Moby Dick: Ahab’s Word Against the World’s

Sperm Whale by Scammon, Charles Melville, 1825-1911
Sperm Whale by Scammon, Charles Melville, 1825-1911

Of all the questions that one chooses to make upon uncertainty, the one silently pressed by Moby Dick‘s Ahab may be among the most tragic ones. Why should I die? Why must I die? And probably —as one must adventure to say— what makes it so full of pain is the elemental knowledge that no real answer can satisfy it. It is, in fact, more than a question; is a statement on despair, on powerlessness. As the animal that could take nature on his hands and transform it, man is often obliged to face the frailty of his own matter as the most strange remainder of an impotence he can’t, finally, overcome. His self-declared promise to shape the world, to assign control over everything that lives —menacing— in chaos, means nothing if nature finds a way to overpower will; death being, in fact, the main vehicle of this deception.

Curiously enough, Herman Melville has arranged an image, inside the lines of Moby Dick, where that triumph over nature is exposed as an impossibility from the first moment: by the time the story introduces the ship and its crew, the first encounter with the whale is already on the past, and Captain Ahab, the force of will guiding the hunt, is broken and maddened. With the loss of a limb, he has allowed death to become present in close space: his body has turned into a sort of mark of the destruction that, one day, will fill him entirely. This transformation, although mostly superficial, makes of Ahab the evidence of defeat. He’s forced, day by day, to inspect his flesh —that void in the place where his leg should be— and wake up to the awareness that a part of him is already decomposing somewhere else. Such a darkly ironic portrait, in which Ahab must play both hunter and prey, should help to distinguish him from the image of the heroic undefeated and, in doing so, fix the place of the character in the story as another mortal, another common.

Yet the intense emotion that guides Moby Dick leads to another road, a path so struck by energy that it defies the perception of loss. Once Ahab has become what is unthinkable for him to be —a symbol of mortality— he tries to take back what he was through rage and madness. Blinded by a desire to take action, revenge emerges as the closest choice his mind has at hand. It seems certain from the start, however, that this impulse —rather than an idea— can give him nothing, aside from the opportunity to sign the destruction of the only force that has challenged him and his rule as hunter. Such a primal purpose, put in front of the circumstances, makes for a late victory, with nothing to be gained but a position of power: as soon as Ahab kills the whale, he becomes able to survive it, he gets to live beyond that chaotic and mythical being by enforcing his will upon it. It is left to be assumed that, through the completion of this aim, he would recover the place, above death and nature, that fed his former emotion. If this is true, the voyage has been, all along, a quest to shape an inner noise.

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. Moby Dick (1956)
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. Moby Dick (1956)

It should be clear, though, that even by enforcing his vengeance on the world, Ahab would fail to solve the question that had risen from his encounter with mortality. Can killing mask the fact that he is to die? To what it begs to answer that it hardly can. Ahab must still remain subject to a promise of death that he can’t silence through force, a circumstance that leaves no place for him to act —or at least not in the way that is more natural for him to do so: as a maker of destruction. Unlike the classical hero, who approaches his end as a glorious and yet tragic strike in the lines of his song, Ahab is trapped between life and death, waiting and weighting the awareness that his existence will pass. Regardless of the outcome of his battle, he’s not immortal, that sign of death won’t go away; and, therefore, a higher and more intimate truth has to be acknowledged.

It is, upon this awareness, that I suspect some sort of trembling in Ahab; something dimly suggested by his madness. Part of the brilliance of Melville’s portrait might, in fact, be due to this careful layering of emotions, where the most energetic ones eclipse those who torment him. Pain, after all, is lost as a companion to rage, despite being the sting of his obsession. A similar motive could light the so-limited delusion that begins to form in Ahab; the delusion that he actually is the undefeated hero and that his battle cannot fail. Whenever the trembling of mortality should come, his voice reacts; it designs another reality, where fiction serves his mind:

“I am immortal then, on land and sea […] I am immortal then, on land and sea!”(p.329)

He cries, as the body of a dead whale is taken, defying the weight of reality. It is like no revelation had come. Ahab has pushed for something else in the place of consciousness that works in the same way; some sort of mental device —a prosthetic consciousness— that fills the absence of control and lets him rewrite what, in his eyes, there should or shouldn’t be. Instead of rethinking the limits of his wanting —that would, in accord, mean surrendering his movements— Ahab attempts to rethink his notion of the world, so that his will and purpose remain unchanged. It is no coincidence that his manners become theatrical; objects, in this view, no longer exist on their own, but are rather transformed into artifacts for the will to play with: he screams to the sun in its silence; he, like Hamlet, starts an eulogy for a whale’s head, reflecting in amazement. What is this but an inquiry on how are these pieces of reality related to the captain? His words fill, with intention, the quietness that makes the world; for his own view, the sun is a mediocre tool and the corpse, a fallen warrior. All signs to his story.

