Survival Tale

By Joan Sullivan

Ignorance is the parent of fear.

Herman Melville

More than a whale tale, Moby-Dick is an epic allegory about survival in times of upheaval. Written 170 years ago, on the brink of the racially charged American Civil War, this murky multilayered masterpiece is uncannily relevant today.

I decided to re-read Moby-Dick in early 2020, pre-COVID, back when the news cycle was dominated by haunting images of Australia’s apocalyptic bushfires, blood-red skies, and more than a billion dead animals. Remember that? 

How quickly we lost interest in that existential climate catastrophe. As Australia’s rains finally arrived in late January, COVID-19 had already begun its inexorable tour du monde. From February to May, the pandemic and its consequent lockdown dominated global headlines and upended our lives and livelihoods. Starting late May, COVID-19 was superseded by massive and sustained global protests against police brutality and systemic racism. All three – climate catastrophe, pandemic and systemic racism – are inter-related.

The first six months of 2020 remind me of the violence and rioting of 1968, the year that both Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. 1968 was also the year of the horrific My Lai massacre by US soldiers against unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War. I was 10 years old; the violence of 1968 marked me for life. I am sure that 2020 will do the same for many.

Photo by Diana Jamieson

Growing up, I remember a paperback version of Moby-Dick in my parent’s library, with its distinctive linocut lettering on the front cover. I tried to binge read it in high school – not recommended! – but I never got past Chapter 32, where Melville switches abruptly to a non-narrative description of his unfounded, unscientific taxonomy of whales as fish, based upon size. Although I did not realize it at the time, several scholars have suggested that Melville was deliberately using pseudo-science as code for questioning the justification of race, class and slavery as the United States slipped ever-closer to civil war. One author hypothesized that Melville was questioning “the human need to rank and classify itself, and the false science that is often used in the service of base prejudice.” Another describes Moby-Dick as “a metaphor for a new republic falling apart, with the pursuit of the white whale as a bitter analogy for the slave-owning states.”

I tried to read Moby-Dick again in my 30s and managed to finish nearly two-thirds of the novel while on vacation. But it wasn’t until this year, in my 60s, that I fell in love with Moby-Dick and was totally engrossed, from cover to cover. I am indebted to Nathaniel Philbrick, who recommends in his excellent Why Read Moby-Dick to take it slow, one or two chapters at a time. This was fortuitous, because as the chaos of 2020 unfolded, I began looking forward to my daily fix of Ishmael’s quest for meaning – like an anchor that kept me afloat throughout the turbulent first six months of this year.

Novelist Amitav Ghosh has described Moby-Dick as “such a transcendent piece of writing […] perhaps the greatest novel of the 19th century, if not of all time.” In a 2017 interview, Ghosh suggests that “One reason why Moby-Dick really is such an extraordinary novel is because it doesn’t make the separation between the human and the nonhuman.” Ghosh also makes the link between Moby-Dick and climate change: “I would say climate change really dissolves this completely false distinction between the human and the natural.” 

“To Melville the whale is very much a creature with intention and perhaps with even greater agency than the human beings that it’s dealing with,” explains Ghosh. “For [Melville], every part of the world of man and nature was animated by forces that were divine.” And this, according to Ghosh, is where contemporary artists and writers have failed miserably. He is especially critical of fiction writers, including himself: “the nonhuman has no place within novels, a genre that really grew out of this whole process of separating the human from the nonhuman.” (NB: This interview with Ghosh took place one year before the publication of Richard Powers’ brilliant novel The Overstory, a paean to trees and a hymn to collective action that won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2019.)

And while we’re on the subject of trees as sentient beings… 

In her 2018 essay, “When It Comes to Climate Change We Are All Captain Ahab,” author Kirsten Ellen Johnsen is even more provocative than Ghosh. She goes straight for the jugular: 

Melville’s description of the whaling industry epitomizes the cannibalism of mankind upon nature. […] If we, as Ishmael, are to survive to tell the tale, we will all have to take a deep dive to confront the fearsome depth of what it means to destroy our very selves as we destroy nature, all for the ephemeral sense of power it may briefly afford.

In the paragraph copied below, Johnsen has written what I consider to be the most perfect and prescient summary of Moby-Dick, a cri de cÅ“ur for the Anthropocene: 

Ahab’s swift, silent disappearance into the deep, forever fastened to his foe, beckons a modern audience to ponder our own brink. As the fury of climate change begins to lash the waves, to ram the vessel of civilization with its “wrinkled brow,” humanity now stands poised before the foam with our own vengeful spear upraised. What of our topmost greatness do we glory in, as a civilization supremely proud of our “manhood and our godhood,” having transformed “raw natural energies” into power for our use and pleasure? Doing so requires cannibalization of “living acts and undoubted deeds” of the “unknown, still reasoning” thing that forever lies behind our pasteboard symbols of Divine Nature. Shall we stand like Ahab in the bow of our puny whaleboat, ready to harpoon the last extreme energy from the bowels of Earth, and so, still chasing and forever tied, be immolated into our topmost grief?

It goes without saying that Melville was more than a century ahead of his time – “a modernist before modernism was invented.” If mid-19th century readers were bewildered by Moby-Dick’s allusive style, 21st century readers should take heed. Moby-Dick is truly a novel for the Anthropocene, an allegory about a collective predicamentthat does not end well. 

“The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination,” Ghosh wrote in his 2016 nonfiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Calling for radically new ways of thinking about how the climate crisis is already (not just in the distant future) transforming our lives, he asks “And who’s best equipped to show us this reimagined landscape? Artists, of course.”

One of these artists is the playwright Chantal Bilodeau, whose play Sila is about the interconnectedness of human and nonhuman lives in the Arctic. Of the eight characters in Sila, three are nonhuman: two polar bears and a wild-haired Inuit goddess of the ocean and underworld. As the story unfolds, the distance between these three worlds – human, nonhuman, gods – collapses and the very scientific worldview of the main character (a climate scientist) is fundamentally changed, now encompassing the same kind of complexity he encounters in his work.

Sila presented at Underground Railway Theatre. Photo by A.R. Sinclair Photography.

My prayer for 2020 is that artists and writers of all types will find the courage and inspiration to ensure that 2020 will go down in history as a watershed moment, and not – like 1968 – as another year of senseless violence to both the human and nonhuman world.

(Top image, Trembling Aspens, by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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