Thursday, July 24, 2008

Moby-Dick: Wherein We Glimpse Dr. Jekyll

We are examining Herman Melville's Moby-Dick as a work of absurdist literature, as proposed by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Last time we began to consider Ahab, the central character of the novel, as an absurd character. We found that he falls short of the standard by not being freed by his awareness of the absurd, but chained by his quest to break through the "pasteboard masks" of the objects in the world around him, to bring down the set pieces of the absurd stage. Let us look at this evaluation in a bit more depth and consider whether Ahab is a tragic absurdist hero because of this failing.

Who is Ahab? Does he know, himself? "Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?" Ahab has this moment of doubt as he prepares to join battle with the white whale.

Earlier in the narrative he has less doubt and more assurance of his own power. Ahab calls the crew to the quarterdeck and rallies them to his quest for Moby Dick. He nails a gold doubloon to the mainmast (xxxvi), which is to go to the first to raise Moby Dick. Later in the voyage, in a more contemplative mood, Ahab pauses to inspect the mountain images depicted on the Equadorian doubloon: "look here, -- three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab..." (xcix)

This certainly describes the Ahab who calls himself "Old Thunder", who lifted his harpoon in salute to the heavenly fire, who is described as "a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans." But it surely does not apply to the Ahab who was struck down by the lightning from that fire. Or to the Ahab that suffered dismemberment at the jaws of Moby Dick. This Ahab is "no fearless fool" after these episodes. He has faced death at close quarters on both occasions and comes away tempered and tormented by the experience.

The torment is explicit: "with glaring eyes Ahab would burst from his state room, as though escaping a bed that was on fire...this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in spontaneously sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral...God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates." (xliv)

Ahab is of two minds--his eternal, living principle, or soul, and the frantic, tormented spirit.

The eternal living principle that is Ahab has married, fathered a son, keeps a vial of Nantucket earth in his pocket to remind him of home, can shed a tear into the profound sea, can see his wife and child in the eye of Starbuck.

It is this Ahab which interrogates the dead and dying whale in existential monologue. To the severed head of a whale hoisted at the side of the Pequod:

"Speak, thou vast and venerable head,...speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world's foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home...O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!" (lxx)

It is this Ahab which experiences a "wondrousness unknown" in the last moments of a dying whale, as it turns its head sunwards.

"He turns and turns him to it, -- how slowly, but how steadfastly, his homage-rendering and invoking brow, with his last dying motions. He too worships fire; most faithful, broad, baronial vassal of the sun!, too, life dies sunwards full of faith; but see! no sooner dead, than death whirls round the corpse, and it heads some other way." Then, speaking to the sea god, "Nor has this thy whale sunwards turned his dying head, and then gone round again, without a lesson to me." (cxvi)

It is a lesson he takes to his dying moments. At the end of the chase, after Moby Dick has breached the hull of the Pequod, after Ahab realizes this seals his doom, he laments, "I turn my body from the sun," before thrusting his harpoon for the last time. (cxxxv)

The tormented soul that is Ahab is unswerving and monomaniacal in its quest to kill Moby Dick. The quest has its existential aspect. Ahab speaks to Starbuck:

"All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me..." (xxxvi)

But more so, his torment is fostered by the pain of his dismemberment and aided by the Fates through both advocacy and default.

"All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick." (xli)

"Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job's whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals -- morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge." (xli)

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?...By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike." (cxxxii)

The tormented soul on this quest does not often have second thoughts. But his few doubts are bolstered by the prophecy of the Parsee harpooneer:

"...neither hearse nor coffin can be thine"
"...ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America"
"Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot"
"Hemp only can kill thee"
"'I am immortal then, on land and on sea', cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision; -- 'immortal on land and on sea!'" (cxvii)

In a series of Shakespearean twists, each term of the prophecy is fulfilled. The Parsee is drowned on the second day of the chase, entangled in the lines fast to Moby Dick, which serves as his hearse. He rises with Moby Dick on the third day of the chase and seems to beckon to Ahab, to pilot him. Moby Dick sinks the Pequod, which is the second hearse, made of American wood.

