The opening decade of the 21st century will stand as one in which Moby-Dick not only seems achingly contemporary, but also eerily prescient. In these times Moby-Dick presents a reply of sorts to Plato’s fears about reality being distorted through fictional representation. Ahab and his psychotic pursuit of an object he refuses to understand in any terms but his own vengeful pride and arrogant will to conquest can be seen as a flawless mirror image of the same traits exhibited by the democratically appointed leader of our own country, and is a testament to one of the novel’s implicit themes and warnings. Rising above all the conflicting symbolism that permeates the novel, one theme is crystal clear and unadorned with any confusing trappings of duality. Bestowing power upon a man who is maddened by monomania, consumed with revenge, and bereft of the ambition to understand his adversary while content to label that adversary through ignorance as purely evil will always lead to death, destruction, economic devastation and the perpetuation of that indifference to apprehend.
The character of Ahab stands a warning against not just any kind of maniacal person achieving power, but specifically a type of person rising to power through a democratic process and exercising that power within the loose structures of that process; Ahab is a distinctively American-born madman who has more in common with a President than with a Fuhrer. A former sailing partner of Ahab describes him as having “been in colleges, as well as ‘mong the cannibals” (75) and later this same sailor compares himself to Ahab in that both of them can be described as “a swearing good man” (77). Ahab has risen through the ranks to attain his position as captain. He did not grasp at it and steal power he had not earned or deserved. Also of interest is the fact that Ahab is not a Naval captain; he is not a military man. Ahab is a captain of capitalistic industry. Free market capitalistic initiative is theoretically the backbone upon which America was built. As captain of a whaling ship at the height of the whaling industry, freely promoted through the ranks by the owners, entrusted with property by the shareholders, Ahab is further cemented as a decidedly American and democratic figure. He is a man of the people. At home among students, cannibals and sailors, today he would probably be equally at home among Texas cowboys and Maine lobstermen. At home with, but belonging to none, for Ahab, like most men subject to obsession with revenge, is most at home with his own sense of purpose and destiny.
Ahab desires to attach to Moby-Dick all the evil that exists in the world but in the end Moby-Dick is merely a symbol for all the petty slights that men build up into universal evils. Ahab himself identifies the ultimately personal source of what he sees as a universal evil when he says, “it was Moby-Dick that dismasted me; Moby-Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now…it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor begging lubber of me for ever and a day!” (143). Moby-Dick took away Ahab’s ability to stand on his own two feet, literally. Of course, the loss of his leg can also be seen as a symbolic emasculation and that symbolism is made all the more apparent by the fact that Ahab’s quest is for a sperm whale. Moby-Dick contains sperm; Ahab does not. The important point, however, is not the symbolism of what Ahab lost, but the symbolism of the loss itself. Revenge is only sought when one has lost some-thing, not when one has gained something, not when one comes out even. Compounding the thirst for revenge is when that loss is to an enemy you consider you should have beaten, not on losing to what you consider you should never have beaten. Ahab lost his leg to a beast, an inferior creature. Ahab lost a leg, but his quest for revenge could just as easily have been instituted by the loss of an arm, or a child, or a father. The revenge motif often revolves around a son seeking revenge for the loss of his father, or even for a father’s loss. It is the pride lost that gives the loss its status as a conception for monomania. When it comes to the triggers of monomania and revenge, it is the psychological fixation on the loss that is important, not the actual loss itself, which may be benign. Ahab’s loss of limb is immediate and it is personal, but despite losing a leg he can still walk, he can still captain, he can still go out on a whaleboat himself and harpoon. His loss of leg, therefore, must not be seen simply in terms of a loss of limb. The small missing part of Ahab is a symbol meant to stand for a greater loss and it’s meant to stand for the driving mechanism behind revenge and his monomaniacal pursuit of it. It is pride that is driving Ahab to revenge and so he must universalize the object of his revenge and recreate it as something larger in context. To accomplish this, Ahab must imbue Moby-Dick with powers beyond comprehension.
By placing the capacity of evil upon the whale Ahab can fool himself into thinking that Moby-Dick is a greater being than he really was and that therefore his own loss is greater than it really is. Pride is thereby replaced by the delusion of being a redeemer for mankind. By instilling in Moby-Dick this alien power he does not really possess, however, Ahab blinds himself to any reality of what Moby-Dick actually is, to any real strength and intelligence the whale possesses, just as other leaders motivated by revenge blind themselves to the strength and intelligence of their adversaries. This blindness springs not from mere ignorance, but from a consciously willed ignorance; from the desire not to know, from the ambition not to understand. Ahab desperately wants Moby-Dick to be inscrutable, to be a thing that is incapable of ever being understood, because that makes him easier to categorize as sheer evil. Therefore he refuses to undertake any effort at understanding and it is this iron-willed ambition to remain ignorant and to instead glibly label a thing as evil that gives rise to dangerous men like him. “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” (144). In wreaking hate upon Moby-Dick, in turning him into a symbol that carries all of mankind’s worst traits, Ahab naturally hopes to be seen as mankind’s salvation against evil. If there is one single evil in the world, it stands to reason that there must be one single good. That is the most frightening trait of men afflicted with Ahab’s kind of monomania, because it seems so easy for them to transfer their views to men who will blindly follow them.
