Ahab's Leg

After defending one or another pessimistic view, I do enjoy learning I was wrong. So out of hope I believe we’re heading for extinction. An essential passage in Moby Dick plumbs the “intangible malignity” of the human condition, ramifying within the “whole race from Adam down.” In his quest for an “audacious, unmitigable, and supernatural revenge” on the White Whale who “reaped away” his leg, Captain Ahab finds “all truth…that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought.” He comes to identify most with his greatest enemy.

In supple, undulant prose that enacts the stormy skies and currents of the seas sailed in their hunt for the whale, Ishmael, one of the “mongrel renegades” in Ahab’s crew, relates the “infixed, unrelenting fangs” of a “wild vindictiveness” gnawing Ahab’s sanity as he projects himself, intellectually and spiritually, into Moby Dick, “the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them.” Ahab invests all the dark forces driving him mad into the whale, “the gliding great demon of the seas of life.” Meanwhile, Ishmael sees through Ahab’s “scorched” torso into a regal heart beating with the blood of history’s conquerors, antique kings perched on broken thrones: Ahab “upholds on his frozen brow the piled entablatures of ages,” and in his soul our “whole awful essence sits in bearded state.”

Let’s call this “essence” Evil, though a word abused to the verge of meaninglessness, nonetheless personified, for instance, in the threat of nuclear annihilation or anthropogenic environmental collapse. Ahab’s “special lunacy”  hates “all evil, that intangible malignity that has been from the beginning,” as he dumps “upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate” felt by his species against itself since it diverged from the chimpanzee six million years ago.

I recommend (re)reading Moby Dick, for the tempest of its prose and the sustained depths it plunges into our cavernous self-destructiveness, viewed nowadays with a resigned sense of inevitability (or mocking refusal) similar to the ones expressed toward the possibility of our extinction. So out of hope (that I’m an ass romancing a morbid fancy), I hate the White Whale within us that may reap us away like Ahab’s leg.        

— Marko Sijan