Orientalism in Moby Dick
American Journal of Islam and Society
This article aims to correct some of the basic errors in Melvillian Islamiccriticism. One of the classics of Western literature is Herman Melville's MobyDick. the allegorical story of one man's pursuit of a great white whale.4 Likeall great novelists, Melville was struggling with the great moral issues thattranscend individuals and even civilizations. This contrasts with most ofmodem literature, which exhibits journalistic habits of mind and tends to dealin superficial analysis rather than with
... the reflective process that gives contentto meditation and thought.Modem literary criticism exhibits the same shallowness. George Orwellexplained the problem perhaps when he observed that applying the same standardsto such novelists as Dickens and Dostoyevsky and to most contemporarywriters is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended forelephants." Critics, he added, don't do this, because it would mean having tothrow out most of the books they get for review.The value of Melville's work is that it is possessed of the moral imperativeand is designed to lead the forces of wisdom and balance against the spiritualbankruptcy and anarchy of the encroaching materialism in modem Westerncivilization.The tragedy of Melville's work is the superficiality of its reliance onIslamic sources, which Melville had read but only in Orientalist distortion.This tragedy has been compounded by later generations of Orientalists whohave used the distortions of Melville to generate their own. Perhaps the mostinsidious of these latter-day Orientalists is Dorothy Finklestein, author ofMelville's Oriendu, who we shall refer to simply as "the critic."Her study of Melville's Islamic references devotes a complete section to"Muhammad and the Arabs" in the chapter on "Prophets and Conquerers."Following this, she presents an exhaustive analysis of "Islamic Characters andSymbols." She harshly rejects Melville's immature resort to secondary Islamicsources; namely Carlyle's Hero, Heroworship, and Heroic History, Goethe's ...