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This is outside my normal entries, but I have to comment. Scientists in Italy have been convicted of manslaughter due to the deaths of more than 300 people in a 2009 earthquake. The scientists told the people of an Italian town that a large earthquake was unlikely despite several recent small quakes. The people re-entered their homes, and the quake hit. Now (pending appeal) the scientists are going to jail.
I don’t think I could possibly express enough outrage over this.
I hate fiction.
I read Moby-Dick, finally, after several tries, and I didn’t hate it. Not completely. That, plus my daughter’s English assignment, plus hearing a speaker at a recent conference reference it, encouraged me to take another crack at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a Modern Prometheus.
Like Moby-Dick, Frankenstein was a book I’d started many times but never finished. I knew the basic plot, of course, and was attracted to the idea of the struggle of creation and creator that the book promised. Certainly many science fiction plots, such as Isaac Asimov’s robot stories and many of the Data story lines on Star Trek TNG explored these ideas. So I gave it another try, and this time I finished it.
This novel is so poorly written I’m surprised anyone bothered to keep a copy. While the premise (scientist plays God, his creation starts thinking for itself) is clearly a subject rich in possibility, the rest of the novel beyond that germ of an idea is an utter waste of time.
We are first subjected to the story of some arctic explorer, via a series of inane letters he sends to his sister. The details of their lives, spelled out in, well, detail, are dull as dishwater and have nothing to do with the plot. A few pages in, finally, this explorer picks up some lost wanderer who turns out to be, you guessed it, Victor Frankenstein himself. Most of the rest of the book is Frankenstein telling his story to the explorer, who is then writing it down to send to his sister. Got it?
Frankenstein goes into the details of all his friends and relations, again stultifyingly boring stuff, until finally we get to what we’ve been waiting for. Victor goes off to the university to become a scientist. He becomes interested in the chemistry of life. He studies for a while and then one day he creates an eight-foot-tall person (with pearly white teeth and yellow eyes).
You might think I’m simplifying a bit there, but no. That’s about as much description as we get. There’s no castle, no cool electrical devices, no lightning storm, no midnight grave robbing, no hunchback named Igor to fetch a brain from “A.B. Normal”. There’s just, suddenly, without any buildup or explanation, a living being that Victor somehow created (in his apartment, no less!)
That’s a little tongue-in-cheek. I don’t particularly need the Hollywood version of Frankenstein, although I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with it, either. But if this book is really supposed to mark the birth of science fiction, can’t you give me even one sciencey idea? A single Jacob’s Ladder? How about a Leyden Jar, at least?
But no, the creature is just there. And (what’s much worse), just as quickly, the creature is gone. Frankenstein does all this work, and then when the creature is finished, he takes one look at the monster’s yellow eyes and decided he doesn’t really want to play anymore. Victor goes to take a nap or something, and the next time he checks, the creature is gone!
What the *#^&!?!! Seriously? You’re one of the world’s best scientists, you’ve created the first synthetic human being in history, and you just let him go? Aren’t you the least bit curious about your creation? At that point in the book, I lost all interest in Victor Frankenstein and was just counting the pages until he got his. It was a lot of pages.
From there the book devolves into a series of fortunate (or tragic, depending on your point of view) coincidences. The creature just happens to find Victor’s notes in his coat pocket. He learns to speak by peeking through a wall at some peasant family for over a year (remember, he’s over eight feet tall and knows essentially nothing, yet evades detection while spying through a chink in a wall).
He teaches himself to read after finding a copy of Paradise Lost somewhere or other. Then he remembers the papers in his pocket and learns about his creator, whom he now hates. He goes off to find Frankenstein, and just happens to run into Frankenstein’s younger brother (whom he kills) and a family friend (whom he deftly frames for the murder). And on and on.
Keep in mind that this is the explorer, writing what Frankenstein told him, who is in turn relating what the creature told him. And even the creature’s story involves sub-plots upon sup-plots that once again have precious little to do with the story. My high school creative writing teacher would have run out of red ink.
