Moby Dick: Subjective SpaceOh! my God! what is this that shoots through me, and leaves me so deadly calm, yet expectant, —fixed at the top of a shudder! Future things swim before me, as in empty outlines and skeletons; all the past is somehow grown dim. (Chap. 135: 463)
The sublime moment is the ultimate subsumption of the self. It is frightening in its intrinsic need to consume the experiencer and then emancipate him upon the consummation of the event. Melville composed a story that could have been filled with moments of the sublime and yet it is, frustratingly for the reader, almost entirely absent. However, this is not an indication of any fault in the text. Rather, it is the consequence of a meticulously planned physical and psychological space which is mapped out in the relationships the characters enjoy with one another. Ishmael, Ahab and Starbuck represent three characters whose actions and positions in the narrative determine their capabilities to encounter and experience the sublime.
It is with “the poor devil of a Sub-Sub” that Ishmael’s voice first makes itself heard. The Sub-Sub who has “gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls” (Extracts: 2) to find mundane but diverse images of whales is toasted as one who will soon expel the archangel triumvirate “Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael” in heaven but will be forgotten here on Earth. The Sub-Sub (who is of course forgotten for the rest of the novel) plots the course for the entire narrative. What can at first be regarded as a hodge-podge of space-filling references becomes Ishmael’s guarantor of success in the role of narrator. For if we are to take on Ishmael as our guide to the Sperm Whale world, then we need to be confident in his abilities. The jumb…
…ublime when it comes, he too is barred from the sublime by the mere fact that there is no “space” in which he can be subsumed by it. Ishmael and Ahab are too much involved in their own subjective status to allow themselves to be overcome. Ishmael may allow another voice to take over but he is still in control of the narrative, as was made clear in the beginning with the Sub-Sub. Ahab cant let anything overcome him, as is seen in the symbolic circumstances of his death. The sublime is not an experience in which one can engage one self automatically. The actor has to be in the right state and in the right environment. Melville ingeniously created a situation where nobody could be brought to the sublime moment. At the end of the novel, as the Pequod is sinking, so is the reader’s hopes for a resolution to the climactic tensions which enveloped the narrative all along.