Monday, September 30, 2013

Moby Addicted: Is it All Ahab's Fault?

Now that we've finished going through Moby Dick together in our Digital Culture class, I'd like to look at the end, and what specifically led to it and caused it. We talked in class a bit about how Ahab becomes a kind of anti-Christ in the final three chapters. In three days, he descends further and further into his madness, and ultimately causes the death of himself and his whole crew. Compare this to the story of Christ, who in three days died and reascended to save himself and everyone. In a similar vein, Greg wrote a post about Ahab representing Satan.

It's pretty clear that Ahab caused the tragic ending of his own life, his crew, and even the Pequod, but is it really all his fault? On the one hand, Melville certainly seems to think so, as Starbuck says to him in the final chapter, "See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!" But as we were looking at this passage today in class, our group found and interesting correlation to another passage just a few pages before it at the end of chapter 132. Ahab remembers his wife and child and almost orders the crew to turn around and take them home, but as soon as Starbuck suggests they just go, Ahab looks away and refuses to give the order. Then he says the following in soliloquy:
"Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I." 
Notice the very similar construction between this passage and Starbuck's question later. Perhaps Starbuck heard Ahab's speech earlier and tried to mirror his construction as a rhetorical move in his final plea, or perhaps Melville wrote these two passages with similar construction to invite comparison of their quite opposite ideas (or, you know, perhaps it's a complete coincidence, but I doubt it).

As we looked at these two opposing passages, I tried to put myself in Ahab's shoes and see his logic. Then I realized what his lines actually sounded like to me: addiction. Read this definition of addiction from the American Society of Addiction Medicine and consider Ahab's behavior:
Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.
Now, addiction as an idea has exploded into our cultural mindset over the past 50 years, and we're much more aware of it as a disorder than Melville would have been in his time. But even so, it's clear Melville meant for us to understand that Ahab was more than just obsessive.

If he is addicted, then, or suffers from some form of mental disorder, can we blame him for what happened? And if not, what is Melville saying about power structures? It's clear the rest of his crew didn't want to continue pursuing the white whale--Ahab has to remind them of oaths they took and ignores several pleas--but the tragedy still happens because Ahab is the sole commander and no one else has any control. Melville seems to be asking questions about power and leadership, and what happens when leaders go astray or prove themselves incapable. Ahab may not be to blame--but no one had the power to stop him, either.

This may be another reason why Moby Dick rose to prominence in the 20th century. The questions Melville asked here proved to be frighteningly relevant as the world headed to total war twice in one century thanks to leaders with more power than sense. It's almost scary how this book seemed to be most relevant nearly 100 years after it's publication.