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‘Under a Troubled Master-Eye’
An Exegesis of Ahab and the Whale: or A Reading of Moby Dick by Herman Melville
© 2019 James LaFond
JUL/18/19
Reading from pages 151to 726 of the 2004 Castle Books Edition
One of the two men who read The Pale Usher, my reading of the first 27 chapters of Melville’s classic of one alienated man’s awakening to the horrific plight of his kind and his turning away into something that promises to be worse by many measures but better by a singular one, has asked me to continue with the body of the book. Melville’s first 25 chapters ended with a postscript that demarcates it is a massive overture to an epic adventure. I thought that chapters 26 and 27 belonged to that prequel in terms of narrative gravity.
This reading begins with Chapter 28, Ahab, one lone sailor’s view of the driving force in his afterlife, of his barbaric vision quest beyond the stayed bounds of Civilization into the tribal past—yet a force of personality imbued with many of the cancerous internalities of human domestication. Ahab towers as one of the most iconic characters in modern literature, embodying many an ancient hero painted in shades of modernity:
Gilgamesh, youthless—the Crew a sullied Enkidu,
Achilles, maimed—robbed of his vital fleetness of foot,
Odysseus, mirthless—his charm snatched by Poseidon,
Aeneas, landless—cursed never to make landfall,
Beowulf, kingless—with no sanctifying call to hunt the monster,
Roland, songless—fated to battle in the absence of glory,
Arthur, uncounseled—without Merlin to guide his hand.
Ahab’s modern progeny likely include Howard’s Solomon Kane, Eastwood’s The Man with No Name and many an avenger in film, including John Milus’ version of Conan the Barbarian and Jerimiah Johnson and virtually every Charles Bronson protagonist.
Here Melville, through the eyes of his protagonistic under-hero, Ishmael, views one of literature’s more unsettling figures:
“For several days after leaving Nantucket, nothing above hatches was seen of Captain Ahab… Yes, their supreme lord and dictator was there, though hitherto unseen by any eyes not permitted to penetrate into the now sacred retreat of the cabin… Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck.
“He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness, and shaped an unalterable mould…”
A body-length scare like a lighting strike etched upon a still living tree is then described as branding the Captain from the forehead down, and the alienated sailor on this doomship recalls:
“So powerfully did the whole grim aspect of Ahab affect me, and the livid brand which streaked it, that for the first few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood.”
The character of Ahab will be pursued in greater depth in the next section. For now it is noteworthy that this man of Civilization, commanding a ship of barbaric aspect [decorated with whale bone] has been branded [Melville stresses this thrice] in his service to civilized comfort, as whale oil was the greatest luxury, lighting nighted streets for the Frail, and that he has affected a very barbaric guise, becoming something between domesticated Mankind and the raw world it so ravenously plunders for its comforts.
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Tony Cox     Jul 18, 2019

I’d be interested to read your thoughts on Steelkilt, the lakeman. He was the hero of Moby Dick, at least to me.

After reading Moby Dick, I got curious about sperm oil and did some reading about it. It was used in automotive transmission fluids all the way up to the 1970’s as a friction modifier, as it was far superior to the synthetic forms. The year they quit using it there was an epidemic of transmission failures.
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