Ahab and Emerson
I wrote this for a Transcendentalist seminar I took Fall 2019.
Ahab from Moby-Dick could be called a “transcendentalist-gone-bad” because his mad actions and morbid philosophy represent a possible perversion of transcendentalist views. His extreme narcissism could be the product of fostered self-expression and individualism; his idea that Moby-Dick represents all evil could stem from the concept of “every natural fact [being] a symbol of some spiritual fact;” his drive to execute his will could come from no “law [being] sacred to [him] but that of [his] nature.” Ahab’s behavior and speeches seem eerily similar to some of Emerson’s writing.
I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. (Emerson, “Self-Reliance”) Ahab leaves his young wife and child to hunt Moby-Dick on a multi-year voyage, because his “genius” calls him to revenge. He follows “whim” in everthing. On board, he is an enigma to his crew and prefers to be that way, staying below deck for days at a time, pacing the deck at night, and calling the crew together to rile them for the mission.
I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine. (Emerson, “The Over-Soul”) This could be from the mouth of Ahab.
Note the similarities between this excerpt from Moby-Dick and these quotes from Emerson.
“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
“Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—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. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” (Melville, “The Quarter-Deck”)
Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. (Emerson, “Nature”)
On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested: "But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied: "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. (Emerson, “Self-Reliance”)