Conversations about obsession in Moby-Dick often carry with them a touch of the romantic, somehow equating obsession with passionate intensity and emotional profundity. Similarly, in many discussions of artistic obsession, I notice a search for passionate underpinnings, as in “What in the world would inspire someone to do something like that?” But the inspiration always seems so much less relevant and interesting than the follow-through, especially in illuminating the nature of obsession.
Throughout Moby-Dick, Ahab discusses his inspiration in half-coherent, bitter rants of cosmic injustice — passionate, perhaps, but ultimately simple-minded and melodramatic. However, he discusses his follow-through as a metaphysical loss of free will. Take, for example, Ahab’s discussion with Starbuck in “The Symphony,” when he questions, “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” Ahab clearly wants to stop his chosen course of action, but rather than blaming himself for his choice, he builds an elaborate philosophical framework of having no choice at all.
In “The Chase — Second Day,” Ahab gives us a last window into his obsession. Invoking the age old omen, more or less, that the third time’s a charm, Ahab declares his intentions to lower for Moby Dick one last time. When Stubb declares his bravery to Ahab, Ahab calls him, under his breath, “mechanical,” and then realizes that omen works as a force to drive away fear. By invoking fate and omen, Ahab excuses himself and his crew from the important task of confronting choice and taking responsibility for action.
This is obsession — not a romance of passion, but an imprisonment of will, a feeling of living without choice. Obsession means doing without thinking, doing because you have to, living as a machine, sometimes for the express purpose of ignoring agency. Of course, Captain Ahab is a case of extremes, and as such, speaks to an extreme sort of obsession. All artistic pursuit, as with any job, requires some degree of obsession, a surrender of choice for the sake of the pursuit — seeing friends less, going to the Met less, laying in the park less than one might otherwise choose.
Despite Elvis Costello’s thirty year old rebuff in “Welcome to the Working Week,” people tend not to want to think of artistic pursuits as work, preferring, perhaps, romance over reality. Perhaps Ahab’s biggest fault lies in painting a romance over the the reality of his own pointless, unfulfilling 9 to 5 — and perhaps this is why, to many, Ahab appears heroic.
Chapter 134: The Chase — Second Day
It’s the worst could happen
Every waiting day:
How could darkness pass away?
In the early morning
With a captain’s grace,
Soon foretold to whence we chase.
With the wind an ally
And the sea to speak,
Brought us place, pernicious.
Thundering breach, froth, and majesty
Tore into view.
And he took us head-on,
And we circled free,
And I lost my death in thee.
Every beacon splintered
In a punchbowl sea.
Firstly, cradled; lastly, leaned.
Would I have leaned any oftener!
Would I have leaned!
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea October 13, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea December 6, 2009