THE LAST STORY features Jonah, the prophet who dives deepest, and also returns.
The dive down from human perspective:
What would it mean to “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it” (1:2)? To protest human evil is a human task, perhaps the most virtuous of human tasks. If we look around during the Anthropocene, we see the “great city” of petromodernity, against which eco-prophets should and do cry: “for their wickedness is come up before me” (1:2). But Jonah, like the rest of us, remains human. He shirks his task, avoids the hostile city, takes ship, falls into what Herman Melville’s Jonah preacher calls “his hideous sleep.” We know this unconsciousness because we drowse in its grip. Climate change follows the prophet as “a mighty tempest in the sea” (1:4). The mariners—afraid, as all of us are afraid—cast Jonah into the maelstrom. The “great fish” (1:17) that swallows him has long since been analogized to the monstrous whale, the largest mammal on earth. English poet and activist Heathcote Williams calls whales “Alien beings,” “Into whose mouths fourteen people could be placed with headroom.” That’s where the prophet goes, into that alien space. Into it, and down.
Poets also supply reasons to dive down. The Australian poet Peter Porter’s 1973 book Jonah, made in collaboration with the painter Arthur Boyd, portrays the diving prophet descending with human impulses:
But it’s fun in Whaleland, childhood
Comes back with spidery jokes, the blue-
tongued lizard and praise for being good!
Does Jonah want to swim or drown? What’s his human goal in vacating the crowded ship? What worlds float in storm-churned nonhuman waters?
The dive down from posthuman perspective:
“The storm was a metaphor,” explains the poet, “the incandescent elements tossed the ship like a child playing with finger-paints” (26). Happy inhuman play and color point outward toward posthuman exfoliations.
For Herman Melville, the descent beyond the human makes some things obvious. “But God is everywhere” (53), growls Father Mapple, the whaleman-preacher. He sermonizes past human knowledge:
God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along “into the midst of the seas” where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and “the weeds wrapped around his head,” and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. (53)
Down at the bottom Jonah sees and also can’t see. The descending prophet is multiply contained: his body inside the whale, his skull wrapped with weeds, the whale-human assemblage deep in the violet-black benthic zone ten thousand fathoms down. No one has gone closer to the real center than Jonah, “down to the bottom of the mountains” (2:6). In that darkness, Jonah prays but can’t move. Alien pressures hold him still. He experiences but gains no knowledge. Dreaming of release, he makes promises—“I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving” (2:9)—but he cannot act. Only the great fish acts, “and it vomited Jonah upon the dry land” (2:10). The human prophet returns, puke-covered and salt-stained. The great city won’t know what hit it.
In declaring posthuman allegiance, the critic Rosi Braidotti notes that she “came of age intellectually and politically during the turbulent years after the Second World War,” which brought her into contact with “feminism, de-colonization and anti-racism, anti-nuclear and pacifist movements.” Her antihumanist politics rejects the masculinity and monomania of Old Man Anthropos. When Braidotti seeks out “a non-dualistic understanding of nature-culture interaction” (3), she imagines the opportunity to “decide together what and who we [humans] are capable of becoming” (195). Another influential thinker, Cary Wolfe rejects the “posthuman” as such in favor of a “posthumanist . . . sense that . . . opposes the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy, inherited from humanism.” Wolfe finds a positive project for posthumanism not only in Braidotti’s liberatory politics but also in a theoretical engagement between literary theory, animal studies, and disability studies. Wolfe’s embrace of radically difficult moments of vision and failure leads him to attack the “distinction between human and animal” (98) that has often seemed fundamental to discourses of the human and humanism.
Neither Braidotti’s dream of recombination nor Wolfe’s skeptical deconfiguration of humanism reach Jonah deep within the whale. Silent, prayerful, he sits inside too much flesh. The posthuman, at bottom, must be a silent dream, or perhaps a dream of an impossible fecundity, a still-gestating pregnancy beneath the heart of the world.
