Secular Temples: Moby Dick Dispels the Self-Formation Myth.

Who has the most power to shape you? Your desires? Your idea of the good life? Today we often answer “myself.” It’s a modern myth, that’s been concretized by social media (where you create a digital profile of self that’s constructed with staged instagram photos, arduously crafted tweets, and market-worthy Facebook posts), and rugged American individualism.

We’ve internalized Nieztche’s philosophy. In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes,

[We must move] toward spirits strong and original enough to provide … [new] valuations and to revalue and invert ‘eternal values’; towards forerunners, toward men of the future who in the present … force the will of millennia upon new tracks. To teach man the future of man as his will, as dependent on human will, …putting an end to the gruesome dominion of nonsense and accident that has so far been called ‘history.‘

His point? Those of us who are strong, and true to ourselves reject a canned identity. Instead, we shape ourselves by our own will, our own desires. This is the myth of self-formation.

The Bible sees this myth as naive. Aside from being sociologically and psychologically naive (we are shaped by such forces far outside our personal control or will) it is also spiritually naive. As sinners, we are shaped by dark spiritual forces: the devil, the world, and the flesh. Paul sums up our situation in Ephesians 2, 

And you were … following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, … in the passions of our flesh. (Eph. 2:1-3)

The Bible is clear: forces are shaping your idea of “the good life.” When our idea of the “good life” is twisted, our desires (which drive us toward that good life) are warped into sinfulness. Last week, we looked at how we are surrounded by “secular temples.” Places that present images and stories (however short) of the good life, and shape us through rituals, habits and practices.

One literary example of how habit, practice, ritual and story shapes us can be found in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The narrator, Ishmael, is a young man, who, like most of us, sees himself as the captain of his life’s ship. He believes he shapes himself. But as the story goes on, the reader comes to realize that Ishmael can hardly make one decision that actually changes his life’s direction; he’s pulled with an insurmountable gravity into the orbit of a mad captain’s deadly hunt for a massive whale.

In fact, the dark, drab, wet, cloudy sailing life shapes Ishmael’s very conception of “the good life” so that he desires strange things. One telling episode, describes how he selects an inn to lodge in,

[This inn is] too expensive and jolly, again thought I, pausing one moment to watch the broad glare in the street, and hear the sounds of the tinkling glasses within. …Moving on, I at last came to a dim sort of light not far from the docks, and heard a forlorn creaking in the air; and looking up, saw a swinging sign …”The Spouter Inn:- Peter Coffin.”… As the light looked so dim, and the place, for the time, looked quiet enough …and as the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it, I thought that here was the very spot…

Why would anyone choose a damp, dark, inn over a bright, jolly inn? The owner’s name is coffin! Why stay there? Perhaps it’s because the sailing life – which is dark, poor and damp – soaked into Ishmael’s soul, so that his very conception of “the good life” looks like a shipyard.

This is exactly what Ishmael preaches at the beginning of the novel: the sailing life is the good life.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet ….- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. … meditation and water are wedded for ever. …Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land?… [we see ourselves] in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

The novel is Ishmael’s Holy Scripture of whaling. In it, he purports the virtues of whaling (over all professions, and social standings). He sanctifies the boat into a tripartite temple of sorts (the quarter deck as a holy place, and the captain’s table as the most holy place). Ahab himself becomes a megalomaniac, a floating God, and the crew his worshippers.

Ishmael’s whole elaborate defense of sperm whale hunting goes to prove that somehow, almost imperceptibly, the boat shaped his whole soul. The boat shaped his every desire. His daily duties and experiences overflowed into his idea of the good life.

Are we so different from Ishmael? Do we imagine our self-formation, when we’re actually being shaped by outside forces? Have we really chose our idea of the good-life? Do we really chose to do or love the things or people we love because “I’m just being me?”

Moby Dick rebuffs us. We are like clay in the potter’s hand. Next week we’ll look at a practical example  of a temple that shapes all of us: the mall.

Leave a Reply