The worst part of the book, though, is what it isn’t. When Frankenstein and the creature finally meet face to face, instead of an existential exploration of the meaning of life, the rights of the created, or the responsibility of the creator, all we get is a half-baked idea for Frankenstein to build a bride for the creature. Eventually, after dithering around here and there, Victor changes his mind, and more carnage ensues. Blah blah.
The sub-title “a Modern Prometheus” is the part that really bugs me. Prometheus stole fire from the gods. He gave it to humans. He showed the power of learning, of science, to alter the world, to give us the ability to control our own destinies against the wishes of the powers that be. For this, Prometheus was punished with eternal torture. I’d hoped Frankenstein and/or the creature might have explored this idea of gaining knowledge despite the dangers inherent in it (after all, fire burns, but it also cooks delicious bratwurst!) Instead, Shelley seems to reinterpret the Prometheus story. “You know that whole fire thing? Maybe not such a good idea, after all.” Go soak your romantic head, Mary Shelley, and enjoy your raw bratwurst.
Finally we get to the end of the book and Victor dies peacefully aboard the explorer’s ship. A little later the creature comes in and we have a final disappointing scene where the creature laments how it all turned out. Have some cheese with your whine, crybaby.
I suppose you can see the whole thing as an allegory. Mary Shelley was clearly saying that there are things best left unknown, and that we humans shouldn’t play God. I, of course, disagree with both those sentiments. I think all evil results from a lack of knowledge, and I believe that “playing God” would involve pretending that you don’t exist. But just because I disagree with a writer’s point of view doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy her writing. Shelley could have told a tale I disagreed with, but she could have done it brilliantly. She didn’t.
Stick to the Mel Brooks’ version, with Jacob’s Ladders galore.
No more fiction for a while. I’m currently reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, and so far it is excellent. Shelley would have hated it.
I’d almost forgotten about this post regarding David Deutsch, Steven Pinker, and Big Bird’s role in the Rights Revolution:
Now we learn that a major plank of Mitt Romney’s presidential bid is to wipe out that den of socialism known as PBS, including Big Bird and all his friends. Well, that clinches it. No one who goes after Big Bird will ever get my vote.
(Not that he had much chance, anyway)
And so we enter upon the third day of the chase for Moby Dick. We know how it must end. I trust I won’t be spoiling it for anyone to cover the events that finally doom both Ahab and his ship.
I have to say that, compared to Ahab’s thrilling soliloquy in the storm, the writing of this final chapter left me cold. It was old, worn, tired, just a playing out of what had to happen to cap this epic tale with a suitable Shakespearean finale. I was disappointed.
First Ahab, following Macbeth, begins the chase by stating once again his belief in his own immortality.
“Drive, drive in your nails, oh ye waves! to their uttermost heads drive them in! ye but strike a thing without a lid; and no coffin and no hearse can be mine:- and hemp only can kill me! Ha! ha!” (p 834)
You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Moby Dick arrives on the scene, causes his usual havoc with every boat but Ahab’s, and then reveals a human figure pinioned to his back. It is, of course, Fadallah, “his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned full upon Ahab.” (p 835)
Fadallah has gone before Ahab, and Moby Dick himself is the first hearse – remember, “the first not made by mortal hands.” Clever, Melville, very clever. Ugh.
But still following the path first trodden by the Scottish king, Ahab holds onto his belief that the full prophesy cannot possibly come true. “Where is the second hearse?” (p 836) Ahab shouts to the sea. It’s a little like the guy who says, “Let’s split up,” after they discover the dismembered teenager in the slasher movie.
And of course you know what’s coming now. Ahab once again harpoons Moby Dick, and the whale snaps the line. Then, in an act that would be implausible were it not the replay of an actual historical event, Moby Dick aims headlong not at Ahab, but at the Pequod itself. When the great whale collides with the great ship, the wound Moby Dick makes in her hull dooms the Pequod to sudden and irrevocable collapse. In short order, the ship goes down. It is, of course, the completion of the prophesy.
