Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Concerning Ahab

After Captain Ahab gives his famous "Quarter-Deck" speech in Moby-Dick, which convinces most of the crew to join him in the vengeful quest to kill the white whale, Ahab encounters a little resistance in the character of Starbuck, who proclaims, "Vengeance on a dumb brute... that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."

Ahab pauses and feels compelled to reframe his argument for Christian Starbuck: "But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer." Ahab explains to Starbuck, who represents the last bit of resistance, that all things, "all visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks." It's one of those lines that is quoted again and again by critics, but I doubt whether most of these critics have considered the possibility that Ahab includes the whale among the group of "all visible objects." And yet, that seems to be precisely what Ahab suggests to Starbuck at the "little lower layer":
...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!

This exclamation implies that it is not the whale, nor, in turn, Ahab's revenge, that underlies the hunt -- instead, it is the unknown thing that comes from behind the thing itself. Ahab is not after the whale except as a "practically assailable" representation of the "thing itself" that Ahab cannot tolerate. But further on, Ahab calms down (as he sees Starbuck's resistance cool):
So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn--living, breathing pictures painted by the sun. The Pagan leopards--the unrecking and unworshipping things, that live; and seek, and give no reasons for the torrid life they feel! The crew, man, the crew! Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! See yonder Chilian! he snorts to think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck! And what is it? Reckon it. 'Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck.

Doesn't this suggest, as I think it does, that "striking a fin" is at most a secondary concern for Ahab? In the next chapter, Ahab, alone on deck, soliloquizes, "Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting!" -- which seems to point to the unification of "the crew, the crew" as an end in itself. In this view, it could be almost anything (slaying the white whale will do) that serves as the motivator; unity is the whole point.

Earlier in chapter 37, Ahab says to himself:

Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet it is bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. 'Tis iron--that I know--not gold. 'Tis split, too--that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight.

I really want to read this, especially in light of the reference to the Crown of Lombardy and the Biblical Ahab, as concerning the problem of authority. Who will lead us, and by what right, if not the "designated by G-d" justification? Ahab seems to think that he will, even if it means the end of him ("To fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting!").

There is a kind of majestic lie beneath all of this, but it seems clear to me that Ahab's ultimate goal is "to fire others," perhaps to unify them -- and he will say anything to that end. Plotinus, at least, sees this kind of single-vision (the critics call it "monomania") as a virtue:

Those that refuse to place the Proficient aloft in the Intellectual Realm but drag him down to the accidental, dreading accident for him, have substituted for the Proficient we have in mind another person altogether; they offer us a tolerable sort of man and they assign to him a life of mingled good and ill, a case, after all, not easy to conceive. But admitting the possibility of such a mixed state, it could not be deserved to be called a life of happiness; it misses the Great, both in the dignity of Wisdom and in the integrity of Good. The life of true happiness is not a thing of mixture. And Plato rightly taught that he who is to be wise and to possess happiness draws his good from the Supreme, fixing his gaze on That, becoming like to That, living by That… He can care for no other Term than That: all else he will attend to only as he might change his residence, not in expectation of any increase to his settled felicity, but simply in a reasonable attention to the differing conditions surrounding him as he lives here or there.

This "tolerable sort of man" is the Representative Man for postmodernism, and Plotinus found him deficient. Hmm...


Anonymous said...

It's kinda funny that in the field of "Literary Criticism" you yourself seem to have been trying to become an Ahab...

Casey said...

Uhhh... yeah. How'd that story end, again? Did he get tenure?