The ascent from human perspective:
In the contemporary Icelandic novelist Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, the experience of returning from the beast’s throat appears a perfectly rational process. Sjón’s hero Jónas the Learned “knows the species . . . he has been consumed by a north whale; an evil leviathan that grows to eighty or ninety ells long and the same in width, and its food is by all accounts darkness and rain, though some say it also feeds on the northern lights.” Human learning interprets the whale as almost allegorically beyond-human, feeding alternately on darkness and light. But the novelist like the poet sees the world for itself. In Porter’s phrase, “The sky has two sides and a whale is only a symbol” (43). Inside that fleshy cavern, Jónas chooses reason over lamentation: “he calculates that he has been lying unconscious in the fish’s belly for three nights and two days” (230). Rather than being the passive recipient of God-vomit, the Icelandic hero peers through the vastness and “sets off at a run, racing over the slippery tongue as fast as his feeble legs can carry him, out of the whale’s mouth” (230). For Sjón, survival comes from human knowledge and patient timing, not divine rescue. The whalebeast remains unknowable, and in the novel’s final line it “gives a splash of its tail, and disappears once more into the deep” (231). But Jónas has been inside and come back out, been down and back up. He returns to the human family.
In Melville’s angrier fiction, Jonah ascends because he displays “the true and faithful repentance: not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment” (52). Preaching to Nineveh, Jonah performs the task we want our activist eco-heroes from Bill McKibben to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to perform today: “To preach the Truth in the face of Falsehood” (53). Humans return from the posthuman encounter with visionary knowledge. That knowledge changes human lives. Nineveh repents in the face of Jonah’s preaching, puts on the “sackcloth,” decarbonizes its economy, and God turns his wrath away from the great city. But Jonah—the one who has been to the bottom—burns with anger. Blind to Nineveh’s reforms, he isolates himself outside its walls. “I do well to be angry,” he cries, “even unto death” (4:9). Humans who have seen posthuman depths have no patience for change, no belief in a shared future, no compassion for the “sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand” (4:11). Apocalypse would provide a narrative answer—Jonah, like Hollywood, loves apocalypse—but it doesn’t come.
We need today what the poet glimpsed in 1973. Jonah is the necessary eco-angel of our earth:
Now I am to be a prophet without honour,
one proclaiming Ecological Disaster,
the Apotheosis of Pollution, the End of Spaceship Earth . . . (89)
Where is the repentance that saves Nineveh? Melville’s truth is harder: Father Mapple’s “two-stranded lesson” (49) punishes the “pilot of the living God” (53). Mapple is one of many steering pilots in Moby-Dick, whose ranks include Ahab and Ishmael, Queequeg and Pip. Only Mapple’s Jonah truth speaks from inside the tempest. “Woe to him,” he thunders, “who seeks to pour oil on the waters when God has brewed them into a gale!” (53). He chooses tempest, believes in storm, listens for the thunder. Rather than rescue, he craves woe upon woe:
Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! (53)
The weeds twist around Mapple’s logic, so that it becomes uncertain toward what port he pilots his living craft. Does he seek truth or salvation? How can these destinations differ? Father Mapple stops speaking and “fell away from himself for a moment” (54). Like Jonah, he loses awareness and forgets his fellow humans. Mapple returns to language not through the need to proselytize Nineveh but though an oceanic feeling: “But oh! shipmates! At the starboard hand of every woe, there is sure delight, and higher the top of that delight than the bottom of the woe is deep” (54). A mariner among mariners, Mapple invokes the ship’s allegorical geometry: “Is not the main-truck higher than the keelson is low?” (54). The sermon’s delight returns, in oblique recursive fashion, to the core humanist dream of individual freedom: “Delight is to him—a far, far upward and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self” (54). Mapple like Ahab stands apart, among “the personified impersonal, a personality” (382). Like Ishmael he survives his alien storm. As God’s pilot he rejects the humanist practices of repentance and reform. No environment waits for exhausted Mapple after his sermon; he “covered his face with his hands, and so remained, kneeling, till all of the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place” (54). Like Jonah storming forth from Nineveh, like Ishmael scouring the seas after the Pequod’s loss, Mapple has seen the nonhuman. Vision exhausts words.
How can we combine our human need to reform the great city with our awareness of the posthuman plurality that environs our bodies?
The human in the prophet preaches repentance, change, and survival.
The posthuman into which the prophet dives promises shock, disorientation, and possibilities we cannot contain.
“Why leave the sea?” asks Luce Irigary of her marine lover, Friedrich Nietzsche. “Are you truly afraid of falling back into man? Or into the sea?”