…And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!
I vividly remember rereading Romeo and Juliet for the first time as an adult: “Where’s the love stuff,” I thought, “and why are those kids so bratty?” I read the play a couple of times in high school and thought, of course, about love and want, and the unfairness of circumstances beyond our control, cosmic or political. I thought those things partly because of my circumstances — an adolescent rushing toward independence and adulthood — but also partly because of cultural expectation — our culture thinks, for some reason, that Romeo and Juliet has something to do with love, and it takes time to think past that expectation.
And so with Moby-Dick. I approached my first reading of Moby-Dick with a common cultural expectation — Ahab is crazy, perhaps, but heroically so, and his mad quest, though reckless, defies God in an admirable way. By the time I got to “The Quadrant,” I had had quite enough of Ahab getting his crazy on, and began to read his rants much more clinically.
This is not to say that Ahab does not rant about interesting things sometimes. Ahab punctuates his tantrum in “The Quadrant” with a rejection of science on two counts: first, that science can only describe circumstance, rather than providing any power over circumstance, and second, that science makes man think he is supernaturally powerful, when he is not. As in “The Quarter Deck,” Ahab fully places himself outside of the supernatural, an earthly being claiming an earthly power to satisfy his defiance.
Is Ahab disillusioned? Has he himself worn out an expectation of heroics? Not by a long shot, as we see in the very next chapter of the book. He has, however, literally trampled his last vestige of reason.
Chapter 118: The Quadrant
But to sweep the sky will never tell why,
Only the present
Where the see-er stands alone.
Rational repose —
You can bend and strain with nothing yet gained,
Then the descendance,
In a fiery slide we go.
Behind all things, the knowledge of scenes
Dealt as invective,
So burn your fires bright.
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea October 12, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea November 21, 2009