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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Ahab’s Failure to Forgive

I’ve been reading Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick and came across the following passage describing how Ahab’s mania for the great white whale occasionally wakens him from sleep and sends him rushing to the deck of the ship:

“For, at such times, crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale; this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral. But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab’s case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could grimly live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfathered birth. Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to colour, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”

The passage strikes me as a vivid picture of the human soul when it fails to forgive. Ahab, of course, has previously lost one of his legs to the great whale, and now he is back sailing the seas, seeking to kill this oceanic incarnation of evil itself. In a word, Ahab is gripped by vengeance. What is the result? Melville describes Ahab’s vengeful purpose as taking on an “independent being of its own,” a being that grimly lives and burns, terrorizing his own soul.

It is the final image that I found most arresting: the comparison with Prometheus. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan who stole fire from Mount Olympus, thereby incurring the wrath of Zeus. Zeus’s punishment was to have Prometheus chained to a rock where an eagle (or, a “vulture” on Melville’s description) daily ate his liver, which would regenerate each night due to Prometheus’s immortality.

Melville’s idea is that Ahab’s vengeful purpose is a vulture that feeds upon his soul in this same way, and that the terrorizing vulture is a creature of Ahab’s own making. In clinging to his crazy vengeful purpose, Ahab eats away at his own soul. By failing to forgive and let go of the whale’s offense, he tortures himself.

Let it go people! Let it go!

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