Ahab As Randian Hero

I’ve finished Moby Dick, and it’s a fitting tale for a Summer’s reading. If, as I wrote here, Ishmael is the All-American Boy, Ahab is a hero fit for an Ayn Rand novel.

In the last third of the book, Ahab continues his search for the Great White Whale despite an increasingly obvious series of omens warning him off, and of other ships warning of the dangers. Ishmael paints a broader picture of Ahab by relating several soliloquies. They show a more ruminative side of Ahab, one alert to the real world around him, and the pity and terror it inspires. There’s a poetic meditation inspired by a dying whale in Chapter 116, for example.

… life dies sunwards full of faith; but see! no sooner dead, than death whirls round the corpse, and it heads some other way.

But this inner life does not touch Ahab’s intent to kill Moby Dick. He ignores all the omens and warnings, omens so clear that his crew are muttering. He drives them on til they first see the great whale. That night, Ahab gives his final soliloquy, this one to Starbuck (Chapter 132). Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day — very much such a sweetness as this — I struck my first whale — a boy-harpooner of eighteen! Forty — forty — forty years ago! — ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! … the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey — more a demon than a man! — aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool — fool — old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now?

Starbuck urges Ahab to turn back and to live his life on the land. Ahab doesn’t seem to hear. Another excerpt:

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?

Ahab has no answer to this question, and doesn’t even try to find one. Ahab just knows he is driven to extract whale oil by killing every single whale. Ishmael even asks in Chapter 105 if humans can kill all the sperm whales in their insatiable search.

What does drive Ahab? Ishmael doesn’t say. Maybe the lust for money has blended with the bloodlust of killing whales into a single inhuman force, coupled with an insane anger directed at the single whale that cut away his leg.

To me Ahab seems like an Ayn Rand character: a capitalist driven to produce whale oil by grit and determination, overcoming every obstacle placed in the way of every truly productive person, and bending others to do the same. Ahab, like other capitalists, is driven to extract every last drop of money from every last layer of nature and human beings. RAtional thought, contemplation of the consequences, these have no place in this crazed struggle.

Of course, in an Ayn Rand novel, on the third day Ahab would have slain Moby Dick, flensed it, and found enough sperm oil and ambergris to float a boat, bringing fame and profit for Ahab and confounding the socialist whale protectors.

Ahab ignores every warning. And everyone but Ishmael drowns. And all the oil they had extracted went to the bottom of the sea.

73 replies
    • BobCon says:

      I would not be surprised if there is some doltish libertarian contrarian who tries to use the whaling industry as an example of the environmental benefits of unfettered capitalism.

      They’d argue that development of petroleum made whaling obsolete, thus saving the whales! Of course, whale populations have never really recovered, and plenty of other species have been driven into extinction by exploitation, but they’ll still want to cheer the oil industry as the savior of whales.

  1. BobCon says:

    In my reading Rand would have celebrated one of the more mercenary captains — she might have loved The Bachelor as a symbol of all of the joy you get from fully exploiting the environment. Ahab’s more spiritual drive would have angered her.

    But Moby Dick strikes me as such a contrast to Rand in so many ways that I suspect Ahab woukd be only piece among many that she would despise. It is not a book for simplistic reductionists.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Melville is protean against Rand’s reductionism. His choice of the name is a good example. Ahab was an evil king of Israel, eager to use his power for his own ends. Melville’s Ahab is similar: he persuades the crew to follow him on his insane journey, and makes his attitude towards them clear in the final chase:

      “… Down, men! the first thing that but offers to jump from this boat I stand in, that thing I harpoon. Ye are not other men, but my arms and my legs; and so obey me.”

      It’s hard not to read the present into the book; there are hundreds of pieces doing the same thing over the last 100 years when the book began to receive the acclaim it has today. That led me to think about how others might respond to the madness of Ahab.

      Melville was writing in the early days of large-scale industiral capitalism, so it’s easy to see the connection between Ahab and other capitalists. Melville kills his protagonist in a suitably epic way. Rand would never do that. But then, Rand’s characters are paper thin, mindless tools for celebrating their own and Rand’s love of capitalist driven excess. Ahab is a real character, with depth and understanding about many things, but not himself.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Yes, steam transport – boats and locomotives – was just beginning to come into its own, replacing canals and wagons. Mining, steel making, and financial capitalization (and large-scale manipulation) grew with the railroad industry, but their great expansion happened during and after the Civil War. Vanderbilt’s career parallels that development.

