Moby Dick: Obsession, Evil and the Passion of Ignorance

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This paper 'Moby Dick: Obsession, Evil and the Passion of Ignorance', argues that monomania is a passion of ignorance. It contends that this passion of ignorance is situated precisely between the ideal ego and the ego ideal. The ideal ego is the fantasy an individual has of themselves, a narcissistic illusion of completeness. It is a representation based on an image of the self fixed at the infantile period. The ego ideal is the goal of a process, a movement towards an idealized self based on internalised significant early role models, people admired and preferred in favour of the self. In monomania, the ideal ego seeks to eradicate the other, the ego ideal. This is an act of envy, an attempt to kill and steal the other's good because it represents what one should be or could have been. Such an act is never conscious. It is a passion of ignorance. The saga of Captain Ahab and his obsessive desire to obliterate the Great White Whale is illustrative of this dynamic.

The yearning for absolutes is a hall-mark of monomania. Monomania is a passion of ignorance and is to be found in the boundary between love and hate. It is inherently evil because it excludes and destroys reality. In monomania, ignorance functions as a parochial and universalised concept of reality, marked by a certainty and rectitude which enables the harming of others with humanitarian conviction and moral purpose. The passion of ignorance is situated precisely between the subject and the fantasy of himself. The ideal ego wishes to eradicate the other, the ego ideal,

What is at the heart all psychopathological behaviour is an incapacity to communicate with aspects of the self that have, as part of the self protective mechanism of the psyche, been obscured because they are too painful to be addressed. At the time of obfuscation, the only perceived path for survival has been the isolation and dissociation of something intrinsic. Analytical psychology recognizes that there are dark recesses people carry deep within in which lurk forbidden secrets which are treated as unapproachable. These dark places and forbidden secrets are not passive, they pulsate with the presence of malignant, carnivorous forces that reek of fear and anarchy. -

It is no accident that the developmental arm of analytical psychology is preoccupied to the determining effects of family history, for it is in the family setting that people experience the strongest and most primitive feelings, where relationships take on their most stark and forceful forms. A person's experience within the context of family has its genesis at a time before coping mechanisms are developed, before and independent sense of security and stability has had time to consolidate. Analytical psychology understands that the individual is deeply affected by the net of past experiences. They impact on the way in which present experiences are assimilated or repressed. They determine what may be allowed to come to consciousness and what must be assigned to the unconscious.

The unconscious is occasioned by a number of factors, by repression, instinctual inheritance, social conditioning and repressed trauma. It can be personal or collective. In all it's aspects, the unconscious represents that part of an individual's psychic existence that is, by multiple strategies, consigned to function without conscious control. Thus analytical psychology attempts inexorably to draw one deeper and deeper into a journey of confrontation with one's self. It calls on the individual to overcome his defences, to transcend the bounds of secure systems he has established to keep full and immediate experience at bay.

In the tale of Moby Dick, Ahab misuses his power, disregards the safety of his crew and the profitability of the voyage, even forfeits his own life in order to avenge himself on the whale who robbed him of his leg. He does this, all to avoid a confrontation with himself and his own vulnerabilities.

The Story:

The tale of Moby Dick begins with the enigmatic words of the narrator,

Having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntary pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet, and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping onto the street and methodically knocking people's hats off – then, I account it high time to get to see as soon as I can." (Melville 1992 p. 1)

With these words Ishmael the story teller announces his intention to go to sea. He makes the journey to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he takes accommodation at a whaler's inn, but as the inn is very full he finds himself sharing a bed with a stranger, Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Pacific. Queequeg is a cannibal from a South Sea Island. His strange physical form appears bizarre to Ishmael. He is covered in strange tattoos and apart from his alien appearance has strange habits and customs. Ishmael is terrified by the encounter but as time passes he is able to move beyond the outward exterior of Queequeg to understand that they are both men, and this strange creature from the South Seas, far from being a terrifying beast is human, and one with a particularly kind heart and generous spirit. The two men join forces and set out to seek work together as whalers. They secure work on the Pequod, a whaling vessel decked out with the bones and teeth of its victims, Peleg and Bildad, the Pequod's Quaker owners, tell them of their Captain, Ahab, who on his last voyage found that sperm whales are not defenceless victims, but creatures with teeth; Ahab has had his leg ripped from him by an enormous white whale. The hunted became the hunter and had struck back.

