Friday, September 04, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Ahab

At the rate I am making my way through Moby Dick, I should be done with it by, oh, 2015. What will the world be like then? Will we have universal health insurance in the US? Will we remember who Levi Johnston is? Will the Internet be transmitted directly into our brains, or just the Netflix pop-up ads? The good news is that there is so much to learn and savor in this novel that my lack of speed will result in no lack of material for our writing seminar. Oh, and more good news: Ahab has appeared.

This week: how to make a character larger than life.

Obviously there's the old trick of delaying his entrance while other characters build him up. Ishmael keeps wondering where Ahab is, why he hasn't met the captain of the ship on which he's going to spend the next three years. This is most irregular. He keeps hearing that Ahab is "sick" but will be better soon. Meanwhile a self-appointed prophet named Elijah shows up, twice, to deliver warnings about Ahab and the Pequod.

"Stop!" cried the stranger. "Ye said true--ye hav'n't seen Old Thunder yet, have ye?"

"Who's Old Thunder?" said I, again riveted with the insane earnestness of his manner.

"Captain Ahab."

"What! the captain of our ship, the Pequod?"

"Aye, among some of us old sailor chaps, he goes by that name. Ye hav'n't seen him yet, have ye?"

"No, we hav'n't. He's sick they say, but is getting better, and will be all right again before long."

"All right again before long!" laughed the stranger, with a solemnly derisive sort of laugh. "Look ye; when Captain Ahab is all right, then this left arm of mine will be all right; not before."

"What do you know about him?"

"What did they tell you about him? Say that!"

"They didn't tell much of anything about him; only I've heard that he's a good whale-hunter, and a good captain to his crew."

"That's true, that's true--yes, both true enough. But you must jump when he gives an order. Step and growl; growl and go--that's the word with Captain Ahab. But nothing about that thing that happened to him off Cape Horn, long ago, when he lay like dead for three days and nights; nothing about that deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa?-- heard nothing about that, eh? Nothing about the silver calabash he spat into? And nothing about his losing his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy. Didn't ye hear a word about them matters and something more, eh? No, I don't think ye did; how could ye? Who knows it? Not all Nantucket, I guess. But hows'ever, mayhap, ye've heard tell about the leg, and how he lost it; aye, ye have heard of that, I dare say. Oh, yes, that every one knows a'most--I mean they know he's only one leg; and that a parmacetti took the other off."

"My friend," said I, "what all this gibberish of yours is about, I don't know, and I don't much care; for it seems to me that you must be a little damaged in the head. But if you are speaking of Captain Ahab, of that ship there, the Pequod, then let me tell you, that I know all about the loss of his leg."

"All about it, eh--sure you do? all?"

There's nothing like a crazy minor character to deliver lots of disturbing information efficiently. One has to be careful with this, as the technique has become something of a cliche. Still, a crazy person can get away with babbling out fragments of story after story, creating a swirl of mystery and chaos around the character in question. And of course the person hearing those stories has an excuse for denying them and resisting the warning to stay away. Perhaps a contemporary variant on this type of crazy person could be of use in our stories.

So over a hundred pages have gone by, quite enjoyably of course, and finally we meet Ahab. Melville has given himself quite a task in not letting us down after such a buildup.

It was one of those less lowering, but still grey and gloomy enough mornings of the transition, when with a fair wind the ship was rushing through the water with a vindictive sort of leaping and melancholy rapidity, that as I mounted to the deck at the call of the forenoon watch, so soon as I levelled my glance towards the taffrail, foreboding shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck.

There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini's cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.

Could a writer get away with this today--the vaguely threatening sky, the bald statement that "reality outran apprehension"? The quick piling up of similes--a man cut away from the stake, a bronze form, a tree struck by lightning?

In the case of the similes, anyway, I think one could, especially if one is not given to larding one's prose with these in general (confession: guilty). Obviously one should ensure that the figures are striking, original, and highly revealing. The first one, about the man who's been burned to at the stake, is stunning. Not only does it create an unforgettable visual image, it suffuses Ahab's whole character with horror and pain. Being burned at the stake is usually a punishment for heresy--and Ahab is tormented metaphysically, spiritually; but the fire also comes from within him. The bronze image that follows quickly tells us that although he's been consumed in fire he is not fragile. He is a work of art for the ages. And then the tree tells us that, lo and behold, he's still alive--"greenly alive," possibly even more alive than anyone else--despite or because of what he's gone through. In other words, these similes work because they are not just physical comparisons but expressions of Ahab's inner being, and his history. They join inside and outside, and they comment on each other: burned but enduring, not paralyzed but alive. And, yes, larger than life.

And then Ahab really does come to life. I love the last bit of this chapter, in which, after quite a bit more description, we get this:

Nevertheless, ere long, the warm, warbling persuasiveness of the pleasant, holiday weather we came to, seemed gradually to charm him from his mood. For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods; even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such gladhearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile.

This is charming, even funny. Ahab becomes just a tiny bit approachable. We root for him to smile, knowing now what he's been through--not the literal stories, exactly, but their physical and spiritual effects, which are worse. I think this is key to creating the larger-than-life character--just a little touch of humanity, struggling to get out. Now we, like the sailors on the Pequod, are hooked for good.

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