Richard Melson

August 2006

Two Voyages: Pequod versus HMS Beagle

Photograph of Herman Melville, taken by Rodney Dewey, 1861.

Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

On January 3, 1841, the twenty-one-year-old Herman Melville boarded the whaling ship Acushnet in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, bound for the rich whaling grounds off the coast of Japan.

This voyage became the template for the voyage of the Pequod

In Moby-Dick (1851), he fitted out his imaginary whaling ship the Pequod with masts cut from trees along the coast of Japan and a captain, the monomaniacal Ahab, who had been "dismasted"—deprived of a leg—off the coast of Japan. The path of the Pequod with its polyglot crew is a direct route to the Japan whaling grounds, the lair of Moby-Dick. The triple threat of a typhoon, a crazed captain, and a white whale spell disaster for Ahab’s ship.

The human world is shown to be a recent and local phenomenon. Barometers, quadrants, charts and other equipment cannot subdue the helplesness and fragility of humanity before the shrieks of the ocean and the madness and gladness of her demonic waves. It is certainly no coincidence that, shortly before his fatal encounter with Moby-Dick, Ahab destroys his quadrant, shouting: "Science! thou vain toy!" (p. 1058). In the end, all collapses, "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago" (p. 1102).

A watercolour by ship's artist Conrad Martens painted

during the survey of Tierra del Fuego shows

the Beagle being hailed by native Fuegians.

In 1837 HMS Beagle set off on a survey of Australia,

shown here in an 1841 watercolour by Owen Stanley.

The Voyage of the Beagle is a title commonly given to the book written by Charles Darwin published in 1839 as his Journal and Remarks, which brought him considerable fame and respect.

The title refers to the second survey expedition of the ship HMS Beagle which set out on 27 December 1831 under the command of captain Robert FitzRoy.

While the expedition was originally planned to last two years, it lasted almost five—the Beagle did not return until 2 October 1836. Darwin spent most of this time exploring on land.

(three years and three months on land; 18 months at sea).

The book, also known as Darwin's Journal of Researches, is a vivid and exciting travel memoir as well as a detailed scientific field journal covering biology, geology, and anthropology that demonstrates Darwin's keen powers of observation, written at a time when Western Europeans were still discovering and exploring much of the rest of the world.

Although Darwin revisited some areas during the expedition, for clarity the chapters of the book are ordered by reference to places and locations rather than chronologically. With hindsight, ideas which Darwin would later develop into the theory of evolution are hinted at in the book.

Famous biologists such as E. O. Wilson and James Watson of Harvard say pointblank on TV talk shows such as "Charlie Rose" as well as radio chat shows like "On Point" and "Open Source" that Darwin was the "most important human that ever lived" and his books such as the 1859 "Origin of Species" are the new bible. 

This is the "science as the new religion" dogma of the Summer of 2006.

(On the political left, one has the comparable reverence for Marx and "Das Kapital.")

History will show that the "power grab" by the scientists who seek to supplant and eliminate the theologians and metaphysicians are mistaken in their Wilson/Watson-type deification of Darwin and that the metaphysical voyages such as the one embodied in Melville’s Pequod with its globalized crew will ultimately "contain" and subsume scientific voyages such as Darwinian ones epitomized by the " HMS Beagle" journey. This truth covers the genetic gods and genomic quests of the moment.

Ahab’s final insight into science in "Moby Dick" senses the deeper truths:

The human world is shown to be a recent and local phenomenon.

Barometers, quadrants, charts and other equipment cannot subdue the helplesness and fragility of humanity before the shrieks of the ocean and the madness and gladness of her demonic waves.

It is certainly no coincidence that, shortly before his fatal encounter with Moby-Dick,

Ahab destroys his quadrant, shouting:

"Science! thou vain toy!" (p. 1058).

In the end, all collapses, "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago" (p. 1102).

Lord Jim (1900) Joseph Conrad.

Patna & the Muslims:

After his ship Patna, loaded with pilgrims to Mecca, collides with an unseen object, Jim, the first mate, joins the captain and crew in abandoning the ship's Muslim passengers. Trying to come to terms with this cowardly act, he wanders the East and ends up the protector of a Malaysian tribe, their "Lord."

But his demons drive him to self-destructive behavior.

This is a classic tale of cowardice and redemption played out at sea,

and in the heart and the mind.

Metaphysical Foundations of August 2006

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509,

showing Plato and Aristotle:

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509,

showing Plato and Aristotle

Heidegger: Globalization & Metaphysical Evolution

In the book "Dialog with Heidegger," the French poet-philosopher Jean Beaufret (1907-1982) disagrees with the "acceleration of history" line of analysis which sees technical globalization through communications and transport revolutions as the revolution of the age.

Heidegger sees this global technical change as an outer core of fundamental change while deep change is fundamentally metaphysical.

Deepest change is in the realm of why not of how.

("Dialog with Heidegger," Indiana University Press, 2006, page 19, Jean Beaufret.) 

In other words, the real tectonic shift arises from rival "voyages" such as described here: Pequod versus HMS Beagle.

Two Voyages: Pequod versus HMS Beagle

Metaphysical Ground of August 2006

August 20, 2006