The Pequod leaves the safety of the harbour in Nantucket on a bitterly cold Christmas Day, its crew a diverse mixture of nationalities and cultures. Days later, as the ship makes into warmer waters, Ahab finally appears on deck, balancing unsteadily on his prostheses carved from the jaw bone of a sperm whale. Ahab's intention: to pursue and kill Moby Dick, the great white whale who took his leg. To Ahab, this whale is the embodiment of evil. He must be killed and killed by Ahab. To this end he nails a gold doubloon to the mast and announces to all that the man who first sights Moby Dick will have the coin.

Aboard one of these ships is a crazed prophet called Gabriel who predicts doom to all who pursue Moby Dick and the superstitious crew of the Pequod share their sea-stories of how those who hunted the whale met with ill fortune. It is not long before misfortune is seen and known by the crew. While butchering their catch, the harpooner Tashtego falls into the mouth of a dead whale which tears free of the Pequod and sinks. Queequeg dives after the drowning man, slashes into the slowly sinking head with his knife and frees the seaman.

During another whale hunt, the black cabin boy Pip, jumps from a whaleboat and is left stranded at sea. He is rescued but the trauma renders him mentally disturbed. He is left mindless and uncanny, a prophetic jester onboard the ship. Still the hunt continues. One day, the Pequod encounters the whaler, the Samuel Enderby. Captain Boomer the skipper has lost an arm in a chance meeting with Moby Dick. As the two captains discuss the whale the contrast becomes evident. Boomer is happy simply to have survived his encounter, and he cannot understand Ahab's lust for vengeance. Queequeg becomes ill and asks the carpenter on board the Pequod to make him a coffin in preparation of his death but he does recover, and the coffin becomes the Pequod's replacement life buoy.

In expectation of finding Moby Dick, Ahab orders a harpoon to be forged and baptizes this harpoon with the blood of the Pequod harpooners, and his own. Although the Pequod is still hunting whales, it is the hunt for Moby Dick that always hangs over the life of the ship. Then, one day, Fedallah makes a prophesy regarding the death of Ahab. Ahab will see two hearses, the second made from American wood and he will be killed by hemp rope. To Ahab, this means he will not die at sea, for at sea there are no hangings and no hearses.

A tropical storm encompasses the Pequod, illuminating it with electrical fire. To Ahab this is a sign of imminent confrontation and success. To Starbuck, the ship's first mate, it is a bad omen and he contemplates murdering Ahab to end the obsession. The tempest ends, but then one of the sailors plummets from the ship's masthead and drowns—a grave forewarning of what lies ahead. As Ahab's obsessive desire to find and destroy Moby Dick intensifies, the mad Pip becomes his constant companion.

It is near the equator that Ahab expects to find Moby Dick, and it is here that the Pequod meets two whalers, the Rachel and the Delight; both have had recent fatal encounters with the Great Whale. The Captain of the Rachel pleads with Ahab to help him find his son, lost in the battle with Moby Dick, but Ahab has only one goal, to find and kill the whale. Days pass, and then, finally, Ahab sights Moby Dick. The harpoon boats are launched. Moby Dick rams Ahab's harpoon boat, destroying it but Ahab is saved by his crew.

The next day, Moby Dick is sighted once more. The whale is harpooned but again, Moby dick strikes back and once again rams Ahab's boat. Fedallah is trapped in the harpoon line, is dragged overboard to his death. Starbuck saves his Captain by manoeuvring the Pequod between Ahab and the enraged beast.

On the third day, the boats are launched once again and are sent after Moby Dick. The whale turns and attacks the boats, and they see that Fedallah's corpse is still lashed to the whale by the harpoon line. In the ensuing battle, Moby Dick rams the Pequod and she begins to sinks. Ahab, caught in a harpoon line, is hurled out of his whale boat to his death. The remaining whaleboats and crew are caught in the vortex of the sinking Pequod and dragged to their deaths. Ishmael, thrown from his boat at the beginning of the hunt, is the only man to survive. He floats, alone on Queequeg's coffin, the only remaining flotsam from the wreckage, an isolated figure in a watery world.

"On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan. (Melville 1992 p. 583)

An Uncanny Tale

In telling the story of Moby Dick, Melville's narrator, Ishmael, engages in a process of repetition that brings the dead back to life. His narrator offers what appears to be a sober account of his real experience but in the recounting it is immediately evident that this experience is anything but commonplace. Melville's combination of reality and the fantastic, the credible and the incredible, compel the reader to accept the narrative on its own terms. The tale confronts the reader with narratorial anxiety in both the telling of the tale and in the horror of its content. Melville's narrative method exemplifies the de-familiarisation of the familiar, the domestication of terror that characterises the uncanny.