        Ag, however, was already undergoing a great expansion. Fertilizers, mechanical reapers, and new areas opened to the plow multiplied the amount of crops that could be raised.

        The c. 1800 cotton gin revivified the American slave economy and multiplied the amount of cotton coming onto the market. Mechanization of thread and clothmaking, a recent development still confined to Britain, quickly turned it into commodities sold around the world.

        Ahab is both representative of his time and a mad explorer and hunter. He is driven to overcome nature and beast. His quest is given biblical overtones, but he is not seeking the grail. He is seeking to find, overcome, and conquer – the American frontier, the Nile, the Congo, the “savage,” buffalo, the gold mine, the great whale – to serve man. Like a good capitalist, he throws away other lives before his own becomes forfeit to his passions.

  2. Badger Robert says:

    Its the mad hunt of the paleolithic extended into the days of industry. It was a dying industry exploiting exhaustible resources in a way that had already been superceded by animal husbandry and storgage of grain and fodder. I suspect Melville knew the entire industry was mad and self destructive.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      In the mid-19th century, the dominant theme for centuries had been that resources were there to be exploited. Holding them in trust for others is a more recent development.

      The odd warm beach aside, it seems likely that Melville understood the sea as a cold, heartless place – and as a metaphor for life and toil. As with mining for gold, a handful made money, the many worked themselves into poverty and death.

      • Badger Robert says:

        Nobody owned the whales, so they had no protector. It was just about the last wilderness hunt. The elimination of the bison followed quickly on the heels of Moby Dick.

  3. Badger Robert says:

    By the time Melville was writing capitalism was shifting towards railroads. Railroads were the final conquest of nature, and for the managers and upper trained personnel, offered lifetime employment, with socialist benefits.
    Within a generation of Melville the bison were gone and the hunters of wild game were trapped on reservations.
    No capitalist would accept the risks that Ahab took. A capitalist would remain loyal to his shareholders.
    Great thread.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      None of today’s financial capitalists would undergo the risks of whaling, mining, manufacturing, or railroad building, but their forebears did.

      Vanderbilt sailed ships before he bought railroads and legislators. Rhodes and Hearst knew their mines, Crocker his tracks and trestles, and Carnegie his steel. It was Vanderbilt Jr, Morgan, Harriman, and Mellon who were more adept at taking financial risks. Jamie Dimon seems to prefer PR risks.

      To paraphrase Woody, greed, cruelty, and ruthlessness are as comfortable with a fountain pen as a six-gun or shovel, a harpoon or steel furnace, a spreadsheet or data mine.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Whale oil – along with opium and slave trading – made many a New England fortune. For over a century, sperm whale oil was the most prized and expensive of oils.

    If Ahab had been a-hunting it for four decades, he was either greedy and obsessive or the world’s worst whaler. His legendary self-destructiveness, a fitting prequel to today’s climate crisis, suggests that Ahab was ordinarily a fine whaler.

    • BobCon says:

      It’s not in the book to my recollection, but I think Ahab’s permanent status in the business could be explained by financial panics. A lot of fortunes were wiped out when debts were called and liqidity dried up. Whaling was a boom and bust business, and there must have been a number of skilled captains who lost their mansions in New Bedford and Nantucket more than once.

    • Americana says:

      Wasn’t Ahab continuing to go whaling solely because he hadn’t caught up w/Moby Dick? Distant memories of reading the book but I’ve loved the selections you’ve made. It brought back that wonderful density and endless complexity. Queequeg was the character who started my fascination w/tattoos.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        I think that gets to the question of what mythic objective does the great whale represent. What about it is so important that Ahab cannot sleep until he possesses it. (Interestingly, the ’49 California gold rush was still on when Melville wrote MB.)

        If Ahab was seeking a source of fat and oil, catching the great whale was unnecessary. As his crew points out, they already had sufficient to call their voyage a success.

        • Badger Robert says:

          Since the whale was a supernatural creation, Melville sends Ahab into a supernatural quest to become immortal. What he was attempting was to capture the faith of this crew to pursue something that was impossible.
          They were leaving behind the world of accounts and arithmetic.

        • Badger Robert says:

          It was very odd that Melville wrote about the power of fanatical leadership before the Confederacy fought a war to preserve a social relationship that the rest of the world was abandoning. Many English observers thought the rush to secession was madness.