“The ship! The hearse! – the second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”
Oh, please. Oh, barf. Why is it that every prophesy ever made has to come true, but only in some twisted and unforeseen way? And why must every “hero” misinterpret the prophesy, leading to his downfall? Can’t anyone think of anything else?
Once again like Macbeth, who gets to shout “I will not yield” before his inevitable end, Ahab still has his famous final attack upon Moby Dick.
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”
And somehow, as this harpoon goes flying toward Moby Dick, the hemp rope (Get it? Remember the prophesy? Remember the gallows?) catches Ahab around the neck and pulls him right out of the boat. His harpoon once again embedded in Moby Dick’s flesh, Ahab and the whale together disappear under the waves and out of our story. The Pequod sinks (not without one more grotesquely symbolic drowning – I’ll let you read that one yourself, it’s so ridiculous I can’t bear to write of it). Next a coffin-turned-lifebouy explodes from the water, and Ishmael (remember him? The narrator? The star of the book’s first twenty chapters?) grabs hold. A passing ship rescues him, the lone survivor of the tragedy, and our sad story finally ends.
But wait. What of the whale? As stated before, where Starbuck sees Ahab’s desire for vengeance as blasphemous, we moderns see it simply as misguided. We know that whales are animals, not evil spirits. We know that if you try to kill an animal, you should expect it to fight back. I think it’s clear that Melville agrees with Starbuck, as the very air and water rebel against Ahab, sending sharks to chew on his boat’s oars, eagles to steal his ship’s flags, and lightning storms to reverse the Pequod’s compasses. We look at Ahab and see error. Melville looked at Ahab and saw sin.
So is there nothing to redeem this failure of human spirit? After 845 pages, does Melville leave me nothing but a morality lesson about flying too close to the Sun? Maybe not. But the hope I take from the story comes from a remarkable place.
Speaking of remarkable, it is worth stating that, for all the talk of Moby Dick, the whale itself does not even appear in the book, except in the tales of others, until chapter 133. And when it finally does appear, it doesn’t resemble at all the monster that was described in ridiculous and overblown prose in chapter 41.
(S)uch seemed the White Whale’s infernal afore-thought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent. (p 266)
Yet when finally the whale is seen up-close by the sailors of the Pequod, here is the description Melville gives us: “A gentle joyousness- a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale.” (p 807) Is this the unconquerable beast that thirsts for human blood? But wait, maybe the legendary ferocity will appear once the attack has begun. No. While crafty and experienced in avoiding the harpoon and knocking the whalers from their boats, in each encounter Moby Dick swam away while helpless men floated in the ocean like little crunchy snacks.
Melville describes Moby Dick as an animal merely trying to survive. This is made clear by Starbuck’s shouted words to Ahab just before the final battle on the third day of the chase.
Moby Dick was now again steadily swimming forward; and had almost passed the ship, which thus far had been sailing in the contrary direction to him, though for the present her headway had been stopped. He seemed swimming with his utmost velocity, and now only intent upon pursuing his own straight path in the sea.
“Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” (p 836)
And so it goes until Moby Dick defies all convention and rams the Pequod itself. As mentioned before, this is so unlikely that it would have been quite implausible had not a similar event occurred in the year 1820, when the whale ship Essex was sunk by a collision with a sperm whale, apparently driven mad by the hunt.
We know today what Melville could not. The oil-filled head of the sperm whale that made the creature such a valued target for whalers is not a floatation device or a battering ram, but rather is a finely-tuned instrument for focusing sonar signals through dark ocean depths. It seems incredible that any sperm whale, no matter how provoked, would purposely ram this delicate organ into a ship. And yet we know it happened in reality at least once. So Melville’s collision was not wholly the creation of his own fancy. But again, perhaps, Melville misinterpreted what had really happened.
After Ahab’s last stand, both he and Moby Dick disappear from the story. We can be certain that Ahab perished in that final plunge (otherwise the prophesy would not be fulfilled, and we know that’s not allowed), but of the whale, we are left with nothing but silence. In the absence of evidence, then, we speculate.
