Alt Left: Fate Versus Necessity or Free Will Versus Determinism: Why Moby-Dick Is One of the Greatest Books of the Last 200 Years

The three greatest novels in the English language in the last 170 years are the following:

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. Ulysses, by James Joyce. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

I’ve read the first and the last and only read a tiny bit of the second. However, I have read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man twice, and I’ve also read Dubliners, his collection of short stories. Both are highly recommended. I’ve dipped into Finnegans Wake, but it makes no sense to me, sorry. Nevertheless a copy sits on my shelf for the last 40 years, mocking me for being too stupid to understand it.

Of the first, I have also read Bartleby the Scrivener, a novella. Highly recommended.

Of the third author, I have also read three of his other novels V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Vineland. I’ve also read a collection of short stories called Slow Learner, a nonfiction piece called A Journey into the Mind of Watts, and a couple of book reviews.

If you have read anything by any of these three authors or have anything to say about any of them, feel free to let us know in the comments.

If you want to know why Moby Dick makes the list, simply consider this passage below, which also has echoes in much of Pynchon’s writing. It’s pretty incredible that he was writing like this in 1851. I can now understand much more of what he was getting at than when I first read this. As a hint, replace “necessity,” the 19th Century use of which correlates to our determinism.

I suppose Wikipedia should explain it pretty well, but fate, mixed with a notion of genetics, biology, universal culture, the constancy and cycles of history, human nature itself, and Natural Law, or the laws of God on this planet, all play a role. Positioned against determinism is the wild card of free will, about which endless discussions flow, mostly about just how much of it we have anyway.

The nature/nurture debate comes in here too, but nature can be as determined as biology, though I object to the strong determinist theory about life events.

All sorts of different events effect all sorts of different people in all sorts of different ways, often having to do with your culture. For instance, we now have behaviors which for 9

Now, this behavior, which never damaged a single human ever, is seen to be, in a deterministic sense, completely damaging in the same way to all who undergo it, and furthermore, the damage is permanent and lifelong. This behavior that was considered harmless when I was growing up 40 years ago is now thought to cause horrendous damage. Whole industries are set up to deal with the fake damage caused by this harmless behavior.

Humans are not real complex.

You tell people an experience is completely normal, and most will think of it as such, even if it is traumatizing.

You take the same behavior and tell the same people that is now terribly damaging for the rest of your life, and you now produce millions of people with fake damage from a harmless behavior.

Now this damage is quite real, but we must note that the person only got damaged because you told them it was damaging! The person experienced the behavior, thought little of it, the behavior was uncovered, everyone around the person screamed about what a terrible and traumatic crime had been done to them that would cause them horrible damage, and the person simply decided of their own free will to create damage in themselves. But even this is somewhat determined because it’s determined by society, as the free will with which they created their own damage was in a sense determined by society.

True free will is a wild card and does not exit. It says I can walk out into the world and do anything I am capable of and have people react the way I want them to. That won’t happen now, and it never would have in the past. Further, many of the things I think I should be good at, I’m not good at anymore, probably because my behavior has become determined as a result of whatever biology and experience has done to my brain, which has created a rather limiting brain that is pretty limited in the behaviors it can pull off and get away with. I’m hamstrong by genes and biology. I don’t have free will at all. I can’t do what I want.

Anyway, this is something like what Melville was getting at here, a long 170 years ago, and it shows why his book makes my best three list for the last 200 years:

I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat.

As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn: I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates.

There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads.

Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance – aye, chance, free will, and necessity – no wise incompatible – all interweavingly working together.

The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course – its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.

Thus we were weaving and weaving away when I started at a sound so strange, long drawn, and musically wild and unearthly, that the ball of free will dropped from my hand, and I stood gazing up at the clouds whence that voice dropped like a wing. High aloft in the cross-trees was that mad Gay-Header, Tashtego. His body was reaching eagerly forward, his hand stretched out like a wand, and at brief sudden intervals he continued his cries.

