Moby Dick and the Dark God


I’m no fan of fiction. I often tell my friends the only fiction I allow myself is the Bible. However, I’ve broken my vow for the last two weeks as I’ve been listening to Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. The person that reads the audio book on LibriVox is very talented and has made the book that much more enjoyable. I’m surprised by how damn progressive the book is. There’s so much out there about religious and racial tolerance that one would think the book’s written in our day and age. I’ve been waiting for Altizer’s AAR speech to come out as I’ve gotten wind that he makes allusion to the death of God and the gigantic bloated body of the great white whale.

Here’s a quote from an essay by Richard Rubenstein in the book the Theology of Altizer.

“Dr. Altizer has a highly original interpretation of the meaning of Captain Ahab’s quest for the great white whale in Moby Dick. According to Dr. Altizer, “Ahab’s mad quest for the white whale can be seen as faith’s response to the death of God, wherein the man of faith becomes the murderer of God so as to make possible a historical actualization of God’s death in Jesus, and thus an apocalyptic consummation of God’s original self-sacrifice or self-negation.” Dr. Altizer sees Ahab as a paradigmatic figure. He seeks the death of God in order to bring about the apocalyptic liberation from the restraints of the dead God, which is America’s true mission.”

Furthermore, Altizer shares his insights into Moby Dick in his theological memoirs.

“[t]hat God who is No and only No, or who is mysterium tremendum wholly apart from mysterium fascinans. This is the God who Blake named as Satan, or the God whom our great American epic named as Moby-Dick (and Barth confessed that he primarily learned English so as to be able to read Moby-Dick)” (Living the Death of God, 68).

The part that shocked me today was Melville’s profound commentary on Pip who became a madman after beholding the depths of the terrifying, omnipresent God.

“The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God” (Moby-Dick, 393).

There’s much more to be said about Melville’s theology. Famed death-of-God theologian William Hamilton wrote a short book in 1985 called Melville and the Gods that I plan to check out tomorrow from the library. Hopefully, I’ll have a post or more about this great American epic and its theological ramifications.


6 Responses to “Moby Dick and the Dark God”

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    If you’re no fan of fiction, you may be even less a fan of poetry. All the same, you should perhaps also check out Altizer’s monumental work on William Blake, The New Apocalypse. It was quite novel when it was first published, and I’ve spoken to a few older Blake scholars who remember it very fondly indeed.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I need to check it out. I feel like my lack of knowledge of literature does hinder my understanding of some of Altizer’s theology. From what I surmise Blake is Altizer’s biggest literary influence, so I will add it to my list.

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    The Contemporary Jesus would help in that regard, too — as he has chapters on both Dante and Joyce in there.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    I might go back and read that one. I read the beginning, but I was mostly interested to read it to see his critique of the Jesus Seminar’ de-eschatologized Jesus.

  5. thomaslynch Says:

    Altizer’s speech will most likely be included in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Zizek Studies.

  6. Jeremy Says:

    Really glad you just mentioned that. I was just thinking the other day about when wondering this speech would be published. Thanks for the heads up.

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