Damned in the Midst of Paradise?
Seeking Balance between Ahab and Abraham
By Annette Keen* © 2010
“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?” (Job 41:1)
If Job had raged against his tormentor and demanded justice, would he have become the whale-hunting Captain Ahab, the tortured character in Herman Melville’s great 19th century novel “Moby Dick?” Ahab, who raged against the mysterious great white whale that had crippled him, launched one of the most famous chases in Western Literature, pursuing Moby Dick across the oceans, hell-bent on vengeance.
Contemplating Ahab’s obsession puts me in mind of what the renowned psychologist Carl Jung called the “divine darkness unveiled in the book of Job,” a God-empty arena for savagery in a world inhospitable to justice and incongruous with meaningful life. It is the ultimate challenge to faith, raising the terror – anathema to the life of the spirit – that humanity may be alone, after all.
Is this a Jewish quandary? Of course not, but the zeal to repair a fallen world, “tikkun olam,” is a relentless force in Jewish tradition. It presupposes that woven into the fabric of human existence are justice and meaning.
The concept endures even when shorn of its Jewishness. It is a truism that Jews regardless of background flock into professions and movements that echo the prophetic command, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” The repair of the world, the demand for justice, the meaningfulness of life, and the expectation that a beneficent God runs things originated in Judaism and migrated into Christianity.
So then, what happens when justice is thwarted? When experience invalidates received wisdom? When God is silent as humanity writhes in a sea of trouble? When the seeker after justice and the believer in beneficent order is driven mad with disappointment, grief and rage? When his faith in himself and in God is shattered? Case in point: Captain Ahab.
Under attack by the whale hunters of Ahab’s ship, the imperious giant white whale rips off a chunk of leg from the captain. Ahab cannot abide with his disfigurement. It debases his idea of himself. It diminishes his faith in himself and in the value and recompense of his toil – butchering whales for their blubber -- which will produce the oil that lights the civilized world.
The reader sees almost immediately that the whale is only a whale, doing what whales do by instinct. Ahab sees more, and author Melville brings us along for the dizzying ride. In Moby Dick’s gigantic size, Ahab perceives malignity masked as grandeur. In his white color, he sees a camouflage of purity. In the giant eyes, Ahab reads intelligence and volition.
Has he corrupted God into nature, and now demands of nature, Godliness?
In his obsession to force moral responsibility onto the whale, does Ahab “idolize” the whale into a false divinity? Is Captain Ahab following the path of Ahab, the wicked King of Israel, who allowed worship of the Canaanite nature god Baal to creep into his kingdom?
In the end, does Captain Ahab in fact resurrect the cruel and vengeful Baal? With harpoons puncturing his massive body, the great white whale finally rouses. Churning the waves, Moby Dick turns to confront his human tormentors. Around and around the great mass of the whale whirls, encircling the ship of fools, whipping the currents into a torrent that drowns all but one, the famous narrator, Ishmael, whose name means God listens and God hears.
Whatever grand universal spiritual angst has been read into the mind of “mad” Captain Ahab by generations of readers, his oratory soars. Ahab tells us that, “Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne'er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! Damned in the midst of Paradise!” Mad as he may have been, this is a moment of devastating sanity.
He acknowledges that alongside the horrors of the natural world opportunities for joy in existence are available, but he wasn’t going to have any of it. The respite might take his eye off the chase, and he chooses not to turn back. Why?
Ahab blames it on the gift of high perception, that is, his ability to reason, which in demanding the certainty of received wisdom conflicted with the world of experience. The conflict between promise and actuality – the hallmark crisis of modernity -- could not be bridged, and Ahab sinks into the cleft, unrepentant.
Was Ahab driven to madness by the unthinkable? That we may be no more than frantic little corks swept hither and nigh by currents we analyze, categorize, mythologize, but I fear we are doomed to misunderstand.
It is foolish but ultimately dishonest to deny the reality of evil either in personal experience, or in the history of mankind, which is rife with disaster, natural and man-made. Job’s persevering faith is touching, but it could not sustain Melville, who could neither believe nor live with unbelief. In this dilemma, he mirrors the enduring challenge of modernity to faith. In the face of evil, estrangement from a loving God tugs always at the sleeve if not the heart of faith.
Ambiguity and uncertainty are inhospitable to the old faith, and yet, as the hero of Saul Bellow’s great novel “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” sorrows to himself: “The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on structures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.”
Ahab’s mad self-destructive chase is also a cautionary tale of hubris, the very opposite of Job’s modesty or the psalmist’s self-effacing, “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”
Each person in the privacy of his soul is challenged to ask, to what degree am I the child of Abraham and the child of Ahab?
Alas, poor Ahab. The honesty of your rage moves me, as much as your quest terrifies me. The leviathan may have ruled the sea, indifferent to you and your philosophies. He may have gotten you in the end with a lazy flip of his tail, but how I wish that you could have relented. Lowered your expectations. Recovered some balance between the warring aspects of faith and reason, and come to terms with ambiguity.
I wish you could have reined in your arrogance, and lived at a lower decibel of frenzy. Perhaps you might have created an island of calm in your mind where faith might yet have found safe if intermittent harbor from the unknowable roiling sea.
And who knows but that, were you still driven to pursue the mysterious white whale, as you sailed into your last sunset you might have received from the fiery red ball sinking into the sea, a kiss and not a curse.
*Annette Keen is a freelance writer in upstate New York.
from the June 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine