At the heart of “The Cabin” lies an oblique discussion of sanity. Captain Ahab, as we know, is one crazy dude. Pip, the black boy who earlier in the story jumped from his boat and was left by Stubb to die alone in the ocean, comes out of his ordeal quite insane as well, and quickly finds himself in close companionship with Ahab. In “The Cabin,” Ahab repeatedly alludes to the fact that “like cures like,” which seems to imply that this companionship has pulled both Ahab and Pip out of their pain a bit, and allowed them to see more important, perhaps more human, meanings to life.
Strangely (or perhaps just uncomfortably), Ishmael tells this aspect of his story through ideas of power and race. In “The Cabin,” both Pips’s and Ahab’s insanity seem of a piece with their power. Ahab’s power of title has allowed him to indulge the worst of his nature, with no checks and balances to keep him accountable to his fellow man. Pip’s insanity has empowered him as a black worker in a different way altogether. Unable to work, Pip becomes powerful in his uselessness, freed somewhat from subjugation.
When Pip begs Ahab to “use poor me for your one lost leg; only tread upon me, sir; I ask no more,” Ahab asserts that Pip “grows so sane again.” At first glance, we should worry that Ahab implies in these words that the only sane black person is a subservient black person, if not for the next, quite touching and lucid, exchange between the two. When Pip declares that “I will never desert thee, sir,” Ahab replies, “If thou speakest thus to me much more, Ahab’s purpose keels up in him.” The sanity that Pip offers Ahab is not subservience, but human devotion, and Ahab knows that that kind of sanity could never coexist with his quest to kill Moby Dick, or with his power (being the root of his quest), or perhaps even with his race (being the root of his power). He leaves Pip in the cabin, in a throne of sorts at the center of the ship, enacting delusions of power, again quite insane.
Chapter 129: The Cabin
Turn your trembling eyes,
Oh!, sacred tiller, wise
With empty paradise!
Let me force the way.
My illness will suffice,
Torn from the echoes,
To guide this grand device.
Fully centered, so here I stay,
The coronation of king-for-a-day,
As I make believe a history to abnegate.
The hour is coming nigh —
Spun off the axis.
Oh, empty paradise!
Let me force the way.
No caprice or guile
Brought yet to sully
A dutiful demise.
(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 6, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea July 1, 2010