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In Chapter 70 (The Sphynx) of Moby-Dick, Ahab states:

"O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies; not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind."

From prior research conducted I have gleaned the meaning of the first half of the quote to be: Ahab presupposing there being correspondences between physical and transcendental realms, between matter and spirit/soul, and articulating the impossibility to construct a theory/ analogy which faithfully describes their relationship between these domains in of themselves. However the latter half, I fail to grasp conceptually and semantically. Here are some of my qualms:

  1. Does Ahab use "mind" interchangeably with "spirit/soul" in this instance?

  2. Is "cunning" in this instance defined as: "attractive or quaint" or as "ingenious (Both Lexico/Oxford)

  3. Does "atom" in this instance denote (as Oxford defines it): an extremely small amount of something; or does Ahab instead refer to a proto-atomic theory reminscent of Democritus' conceptions being: one of the minute indivisible particles of which according to ancient materialism the universe is composed (Merriam Webster). Though I may be wrong I don't think he would be referring to Dalton's conception of atoms at this point of time.

  4. If using the first definition of "atom" proposed, would Ahab then be expressing that qualitative descriptions of the world don't exist physically but in the same vain as numbers, I suppose; possibly even suggesting that they exist on a transcendental level.

  5. However if Ahab uses the 2nd definition of "atom", is he then supposing that atoms don't constitute matter? Or exist "on" matter, whatever that means.

  6. Some editions of the text portray the quote as "lives (in) matter" rather than "(on) matter", so I was wondering whether those are the result of typos or decisions on the account of the author or publishers, and also whether it has any bearing on interpretations of the quote.

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This passage in Moby-Dick is a paraphrase of Swedenborg†:

It has been given me to know from much experience, that in the natural world, and in its three kingdoms‡, there is not the smallest thing which does not represent something in the spiritual world, or which has not something there to which it corresponds.

Emanual Swedenborg (c. 1752). Arcana Cœlestia, volume IV, p. 55. London: Swedenborg Society (1879).

† For this observation I am indebted to William S. Gleim (1929). ‘A Theory of Moby Dick’. The New England Quarterly 2:3, p. 403. ‡ The animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms.

Emanuel Swedenborg was a mystical Christian philosopher who propounded the doctrine of correspondence, of which the following is a fair sample:

Moreover, there is no one thing existing in the created world, which has not correspondence with the things existing in the spiritual world, and which does not thereby, in its manner and measure, represent somewhat in the Lord’s kingdom; hence are derived the existence and subsistence of all things. If a man knew how the case really is in this respect, he would on no account, as he is wont, attribute all things to nature.

Hence it is, that all and every thing contained in the universe represent the Lord’s kingdom, insomuch that the universe with its heavenly constellations, with its atmospheres, and with its three kingdoms, is nothing else but a kind of theatre representative of the Lord’s glory which is in the heavens. In the animal kingdom not only man, but also each particular animal, even the least and vilest, are thus representative; even the worms, which creep on the ground, and feed on the leaves of plants; these, when the time of their nuptials approaches, become chrysallises, and presently are furnished with wings, and thereby are elevated from the ground into the atmosphere, which is their heaven, where they enjoy their delights and their freedom, sporting one with another, and feeding on the choicest parts of flowers, laying their eggs, and thus providing for posterity. And on this occasion, in consequence of being in the state of their heaven, they are also in the fulness of their beauty; that these things are representative of the Lord’s kingdom, may be obvious to every one.

Swedenborg, p. 57.

So, comparing with Swedenborg, we can read the passage from Melville as follows: “atom” means “particle, small thing”; “lives on matter” means “exists in the natural (material) world”; “cunning” means “ingenious”; and “mind” means “the spiritual world”.

As for “lives on matter” versus “lives in matter”, the choice of preposition is going to depend on how you conceptualize these material and spritual worlds. If you conceptualize them as planes or levels of existence, then “on” is appropriate.

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