Let us here, then, give Moby Dick a suitable finale. I imagine this magnificent whale, so tormented by its pursuers that, after three days of unrelenting pressure, Moby Dick finally chose to confront the creature that would not leave it be – the Pequod itself. In ramming its forehead into the Pequod the whale must have mortally damaged itself, but at least it would finally be free of the torment of this unceasing hunt. Stunned and injured, Moby Dick took one final insult from Ahab, catching Ahab’s last harpoon, then spiraled down into the abyss, carrying the vengeful madman down and down, creature and tormentor now linked forever.
In smashing its head into the Pequod, Moby Dick did what Ahab could not. Where Ahab followed prophesy, was “the fates’ lieutenant” and acted “under orders”, Moby Dick made a choice. And maybe it is in that final act of free will that we can find some reason for hope.
A Short Afterward
I’ve been a bit hard on Melville in these blog entries. I judge him with my own modern eyes, and that’s not really fair. But like Melville I bring my own time with me wherever I go. How could it be otherwise? I’m certain people of the future will look back at us with equally critical eyes. In fact, I hope they do. As David Deutsch said, “Only progress is sustainable.” (BoI, p 389)
I began this project with the goal of discovering how (if?) reading Moby-Dick had changed me. Did I succeed? Certainly, this reading changed my view of what had up to now been my favorite Shakespearean play, Macbeth. The book and the play have so many parallels toward their ends that I think I will never again consider one without the other. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I used to really like Macbeth.
On the brighter side, Moby-Dick left me fascinated about the history of whaling. I’m longing now to visit New Bedford and Nantucket, to stroll the streets once trodden by Ishmael, Queequeg, and even Ahab as they prepared to sail through the gates of the wonder world and into the wide ocean beyond. I did, I have to admit, enjoy the adventure.
But more deeply, Moby-Dick, and its consideration in light of The Beginning of Infinity, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has reaffirmed in me my core belief in the power and the primacy of the individual. There is nothing better than being alive in this world, to know that, in Walt Whitman’s words, “the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” What more could one ask for than the chance to play in this unscripted, unbounded drama? “All right then,” Huck said, “I’ll go to hell.” We are not guided by fate, we are not controlled by destiny. No invisible hand presses down upon us. If we feel such a hand, it is of our own making. We are not passive players in a tale that has already been told. Rather, we are the writers of our own story. The page, for now, is blank, awaiting the next verse. What will that verse be? We, and we alone, decide.
In this next-to-last entry, I’ll explore more deeply the remarkable character of Captain Ahab, and compare him to my favorite literary creation, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.
Some time before Ahab named Stubb and Starbuck as the oppositely poled representatives of humanity, he spoke his most revealing sentences. Ahab’s epiphanic speech came during a lightning storm, as the Pequod was tossed and spun and the mastheads spouted St. Elmo’s flame in a blinding midnight storm somewhere in the southwest Pacific. Ahab had just grabbed the wires connected to the ship’s lightning rods (the “links” referred to below); as he bellowed his declaration of everlasting hatred into the storm, he dared God to strike him down.
“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whenceso’er I came; whereso’er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”
[Sudden, repeated flashes of lightning; the nine flames leap lengthwise to thrice their previous height; Ahab, with the rest, closes his eyes, his right hand pressed hard upon them.]
“I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. Take the homage of these poor eyes, and shutter-hands. I would not take it. The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eyeballs ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling in some stunning ground. Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her? There lies my puzzle; but thine is greater. Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it. Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!” (p 743)
Books could be written about this remarkable soliloquy. Ahab worships God by hating God. Ahab is Ahab. “In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here.” God might kill him, as God kills all in the end, but Ahab will fight to the last, and perhaps longer if he can only manage it. “(T)hough thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent.”
