This semester I am working as a Templeton Fellow at the Biola University Center for Christian Thought. It has been a wonderful experience so far, as I’ve been spending much time in discussion with the other fellows at the CCT and have had time to do a lot of research and writing (mostly on the virtue of open-mindedness, which is my research focus for the semester). I’ve also been careful to reserve time for reading fiction, which is something I normally don’t have time for during the school year. A few weeks ago I finished Melville’s Moby Dick, which was quite a journey. If you’ve never read the book, then it might sound strange when I say that much of it is non-fiction. In fact, I’d describe it as equal parts cultural history, marine zoology, maritime encyclopedia, and dramatic narrative. I now know more about the history and practice of whaling (as practiced in the 19th century) than I ever thought I would. Not only that, but I actually found Melville’s detailed descriptions of the process of catching whales and harvesting the various components (especially the precious spermaceti oil that made sperm whales such valuable ocean quarry) very interesting.
But for all of the stuff about whaling, what I find most compelling about Moby Dick is what has captured the imaginations of most readers of this classic: Captain Ahab’s obsession with that great albino sperm whale which cost him one of his legs in a previous expedition. Ahab is a portrait in monomaniacal vengeance—extreme but believable. In one of my favorite passages, the first mate Starbuck challenges his captain for being so obsessed, and Ahab’s response is memorable:
“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! 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.”
Why does Starbuck suggest that such anger at “dumb brute” is “madness” and possibly blasphemous? As for its irrationality, that is likely because he recognizes that animals, even highly intelligent ones such as whales, are not moral agents and thus vengeance, as typically understood, is inappropriately aimed at them. Vengeance only makes sense when one’s target is somehow to blame for something (not that vengeance is ever morally justified; but sometimes it does make sense from a psychological standpoint, if not from a moral point of view).
But then why suggest that Ahab’s anger is blasphemous? This is where things get really interesting, in terms of the contrasting worldviews of Ahab and Starbuck. The latter seems to assume that since animals cannot reason, their actions, especially their interactions with people, are best construed as the indirect activity of God. So to curse, resent, despise, or seek vengeance against an animal is indirectly to behave so toward God. Ahab tacitly denies this, calling all “visible objects,” including whales, “pasteboard masks” which hide something “inscrutable,” the mysterious beyond which is precisely what Ahab hates, because whatever it is, it has defied him and not only that but seriously injured and permanently handicapped him. He says, “that inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.” So he hates what he doesn’t understand. But more than this, he hates it because he doesn’t understand it. He resents the mysterious and unfathomable.
All of this is a powerful image of a man despising the mystery of the divine precisely because God defies our comprehension as well as our desire to fully control our lives. The whale only appears to be Ahab’s nemesis, when in fact the real object of the captain’s anger and vengeance is God. And when that is the nature of one’s wrath, then literally anything that gets in the way is a potential target, as Ahab himself expresses when he says, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Absurd, of course. But it’s an apt image of the absurdity of hatred directed at God. It is also portentous, as the reader at this point in the book—only about a third of the way in—gets the feeling that this is not going to end well. And, of course, it doesn’t. Both for Ahab and his crew. Such, too, is the way of human wrath. It only brings destruction.