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)


1 comment:

Roz said...

I had forgotten that Camus refers to Moby-Dick in The Myth of Sisyphus. The only thing better than an unforgettable writer is two unforgettable writers, one commenting on the other.

Some of the questions you raise about Ahab (tyrant or hero, absurd or not) are answered simply by noting, as you do, that he evolves during the quest. Ahab starts off daring God or the gods or anything else in the universe to defy him: he would smite the sun itself. But by the end he turns away from the sun, refers to himself as fate's plaything, and describes himself as helpless against the universe. He does not start off absurdly but ends there.

Maybe he could strike through the pasteboard mask, if that is what the world is. But right afterwards he compares the universe to a well, which is much harder to knock down.

Ishmael also evolves, but towards greater wisdom. At first his hand went up with the rest when Ahab announced the quest. By the end, he has come to agree with Camus that the quest to demand an answer from an inherently silent, inscrutable universe leads to destruction of self and others--that defiance, while eyecatching, is futile, and that "the point is to live," or as Ishmael says the point is acceptance that human felicity is found in the basics: "the wife, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country" (I'm not quoting it quite right but pretty close).