“I fear not thy epidemic, man” attitudes towards infectious disease in Moby Dick

De walvisch, Gordinne, anonymous print from the Rijksmuseum collection

Earlier this year I decided I wanted to read Moby Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville. I hoped to enjoy identifying with the subject of being stuck in close quarters for a long stretch of time, reading life on board ship as an analogy for life in lockdown. I also hoped it would give me that sense of adventure my own life was lacking due to said lockdown. I didn’t know much more about the book aside from the prospect of a healthy dose of swashbuckling at sea, a captain with a wooden leg called Ahab, and the pursuit of a large whale.

One passage that really caught my attention and that I thought it worth writing about in this blog was when the Pequod, the ship we follow throughout (on board which are main characters like Ahab, Ishmael the narrator and Queequeg), meets with another ship called the Jeroboam. “It turned out that the Jeroboam had a malignant epidemic on board” and that the ship’s captain Mayhew “was fearful of infecting the Pequod’s company”. So “conscientiously adhering to the timid quarantine of the land, he peremptorily refused to come into contact with the Pequod.” Though not too significant to the central plot of the novel, this scene unexpectedly mirrored back to me our current situation in a very tangible way, with social distancing proven to be one of the most effective ways of stemming the spread of infection both then and now. 

There is not that much detail about whatever this disease is on board the Jeroboam, but I found the attitudes towards it implied by the narrative quite a rich seam to explore at least in relation to our current attitudes. In the loaded choice of the word “timid” to describe quarantine quoted above I think we hear Ishmael’s disdain for this presumably unmanly or wimpish following of the rules displayed by the captain of that other ship. The whaling life, as the book confirms chapter after chapter,  is not for the timid, and definitely unsuited for the fainthearted. It’s a cut-throat business. Ishmael’s dismissiveness is followed up later by Captain Ahab himself who says, “I fear not thy epidemic, man […] come on board.” It typifies that sort of thinking we hear in the news today of people who are not too fussed about spreading the disease, either out of ignorance or for fear of missing out, or appearing weak, those that say oh it’s not that bad, won’t happen to us, we’ll be alright and go round to a friend’s house for dinner, attend a foam party in their local Walkabout, or even snogging strangers in the street. Early on, before our covid-19 pandemic really reared its head and, if we’re honest with ourselves, even while it was beginning to rage, many of us were somewhat dismissive, including of course the British prime minister, who was reported going around hospitals blithely shaking hands with people infected by the virus and suggesting he was pleased to do so. 

Ishmael implies an attitude, but I don’t think we can put his casual dismissiveness in that same category of those conspiracy theorists who take the more proactive step of saying that the coronavirus is a hoax, in some way related to the rollout of the 5G network, and that national measures like lockdowns and quarantine are part of the apparatus of insidious control. With Ahab it’s something different too. He’s so monomaniacally obsessed with his destiny, or rather his determination to find and wreak his revenge on Moby Dick that a small thing like an epidemic is just child’s play. It’s as if Ahab has such confidence that it is his lot in life to chase the whale, that an infectious disease will not finish him. If we’re trying to be as accurate as possible, Ahab is so obsessed with finding the whale, of needing to ask the Jeroboam’s captain if he has seen Moby Dick so that he can continue the chase, that he doesn’t even care or see the danger that coming into close proximity with a known infectious disease is likely to pose. Ahab displays a kind of delusion of being endowed with a greater purpose to his life, “wherein his soul is grooved to run”. Not dissimilar to a conspiracy theorist’s way of thinking, I suppose, but still distinct from it given his personal story of real-world vengeance as, to be fair, the whale did rip his leg off first time round.  