Ahab not only defies God, he taunts Him, questioning God’s claims to be “unbegun”, suggesting that even for God there is “some unsuffusing thing beyond thee,” for whom, like Stubb to Ahab “all thy creativeness (is) mechanical.”
And finally, Ahab says to God, we’re not so different, You and I, “I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!”
For an atheist like me, this speech is among the most thrilling I’ve ever encountered. It makes my blood course, my breath catch. This heroic declaration of the self, this defiance of any submission, is Ahab’s finest moment. It is also, however, his downfall.
To avoid talking in riddles, I will state unambiguously my thesis. Ahab is an atheist, in the sense of one who defies God. Melville uses Ahab to warn the world of the pitfalls of this kind of atheism. Ahab is a cautionary tale.
In Ahab, Melville gives us a shell of a human being, one for whom passion still clearly burns, but whose passion is grotesquely misdirected. All kindness, all love, all reason for living has disappeared, save one. Ahab’s only desire is to hunt and kill Moby Dick, the embodiment of the God that Ahab hates, and worships by hating. If we depend too much on ourselves, Melville was saying, this is what we can become.
But Melville was wrong. Once again, David Deutsch shows the way. Discussing William Paley’s failed argument for design, Deutsch says, “none of us can choose what our ideas imply.” (The Beginning of Infinity, page 85). This remarkable statement is as true for fiction writers as it is for scientists. Melville created Ahab, and in Ahab the embodiment of the God-defying (rather than the God-denying) atheist. In a sense, Melville created the type, but Melville does not get to choose what his creation means in the world.
And that brings me to Huck, and my favorite scene in my favorite book. Jim has been sold off by the King and the Duke, and Huck must decide what to do next. Should he try to rescue Jim, or should he listen to his conscience, to his society, to all the good and pious people he’s ever known, and write to Miss Watson to help her regain her rightful property.
I’m going to quote the scene in full, and be warned that I will not edit the language. If you’ve read my previous blogs on this book, you’ll understand why.
It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” — and tore it up. (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Google ebook version, p 281)
In that moment, Huck became an atheist, in just the same sense that Ahab was an atheist. They each still believed in God. But like Ahab, Huck would not submit. Instead, to do what he had decided for himself was right, he would go to hell.
The key word is “decided.” Huck had free will. He had the power to choose. He recognized both possible universes, the one in which he returned Jim to Miss Watson, and the one in which he helped Jim escape. Both were real for him. Huck chose Jim.
Contrast this with Ahab’s final acts. After twice having his and the others’ boats wrecked by Moby Dick on successive days, Ahab stands on deck with Starbuck and makes plans for a third assault on the white whale. Starbuck begs Ahab to end this insanity, in Starbuck’s typical way, “Oh, oh – Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!” (p 827)
And Ahab responds, in what must be for me the most disappointing passage in the book, “Ahab is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.” (p 827) This to me is the key passage that separates Melville from Twain, that separates Moby-Dick as an old world novel of fate and destiny from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a truly American novel of individual choice.
Why did Ahab say this? Why, after all his declarations of free will and individuality, did he fall back on the idea that his character destined him to a pre-determined fate? I believe Melville here is indicting the flawed nature of humanity. He is saying that in our weakness we need fate, we need omens, we need to believe that our path is determined. Look at what Ahab says after making his declaration of fate to Starbuck, and after similarly spinning a yarn to the men on deck about Moby Dick’s fate to drown on the third day.
“D’ye feel brave men, brave?”
“As fearless fire,” cried Stubb.
“And as mechanical,” muttered Ahab. Then as the men went forward, he muttered on: – “The things called omens! And yesterday I talked the same to Starbuck there, concerning my broken boat. Oh! How valiantly I seek to drive out of others’ hearts what’s clinched so fast in mine!” (p 827)
What was clinched in Ahab’s heart? Ahab had secretly brought his own boat crew onto the Pequod – four oarsmen and a harpooneer named Fadallah, known as the Parsee. Fadallah is a Zoroastrian, and much like the witches of Macbeth, Fadallah gives Ahab a cryptic prophesy.
