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.