The Metaphor of the Deep Diver

whale deep v1For me, there are two great guiding metaphors. The first is Plato’s “allegory of the cave“, the notion that phenomena that humans perceive through their senses are weak, distorted shadows of reality. The allegory of the cave describes, accurately, the problem of human science in deciphering underlying truths of the natural world. The second myth is my reading of the central metaphor in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I’ll call it the metaphor of the deep diver. As I see it, this is metaphor of understanding the mind, especially the mysteries of the unconscious. The clearest description I’ve found is not in Moby Dick itself, but in a letter Melville wrote to Evert Kuyckinck in 1850, while writing Moby Dick. Melville elaborates on his criticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson

“This I see in Mr Emerson. And, frankly, for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool; — then had I rather be a fool than a wise man. —I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don’t attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can’t fashion the plumet that will. I’m not talking of Mr Emerson now — but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.  “

The metaphor of the magnetism of the sea, and its attraction to thought divers is spread throughout Moby Dick. On its earliest pages …

“Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. …

“But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. ” — Moby Dick, or, the whale (Kindle Locations 351-353).

Roughly, the metaphor is something like this. The mind is like a seascape, or cross section of the contours of the ocean and earth. The surface of the land and water is what we see clearly, akin to the view of the myth of the cave. Light from the sun reveals what can be seen. The truth of the mind lies at the depths, where light barely penetrates. Humans are drawn to the depths, but only the brave few, the deep divers, dare to go. The whale is a prophet, a guide.

On Jonah (of Jonah and the whale)

“Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound!” — Kindle Location 993

One final quote from the recounting of the fate of Pip, who jumped from the whaleship, and was rescued, but too late for full recovery to clear-eyed consciousness

Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

— Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, or, the whale (Kindle Locations 7280-7285) Kindle Edition.

whale deep v1

photo: BBC “ocean odyssey”

Aug 3, update  David Edelman sent this note:

Along similar lines, you might remember the title of one of my Dad’s books: ‘Wider than the Sky,’ named for this poem by Emily Dickinson:

“THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
for, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside,

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.”


2 thoughts on “The Metaphor of the Deep Diver

  1. Hi John. I found your blog thanks to your comments on Rick’s Facebook wall. Moby Dick is one of my favorites. I taught it once (in high school) and used this letter about Emerson to help my students understand the book and its complicated relationship to Transcendentalism. Also of interest, Chapter 70: “The Sphinx”, in which Ahab speaks to the head of a dead sperm whale:

    It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed- while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou has seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”

    Inspiring stuff!

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