Freud characterises the uncanny as that which arouses dread and horror; (Freud 1919 p. 339) it is that class of things which lead us back to what is known of the old and familiar. (Freud 1919 p.340) It is precarious, this combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, where the opposites of the homely, customary and congenial also denote the secret that is concealed and kept from sight. (Freud 1919 p. 347)

"We believe we are at home in the immediate circle of beings. That which is, is familiar, reliable, ordinary. Nevertheless, the clearing is pervaded by a constant concealment in the double form of refusal and dissembling. At the bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary, uncanny." (Heidegger 1971 p. 53)

Freud argues that one of the most anxiety-producing devices of the uncanny is the double. Freud considers the uncanniness of the double to be the effect of the ego's projection of the object ‘outwardly as something foreign to itself'. What is inside is experienced as coming from outside, (Freud 1919 p.358) split off and isolated through a process of repression and dissociation. The subject may identify with another to the extent that he is not sure which identity he is or he may substitute the extraneous self for his own. In the tale of Moby Dick it is this lack of difference which dominates Ahab's relationship to the whale. While Ahab may try to establish himself as a saviour, he too, deep down, is dangerous and destructive. It is this sameness that is problematic. When it becomes too obvious that the other is contained in the self, the other becomes an object for irrational hostility. In this dynamic, both the object (the whale) and the subject (Ahab) become doubles of each other in the psyche of the person who is enmeshed in the projection. The notion of the double always inspires the subject with dread and can be summed up as a dividing and interchanging of the ego. There is an inevitable cyclic repetition of the initial trauma. It is an inescapable loop until the doubling is concluded.

Aboard ship, Ahab imposes an irresistible dictatorship in order to pursue his obsession. Moby Dick had injured him and that fact contravened Ahab's entire view of how the world should be ordered. The self-righteous, imposing Captain of the Pequod smoulders with the fires of hell. His all consuming pride and rage against the white whale blaze in the great speech before his crew where he proclaims,

"That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or the white whale principal, I will wreak my hate upon him... Talk to me not of blasphemy, man, I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." (Melville 1992 p. 167)

Ahab cannot see Moby Dick for what the great while whale is, because the reality of the animal is subsumed under the passion of Ahab's projection. But because this ‘relationship' is skewed, the rest of Ahab's world suffers. Ahab has no connection to any other person or thing beyond the white whale. It is inevitable that the whale proves to be his nemesis; it is the whale that inflicts retribution and vengeance, not Ahab.

The Orphan

With the first sentence of Moby Dick we are confronted with the complex figure of Ishmael. The narrative begins with the words "Call me Ishmael." The name has come to symbolize orphans and social outcasts but it has another aspect to it. The word literally means ‘God hears'. Ishmael, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, was the first son of Abraham, born to a slave woman, Hagar because Abraham believed his wife Sarah to be infertile. But when God granted Sarah a son of her own, Ishmael and his mother were turned out of Abraham's household. Isaac inherited the birthright from Abraham. Ishmael was left to die under a bush in the wilderness by his distraught and starving mother. But in her distress she cried out and God heard her cry and the cry of the child.

"15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16... And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him." 19Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow." (Genesis 21: 15 – 20 The Bible NRSV 1988)

From a Judeo-Christian perspective Ishmael was an outcast, the result of his father's failure to believe and obey YHWH's promise to give him a son through his wife Sarah. As a consequence, Ishmael was the one repressed and rejected. But Ishmael was heard and taken care of by God.

Throughout his life, Melville was preoccupied with the imagery of orphans and in particular with the character Ishmael. In Mardi he writes,

"But as sailors are mostly foundlings and castaways, and carry all their kith and kin in their arms and legs, there hardly ever appears any heir-at-law to claim their estate." (Melville 2004 p. 139)

In Redburn, Melville writes, at last I have found myself a sort of Ishmael on the ship, without a single friend or companion. (Melville 1957 p. 60) In Pierre Melville writes, "so that once more he might not feel himself driven out, an Ishmael into the desert, with no maternal Hagar to accompany him and comfort him. (Melville 1962 p. 125) Edward Edinger argues that Melville had an" Ishmael complex which had two sources; personal life experience and identification with an archetypal image." (Edinger 1995 p. 23) The personal cause would be the insanity and death of his father and the ensuing hardships this caused. Melville was twelve and a half when his father died, close to the age of the biblical Ishmael who was thirteen. In addition, he was rejected by his mother, who favoured her first son. According to Arvin Newton, Melville, as an elderly man, once remarked to his niece that his mother had hated him. (Arvin 1950 p.30) The pain of his rejection is poignantly evident in the tale of Moby Dick " "Most of the action is seen through the eyes of Ishmael. He will thus represent the author's ego..." (Edinger 1995 p. 24)

