Ishmael's White World: A Phenomenological Reading of Moby Dick

Review of Metaphysics 20 (3):536-537 (1967)
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Abstract

Brodtkorb's "phenomenological reading" discusses the conceptually resistant realities, "World," "Body," "Others," and "Time," as they are interpreted in Moby Dick, and are focused by Melville in the inscrutable meaning of the white whale. "Mediation" is the key to interpretation, and, thus, the hero of the novel is Ishmael, who understands that the whale's meaning is constituted anew by each perceiver; Ishmael's mental life is a succession of attitudes—a series of "incantations"—which matches existence as process. From this phenomenological point of view, Ahab's rigid interpretation of the whale as an allegory of divine malevolence is doomed, since allegory is a static mediated category, untrue to process. Yet this processional epistemology is itself in doubt if, as Brodtkorb admits, the uncertainty of the inscrutable is itself in question; and this doubt allows for the potential correctness of even Ahab's reductive allegorization. Thus, while Brodtkorb's phenomenology is a very sensitive instrument for indicating the shifting meanings of Melville's world, the final relation of potentially correct and incantatory concepts to this world is weakly conceived, due to the weakness of the instrument itself.—E. S. T.

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