Anyway, the point I’m really trying to make is that now, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the average reader of Moby Dick will not read this chapter about the meeting with the Jeroboam in the way that it was intended to be read by Melville – our context has changed too much. It falls apart with this character called Gabriel who counters Ahab’s “I fear not thy epidemic” with the melodramatic plea: “Think, think of the fevers, yellow and bilious! Beware of the horrible plague”. We have learned by this point in the chapter how this Gabriel is a madman who has essentially held the ship to ransom. A story is told that paints him as untrustworthy, how he has gained “complete freedom [i.e. control] of the ship” by claiming that he is the Archangel Gabriel. He manages to influence many of the sailors on the Jeroboam and we are meant to read along with Ishmael’s narrative that Gabriel is insane or a “fanatic”, which no doubt he is, from the facts presented. But after we learn who Gabriel is, Ishmael tries ironically to bring it back: “Such things” as Gabriel’s mutiny “may seem incredible; but however wondrous, they are true.” And he goes on with what would be beautifully placed irony, it has to be said, with respect to Gabriel as a mirror to Ahab and the plot of the novel itself: “Nor is the history of fanatics half so striking in respect to the measureless self-deception of the fanatic himself, as his measureless power of deceiving and bedevilling so many others. But it is time to return to the Pequod.” It would be a delicious irony because of course Ahab is himself a fanatic, having managed to convince (is that the word?) all on the Pequod to sail with him in exceedingly dangerous pursuit of Moby Dick, even while Ishmael is actually referring to this other character Gabriel. We can’t return to the Pequod when the preceding sentence may as well be a description of Ahab on the Pequod.

I say “would be” delicious irony… Where it falls down for us now in a metafictional sense is that the Gabriel character and Ahab are ironically opposed as characters, but with respect to their attitude to infectious disease it’s the wrong way round if Ishmael were to successfully drive home the irony to us as readers in 2020. The fanatic, in the time of corona, is not the over-zealous adherent of the rules of social distancing, that is the task of reasonable citizens like you or me. The fanatic now is the person who doesn’t believe, who willfully disregards the regulations that would reduce the spread of the virus, because he or she is a conspiracy theorist, or because they think they are too important and that the rules don’t apply to them, as say Dominic Cummings did when he drove from London to Yorkshire and visited Barnard Castle, even though he is said to have known he was infectious. But in Moby Dick in the mid 19th century, Gabriel is the over-zealous one who won’t let anyone mingle across ships when he says “Think, think of the fevers”, almost peddling the epidemic for his own tyranny-of-fear as the mutinous true leader of the ship. We are meant to be on Ahab’s side. As foregrounded I think by Ishmael with the word “timid” in front of quarantine earlier in the chapter, we should think, ahhh don’t over do it, mate, it’ll be alright… but we don’t. We are now the zealots, because we have to be, because we have collectively been convinced that it is important to socially distance, and we rightly castigate and deplore those who do not keep to the rules. We see those people who do not follow the rules as in thrall of those peddling conspiracy theories about the virus being a hoax. In other words, people like Gabriel in Moby Dick, who has hoodwinked the crew with his manifesto and “his unflinching earnestness […] the dark, daring play of his sleepless, excited imagination”.  

Where I live in Plymouth, there has been a sudden increase in the statistic of daily coronavirus cases owing to the return to Devonport Naval Base of a ship, the HMS Northumberland, on board which there had been a number of positive tests. It served as an unhappy but very living and present parallel with this chapter from Moby Dick which I’ve been thinking about. Unlike the Jeroboam in the novel with its onboard epidemic which when we meet it in the book had only recently left port and continues on its way, the Northumberland with coronavirus on board was ordered to return to base, so that the correct isolation procedures could be followed by the crew. I guess all it really brought home was the banality of the virus, how these supposedly fearless, brave and strong defenders of the realm had to return home with tail between legs in order to isolate properly. I can imagine Captain Ahab jeering them as they pass. Times have changed, gone are the days of the swashbuckling sailors, and here to stay is the mark of the pandemic on our collective consciousness. I’m erring on the side of celebrating rather than lamenting that fact. But what’s really interesting to me is how this will change how we read many things, because a pretty big pendulum has shifted towards a responsible approach to infectious disease, to wearing a mask, to keeping your distance and all that. We can’t afford to be laissez-faire any more, just as we can’t afford to go whaling anymore, without endangering whale populations. If it’s any consolation, at least in lockdown we can sit around reading old books and reinterpreting them in the light of this new experience we’ve gained.

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