A scene from Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea (2015). The movie centers on the sinking of the Essex in 1820, a event that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.
A scene from Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea (2015). The movie centers on the sinking of the Essex in 1820, a event that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.

By the workings of this contained madness, he can find what reason has been denying him: a state of glory in which all danger is foreign or minuscule. Now, in his own revolted understanding, he too can be a mythical figure, a step away from being godlike; and language, infinitely separated from the truth of matter, must allow it:

“There’s something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here, —three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.” (p.288)

At which extent are words able to shape reality? If the question Why must I die? is a false question, I can’t is the false answer that might, at least, sustain a tiny layer over reality to please the spirit. After all, didn’t Descartes invent the logic for God to exist? Didn’t even Nietzsche let himself imagine that space and time would be repeated for eternity? Whatever image idealism produces has a potential to become an active palliative over what, otherwise, would be declaring that the universe is bound to defeat us. Here, away from law and matter, the mind has a chance to dispense with the disposition of things outside, and will rather ask what is conceivable; to what it is given, in return, an image to be held as proof that it’s possible. The truth or falsehood rest, ultimately, on the mind that considers it in the light of its process and need.

This polyphony of reason should allow us to rethink power as if it isn’t, for what it’s worth, a hierarchy with fixed roles, but a position that can be built upon from anywhere. For the silent animal, power is enforced on the single impulse of the hunt —so an almost perfect hierarchy can be drawn— but in man power seems to be more elastic. Both the sinner and the moralist may claim positions of power over the other without diminishing their own stances. Draw the line over the law and only the sinner has the ability to cross it, making a fool out of the moralist; on the other hand, draw a line over discipline and only the latter has the power to remain on his position without becoming a slave to his appetites.

Ahab’s delusion of victory, however, seems to be a special instance of this elastic relationship. That major force that is death imposes to everything like an animal on the hunt: it cannot be escaped or neutralized, again, for it is born inside the needs of life. What’s left for Ahab to challenge, then, is the influence of that strange power over him. He turns to the most basic object on his control: his self; with no other purpose than to unleash a delightful delirium of supremacy. As the chaos has transformed him, so by his own words can he transform himself for an instant in eternity; just a second where everything in him is more important that the infinite whole:

An illustration that depicts the final chase between Ahab and Moby Dick. By I. W. Taber (1902).
An illustration that depicts the final chase between Ahab and Moby Dick. By I. W. Taber (1902).

“I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whencesoe’er I came; wheresoe’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. […] 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 eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on 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 do I glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what has 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 unsuffising 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.334)

Here’s the peculiarity of his fight; because of the dimension of his foe, his triumph is doomed to be partial. Ahab angers, yet trembles, in the mixed knowledge of madness and reason. At the core of his humanity he pushes for an advantage that can’t materialize. Yes, he can think and he can speak of his distinct consciousness, but ultimately, there’s a profound ambiguity in the value of this quality. A life that possesses the means to will and arrange power, without action, is so unique that it can’t help but to be isolated in front of an inattentive nature. Chained to its limits, man won’t have a victory over his external by building a reality through language; man will have a victory over himself, the true interpreter of all these sounds. Such is the true meaning of Ahab’s word: it will hold the world until time, in its distracted motion, will erase both the necessity and the structure of order.

Works cited

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick: or, the White Whale. Amazon. 2011.

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  1. Ahab is essentially a critique in the belif that there is a hand guiding the world guiding according to some plan. Like Nietzsche’s critique of nihilism, Ahab, finally seeing no hand, asserts the world as a chaos. If all is indeed but pasteboard masks, this nihilsitic vision should still lead to something positive.

  2. Patrick Stewart played him with cracked charisma in a film version a few years ago–a spot-on interpretation.

  3. Let’s not underestimate the importance of religion in Ahab and Moby Dick. Ahab isn’t a mere “villain”, but representative of both the Christian god and the Christian devil and shares attributes of both – sometimes at the same time.