Ishmael, the lone survivor of this misadventure is the story teller. At the outset of the story, Ishmael presents as one who is in pain and internal distress. He is impoverished, hostile, depressed and potentially suicidal. He heads for the sea, to Nantucket to find work on a whaler. In the past he has found sea voyages as a way of containing his internal conflict and pain. But before he can find a ship, his poverty forces him to find accommodation in a squalid inn, sharing a bed with a harpooner. When the harpooner enters the room in which Ishmael is sleeping he awakes in horror at the apparition before him, a man who appears to have just returned from the ministrations of a surgeon, his face covered with sticking plaster. But that is not the reality. The harpooner is a "cannibal" from the pacific, tattooed in his native islander tradition. He carries a tomahawk, a seal skin purse with the hair still attached and a shrunken head. The overall impression is alien, bizarre and terrifying to Ishmael. He watches from beneath the counterpane as the stranger uses the tomahawk as a pipe, then quietly turns into the bed with Ishmael. He is unaware of Ishmaels presence and reacts with instinctive aggression. In the fracas that follows Ishmael calls out in terror to the landlord for help. ‘Landlord! Watch! Coffin! Angels! Save me!' (Melville 1992 p. 25) Peter Coffin, the landlord, soothes the moment. He introduces the men to each other and Ishmael is suddenly aware that this frightening apparition is a person, with a name. Queequeg is no longer a nameless savage, a cannibal with a shrunken head and a death dealing tomahawk. The tomahawk is also a peace pipe, and he shares the smoke from this unique instrument with Ishmael. The tomahawk-pipe has now become a symbol for both life and death, a symbol of reconciliation and peace. In this initial encounter with Queequeg a transformation is begun in Ishmael. In symbolic terms, he has embraced, in the symbolic form of Queequeg, both death and life as indivisible partners, and when he wakes the following morning he begins to see the world from a different perspective. Ishmael understands the mixture of life and death that Queequeg's tomahawk-come-pipe represents, and realizes, at least in that moment, that such experience can lead to renewal.

The Obsession,

Ahab demonstrates the dangers of an all consuming focus; the object of his obsession is the solitary great white whale, nicknamed Moby-Dick by the whalers. On his previous voyage, Ahab had his leg ripped off by Moby-Dick, and at the Ishmaels' story begins, he has sworn to take his vengeance by hunting down and killing the great whale. It never occurs to Ahab that he lost his leg while trying to take the whale's life and while in the process of killing countless other whales for monetary gain. Ahab's obsession has more to do with what Moby Dick represents than with the great whale himself. He saw Moby Dick as the prey and could not cope with the idea that he was not omnipotent in this relationship, that he was outdone by another creature. As Ahab reasons in a fiery speech to the crew of the Pequod, "all visible objects" are like "pasteboard masks" that hide "some unknown but still reasoning thing". Ahab hates "that inscrutable thing" that hides behind the mask of appearance. The only way to fight against it, he proclaims is to "strike through the mask!" Moby Dick, as a mysterious force of nature, represents the most outrageous, malevolent aspect of nature's mask. To kill it, in the mind of Ahab, is to reach for and seize the unknowable truth that is hidden from all people. He cannot conceive of the concept that there is a simpler reality; he is not the master of all other species. He sees his failure to be able to take life at will as a reversal of his role as the predator and therefore can only conceive of himself now as the one preyed upon. This he cannot accept and so is driven to destroy that which in his mind denies his appropriated reality.

Ahab's insane obsession and hunt for Moby Dick describes the consequences of viewing the world as a mask that hides unknowable truth. It is Ahab's frustration with the limits of human knowledge and power that lead him to reject both science and logic and instead embrace violence and the dark magic of Fedallah his demonic advisor. Like Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, he has made a pact with the devil. Thinking he is immortal, Ahab attacks Moby Dick, striking at the mask of appearance that supposedly hides ultimate truth. His devotion to the idea that truth exists behind or beyond the physical world forces him to destroy himself in the attempt to reach it. Ahab can only relinquish his illusion by dying, or killing the object upon which his illusion has rested.

