A brief thought about a book that cannot be thought of briefly:
Moby Dick is the American Bible, the only canonical New American Testament. It’s a highly critical secular scripture that puts opposing philosophical positions in play and questions them all even as it questions the very ground of human knowledge and the validity of interpretation. More than an adventure story (although it is, of course, a great, tragic one of those, too), it’s an epistemological adventure, a hermeneutical quest--hence the multitudinous images of unreadable writing and uninterpretable signs that barnacle the skin of this whale of a text. The reason no one could understand the book when it was published is simple: a century and more had to pass before our intellectual culture could catch up with Melville’s mind (and we surely haven’t definitively caught it yet...). We needed to assimilate the ‘linguistic turn’ of philosophy, the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, and the poststructuralism of Derrida before we could begin to see all that Melville accomplished here–not because Derrida and Levi-Strauss explain Melville but because Melville contains them (and probably a critique of them besides). This is, moreover, the relationship the greatest art often has to philosophy, and we should begin to read fiction and philosophy accordingly. Reading Moby Dick in this light, we might see that while the white whale is the novel’s master-image of mystery, it is only the novel’s penultimate point of hermeneutic and epistemological failure. The ultimate mystery, the vast unknown, the gap for which that between the signifier and signified is merely one more trope, is that mystery of which the white whale is agent: death.