PS's introductory lecture outline notes, second half of class:
focus on Ahab
AHAB: the key word is absolutism

Ahab’s egotistical sublime: Ahab speaking for others, making them act out what he wills—even as he does so in the name of re-claiming his own freedom, power, autonomy taken from him unjustly by the whale. identity defined by power relations within a hierarchy, vs. Ishmael’s (sometime) reciprocity

Ahab’s absolutism, his either/or principles, regarding ‘manliness,’ power, and knowledge: one has either power and knowledge over another or one is ‘unmanned,’ castrated; either in control of others or a slave to someone else. And yet even with absolute power over his crew Ahab also feels as if he is being controlled by another, unknown force: “this act’s immutably decreed....” [ch. 119]

ch 36, The Quarterdeck: when A. scarred and dismembered by Moby-Dick, he speaks of himself as “dismasted,” now a “poor pegging lubber” or clumsy workman, not a captain or a proud whaling ship. A. defining himself through power, tools, workskills. He also takes it not as the act of a dumb brute but as a sign from a hidden god, an instance that proves that violence and evil rule the world: a god that is either cruel or (perhaps worse) indifferent.

Ahab’s inability to abide uncertainty. wounded by the whale’s inscrutibility as well as by its jaws. Ahab’s quest for absolute knowledge as well as absolute power: cf. Faust, Satan, other models of pride and over-reaching.

‘strike through the mask’ [The Quarterdeck, ch. 36] speech 144
“I see in [Moby-Dick] outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the whie whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.”

The entire world (but esp. the whale) reduced to a mere object or mask or sign for a hidden meaning that A. will challenge:
“All visible objects, man, are but as pastoeboard masks. But in each event ... there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me....”

Puritan semiotics of the signs of God’s providence or anger now become a semiotics of evil or indifference. And to strike back, A. must do unto this unseen force what was done unto him: he will castrate or destroy it.

Now, Ahab claims that he is acting not solely on his behalf but as an agent for all humanity, for all the injustices of the world for which he holds the gods accountable. He uses violent means as a protest against violence. Yet he therefore has to repress admitting how this makes him become like the force he so hates. Or rather indifferent to it; it becomes a kind a cosmic joke, a perverse paradox of power. To get this revenge in the name of suffering humanity, A. will use that same humanity (at least a representative group of it, the crew of the Pequod) as if it is merely a tool or a pasteboard mask--the opposite of Ishmael’s principle of mutuality and exchange. A. will subject them to the complete control of his will and his revenge-wish, death-wish. Yet (a final twist) he will do this by staging an elaborate event that gives them the illusion of a mutually-agreed upon heroic adventure, the illusion of free will. “Will ye splice hands on it,” he says to the harpooners. [more on this subject in a moment]

Ahab as a Tragic Hero?

Tony Tanner:
“Ahab was just such a man as the American nineteenth century was producing, who could and did rthlessly exploit and manipulate the land and the people for his own grandioose, self-aggrandizing ends”

However: Tony Tanner dismisses the possibility that Ahab can be a tragic hero, rather than a tyrant and a social type; calling him such a hero is “inappropriate sentimentalization”

Yet possible to think of Ahab as a tragic hero embodying all the contradictions of democracy and capitalism, rather than being merely their negation.

Ahab as an ambitious attempt of Melville’s part to mix three of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes: Macbeth’s guilty blood-revenge lust; Lear’s egotism and angry bluster (yet also his resilience and his tender humility, esp. in the heath scene with the Fool); and Hamlet’s skeptical questions, his “quick ... probings at the very axis of reality” (to borrow Melville’s words in praise of Shakespeare from his “Hawthorne and His Mosses” essay)

More on chs 36-37 and after: a public ritual bonding the crew together into a killing machine [with a side episode in private dialogue with his First Mate Starbuck, with whom A. has to use other methods to gain him to his side, or as least paralyze his will to mutiny], then in ch 37 Ahab reflecting on what he has just done. Then 38 Starbuck’s reaction and
39-40 various responses to the Quarterdeck events, moving down the hierarchy of the ship’s crew. Note M’s use of dramatic form, his ‘Shakespearean’ stage directions etc.

details on ch 36
A. using the crew’s illusion of free will
Ishmael’s pun on ‘clubbed’
foreshadowing the crew’s doom: A’s hand on the ‘shroud’ [sail]
A’s use of chilvalric pageantry, male-bonding drinking ritual, and black mass allusions: all pastboard masks to be manipulated for hidden ends

Ahab mixing the ‘savage’ and the modern or industrial
blood revenge as a premodern code associated with medieval world and with American Indians
vs. a ‘modern’ interest in the whale by the Nantucket investors: killing whales to transform them into oil and into cash.

