Despite all appearances, Moby-Dick can be termed an alchemical opus. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of alchemical symbols in Herman Melville’s novel.
To grasp some of the most esoteric dimensions of this book, we must dive deep into it. Blackness characterizes the first chapters. Ishmael leaves the dark and melancholic atmosphere of Manhattan to avoid violence against himself or others. This voyage is his “substitute for pistol and ball.”
When Ishmael arrives in New Bedford (chapter 2), he is surrounded by “blocks of blackness”. This the first alchemical stage of the Nigredo. It it illustrated by a series of images of petrification and putrefaction. The title of this chapter hides a nice pun, for “the carpet-bag” is nothing but “The Crap Begat”. The negro Chapel is associated with Sodom and Gomorrah, and is described as “if it were meant for the uses of the public.” It also “seems the great Parliament sitting in Tophet.” Rather than calling it “The Trap”, Ishmael should have called it “The Crap”. The same goes for the “dilapidated” “Spouter-Inn”. By metathesis, this inn may be read “Ô Petrus!” or “Proteus,” reminding the *Petrificatio* or *Calcificatio* of the initial alchemical process of transmutation. Of course, Peter Coffin and his wife Sal (Sal-Peter or salpeter, nitre) are also symbols of this transformational process. This place symbolizes the “Petra Genitrix” or “Philosopher’s Stone,” also known as “lapis philosophorum,” the secret ingredient needed for the “chrysopoeia” or transformation of base matter into gold. Philosophy is ironically presented in this chapter as a “pleasant zephyr” –read “philo-zephyr”–, in a paragraph which obviously seem to caricature the northern lights of the most Enlightened of German Idealists.
Next, in the Spouter-Inn (chapter 3) he shares a bed with the harpooner Queequeg, a “head-peddling purple rascal” with a Congo idol named Yojo –Ô Joy! In this chapter, darkness abounds too. By a nice pun, Melville unites two –or three– Latin words: coïtus, coetus (and cetus). The word coïtus means “union”. The word coetus means “a bed”. And cetus is the Latin word for “whale”. Ishmael matrimonial experience is a stage called the Alchemical Wedding or “Noces Chymiques” of the King and the Queen, or the conjunctio oppositorum, The union of opposites.
After this first night, Ishmael is transformed, or born again. The conclusion of this first stage is best accounted for in chapter 10, A Bosom Friend: “I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it.”
Call me Ishmael? No, call me Alshemi.