Ahab, like many men in power, is able to capture the imagination of his underlings and light their fire for revenge against evil. It should not be surprising that he is able to accomplish this by appealing to the crew’s desire for money. After all, money is the reason most of them are on board the ship in the first place. Any good democratically appointed leader knows that quickest way to a man’s heart is through a bonus. Democratic Ahab is not totalitarian tyrant. He will give all appearances of going about his job in the way he is expected. But his monetary appeal is made all the more tempting by drawing the men into his vision of Moby-Dick as an agent of evil. Ahab is almost religious in his masterly use of ritual in passing the flagon and crossing the lances (145). As any good democratic leader knows, it is not enough to expect men to do your bidding in exchange for money. They know they will be paid anyway. You must also appeal to their deepest senses of decency and their deepest fears. For most of the crew of the Pequod, the white whale was a legend. Ahab turns that legend into the very essence of what they knew they must fight against. Ahab plays on the crew’s natural inclination toward superstition of things they don’t understand. He spurs them toward that willful ignorance in which he thrives. To understand Moby-Dick, as Ishmael attempts to do, is to see into the madness of Ahab. That is why Ishmael alone survives. If the world were full of Ishmaels, there would doubtless be fewer wars on behalf of monomaniacal revenge-driven leaders because there would be more understanding that pure evil rarely exists in the world.
The crew of Pequod is doomed from the very moment they first step foot on board the ship. Ahab has been successful in hiding the true depth of his madness. He is considered merely “kind of moody-desperate moody, and savage sometimes” (77), but capable of bringing in the money. In truth, however, Ahab has gone beyond the pale. Ahab is the personification of that type of man who to all outward appearances seems normal, but who is in fact deeply disturbed. The sheer genius of Ahab lies in his ability to hide how very deeply disturbed he is. To conceal the fact that he is driven to a single minded purpose and has no intention of letting the fact that men’s lives are in his hands deter him. In fact, he relishes his power over his men: “Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion” (144). Rebellion is the key word. The democratically appointed monomaniacal leader who succeeds in selling his deranged vision of revenge is protected by the very system he is corrupting. Ahab toys around with the actual business of whaling just enough to make sure that Starbuck can’t accuse him of not carrying out his duties. If Starbuck rebels, then rebellion will rise against Starbuck. Ahab is successful in convincing the crew to follow him. By buying into his false ideology, the crew unknowingly signs a suicide pact. The crew of the Pequod are symbolic of soldiers who commit themselves to battle for a cause, never getting the chance to realize that that cause isn’t just. Ahab is deceptive and cunning and plays upon the crew’s fears and needs just like the monomaniacal leader of a country is deceptive and cunning and plays upon the fears and needs of his soldiers.
In his zealous pursuit of revenge, Ahab does not even show interest in economic well-being. Money is often portrayed as the driving principle behind all men, but for the monomaniac money has no value. Ahab offers the doubloon as a bribe for the men’s allegiance and to spur them into buying into madness, but one doubloon is meaningless. Ahab would no doubt have offered ten or twenty times that. As he tells Starbuck, “If money’s to be the measurer of man, and the accountants have computed their great counting-house the globe, by girdling it with guineas…let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium” (144-145). Ahab sees his vengeance as worth all the gold that has been put up to unknowingly finance it. The monomaniac sees no value in money. Economics cease to have meaning, for all money spent in his pursuit is money spent no better. And in the wake of Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale lies economic ruin. The Pequod lies sunk at the bottom of the sea as well as all property on it and all the oil and sperm gotten from the whaling to that point. Beyond that, of course, there is all the money that would have been made by all the whales that would have been caught had Ahab carried out his duties as he was appointed. The crew would have been paid, the joint-stockholders would have been paid. Money would have seeded out in all directions, helping who knows how many people. But for Ahab all that is for nought. For Ahab all that is meaningless. Nothing matters but his capturing the whale, his bringing down the evil of the world. The monomaniac sees in tunnelvision. Everything that has any worth, everything that has any meaning in the world only gains that worth and that meaning in connection with how it helps him carry out his revenge. It seems almost impossible that a man so dangerous as Ahab could possibly be appointed to a position of such power. Indeed, it seems unlikely that in a democratic system any man such as Ahab could possibly rise to such a position. And therein lies the power of Melville’s book. For it stands as a warning, unheeded, that even democratically appointed leaders can be dangerous when handed power.
It may be considered a stretch to compare Pres. George W. Bush with Captain Ahab. But Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby-Dick certainly looks similar in tone to Bush’s pursuit of Saddam Hussein. Both men labeled their adversaries as evil. Hussein was part of the “Axis of Evil.” Both men deceived their underlings into accepting that their adversaries were more threatening than they really were. Both men left behind a spectacular loss of lives and money in the pursuit of their objectified evils. In fact, the only difference between them is that Ahab dies and Bush is alive. Politically, however, Bush may soon join Ahab in death; his legacy will remain as one who bankrupted his country and left untold thousands of men and women dead who didn’t have to die.
Regardless of present circumstances and how they may or may not relate to Moby-Dick, the book is unquestionably a brilliantly realized examination of the effects of handing over too much power to a man who is clearly incapable of dealing with that responsibility. Ahab is a shining literary example of exactly the kind of man who should not be placed into authority in a democratic system.