As man is bound to his subjective perception, inhibited from comprehending the essence of things, he is forced to apply personal, extraneous meaning to them or find himself devoid of it altogether. Loftiness of such application is the nature of romanticism, and such is the nature of Melville’s Moby Dick. The sea becomes vogue, limbo for the reticent felo-de-se; the untraversed, the nebulous, even the numinous. The Pequod assumes the role of a nation of men—30 men for 30 states is explicit enough—doomed by the mad will of him in power. The Whale either becomes God, myth, the embodiment of evil, or all of the above, depending on which character’s perception is to be taken. Indeed, Moby Dick contains myriad instances of such applied
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It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (16). Throughout the novel, Ishmael attempts to wrap his head around various romantic stimuli ranging from the anatomy of the whale back to the sea itself, but his efforts are met with no avail, and the preceding quote is a sort of key in itself in this regard—the key to understanding why he fails. Because man’s self is the “ungraspable phantom,” he can by no means be expected to comprehend the nature of things other than himself. Even in his efforts to understand these extraneous items, he merely projects pieces of himself in order to fill the gaps in his own comprehension; though this is a romantic idea, it is by no means the key to understanding the world; rather, it is the key to asserting one’s place in it.
The sea, in all its depth and vastness, represents the unknown and the unknowable; such is the reason why Ishmael describes it as the marriage of life and death—at times, a sabbatical from life, at others, a gradual suicide; at others still, the very river Styx. In his usual poetic, somewhat explicit manner, Melville defines both sea and death as one in saying, “Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored”