What are the alternatives? One method of inquiry tries to complicate our understanding in order to escape from a false binary that imagines authority (or, “fascism,” depending on definitions and perception) as wholly evil and democracy as wholly good. In Mardi as elsewhere, Melville seems at least somewhat skeptical of the virtues of democracy. The “fluent, obstreperous wight, one Znobbi” who accompanies the band of travelers for a moment in chapter 160 speaks a little too enthusiastically in defense of his island, Vivenza:
“Here comes our great chief!” (Znobbi) cried. “Behold him! It was I that had a hand in making him what he is!
And so saying, he pointed out a personage no way distinguished except by the tattooing on his forehead—stars, thirty in number—and an uncommonly long spear in his hand. Freely he mingled with the crowd.
“Behold how familiar I am with him!” cried Znobbi, approaching and pitcherwise taking him by the handle of his face.
“Friend,” said the dignitary, “thy salute is peculiar, but welcome. I reverence the enlightened people of this land.”
“Mean-spirited hound!” muttered Media. “Were I him, I had impaled that audacious plebeian.”
“There’s a head chief for you, no, my fine fellow!” cried Znobbi. “Hurrah! Three cheers! Aye, aye! All kings here—all equal. Everything’s in common.”
Here, a bystander, feeling something grazing his side, looked down and perceived Znobbi’s hand in clandestine vicinity to the pouch at his girdle end.
Whereupon the crowd shouted, “A thief! A thief!” And with a loud voice the starred chief cried, “Seize him, people, and tie him to yonder tree.”
And they seized and tied him on the spot. (430)
In this scene, Melville clearly intends to problematize the dynamics of a democratic government. The short chapter ends with Babbalanja suggesting, “There’s not so much freedom here as these freemen think” (431). This Melville, the man who detected an absurd and even reckless streak in democratic government, has never been explored in any significant depth.
And Melville was conscious that his mistrust of popular governments was anything but unprecedented. In his essay on “Politics,” Emerson describes the central problem:
The philosopher, the poet, or the religious man, will of course wish to cast his vote with the democrat, for free-trade, for wide suffrage, for the abolition of legal cruelties in the penal code, and for facilitating in every manner the access of the young and the poor to the sources of wealth and power. But he can rarely accept the persons whom the so-called popular party propose to him as representatives of these liberalities. (428).
In this disdainful judgment, Emerson and Melville were together, and both men were conscious of a philosophical debt to Plato, whose hatred for democracy legendarily sprung from an unwillingness to forgive a nominally democratic Athens for the condemnation of Socrates. As Will Durant tells it, Socrates’ death “filled [Plato] with such a scorn of democracy, such a hatred of the mob, as even his aristocratic lineage and breeding had hardly engendered in him” (12). Melville, of course, knew this rough treatment firsthand: as the public clamored for more books like Typee and Omoo, his Platonic complaint against democracy may have culminated in the figure of Captain Ahab, who disowns any sympathy with democratic leadership when he soliloquizes on his “Iron Crown of Lombardy” in chapter 37 (182). In a democratic order, there is no place for the crown worn by emperors in the days of the
If there are limits to sympathy—if Ishmael is understood as fallibly transcendental or optimistic, or if he is blind to a great Unity—what is to be done? The impulse of the dialectical imagination is to recoil, to find a solution in reversal: “perhaps Ahab was onto something; maybe the truth lies there!” Although this is a mistake that has been made far less frequently than the reading that overlooks Ishmael’s too-simple observation of the world, it would be no less a mistake. The atmospheres of Moby-Dick will be more challenging and more invigorating for the reader who can pause somewhere between Ishmael and Ahab, who can reflect in the spaces between. The question will continue to arise in the familiar form of either/or: who is more trustworthy, more honorable: Ishmael or Ahab? For the ethical reader, however, the polarity of the question must ultimately be refused. Indeed, the moral imagination must discover itself in this between-position; the true reader of Melville can recognize Ishmael’s confused sense of self as the corollary to Ahab’s disregard for social obligation. In freeing itself from either pole, the moral imagination gains access to a variegated world of perceptions and responsibilities.