Ahab's ideal ego, that is the fantasy he has of himself as one who is in control and omnipotent, is in the process of destroying his ego ideal, that is, his potential as man, captain and hunter. He believes he must eradicate the evil of the whale, but in reality, because he is caught in this doubling with the whale, he is intent on murdering himself. His passion of ignorance has overwhelmed his reason, blinded him to his own creative potential. All that is left is the passion and it knows no reason

People thus reduced inflict the traumatic pain of their void on others. The evil they engender is not just about destruction but emerges from the chaotic principle of pure drive which has loss at its centre and therefore must occasion more loss. The important point is not that the symbolism of what Ahab lost, but the symbolism of the loss itself. Revenge is only sought when there has been a great loss, a loss that is seen to embody an injustice, and an injustice imposed by an enemy over whom victory should have been assured. Ahab lost his leg to a beast, an inferior creature. His quest for revenge could just as easily have been instituted by the loss of an arm, a child, or a father. The loss implies inferiority to a foe that is deemed to be unworthy of such a victory. Revenge becomes obsession because only with revenge can the world become again that which supports the adopted perception of order. For Ahab, revenge can only be perceived as the re-imposition of superiority and ascendancy. It is the adoption of this delusional sense of what order is, that gives rise to the monomania that attends a thirst for revenge. 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 on a whaleboat and harpoon. It is the greater loss which is the mechanism standing behind the driving revenge and his monomaniacal pursuit of it.

"...As if to be human is forever to be prey to turning your corner of the human race, hence perhaps all of it, into some new species of the genus of humanity, for the better or for the worse." (Cavell 1998 p.154)

For this reason Ahab must inflate the object of his revenge and recreate it as something larger in context. To accomplish this, Ahab must imbue Moby Dick massive power, power 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 is and therefore his own loss appears greater than it really is. For Ahab, the delusion attendant to the psychosis of revenge suppresses the reality that he is merely a man bent on attempting to restore his lost sense of superiority. This reality is replaced with a grandiose vision of one who is a redeemer for humanity. But it is not humanity Ahab is attempting to redeem; it is his own inflated ego whose ascendancy has been usurped.

By imputing to Moby-Dick a demonic power he does not really possess Ahab, blinds himself to any reality of what Moby Dick actually is, to any real strength and intelligence that the whale possesses. 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. In order to sustain his delusional conception of himself, he must appoint concomitant distortion to the world which surrounds him, and particularly to the object of his obsession. Ahab desperately wants Moby Dick to be inscrutable. He wants him to be a thing that is incapable of being understood, because that enables him to categorize his nemesis as sheer evil. Therefore he is compelled to refuse any effort at understanding and it is this iron-willed ambition to remain ignorant, to label this thing as ultimate evil that generates the ironic twist whereby Ahab himself becomes the ultimate danger, the evil which he imagines he is seeking to eradicate. It is Ahab who causes the complete destruction of all that surrounds him.

Evil and the Passion of Ignorance

Ahab desires to attach to Moby Dick all the evil that exists in the world. Moby Dick is a creation of his infantile envious omnipotent sadistic phantasies. 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 pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!" (Melville 1992 p.166).

Moby Dick took away Ahab's ability to literally stand on his own two feet. 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. In his quest for revenge, all of Ahab's creative potential is voided because he cannot accept that there is a reality that is greater and stronger than himself. It is in the attempt to deny the reality and existence of that which surpasses him that he divorces himself from his own creative life potential. Captain Ahab is both the psychotic parent in command of the infant and the infant overwhelmed with his own omnipotent phantasy.

In the tale of Moby Dick, Herman Melville created a character whose motives of vengeance typify the behaviour of a psychotic person. Captain Ahab, in his delusion, could not allow Moby Dick to share the same space in his paranoid and infantile world. Ahab experienced the loss of his leg as a lethal wound that was potentially reparable only by a copy-cat act of vengeance taken upon the alleged guilty Moby Dick.

"That intangible malignity which has been there from the beginning... Ahab did not fall down and worship it..., but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it... He piled upon the whale's hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon." (Melville 1991 p. 187)

" We Cannibals must help these poor Christians."

The relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is the antithesis of the relationship between Ahab and Moby Dick. Ishmael and Queequeg develop a relationship that is based on the recognition of their dissimilarity and separateness. Ahab and Moby Dick are joined together by Ahab's projection and obsession. With Queequeg and Ishmael, the difference is something to be explored. The relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael has a germ of creativity; that between Ahab and Moby Dick is founded on destruction and butchery.