“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.”
“Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee!- a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see.”
“Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man.”
“And what was that saying about thyself?”
“Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot.”
“And when thou art so gone before- if that ever befall- then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still?- Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it.”
“Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom- “Hemp only can kill thee.”
“The gallows, ye mean.- I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;- “Immortal on land and on sea!” (p 732)
And so Ahab, like Macbeth before him, like Achilles before that, considered himself invulnerable. A lot easier to be brave under those circumstances.
On the second day of the chase of Moby Dick, Fadallah the Parsee disappeared into the waves. Still, like the doomed Macbeth, Ahab insisted on interpreting the prophesy to his own advantage:
“The Parsee- the Parsee!- gone, gone? and he was to go before:- but still was to be seen again ere I could perish- How’s that?- There’s a riddle now might baffle all the lawyers backed by the ghosts of the whole line of judges:- like a hawk’s beak it pecks my brain. I’ll, I’ll solve it, though!” (p 828)
There’s still some hope there; Ahab still sees himself as an active decision-maker, an active thinker. How, then, to account for this passage on the third and final day of the chase?
“Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels, that’s tingling enough for mortal man! To think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that.” (p 829)
What!?! After all the talk of “There’s that in here that still remains indifferent,” of leaping with God, of burning with God, of Ahab set apart from all humanity, “nor gods nor men his neighbors”? Now, now, he decides that thinking is not for him?
Remember what Ahab said after his declaration of individuality.“Cold, cold- I shiver!-“
It’s too much for Ahab. He can’t stand this place he’s found. And so, he falls back on superstition, on the certainty of fate, on the idea that he’s really a powerless actor in this ancient play. And so it is, says Melville, for all humanity. Without our beliefs, we are not. There, but (literally) for the grace of God, go thou.
It’s a failure. But the failure isn’t Ahab’s. It is Melville’s.
Melville doesn’t get how real understanding of the world, the kind of real understanding gained through the good explanations we call science, can conquer fear and superstition. He believes that without traditional religion of a Starbuck or the mechanical unconsciousness of a Stubb we are all doomed to fall into mysticism.
Contrast again with Huck Finn. This 12-year-old boy was no less superstitious than Ahab. Remember the spilled salt, the shriveled spider, the handled snake skin. Like Ahab’s, Huck’s world was filled with unexplained magic and supernatural influence. And yet, when the time came to make a decision, Huck abandoned all the hocus pocus and looked within himself. He thought. He examined the consequences of his actions, and he made a choice. This is a triumph, where Moby-Dick is, ultimately, a failure.
Perhaps there is one last glimmer of hope in Moby-Dick, not for Ahab, but for another character. I’ll discuss that glimmer in the final entry.
The structure of Moby-Dick is is somewhat jarring. We first meet Ishmael, our narrator. As stated earlier, he and his harpooneer friend Queequeg are the story for the first two dozen chapters or so. Then, once the Pequod leaves Nantucket for the wide ocean, both these characters essentially disappear, to be replaced most notably by Second Mate Stubb, First Mate Starbuck, and of course Captain Ahab himself.
In short order, once Ahab makes his first dramatic appearance on deck, we learn what this book will be about. Ahab, it seems, is insane. Having lost his leg (oddly, Melville never tells us which leg Ahab lost) to an enormous white sperm whale named Moby Dick (note that the title of the book has a hyphen, but the name of the whale does not. I’m sure that has some enormous portent, but I have no idea what it is), Ahab has dedicated his remaining life and this whaling voyage in particular to the hunting and killing of same. More on Ahab later. First, his foils.
Stubb is the least important of the three characters named above, but ironically he gets the most “page time” in the book’s middle sections. Stubb is the first to kill a whale. He uses his guile and experience to obtain a second whale, a whale whose belly is filled with stinky but valuable ambergris, a material used in, of all things, perfume. Stubb is described as happy-go-lucky, unconcerned with danger, neither brave nor fearful, but just generally amused.