    • Felipe Mancheno

      Yes, you make a very interesting point: there’s the rebellion, the unchallenged authority and other traits. That is also what I find so compelling about Ahab’s humanity; he doesn’t belong into any absolute position and, nevertheless, he still seeks one.

    • One of the things I love most about Moby-Dick is discussing different themes. For me; Fedallah and Pip, who act like outward emanations of Ahab’s internal duality. The relationship with Pip, in particular, is one that can’t really be adequately explained in brief, and the meaning of both – and of what Ahab ‘really’ represents – will be different for different readers. As with all classics, to paraphrase Calvino, the book hasn’t finished speaking to us.

      Something else to consider: to some people the Christian god is a villain, too.

  4. Jacque Venus Tobias

    So happy to see this published. Well done indeed!

  5. WayForward

    Ahab, you need a hobby. Have you tried yoga, or maybe stamp collecting?

  6. Captain Ahab. The inspiration of Star Trek’s greatest villian: Khan Noonin Singh

  7. The great epic history!

  8. carsake

    The 1956 version was the best. I loved Gregory Peck and hated Patrick Stewart. I loved the character who played Queequeg in the 1956 version, he had mystery, he looked and acted like the son of a tribal king. The actor who played Queequeg in 1998 version make Queequeg look like a moody college fratboy.

  9. Ahab is like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, every word that issues from his mouth ravishes you. You are seduced by him and prepared to follow him to Perdition… and they all do, except one.

  10. There’s a radically different reading of Moby Dick in Jed McKenna’s Spiritually Incorrect Enlightenment which views it as a map of the spiritual bid for liberation at any cost, with the whale representing Maya//illusion. I haven’t read Moby Dick for years but McKenna’s take is pretty good one. In which case, Ahab is not a great villain at all, but maybe the only authentic hero of American literature – sort of Neo of the arts.

    Here’s a video with some of McKenna’s views:

  11. Rodrick Dowdy

    Nothing substantial to add here. Just wanted to say that was an enjoyable, well-written article.

  12. I saw this movie when I was 5, at a drive-in at the Jersey shore. Absolutely impacted my head ! I do not recall losing too much interest at the time either ! Nice too, that reading was a prime source of entertainment back then.

  13. Just getting to this book. Love it. This article on Ahab only make me want to finish it even more.

    • Felipe Mancheno

      Great! Don’t be discouraged by long description, though. There are chapters and chapters of writing about instruments, customs of the sailors, biology and else. But in the end it’s worth it.

  14. Ahab is a tragic hero to me. He’s a kind of Don Quixote in reverse and Moby Dick is his windmill. Don Quixote lives in a fantasy world for a time; mistaking a tavern and inn for a castle and peasant girls for ladies etc. trying to live up to a chivalric code. In Moby Dick Ahab is the one who one might say is under no illusions about the nature of God and reality. He is one who has perhaps penetrated the veil while other around him have not. Here is a line from the wikipedia page on Don Quixote; “Many critics came to view the work as a tragedy in which Don Quixote’s innate idealism and nobility are viewed by the world as insane, and are defeated and rendered useless by common reality.” One could say the same about Ahab although exchange obsession for idealism and rage for nobility. He’s the anti-Quixote.

    • Felipe Mancheno

      You are right! I couldn’t agree more on him being a sort of anti-Quixote. In fact, you can see that perfectly in their social relationships: Don Quixote’s idealism expands to other characters while Ahab’s obsession isolates him more and more. I would say, though, that reality is not that ‘unveiled’ to Ahab. While Don Quixote sees giants on the place of mills, Ahab sees some sort of conscious intention in the whale to kill him. They are both, to a certain point, delusional in their views and objectives; but Don Quixote’s quest is altruistic, while Ahab’s is centred in his egomania.

  15. Coherent arguments that gave me new viewpoints on a wonderful sprawl of a book. Thanks!

  16. Ahab is a Gothic baddie–a leader with genuine heroic qualities.

  17. Excellent piece of work.

  18. Dillon Raborn

    This was so good! I’d been thinking for a while to read Moby Dick – now I must. Thanks for this, Felipe!

  19. Your essay makes me think that Melville’s Ahab and Conrad’s Marlowe have so much in common. Both are seen so much as men of words. Ahab is always making his speeches, and we are always hearing about what a great talker Marlowe is. Both end up in disaster.

  20. Prof. Elliot Rentz would have criticized that you didn’t use the hyphen in the novel’s title.

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