Is Ahab merely a vestigial and monstrous remnant of a premodern code? Starbuck seems to think so.... Yet note how Ahab’s own language is that of the prototypical industrial magnate; it revels in the expression of absolute power via tools and technology: 147 top and bottom

The power of A. is neither modern nor premodern, but a dangerous mix of the 2 (and Melville is suggesting that technology manipulated in the hands of tyrants always has such a mix): A’s ‘black mass’ (the murderous chalices) a mix of industrial technological prowess and and theatre and mysticism

ch 119 The Candles
a late soliloquy of Ahab on revenge, to compare w/ chs. 36-37. Ahab’s totalitarianism, his obsession with hierarchy and dominance: revenge against the indifferent force behind the whale must be a power reversal, so that Ahab uses this ‘god’ as the ‘god’ has used him 417
the only form justice or compensation can take is revenge, and the only form revenge can take is a reversal of who’s dominant and subjected (with the division of power and the definition of power remaining intact, however)

one-upmanship: will now mock God with the indifference and disdain and violence with which Ahab feels he was treated


“Yet a little lower layer” to Ahab (an allusion to Ahab’s code phrase when talking to Starbuck in ch 36):
Ahab’s tie to Pip as an acknowledgment of Ishmael’s principle of reciprocity?
--and, therefore, a critique of his own monomania for revenge
436 445
yet in the end A. can still convert such reflective and doubting moments into a reason for continuing the chase for M-D

Tanner: “What is at stake here is ... Democracy—its meaning, truth, justice, feasibility, and fate. ...To what extent was the nation American becoming like, behaving like, the mad captain of the Pequod? Mad, but also dangerously and successfully dominating? ...What would, or could, save the ship America if she should follow the Pequod?” America in the 1850s, a decade before the Civil War....

More on Ahab

A’s introduction, ch 28 [pp 108- ] (over 100 pages into the novel! cf delayed introduction of some of the major players in Shakespeare plays)

the “perpendicular seam” pp 110-111 vs. the perpendicular lamp-flame oppressing Jonah in Father Mapple’s sermon, inducing Jonah’s submission [ch 9 p 47]. flame as light of God’s power of punishment and salvation, vs. seam/flame/cruxifixion image as an example of unjust punishment and a goad for seeking revenge

juxtaposing Father Mapple’s sermon [ch 9] vs. Ahab: Ahab as a Job who will not submit, who will in fact accuse God of barbarity and indifference---vs. Father Mapple’s stress on God’s omnipotence and righteousness and humans’ abasement, their duty to beg foregiveness. (in the depth of the whale, Father Mapple says, Jonah asks not for foregiveness but simply praises God’s power to punish.... vs. Ahab). Note esp. the ending of the ch 9: Father Mapple on his knees in adject humility. Yet the ambiguity of “What is a man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?”--affirming God’s immortality & man’s limits, or suggesting an absent God or a dying faith?

chs 28-29 the narrator and then a crewmember (the Manxman), and then one of the head mates (Stubb) all try to describe and understand Ahab. Comic contrasts, esp. with Stubb


A’s power over nature parallels his will to power over the crew, which he basically sees as dumb brutes whose strength and courage he revels in because he can harness it for his plan of revenge.

note A’s handling of Starbuck’s objections to his show: with Starbuck, he must try to insinuate himself differently--- “thou requirest a little lower layer” of reasoning” (pp. 143-44)

A’s violence, his will to power, his willing himself to become inhuman---to give up the luxuries of life that will make him ‘soft’---pleasure in smoking his pipe, thoughts of home, etc.---A’s longing for tenderness, forgiveness, a different kind of healing than what he thinks he will gain by his revenge?



34: comedy of the captain’s table/ hierarchies of social and personal differences as a comic dance

41 Ishmael on Moby-Dick, Ahab

42 Ishmael’s own “sermon” on violence, indifference, and mystery; a meditation on whiteness as frighening absence, blankness

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