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Posts tagged ‘Moby Dick’

Ahab’s Ambition

moby-dick-1For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

At what point does young ambition tip into morbid disease? When does general optimism about the future turn into a narrow fixation with a specific goal? These are the great questions at the heart of the juxtaposition between Moby Dick’s young narrator, Ishmael, and the grizzled, twisted figure of the Pequod’s captain, Ahab. It is difficult not to wonder what exactly it is that separates them, particularly when Ahab reflects on his early years as a whaler: did he ever share Ishmael’s enthusiasm for the open sea, or was monomania always a defining part of his character? It is tempting to think that perhaps Ahab’s all-consuming ambition is a product of his age, that he is merely a wizened replica of the fresh-faced Ishmael: a man whose passion for whaling generally has been chiseled into a hard-edged obsession with the single white whale.

“…Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey – more a demon than a man! – aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool – old fool, has old Ahab been!

But that seems simplistic, and it is easier to imagine that Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick merely replaced some previous yearning. Perhaps Ahab was a young mariner hell-bent on rising within his chosen profession, dreaming of one day commanding his own ship. When that goal was successfully reached (and we know he has spent thirty-seven of the previous forty years at sea, abandoning his wife in the process) he was probably forced to reset his sights, to aim higher at some new unreachable target. To this extent, we might contrast Ahab with the captains who remain ashore, Peleg and Bildad, whose life at sea has been replaced by a very material dedication to the purely financial interests of the whaling ships they send on their way. Ishmael, on the other hand, has no interest in worldly gain of that sort. We learn at the outset that he is almost contemptuous of those who aspire towards positions of authority:

“…I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever.”

On the contrary, Ishmael is drawn to the sea by something altogether less tangible. His adventure aboard the Pequod is not limited in scope, and it is clear that his journey is more of a personal, spiritual quest than that of the other members of the crew, excepting maybe Queequeg the harpooneer, who is happy to let his portable god make his decisions for him. The distance between Ishmael’s open-mindedness and Ahab’s tunnel vision is most obvious when one considers their different experiences at the top of the Pequod’s mast-head. Ishmael confesses to being a terrible lookout: “let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard.” Indeed, chapter 35 (‘The Mast-Head’) quickly becomes a classic Ishmaelian digression ranging from the greats of history to ancient Greek philosophy. Ishmael enjoys looking, but not for anything in particular. He explains his poor watch-keeping thus:

With the problem of the universe revolving around me, how could I – being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude…”

In fact, Ishmael describes the expansive view of the sea from the top of the mast-head as his “ultimate destination.” Not so Ahab, who climbs the mast-head in chapter 130 (despite his wooden leg) with the single objective of sighting the white whale. Whilst he is “perched aloft”, he gazes so intently at the horizon for signs of his prey that he fails to notice the sea-hawk that symbolically swoops down to remove his hat, later dropping it in the distance, never to be recovered.

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”

Ahab recognizes the absurdity of his quest in one stark moment of lucidity and candour in which he tells Starbuck, his first mate, not to follow him when he lowers his boat to give chase to Moby Dick. However, he also asserts that he himself has no choice in the matter, that he is merely the puppet of a “remorseless emperor.”   This passage confirms the role of linear authority aboard the Pequod.  Just as Ahab is unable to disobey what he sees as his fate, so Starbuck is unable to disobey Ahab, despite being all too aware of the madness of the chase.  It also confirms the helplessness of Ahab’s situation: he has spent so long pursuing his goal that he is now merely the victim of a terrible disease which drives him forward, almost in spite of himself. And yet, notwithstanding Ahab’s suicide mission, Melville’s novel is certainly not dismissive of the spirit of adventure in general terms. The fact that Ishmael endures as the sole surviving member of the Pequod is surely intended as a salute to that spirit of adventure, a spirit that does not allow itself to be curtailed by narrow-mindedness.

The Editors

Book Club: Moby Dick

A few members of the group requested that this article be given a pithy subtitle with a neat humpback whale pun, but sadly this cannot be done for several reasons. Firstly, the play on words was not good enough, but mainly this is because the members did not rally to Melville closely enough to warrant such favours, despite having been granted in excess of two months to read the book.

Several of their points deserve an airing: it is too long, with an infamous 150 pages of technical whaling jargon. Fortunately there are several rejoinders to this, one provided by the narrator, who cries: “Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint”. Predictably, this is the whale’s fault: “Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

The other was provided by the Book Club’s More Constructive Participants, who pointed out the usefulness of knowing what flensing is, at last. Removing blubber from the carcass of a whale (not the whale, of course) was an arduous process, but no longer shrouded in mystery, along with spermaceti (a misunderstood, much maligned and at one point in history, extremely useful substance).

Stubb (one of the caricatured crew members everyone took to) being “somewhat intemperately fond’ of a steak from the ‘small’ of the whale, and the proud owner of ‘epicurean lips’ was another highlight. He gobbles along with “thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan”, “Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications”.  Melville then rapidly creates such a strong image of playful, canine sharks that veer from being deeply sinister:

“The few sleepers below in their bunks were often startled by the sharp slapping of their tails against the hull, within a few inches of the sleepers’ hearts. Peering over the side you could just see them (as before you heard them) wallowing in the sullen, black waters, and turning over on their backs as they scooped out huge globular pieces of the whale of the bigness of a human head.”

Before they are made to seem almost skittish: “Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasselled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and …systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere.”

Herein lies Melville’s genius. Such were his technical accomplishments as an author that he could switch between styles: able to whip up the excitement of the first whale chase, to the tense boredom of waiting for a sail, a fin or even a gust at sea as they malinger on the “watery part of the world”. As Ahab sinks deeper into obsession (and to truly love this book, you must be able to appreciate a certain level of obsession), the novelty of heading to sea wears off in Ishmael and his enthusiasm turns to whining amateurism as a sailor, and everyone sinks into madness as time seems to slow down between key points in the narrative*. With the Pequod’s standoffish and competitive attitude with other ships, the crew understandably tire of each other. Of course the White Whale with all of his cunning proves elusive, and is the undoing of them all, bar Ishmael, who clings to his ‘husband’ Queequeg’s coffin until he is rescued and able to tell his story.

The intelligence of the White Whale himself is subsumed by the matter of his whiteness. This, Ishmael claims in Chapter 42 is “an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific”. It is an absence of colour, a void into which one can fall or project upon unceasingly, and the chapter that Will Self read effectively in The Big Read of Moby Duck in the spring of 2011 exhibition at Peninsula Arts, the dedicated contemporary art space at Plymouth University. This is available online, and features chapters read by A L Kennedy and China Mieville, though full disclosure; David Cameron reads ‘The Pipe’. Perhaps a pun should feature here. This is a good place to start if this book is still in the maybe/never heap, as the myriad voices keep your mind on that pale gleam on the horizon.

Further reading:

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrik recounts the real voyage on which Moby Dick was based, which ended in a different kind of disaster.

Leviathan, or Whale by Philip Hoare. Essential for all whale lovers.

* We all agreed on Ishmael’s apex moment: “The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.” Everyone appreciates that kind of dedication to sperm whales.

The Editors

You can buy the book here.