Starbuck is a character who could have a book (or even a coffee chain) all for himself. He is the conscience of the Pequod, the one man who could have stopped Ahab in his crazy pursuit of Moby Dick. In chapter 123, “The Musket,” Starbuck holds a loaded firearm up to his sleeping captain in one of those scenes that Ishmael could not possibly have observed.
The yet leveled musket shook like a drunkard’s arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place. (p 758)
Later (p 792), Ahab has himself hoisted in a basket above the ship’s deck, so that he might watch the water for Moby Dick. In this circumstance, someone must guard the rope holding the aloft sailor, otherwise a deck hand might inadvertently untie the rope and send the suspended captain falling to his death. For the task of minding his rope, Ahab chooses none other than Starbuck. With yet another chance to end Ahab’s mad quest, Starbuck fails again.
Why? The reason is revealed when we first meet the Pequod’s first mate.
(E)ndured with a deep, natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition . . . Outward portents and inward presentiments were his. (p 167)
While Starbuck might have studied for all its dark portents a fart in the wind, Stubb would probably have just laughed. For Starbuck all was duty – duty and profit, as he said upon the first lowering for a whale. With this outlook on life Starbuck could no more usurp his captain than he could learn to fly.
And then to Ahab. As way of introduction to the most difficult and important character in Moby-Dick, see what he said of Starbuck and Stubb, when each tried to advise Ahab after the whale had destroyed Ahab’s boat and dumped the captain into the ocean:
Stubb saw (Ahab) pause (before his wrecked boat on the deck of the Pequod) . . . eyeing the wreck exclaimed, “-the thistle the ass refused; it pricked his mouth too keenly, sir; ha! ha!”
(and Ahab responded) “What soulless thing is this that laughs before a wreck? Man, man! did I not know thee brave as fearless fire (and as mechanical) I could swear thou wert a paltroon. Groan nor laugh should be heard before a wreck.”
“Aye, sir,” said Starbuck drawing near, “’tis a solemn sight; an omen, and an ill one.”
“Omen? omen?- the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint – Begone! Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors! Cold, cold- I shiver!- (p 815)
Ahab is, I believe, an atheist.
This requires some explaining. I am an atheist because I look at the world and see no place for the supernatural. As David Deutsch taught me, supernatural explanations are always bad explanations. But if there really were evidence for a superior (even if not a supernatural) being, somehow responsible for our existence, I would still be an atheist – in Ahab’s sense.
Ahab believes in God. There is no question in many of his statements that Ahab looks at the world and sees ample reason to believe in a mysterious reality beyond his own. Today, we are more likely to see the unknown as simply that – unknown. But Ahab was a man of his time. With no good explanations for things like life (remember, this was pre-Darwin), the universe, and everything, Ahab follows nearly all his contemporaries and accepts the existence of God.
So how can Ahab be an atheist if he believes in God? Because Ahab does not accept God’s authority. Ahab has made a monumental discovery. He has discovered himself.
Go back to the quote about Stubb and Starbuck. “Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind;” Earlier, Melville calls Stubb “mechanical.” This is exactly Stubb’s character. He is instinct. He acts without thought. He does not consider. His courage is shallow, because he has never considered the consequences of what he does. Starbuck, in contrast, is the opposite of mechanical. Everything must be considered, every “omen” examined. Nothing means anything to Starbuck except in the context of omens, portents, and his and everyone’s proper place in the established hierarchy.
“(A)nd Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!” Ahab sees himself as different. Why? Because he alone acts neither mechanically nor hierarchically. Ahab alone stands and acts for himself. Alone among God’s creatures, Ahab recognizes his creator, but does not submit to him. Ahab is Ahab’s.
Such sentiments thrill me to my soul. Had I been born into a universe ruled by a god, I would like to believe that I could have Ahab’s courage. However, as we will see in the penultimate entry of my exploration of Moby-Dick, Ahab’s character, and therefore Melville’s interpretation of the world through the character of Ahab, ultimately fails, utterly and completely. But that’s for next time.