The white whale then lies quiescent, nearby to Ahab's foundering whaleboat. Ahab has a last chance to abandon his quest, but he stands firm, in accord with Stubb's observation to Starbuck: "Well, well; I heard Ahab mutter, 'Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.' And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die it!" (cxviii)

Ahab darts the harpoon, is garrotted by the fast line, and disappears forever beneath the sea, having neither hearse nor coffin to accompany him.

Tragic Hero Or Tyrant?

So, is Ahab the tragic hero? At forty, he is noble in stature, a captain of industry at the pinnacle of whaling society. At fifty-eight, he is estranged from society, scarred, hobbled, emotionally torn. He has fallen a long way, his downfall initiated by his hubris in paying homage to the gods of nature as their heir on earth. This was his fatal flaw--the rest then foreordained.

Ahab as tragic hero is supported only by the wisps of this back story and not the main narrative arc wherein a tyrannical Ahab hijacks the Pequod and her crew for his mad quest for revenge. As a tragic hero, Ahab gives us insight into the workings of the world and one path through that world which is best not emulated. As a tyrant, what is his message? That we are doomed if we, like Starbuck with his musket (cxxiii), fail to take our fate in our own hands? The former provides a deeper insight into life, the latter an absurd hope. If Starbuck had murdered Ahab in his sleep, could he live with himself? Would the maritime court allow him to live at all? And, similarly, for a mutinous crew? Could Starbuck have brought down the whole ship, including Ishmael, with a single shot across Ahab's brow?


I once had a brief, glancing encounter with Ahab, aboard an aircraft high above the Atlantic seaboard. Here is Ishmael's first encounter:
as I mounted to the deck at the call of the forenoon watch, so soon as I levelled my glance toward the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck (xxviii)

I too felt his presence, his powerful charisma, even before I raised my eyes to see him. I recognized him as Captain of a Commonwealth Avenue institution, who later sought to captain the Commonwealth itself. I understand how Ishmael could be caught up in Ahab's cause, even with dread in his soul. (xli)


Friday, July 11, 2008

Ahab: Or, The Man-Mountain

We are considering Camus' proposition in The Myth of Sisyphus that Melville's novel, Moby-Dick, is, from end to end, a wholly absurd novel. This in contrast with other absurd works (by Dostoevsky, for instance) that end with the politically correct notion of hope for life in the hereafter.

From the last post, we see that Moby-Dick ends in total devastation, with no ray of hope. Ishmael is saved, but only as "another orphan." We see elements of the absurd in the indifferent ocean which closes over the wreck of the Pequod and in the capricious and terrifying chain of events which ironically keeps Ishmael safe. We will revisit Ishmael and the novel itself a bit later. We now turn our attention to the central character of Moby-Dick--Ahab.

The highlights of Ahab's life are quickly noted. Orphaned at the age of 12 months, attended college before shipping out as a harpooneer at the age of 18. Rose to captain a whaling ship in the American fishery, considered the best in the world. Seriously injured at the age of 40 by elemental lightning at sea, which scarred him from head to foot. Married at an advanced age. Lost his leg to a whale attack on his second to last voyage. Lost at sea in the act of harpooning his last whale. Survived by wife and son.

The deeper character of Ahab is harder to extract from the narrative. There are mysterious references in his early career to a "deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa...the silver calabash that he spat into." And that he "fixed his fiery lance in mightier stranger foes than whales."

An owner of the Pequod, Captain Peleg, says of Ahab, "he's a grand, ungodly, god-like man... I know what he is...a swearing good man -- something like me -- only there's a good deal more of him...ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he's been a kind of moody -- desperate moody, and savage sometimes, but that will pass...he has a wife--not three voyages that sweet girl that old man has a child: hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!"

Is this Ahab an absurd man, a hero or an anti-hero? To answer this, we must first discover what is the absurd and what is the absurd man. This is not a trivial task.

Camus' one philosophical work where he explains the absurd is The Myth of Sisyphus. The absurd, according to Camus, is the awareness that may come to a conscious man that the world is an unreasoning place; he then "feels an alien, a stranger" in this world. He prefers a world governed by a conscious, reasoned plan, possibly directed by an intelligence similar to his own. "The mind's deepest an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity. Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal."

If the conscious man realizes that the world is indifferent to his reasoning, that, in fact, it is his reasoning which sets himself apart from the world, he faces the dissonance of the absurd, "born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."

