By Herman Melville
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Classics are tricky. The truth is, some of them just don’t hold up. Whether they are mired too much in their time and context, and simply cannot translate centuries after their conception, or whether they were never really that good to begin with, is impossible to say. It’s just a fact, though, that it is not uncommon to roll up on a Great Book and find oneself disappointed.
You can’t ever tell, though, in advance which books will live up to their reputation and which will leave you cold. ‘Moby Dick’, for example, I was sure was going to underwhelm. It sounded boring, frankly: too much whaling, too much esoterica, too much rigging. It also sounded obvious, you know? One loony guy’s obsession with an uncatchable thing? The futility, the mortality, the what’s-the-point-of-it-all-ness – it all seemed a little on the nose. If I’m being totally honest, I sort of assumed that it was one of the books that people claim is good because it’s hard to read and they want to flex that they got through it.
I was wrong. ‘Moby Dick’ is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It is a novel of grand, human scope, of despair and madness and hope. And it isn’t about what I thought it would be about: it’s not about existential futility – it’s about existential rage.
In the years since I first read ‘Moby Dick’, two passages have stayed close by me. These two passages are about the same thing, the whale itself, and Ahab’s pursuit of it. The first occurs only about a hundred pages into the novel, when a crewman challenges Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, the whale that took his leg, and Ahab answers him.
“‘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.’
‘Hark ye yet again, – the little lower later. All visible objects, man, are but 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 a 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 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; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations.'” (p. 166)
The second passage happens only a few pages later, and it is Ismael’s description of Ahab’s obsession.
“And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in that his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperation. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up 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. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest has been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” (p. 181)
Ahab has become known in literature as a man on a single-minded mission of revenge. He has become a symbol of a man in quixotic pursuit, of fruitless obsession. The ‘white whale’, of course, has entered common parlance as the thing that can never be caught. Because Ahab is in pursuit of an animal, he is considered mad; even within the confines of the novel, even by his crewmates, he is treated as insane.
And perhaps he is, but not in the way you might think.
Ahab’s obsession is not with a whale per se, I think, but with the malice of the universe. Behind the reality that we know, behind the world that we see, Ahab sees a vast malevolence. A malign, active intelligence, which erupts into our world (which is the pasteboard mask) and does us harm. It is what Ismael describes as “that intangible malignity which has been from the beginning”: evil.
Questions of cosmic unfairness (why do bad things happen to some people and not others?) have animated all cultures, all systems of religion and moral philosophy. We might think of misfortunes as accidents, as bad luck. We, perhaps, are not inclined to ascribe to the universe hostility against us, and we accept unhappy accidents as bad roles of the die.
But Ahab does not. He has lost his leg in an accident – why, he asks, should he not seek recompense against whatever force marked him for misfortune? That he does know what force it is that animated the whale will not stop him: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white while agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
Ahab is insane not because he wishes to revenge himself against the whale; Ahab is insane because he believes that he can revenge himself against the universe, that he is owed recompense for an accident of fate. He is searching not for a whale, but for a meaning, a coherence, which will give his suffering a context. He is railing not against the injury itself, but against the idea that he lives in a universe without justice.
“How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” For Ahab, his misfortune has shown him that the world he inhabits is a prison, a prison of unreasoning pain, where terrible things can happen without recourse for the victims. He refuses to be trapped in that kind of world; he will “strike through the mask”, break outside the boundaries of the world. And he will do that by striking not the whale itself, but by striking through the whale, to the intelligence he believes must exist outside it.
That Ahab is mad undeniable, but there is a grandeur in his madness. He is mad for his refusal to suffer dumbly the blows of fate. And I think that I have loved these passages for so long because, in a way, I cannot fault him. Why shouldn’t we rise up and strike back at fate, if we can find a purpose which persuades us? Why should we be content to suffer unfairness? Isn’t destiny, when viewed with clear eyes, enraging?
It is possible to see bravery in Ahab’s refusal to obey accident; it is equally possible to see cowardice. We all live with misfortune in some way or another; isn’t it narcissistic for one man to demand redress? Is Ahab strong, or is Ahab brittle? But I think that to love ‘Moby Dick’ is, in the end, to love Ahab himself, for his rage and for his pain (ultimately, they are the same thing). I love him – I have loved him for a long time now.
And, sometimes, I can see the world through his eyes. Everyone once in a while, when something terrible happens, some senseless accident which mutilates and crushes the innocent, I see a flicker in the fabric of the world. For a brief moment, I see the mask, and I sense the cruelty behind it, and I feel the sort of rage that might propel one to strike through it.
And in those moments, I see something else: that it isn’t Ahab who’s insane. It’s the rest of us.