Sunday, November 08, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: What is life?

Into the home stretch with Moby Dick...and I'm struck this week by how much the book has to say about characterization. Although if I'd taught it in my "Imitation of Life" class, I don't know if we would have had room for anything else (especially on the quarter system). Perhaps I'll use excerpts in the future. Anyhow, last week, I suggested that Ishmael, as a semi-embodied character /narrator, or an embodied (dis)-embodied (oh, post-structuralism, will you never release my brain from your tentacles?) narrator-device's the point: "Ishmael" is a fundamentally different kind of character than Starbuck, say, or Ahab. The name "Ishmael" does not represent something that we would ever mistake for a living person. This week, we discover that Ahab is the opposite of Ishmael in this sense: Ahab--so he claims anyway--is life itself.

We learn this during a thunderstorm right out of a Gothic novel, with the ship as the lonely castle, complete with the looming forms of scary black men (the harpooneers), their teeth and tattoos illuminated by lightning. Ahab pops up on deck to do his Victor Frankenstein impersonation.

"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 its 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 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 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!"
The Frankenstein parallels here are really quite interesting, though they are not actually my focus in this post. Maybe another time I'll talk about the business of breathing life / fire into one's "child," the "unbegotten," and who makes whom. I guess this indirectly bears on my point, though, which I will now get to.

In "Imitation of Life," I wanted to ask how authors portray life itself. Not how they create verbal imitations of "living beings," but life--"the life force," if you must. It seems to me that Ahab, here, provides a pretty good answer. The force becomes evident in contrast, in defiance, especially against overwhelming power. Life comes through, even comes into being, in opposition to this book's conception of God: "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." Personality--life--comes into relief in the face of impersonal, incomprehensible power. The conflict makes Ahab mad, and it's his rage that makes him more vividly alive than any of the other characters. Rage distills him. We feel Ahab's full commitment to his quest; his racing pulse, his bulging neck tendons as he yells, the pain that (we learn elsewhere) still surges through his phantom leg. And he makes a convincing case here that the best way to worship an indifferent God is to defy him. If God gives us life, the way to accept that gift--to live most fully--is to resist the implacable force to the end of our days. Ahab resembles Milton's Satan, a far more compelling character than God.

Anyway, if you're worried that your characters seem a little "dead," try giving them an overwhelming force to defy. Hopeless rage gives them energy, and also makes them seem both honest and brave.

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