Saturday, September 19, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Ahab's Soul

This week, we'll have another look at characterization in Moby Dick, courtesy of Ahab. First--and forgive me for stating the obvious with a sense of great discovery--I've been struck by how much Ahab and the white whale are the same character. Melville hits this idea pretty hard in these early-to-middle chapters: both are scarred (by each other), both have wrinkled brows, both are associated with the shape of a pyramid (the whale has a pyramid-shaped hump, while Ahab, in Stubb's dream, is a pyramid that Stubb is kicking).* Both are driven by some unfathomable force, and become that force, sucking in and destroying all around them. Ishmael expends almost as much effort trying to "get" Ahab as he does the equally opaque whale. In Chapter 44, "The Chart," he takes another, so to speak, stab at him.

Often, when forced from his hammock by exhausting and intolerably vivid dreams of the night, which, resuming his own intense thoughts through the day, carried them on amid a clashing of phrensies, and whirled them round and round and round in his blazing brain, till the very throbbing of his life-spot became insufferable anguish; and when, as was sometimes the case, these spiritual throes in him heaved his being up from its base, and a chasm seemed opening in him, from which forked flames and lightnings shot up, and accursed fiends beckoned him to leap down among them; when this hell in himself yawned beneath him, a wild cry would be heard through the ship; and with glaring eyes Ahab would burst from his state room, as though escaping from a bed that was on fire. Yet these, perhaps, instead of being the unsuppressable symptoms of some latent weakness, or fright at his own resolve, were but the plainest tokens of its intensity. For, at such times, crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale; this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral. But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab's case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could grimly live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfathered birth. Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.
I can't think of a contemporary novel that depicts the soul this way. In this stunning sequence, Ahab's soul is given agency and material reality. I love the idea that the tormented soul is seizing the opportunity of sleep to try to escape the circumstances it's trapped in. It can't quite make it; the soul is stuck with the body and its deranged mind, just as the sailors on the Pequod are stuck with Ahab. But it makes a run for it, dragging the vacated-looking Ahab with it.

These days I think discussions of the soul in literature are out of favor, except in a sort of meta way. We're all past the mind / body split, and we--that is to say, I--don't accept the existence of a "soul" distinct from our physical selves. However, what possibilities are open to us as writers if we re-inhabit that split for the sake of our fiction? If we make the soul a kind of character within the character--and put those two characters at odds? At a minimum, this gives a twist to the usual "inner struggle" or "inner conflict" that interesting characters are supposed to experience. The soul here has a physical presence, literally giving the struggle a new dimension. The connotations here are not overtly religious; but something more than Ahab's sanity is at stake, it would seem, if his soul is running amok in the night.

*Another great way, if not overused, to depict characters--one has a dream about the other. If the dream is weird enough, it gives a nice shading to both dreamer and dreamee.

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