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A Reluctantly Pessimistic Interpretation of Moby-Dick

15/09/2014 16:14 BST | Updated 12/11/2014 10:59 GMT

In an episode of American TV show Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson, the no-nonsense head of the Parks Department, presents his unique interpretation of Herman Melville's classic: 'Does the white whale actually symbolize the unknowability and meaninglessness of human existence? No... it's just a fucking fish.' Due to the surfeit of philosophical allusions and the constant existential ponderings, Moby-Dick rarely provokes such a straight-forward reaction. Rather, the book invites all sorts of allegorical and symbolic interpretations that range from the disturbingly dark to the wonderfully crazed.

Unlike other allegorical novels - Animal Farm, for example - there is no accepted consensus on what Moby-Dick actually means. When an individual reads Moby-Dick, therefore, the individual's interpretation can often seem entirely unique and thus reveal something about that person's character or, better still, their conception of the world.

Influenced by the typically Swansonian interpretation, I decided to read Moby-Dick in order to find my own unique meaning, perhaps even to discover something about myself in the process. In an attempt to embody what I supposed to be my character, I sought a positive and affirmative interpretation. I looked for something uplifting in those pages; something that would inspire hope. I imagined that I would present it to you, my reader, to make your day a little brighter. During the course of the book, however, I became attracted to a certain theory. I tried not to obsess over this theory, as it completely contradicted my project of optimism. I failed in this regard.

What, therefore, did I find in the pages of Melville's classic? What became of my once optimistic project? Well, according to my interpretation, all human effort is essentially futile and life is nothing but a long, arduous, meaningless struggle towards complete non-existence. It wasn't quite the uplifting interpretation that I'd hoped for.

My reading relied on the work of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer - someone who I read at university and Melville, apparently, read late in life. Schopenhauer believes that one shouldn't attempt to achieve human objectives, for the toil implicit in the pursuit of such an objective is far more costly than the achievement of the objective is beneficial. He believes, furthermore, that if one is to achieve such an objective, one will simply create an even more toilsome objective which will inexorably cause more suffering. This continues until, eventually, the goal is unattainable. Thus man, according to Schopenhauer, is condemned to perpetual suffering.

My attempt at an optimistic reading of Moby-Dick therefore imagines that the inevitable suffering that Captain Ahab experiences in the pursuit of his obsession - the capture and murder of Moby-Dick - is representative of the individual's quest to achieve any human objective. Moby-Dick thus demonstrates that our objectives will cause us a great deal of suffering for little or no reward. It is not simply monomania that we should seek to avoid - which is one of the more prosaic allegorical interpretations - but rather each and every human objective. According to my interpretation, Moby-Dick is directly advocating what Schopenhauer charmingly calls the 'denial of the will to live'.

Influenced by Eastern philosophy, Schopenhauer argues that the 'will' - essentially motivated by human desires - is random, futile and illogical. Thus, all human actions, ultimately dictated by the will, are equally as illogical and directionless. Those who attempt to manipulate the will - as Ahab does in his pursuit of Moby-Dick - are bound to be left disappointed. This will cause unceasing suffering and, therefore, the denial of the will to live is the best possible form of existence.

This, apparently, was the result of my optimistic project. It began as a simple quest for affirmation and ended in the uncomfortable embrace of complete and utter pessimism. Such is my character, I suppose.

Walter Benjamin once said that 'it is not books that live inside the reader, it is he who lives inside them.' The aforementioned Swansonian interpretation of Moby-Dick is utterly representative of the man. He is a no-nonsense, straightforward bloke who thought that it was a simple tale about a man and 'a fucking fish'. What did my reading of Moby-Dick tell me about myself? Well, I'm a wannabe optimist who is inevitably drawn to the most depraved ideas of the human experience. I guess I'm just a smiling pessimist. So be it.