The initial encounter between Queequeg and Ishmael provokes both terror and aggression. The landlord intervenes, calming the situation and bringing them both to an awareness of the necessity of living alongside of each other. This generates a realisation in both Ishmael and Queequeg that they are both men despite the visual and cultural dissimilarities. As time passes and conversation is enjoined, they begin to comprehend both their differences and their commonly shared objectives. According to the customs of Queequeg's home, Ishmael and Queequeg are "married" after a social smoke out of the tomahawk pipe. Queequeg gives Ishmael half of his belongings, and the two men continue to share a bed.

The tattooed body of Queequeg is much like the patchwork quilt that covers them both as they sleep. These tattoos are a written narrative of the universe but no one, save the prophet who inscribed them can decipher their meaning, not even Queequeg.

    "And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last."(Melville 1992 p. 491)

For Ishmael, Queequeg represents the dangerous and the forbidden for which Ishmael secretly yearns. Queequeg also symbolizes the explorative and adventurous aspect of Ishmael's personality. Once Ishmael recognizes this, his fears lessen and he embraces the "savage" into his life.

Ishmael's initial hostility to Queequeg is a projection of the suppression of a part of his own personality. Exotic and unique, Queequeg represents the unknown. Ishmael is able to recognise this, to admit it, and to realise that his fear is due to ignorance. With this awareness comes the further realisation that he, Ishmael, must travel to the sea in order to gain life experience by exploring and embracing the unknown. The friendship between the two men, although troubled by prejudice and slow to develop into a full understanding of one another's character, is solidified with their ‘marriage contract'. They effectively become one person, illustrating the full integration of Queequeg's otherness into Ishmael's personality.

At the end of the book, Ishmael survives because of Queequeg's coffin. In accordance with their marriage contract, Queequeg offers Ishmael protection from the sea-hawks, sharks and sea in the form of his coffin. In turn, Ishmael carries on Queequeg's spirit, carved into the wood of the coffin. Queequeg represents that part of Ishmael which has been hidden and suppressed, and in knowing and admitting this, Ishmael is able to fully embrace that which he has lost. Ishmael is saved from the destruction of Ahab's obsession because he is the only crew member to realize that "meditation and water are wedded forever," just as he and Queequeg are wedded forever. (Melville 1992 p.2)

Symbolically water is a representation of both life and primordial chaos. But more than this, the vastness of the ocean represents the vulnerability of humanity. In contemplating the primordial nature of the ocean, the great representation of the human unconscious in all its vastness, terror and power, we begin to comprehend the reality of our own unconscious with all its fear, its power, its life potential. Like the power of the ocean the unconscious remains an awesome power to be reckoned with. It may be possible to harness the wind and the waves, but even so there is always the awareness that they have the power to crush and destroy.

Ahab was convinced that the injury inflicted by the great whale was an iniquitous act by a malignant and evil predator that lurked in the ocean depths. Moby Dick had become the hunter and humankind the prey. For Ahab, Moby Dick is no longer a creature of the ocean defending its life, its very existence; it has become to him a demon from the depths of hell, the personification of evil itself whilst he has become the righteous avenging angel, expunging the evil that is entirely out there, personified in another.

In the story of Moby Dick and Ahab, the heart of the evil lies not in who Moby Dick or Ahab are, but rather in the response of Ahab to his injury, his projection of all own pain and rage onto Moby Dick.. Ahab experiences not only pure jealousy towards Moby Dick but the envy of his existence. This is not ordinary jealousy, but the belief derived from very early infantile forms that the other enjoys a good that he will never attain. There is often confusion around the notions of envy and jealousy. Jealousy is the ‘affect' in a triangular situation when a person fears that something that they believe belongs to them has been or is about to be taken away. Envy however is an inherent hatred of that which possesses what is desired and which is seen to be a rightful privileged possession. Appearing devoid, of constructive value, envy becomes an evil to be restrained or renounced rather than a potential to be understood or developed. Essentially the difference between envy and jealousy is that envy is between two objects, a dualism; in jealousy there is a third party present. From this perspective envy emerges as a desperate attempt to preserve one's unique sense of self against the terror of non-being. At this point, the place where passions of tyranny and hate germinate, there is no communal love, but a point of ignorance and a need to destroy. Ahab knows intuitively that in ‘destroying Moby Dick' he must also be destroyed. In the repetition of an earlier trauma, Ahab has set a course towards his own destruction. Repetition is fundamental to the uncanny because it produces the effect of something being fateful, inescapable; it links the uncanny with the death drive.

