Melville's Moby-Dick: Is Ahab, Ahab?

Melville's Moby-Dick: Is Ahab, Ahab?

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In Melville's Moby-Dick, or The Whale, Ahab calls himself "madness maddened" and across the oceans he unleashes his madness in an unerring quest to wreak his hate upon the white whale, that agent or principal of the "inscrutable malignancy" lurking behind the phenomenal world. Milder asserts that by making Ahab mad, Melville found the means to present an apocalyptic act of a hero, free of the constraints of realism, that might express the disillusionment of the cultural moment that had witnessed the end of religion, the frustration of the Romantic quest, and the end of the possibility for spiritual meaning in the universe. Thus, Ahab is rendered believable. But by making Ahab mad, he risked rendering him irrelevant. For Ahab to remain important for the reader, he must not be reduced to mere madness. Once he speaks only for the aberrant, one need no longer grapple with him, need not account for Ahab. We dismiss Calibans, Pucks, even Iagos, but we cannot easily dismiss Lear and McBeth and Hamlet or Ahab. The madman and the possessed can be exiled from our affinities as wholly "other," such that one inscribes their behavior in a circle of experience separate from our own, for unless by some event beyond our control we ourselves become monsters or madmen, the madman's reality remains sufficiently and safely different from our own. To attempt to account for Ahab, one must acknowledge his reality as a possible reality and admit the potential for the Ahabian in one's own possible reality.

While Milder's identification of the demonic adds another significant resonance and heuristic lens, an interpretation based upon the demonic risks reducing Ahab to one possessed, which like Ahab's "madness," can reduce Ahab to the wholly aberrant or mechanical.

Like a Romantic visionary or transcendentalist, like a Whitman, Ahab seeks to match the universe, to see through the veil of Maya to the Absolute behind it. But unlike Whitman, Ahab's expanding self does not embrace the universe but strikes against the white wall of reality shoved near to him. He rages against this wall like one embittered by some secret betrayal. He rails against an absence of meaning in the universe when it seems it once held out a promise of redemption. Like a lover betrayed, he seeks to strike back at whatever force perniciously acts behind the pasteboard masks of the universe.

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Ahab thus enacts a negative reverse of Carlyle's Professor Teufelsdrockh in Sartor Resartus who, though faced with "Cloth-webs and Cobwebs," of Imperial Mantles, Superannuated Symbols, and what not: yet still did he courageously pierce through. Nay, worst of all, two quite mysterious, world-embracing Phantasms, Time and Space, have ever hovered round him, perplexing and bewildering: but with these also he now resolutely grapples, these also he victoriously rends asunder. In a word, he has looked fixedly on Existence, till one after the other, its earthly hulls and garnitures have all melted away; and now, to his rapt vision, the interior celestial Holy of Holies lies disclosed.

Ahab seeks to rend asunder, to pierce, strike through the mask of appearances, yet he hunts not for the "interior Holy of Holies" but rather to wreak his hate upon the inscrutable malignancy lurking behind the veil. Rogin comments that Ahab seeks "vengeance both against the God of his fathers and (like them) against the pagan deity of nature" (125). He rightly calls Ahab's quest an ascetic hunt (125).

But Ahab's flaw, which defeats him, is his not believing his own philosophy. He is too much a realist, believing too much in the pasteboard masks. "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks." All visible objects -- including that which is Ahab. To fixate upon one external phenomenon in the wavering veil only reifies it. By focussing his hate upon the white whale, Ahab mistakes the veil for the "reasoning thing" behind it, the phenomenon for the noumen. The harpoon must be turned inward. Emerson said "I become a transparent eyeball." Thoreau restates the idea: "It was no longer beans I hoes, nor I that hoed beans." "We are laid asleep in body and become a living soul," says Wordsworth. And Whitman later will say, "I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags./ I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles."

Ahab seems rather to unleash his almost superhuman vengeance against the very fact of the inscrutability of the universe. In part, Ahab resembles Kant, who while accepting the limitations of human knowledge and experience, being limited by the a priori categories of human experiencing of the world, still insisted upon "the thing in itself," which lies beyond our capacities of perception and of which we ultimately can know nothing. Fitche and Schiller, however, dispensed with the concept of "the thing in itself" and saw human experience and action partaking of the divine intelligence, and through which the universe manifests itself. Ahab's desire to pierce through the phenomenal world seems like the Kantian believing in "the thing in itself" the "truth" or real presence outside of appearances. Emerson, too, in a less radical approach speaks of Letter to Hawthorne, April 16, 1851: at 555: As soon as you say Me, a God, a Nature, so soon you jump off from your stool and hang from the beam. Yes, that word is the hangman. Take God out of the dictionary, and you have Him in the street."


Carlyle, Thomas, Sartor Resartus, Book III, Chapt 8

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Norton, 1967.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy. Berkeley: U Ca P, 1979.
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