One aspect of the world that man has no hope of understanding rationally is his own mortality. He has no first-hand knowledge of death, only its mathematical certainty. Given that one, sure truth, what is he to make of life? Is there a higher, externally-imposed purpose? One that defines the human ideal and that provides an ethic for living? Camus finds no evidence in this unreasoning world for one. Rather than hope for a world more to his liking, either in the tomorrow or the hereafter, the absurd man "prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his (mortal) limits...The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man." He lives in the now, using his rational mind to its natural limits, within the natural limit of his lifetime.

This doesn't sound a lot like Ahab -- he is definitely not the ideal absurd man. He does wax philosophical at times about life and death, evidencing his conscious rationality, but the absurd in his character hinges most critically on the motivation of his quest for the death of Moby Dick. Is it a monomaniacal quest of revenge for his lost leg, as is posited numerous times in the text? If so, it is nothing to do with the absurd, Captain Ahab is one with Captain Queeg, and the plot turns on the failure of Starbuck to shoot Ahab while he sleeps (cxxiii).

But there is more to the quest than revenge; it remains to be shown whether or not it is an absurd quest.

We enter the narrative in "The Quarter-Deck", (xxxvi), after Ahab has excited the crew with his quest: "'Vengeance on a dumb brute!' cried Starbuck, 'that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.'"

Ahab's reply is telling: "'All visible objects, man are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other...'"

This is certainly an existential exposition. Ahab sees the world around him as a false stage setting, he revolts against his confinement on this stage, and he is passionate in seeking to bring down the set. He captures some of the features of Camus' absurd man -- conscious awareness of the absurd world, the need to revolt against the conflict of the world with his world-view, the passion to resolve this conflict.

What Ahab lacks is the freedom that results from this awareness of the absurd, that is, freedom from the false hope of discovering what is beyond the wall, accepting the wall as a natural limit so as to live freely within that limit to the best of his ability. Camus asks, "what does life mean in such a (limited) universe? Nothing else for the moment but indifference to the future and a desire to use up everything that is given." And later, "...the point is to live."

There are interpretations of Ahab's mood other than the absurd -- paranoid schizophrenia comes to mind. But let us look a little deeper at the proposition of awareness of the absurd. What are its possible origins and what supporting evidence can be found in the text?

During Ahab's early career, he was on top of the world--at the pinnacle of his profession in an industry that lead the world. Captain Peleg describes him as a god-like man. His nickname, Old Thunder, is a reference to the god of the biblical Ahab, Baal, who controlled the thunder and lightning. And it was likely in an act of homage to that lightning that Ahab had his first close encounter with death.

He recalls the episode in "The Candles" (cxix), where St. Elmo's fire appears on the ship's masts. He addresses the lightning: "'Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance...No fearless fool now fronts thee.'"

At the age of 40 Ahab was young and foolish, and raised his fiery lance to the heavens in similar circumstance on board ship. The lightning came down to sear Ahab and he "lay like dead for three days and nights." This is another reference to the biblical Ahab, where the god of Israel, not Baal, lit the sacrifice with a bolt of lightning.

Ahab's next close encounter with death occurred years later, on the voyage preceding the one where we meet him as Captain of the Pequod. We'll get to that episode and explain the reference to the man-mountain next time.


These infundibula are an homage to Niles Rumfoord of Kurt Vonnegut's novel, The Sirens of Titan. Infundibula are the intersections of Niles' and the earth's space-time probability density functions. The superposition of these coherent wave functions results in the periodic appearance of Niles on the earth at regular intervals. Much like this blog.

Infundibula are also defined as "those places ... where all the different kinds of truths fit together." One noted accomplishment of Mr. Rumfoord is the founding of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, not to be confused with the Church of What's Hapnin' Now. The possibility that Niles' church has any remote connection with the current discussion of the absurd must be considered as totally unreasonable.

You may also note a connection with Harry Seldon's temporal appearances in Asimov's The Foundation series. Or not.

On a penultimate note, I would like to mention Alex Byrne who offers a philosophy course through the MIT Open Courseware. In describing a particular philosophy reference in his syllabus, he cautions, "readings...are often very difficult. Expect to read everything at least two or three times." He was not referring to Camus, but I am encouraged to know that understanding philosophy is not always expected to be a trivial task.

As I final note, I inject myself into these infundibula as Lao Tzu -- not the Chinese philosopher, but merely The Old One, born with white hair.

- L.T.