Ishmael, the lone survivor and narrator of this uncanny tale, believes that men aboard a whaling ship are lost to the world. We can make the interpretation that his desire to live aboard a whaling boat is his version of committing suicide.

    "With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword. I quietly take to the ship." (Melville 1992 p. 1) -

And yet Ishmael, on board the ill fated Pequod with its obsessive captain, builds life and relationship with his bunkmate and companion, the seemingly primitive cannibal Queequeg. Ishmael survives by floating on Queequeg's coffin, which had been transformed into the Pequod's life boat. The coffin symbolizes not only resurrection but also the persistence and power of narratives. Queequeg has ensured the survival of his family history by carving the tattoos of his body onto the coffin. The archetypal tale of Moby Dick will also continue to live on through Ishmael's narration.

Clinical material:

Mathew is a truck driver, who is married with three children. According to Mathew he had developed an aloof relationship towards his wife and children because he feared rejection. Mathew presented as anxious and depressed after being involved in a road accident. He was charged with dangerous driving, pleaded guilty and was given a non-custodial sentence. After this incident Mathew attempted suicide and was admitted into hospital for two weeks. Through consultation with his local doctor he was referred for therapy.

Mathew was an only child. His mother was extremely critical and unforgiving. The way that Mathew remembered it was that he could not do anything right and if he reacted in anger his mother could either become violent or retire to her bed with a severe headache. She would often make up stories of supposed misdemeanours or embellish them when his father came home from work. This had the effect of incurring a severe punishment from his father. His father often drank heavily in the evenings and, as a consequence made himself unavailable to Mathew. When Matthew was seven years old, his father left. It was at this time that Mathew began to obsessively masturbate. As an adolescent this obsession caused him overwhelming guilt but he found himself powerless against the force of the obsession. As an adult he would obsessively masturbate in secret and as a consequence made himself unavailable for intimate relations with his wife.

In the course of therapy Mathew became deeply depressed. He was extremely harsh and punishing to himself and castigated himself on his lack of ability to even succeed in his attempt at self destruction. In our analytical work we discovered that he did not want to risk vulnerability through intimacy because he felt it would only lead to being disappointed, rejected and hurt again. He felt his mother had stolen something from him and he was terrified that any relationship of any consequence with anyone would take all that he had left. This emerged through transference as a refusal to share any anything but negative stories with me. I interpreted that he attempted to control me with a schedule of what he had to talk about in the session, thus keeping us in a restrictive but familiar relationship of power imbalance. It was a selective way of sustaining an illusionary state of control, safe from rejection or judgement. If he were to share his whole self with me he would feel vulnerable and uncertain of my reaction. Matthew informed me, ‘Thinking about just talking to you about everything makes me anxious, like it's too intimate or weird. I want to keep you where I can see you.' This felt to me like an uncanny repetition of his early relationship with his mother. I interpreted this as indicating that by attempting to control me with what he shared, he felt that he could safely predict how I would see him. But to bring his whole self to the therapeutic environment would be too risky for him and he was unsure of how I would react to what I saw and heard. In Matthew's own words, ‘You might turn on me and take all that I have left. You might tell me to shut up or even worse you might get ill and die'.

In his phantasy Matthew imagined that if he brought his whole self into the room he might make me ill or might attack and kill me. This was a terrifying thought to him. Mathew did not want to risk vulnerability and dependence with anyone, especially me, his therapist/mother. Matthew held a profound uncertainty, mistrust and fear of any stability from a ‘mother figure', the object of his focus, and believed the object's love to be fragile and easily lost. He used distance as a defence and then, feeling distant and alone, tried to please the object and keep it afloat. But in doing this, he felt cheated, burdened, enraged and murderous. The only way he had of keeping these feelings at bay was to obsessively masturbate. It was this obsession that had become his life buoy, a substitute for a relationship with a flesh and blood human being. The obsession had become the means by which Mathew sustained omnipotent feelings of power and control. In his phantasies he did not need anyone else. He was the one in creative control.

Despite the illusion, Mathew was not in control and like Ahab it was his obsession that was controlling him. Like Ahab, he was in excruciating pain. In comprehending the power and genesis of this pain and obsession, I found Sandor Ferenczi's paper, ‘Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child', (Ferenczi 1955 pp.156-167) a useful resource, In this work Ferenczi was concerned with the psychopathology produced in children who have experienced sexual and physical abuse by an adult. He argues that the power differential between adult and child in instances of sexual and physical abuse causes a paralyzing anxiety in the child. Children subjected to this abuse feel physically and morally helpless. Their personalities are not sufficiently consolidated to achieve any resistance or make any effective protest, even in thought. The overpowering force and authority of the adult abusers immobilizes and robs them of their senses and speech. (Ferenczi 1955 p. 162)

Where this occurs argues Ferenczi, it compels children

    "To subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor, to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious to themselves, they identify themselves with the aggressor. Through the identification, or ... introjection of the aggressor, he disappears as part of the external reality, and becomes intra instead of extra-psychic.... (Ferenczi 1955 p. 162)

Ferenczi's concept of ‘identification with the aggressor' is not to be confused with Anna Freud's use of the term. (Freud 1946 pp. 117-131) For her, identification with the aggressor is a defence mechanism commonly observed in the normal development of the super-ego. It occurs when an individual, faced with an external threat of physical aggression or verbal criticisms, performs a role reversal and internalises the aggressor so that the aggressed individual becomes the aggressor and is able to redirect physical or verbal aggression towards an external other or others. However, Ferenczi's use of the term is quite different, both in character and outcome. There is no role reversal implied and the nature of identification is not as an aggressor in response, but as one who is assumes a compliance with the dictated role in a desperate attempt to be valued, affirmed and accepted. The sexually and physically aggressed child, whose personality is underdeveloped and who relies on the adult for affection and physical nurture, has a need to gratify the adult's desires. Ferenczi's notion is that the child's identification with the aggressor means that the child assumes or incorporates, intra-psychically, an imago, identity or representation of him or herself created by the adult. The inherent need for approval and love from the parent figure generates acquiescence to the image that the parent figure projects, in a desperate attempt to be accepted and validated.

I am not arguing here that the trauma Mathew suffered from his parents was sexual or physical abuse, but rather that Ferenczi's insights are nonetheless extremely useful in understanding pathological behaviours in certain children who have been aggressed psychologically, even if there is no evidence of sexual or physical abuse, maltreatment or neglect. I am following Ferenczi's argument, that being subjected to constant criticism and emotional isolation during childhood constitutes a trauma. It is my perception that Ferenczi's theories describe accurately what Matthew suffered, that without any existing effective relations, he endured acute psychological suffering and pain in what can only be described as a lonely childhood, exclusively exposed to an overly critical and emotionally abusive mother.

The story of Ahab and Ishmael reveals that there are choices in how we deal with pain of great magnitude. In the uncanny tale of ‘Moby Dick', both Ahab and Ishmael are in agonising pain and yet while Ahab is murdered by his own obsession, Ishmael is saved by Queequeg's coffin.

    "Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear! (Melville 1992 p. 581)
    ... Ahab went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her and helmeted herself with it." (Melville 1992 p. 582)


In Moby Dick, Herman Melville creates a tale in which the focus is upon two men on that vast ocean: one is trying to repress and destroy a great white whale, the symbol of his pain, for its threat to his imagined supremacy; the other is exploring that great oceanic vastness for all its mystery, strangeness and life, symbolised in his 'marriage' to Queequeg.

    "Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago." (Melville 1992 p. 582)

Using the imagery of Moby Dick, this paper has argued that monomania is spawned from a passion of ignorance. This passion of ignorance is situated at the boundary of reality, on the edge between the alternatives of love and hate. This boundary is actually the boundary between the ideal ego and the ego ideal, that is, between the fantasy that an individual has of themselves and the potential that is inherent in all that they have acquired in the journey of life. To choose the former is to necessitate the extinction of the latter, but it is a choice that carries with it meaningless pain, a pain without purpose.

My clinical material presented a patient, Mathew, who was also in agonizing pain and in the grip of obsession. The agonizing pain of deprivation and non-existence offers a choice: to begin a heroic journey, like Ishmael, towards growth and individuation, taking faltering steps towards building a relationship with this greatest of fears; or to continue on the destructive and obsessional path towards death and non-being.

At this uncanny tale's dramatic termination, imagined and experiential realities are so tightly knotted they cannot be undone. The most tragic thing that can happen in life is not that we experience suffering and pain but that this suffering remains meaningless.

    "The drama's done. Why then does anyone step forth? – Because one did survive the wreck". (Melville 1992 p. 583)



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Moby Dick: Obsession, Evil and the Passion of Ignorance. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved May 18, 2024 , from

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