The Lonely Voice #30: Brief Early Morning Thoughts on Ahab

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Last night, deep into Moby Dick, page 667 of my edition, I was surprised when Ishmael announces, out of nowhere really, that not very long before the Pequod sailed from Nantucket, Ahab was found lying in the street, unconscious. Apparently, the incident occurred late at night. Where was he coming from? Where was he going? Ishmael doesn’t seem to know. All he tells us that while he was walking on the cobblestones Ahab’s ivory leg gave out from under him and buckled. He falls and his shattered leg stabs him in the groin. It must have hurt like hell. You wonder why the man became so maniacal? This is the single glimpse in the entire novel of Ahab on land.

Ishmael also tells us that Ahab was found and assisted by “someone unknown.” Now here’s a character who has since long transcended the book he was written into, who’s known by people who have never opened the novel (in Belgium there’s a Moby Dick whorehouse) sprawled there in the street, helpless. And a stranger helps him, hoists him up—touches him. This strikes me. Someone unknown must have touched Ahab’s body. Imagine Ahab’s humiliation. Ishmael then reveals that this incident so scarred Ahab it is why he’d remained locked in his cabin during the key first few days of the voyage, seen by nobody, nursing his hate. At that time, hundreds of pages earlier in the book, Ishmael had remarked that he was more than a little freaked out by Ahab’s absence from the deck. A sailor likes to have a good luck at his captain before entrusting the man with his life for three watery years. But by that time the Pequod was already underway, so what choice did he have? When we do finally meet Ahab we are told the man looks like he’s just been cut away from a burning stake.

Now here comes Ishmael’s suggestion—pretty damn late in the game if you ask me—that Ahab’s demented state of mind stems as much from this falling in the street as the white whale’s munching his leg off in the first place.

*

This all got me thinking this morning. I was walking the dog on the cliff by the ocean when I stopped to watch the waves play with some logs as if they were chopsticks.

Ahoy there! This is the Pequod, bound round the world! Tell them to address all future letters to the Pacific Ocean! and this time three years, if I am not at home, tell them to –

Tell them to what? Ahab never finishes this sentence so we’re left, forever, to wonder where to send Ahab letters if he’s not home in three years. Tell them to what, Ahab?

*

I find that lately I do more reading than writing, and more thinking than either. I read at night until I fall asleep with the light on, book in hand, and in the morning I wander around the house before everybody wakes up thinkingAhab about what I read the night before. But isn’t thinking a form of writing without the pressure of needing to communicate with other people? I’m testing out the possibility of writing a book in my head without pen, paper, or computer. I’m okay with this. I’m beginning to think there’s a hell of lot more words, paragraphs, books in the world than we need. I don’t know about you, but lately especially I’m feeling crushed by the weight of all the words that don’t say very much. Anyway, I was walking the dog by the bluff overlooking the ocean and it occurred to me, and I’ll keep this short, that maybe the man was just afraid. Maybe this is all it ever amounted to, just ordinary fear. Ahab was afraid to stay home—afraid to walk his own streets. Afraid—for some reason—to go home to his young wife and young boy.

There’s a moment, just before all that hell breaks loose, when Starbuck implores Ahab to turn the boat eastward, that it’s not too late to change direction, call this voyage quits, and live to see their wives and kids again, home, home, to Nantucket…

…Away! let us away! – this instant let me alter the course! How cheerily, how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again! I think, Sir, they have some such mild blue days, even as this, in Nantucket.

And holy shit, hilarious, it nearly works:

They have, they have. I have seen them – some summer days in the morning. About this time – yes, it is his noon nap now – the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.

Of course if they’d chalked up the hunt for the white whale then and there we wouldn’t have the book. But did you notice something? Ahab, of all people on earth, knows the precise time of day his kid wakes up from his nap. Daddy Ahab! It lasts less than a quarter page. Ahab never will get back to dance that boy again—and he knows it. Maybe Ahab concocted the whole insane and murderous ordeal to simply avoiding having to go home. Because there, and only there, existed a nameless terror he couldn’t sail onward into the deep and pretend to hunt.

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Rumpus original art by Eric Orner.


Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →