arts,” The Open Work, 103.
  5. Robey, VIII .
  6. Eco, “Form and Interpretation in Luigi Pareyson’s Aesthetics,” The Open Work, 158.
  7. Eco, “Form as Social Commitment,” The Open Work, 146.
  8. See Michael Paul Rogin, “Gansevoort Melville: Cannibals and Christians,”Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (New York: Alfred A . Knopf, 1983).
  9. Delbanco, 158.
Further Reading