Monday, November 11, 2013

Chasing Divinity: Search-Based Analysis of the Sacred in Melville's Moby Dick

Ichiyusai, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Public Domain
Alright, it's Moby Dick time again. A while ago, I wrote a couple posts about Ahab as a representation of Milton's Satan and of the white whale as a symbol of divinity. In that I've been learning about "big data" and digital modes of textual analysis, I figured it might be interesting to look at divinity and holiness from a new perspective. Based on my findings, it turns out that "holiness" as a concept becomes less as less frequent throughout the work and in some sense becomes inaccessible or 'unthinkable' (a la Marx) for Ishmael and the other characters. While certain associated words like "blessed" and "divinity" feature throughout the work, others like "sacred" either become increasingly sparse (or absent) toward the end of the book or they adopt negative forms (i.e. "unholy" vs. "holy") that lend to an overall descent into madness and despondency.

I used an html version of Moby Dick (thank goodness for public domain) to do some simple searches in-browser, and it turned up some pretty interesting results. My first few searches were the most revealing, so I'll save those for the end, but I input forms of "bless" and "divinity," and those showed fairly uniform frequency throughout the novel as a whole. "Bless" and its derivative forms showed up twenty one times without any apparent pattern of usage or non-usage, and "divine" appeared a total of fifteen times. Interestingly, of those fifteen instances, five are in reference to whales or to the White Whale himself, this being the most common referent, coming in well above "God" and "Providence" in terms of usage.



Searching for "sanctity" yield but two results, one near the beginning and one near the end. "Sacred," on the other hand, showed up eleven times and, as it turns out, is entirely absent from the last thirty seven chapters. I thought that this "black space" might have been just a coincidence, but my analysis of "holy" and its derivatives showed similar results: Of the nineteen instances of "holy" and the five instances of derivatives like "holiest" and "holies," only one turned up after Ch. 64 (approximately the middle of the book), and this exceptional instance was in reference to the 'dying' Pagan, Queequeg, in his coffin. Even among the other uses of "holy," the latter four are either tied to a chapel in Cape Town (i.e. external to the crew's current state) or are part of the Town-Ho's story (i.e. reported speech rather than individual thought), meaning that Ishamel's last use of "holy" where the term still bears its traditional meaning is in Ch.
46, just a third of the way into the book.

Verduner altarpiece in Klosterneuburg, Austria 
One interesting aspect of searching for a word like "holy" is that it bring up any words with those letters in them, even if there might be an "un" or a "melanc" tacked onto the front. This ended up being a fairly valuable find, though, in that it showed the paired decay of the sacred ("holy") and the resurgence of the profane or melancholic ("unholiness" and "melancholy") as the novel progresses. While the two ideas both feature in the beginning of the book, the end leaves the reader almost no mention of sanctity or holiness and replaces these concepts with those of melancholy and godlessness. Interesting, of the numerous uses of "God" in the end of the book, most of them feature in exclamations, descriptions of the White Whale, or in unanswered pleas on Ahab's part. In some sense, by the end of the novel, divinity and holiness are ideas 'unthinkable' to man (to borrow an idea from Marx). Ahab can think only to justify himself with empty pleas, and Ishmael seems entirely incapable of addressing the subject of holiness, despite his frequent discussion of the matter in the earlier parts of the voyage. Ahab's blind rage in effect deprives himself and his crew of the ideal of the sacred and so damns all but Ishmael to a profane death.