Herman Melville s Moby-Dick: or, The Whale has been at the center of the American Literature canon since the 1920s, when critical work on his biography and artistry began in earnest. Since then, the plot of the novel has woven its way into popular culture: Captain Ah...
Herman Melville s Moby-Dick: or, The Whale has been at the center of the American Literature canon since the 1920s, when critical work on his biography and artistry began in earnest. Since then, the plot of the novel has woven its way into popular culture: Captain Ahab and the hunt for the White Whale continue to spark adaptations, reworkings, and allusions, while the opening line, "Call me Ishmael," remains one of the most well-known first words in fiction. However, Ishmael both as narrator and character has been primarily the property of academic rather than popular culture. Particularly following F. O. Matthiessen s classic American Renaissance, published in 1941 in the midst of the Nazi aggression, Ishmael has been appropriated by critics intent upon finding in him the figure of resistance to totalitarianism and fulfillment of democratic freedom. Such readings ground their admiring assessments of Ishmael in Western humanist values, both secular and Christian, that fundamentally emphasize the freedom of the self, the triumphant historical progress of human knowledge, and the optimistic image of an ethical humanity. But the Holocaust (the Shoah) effectively marks the final collapse of traditional Western humanism. Jewish thinkers such as George Steiner and Emmanuel Levinas have been reassessing this collapse and its consequences. Both suggest alternative Jewish humanisms that reread Western culture and literature through a "Holocaust hermeneutics" that ethicizes and morally impassions the act of reading, studying, and responding to texts, and that elevates the role of the textual and human Other to one of primacy and priority. Rereading Moby-Dick under Steinerian and Levinasian norms reveals an Ishmael whose dealings with the Other pose troubling ethical questions in a post-Shoah world, and challenges the traditional "Cold War consensus" that makes of Ishmael the American emblem of Western freedom and humanitarianism