To be sure the same sound was that very moment perhaps being heard all over the seas, from hundreds of whalemen’s look-outs perched as high in the air; but from few of those lungs could that accustomed old cry have derived such a marvelous cadence as from Tashtego the Indian’s.

As he stood hovering over you half suspended in air, so wildly and eagerly peering towards the horizon, you would have thought him some prophet or seer beholding the shadows of Fate, and by those wild cries announcing their coming. There she blows! there! there! there! she blows! she blows!”

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (1951)

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8 thoughts on “Alt Left: Fate Versus Necessity or Free Will Versus Determinism: Why Moby-Dick Is One of the Greatest Books of the Last 200 Years”

  1. Classic book by Melville.

    Try “Manhunt: The 12 Day Search for Lincoln’s Killers” by John Swanson. Rob, I’m telling you it’s a gripping narrative. You’ll open the book at sunlight and won’t put it down until dark.

  2. Interesting choice. I have read the three of them. Moby Dick and Ulysses rather as “duty” not for fun. I also was too young when reading them, so I did not understand much.

    Gravity´s Rainbow on the other hand was great to read. Actually it is my favorite book in all languages. I have also read Against the Day by Pynchon, which in my opinion is very similar to Gravity´s Rainbow, also very good. Then I have also started Inherent Vice. To be honest I thought it was boring, and I didn’t finish it.

    1. Check out this site on Against the Day:

      It looks excellent, and, yes, looking over the material, it does look a lot like GR. Have you read Mason & Dixon? It’s said to be as good as Against the Day or maybe even better.

      Inherent Vice does seem a bit lightweight, but there are also people saying it is one of his best novels. Have you read V., The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, or Slow Learner? Read any of his book reviews or other stuff?

      I will agree though that GR is a blast. I didn’t really have any idea of what exactly was going on, but it didn’t matter. I don’t think you have to figure out the plot. It’s a blast just to read it even if you can’t really figure out the plot.

      Read anything else by either Melville or Joyce? Moby-Dick really grows on you. There is so much there. I’m rereading it a bit now. Most of the stuff that people are talking about went right by me when I read it the first time. I read Moby-Dick for the first time later in life in my 50’s, so it was a lot of fun.

      1. Thanks for the link. Good idea with Mason & Dixon, I have now put it on my “to read list” for 2022.

        Inherent Vice does seem a bit lightweight, but there are also people saying it is one of his best novels.”

        I could imagine Inherent Vice is more interesting for people who have either lived in California or during the seventies or especially both.

        I have not read another Melville or Joyce book. I have read James Fenimore Cooper though, who seems to Melville.

        1. If you want the next step towards Melville, read Nathaniel Hawthorne! Melville is simply a progression from where Hawthorne, the first great American novelist, was going. He reads like James Joyce. It’s rather flowery purple prose, but a lot of people wrote like that back then. In fact it was pretty much normal.

          I just read a Hawthorne short story, and I was blown away at how great he was. I thought he was one of those lightweight “early American novelists.” I’ve also read The Scarlet Letter and My Kinsman, Major Molineaux. He wrote mostly short stories. He’s so awesome! He wrote about the Puritans and the Pilgrims, who were around ~40-60 years before he was writing. His father was the only judge to vote innocent in the Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne was very anti-Puritan.

          At the start of Moby Dick, Melville has a dedication:

          For Nathaniel Hawthorne.

          They were very close friends. At the time Melville was writing, Hawthorne was near the end of his career. Most of his good stuff is from the 1830’s. Melville is mostly from the 1850’s. They’re only twenty years apart, but America was quite different between these periods.

          I think Cooper was possibly the first real American novelist, but I don’t know much about his stuff.

      1. I don’t know why, but in my own language it is more difficult to name favorite books or authors.

        When it comes to modern classics, I adore Kafka. Every time I read it again I am reminded of how much I like it. For me personally his best novel is Amerika. I think Kafka is one of those authors who are extremely difficult to translate. He kind of developed his own language.

        A not so well not known author is Doderer. I enjoyed reading his books a lot, especially the shorter ones.

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