        • Badger Robert says:

          In the Civil War, which followed Moby Dick, it was the cold hearted calculators, Grant and Sherman, and their railroad managers, like McCallum. Naval officers that calculated risks and blockade managers like S. Phillips Lee, that won and survived.
          Ahab in many ways is the lat of his kind. The management types were coming.

          • Tom says:

            And don’t forget Union Quartermaster-General Montgomery C. Meigs who pioneered concepts such as just-in-time delivery and maximized use of the Northern railway network. Meigs also prepared cost analysis documents for Lincoln so the President could see exactly how the taxpayers money was being spent.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      I think the boom-bust cycle applies more to the luxury goods items like seal skins than to lighting and lubricating oils that came from whale fat and oils.

      An old industry, the 1820s to the 1860s, before and after Melville wrote Moby-Dick, were the highpoint of American whaling. Afterwards, petroleum oils began replacing high-cost whale oil.

      In any case, it is Ahab’s relentless pursuit of the white whale – the wild thing that would not be caught, the search for which (like gold) drives men to their doom – that drives the story and the countless metaphors that are draw from it.

      • BobCon says:

        Poking around a bit online, it looks like Daniel Webster gave a long speech in 1834 during debate related to the Bank of the US about the problems of New Bedford whalers — he said they depended on a steady credit supply due to the length and uncertainty of voyages, and were hit by a lot of bankruptcies when credit failed.

        But at any rate, there are definitely a lot of maddening tensions as Melville describes how Ahab’s spiritual pursuit overwhelms his more worldly one.

  5. OldTulsaDude says:

    Dollars, yen, euros, rubles….all are simply expressions of labor, either intellectual labor or physical labor. As such, the goal of capitalism is control of the commodities that labor relies upon for existence. Ahab chased whales; later, he captained the Exxon Valdez.

    • e.a.f. says:

      the last line is funny, made me laugh and boy is it right on. In B.C. they continue to cut old growth forest, they will to the last old tree, its the money, who cares about anything else, the old trees, the money them make. Eventually they will all be gone, so what is the point, they have to stop some time, why not now. Get on with some thing else.

      • gmoke says:

        As I recall, Ahab was part of the syndicate which owned the Pequod. The syndicate was comprised of Quaker businessmen, which, I believe, was historically accurate.

        • Mooser says:

          So Ahab was defrauding the investors by using the Pequod for his own insane purposes. To get revenge on a fish.

          • Mooser says:

            I think it was Starbuck who was supposed to look after Ahab’s use of the boat. But he was too busy over-roasting coffee in the try-works to notice.

  6. fpo says:

    Upon reading the OP, above, I thought its timing might have been occasioned by the news, mostly buried beneath other ‘events’ of the week, that would indicate that full-on exploitation of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by the petroleum industry is nigh. And like Ahab and Moby Dick, questions of morality, motivation and madness are intertwined in this story as well.

    “Scientists’ Work Ignored, Altered to Push Ahead With Alaska Oil Drilling: Report”
    [ https://www.thedailybeast.com/alaska-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge-scientists-work-ignored-altered-to-push-oil-drilling-forward-report ]

    Appreciate all the thoughtful commentary on the classic that is Moby Dick.

  7. Vinniegambone says:

    “Ambition’s bold sound steeds
    land us where our hungers lead ”

    Poor Moby, does it say as anywhere in the book how he got stuck with the name Dick ? Had to be Dick ? Couldn’t be Moby Robert ?

  8. Tommy D Cosmology says:

    Makes me sick that Japan has resumed whaling.

    Ayn Rand: where the protagonist enters a room and sneers for 80 pages: “I could give a shit about anybody in this room, I didn’t need a single person to get where I am. Fuck them all.”

  9. Campion says:

    May be biblical in scope but “Ismael” is out of the Koran and the Peqoud is Native American–Such a tight analogue:
    Moby Dick
    First critique of trans-national corpse…still rendering OIL from a living body for private gain. The winner will receive the Gold Doubloon–rounded with the dial of animals (zodiac)–currently nailed to the sampo. The corporate aim of the whole SheBang, engined by the spirit of manifest destiny, is to destroy nature (an act of self-deception and self-hatred).

    Sound familiar?

    • PSWebster says:

      Very familiar: We have met the enemy and he is us. POGO

      Additionally: Daniel Kahneman’s two selves are many times in conflict as Ahab statements above display.

      The prose of that book is beautiful.

      • Ed Walker says:

        As I noted in the first post on the book, linked above, Ishmael is the first son of Abraham by the enslaved Hagar. But he plays an important role in Islam.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    If long-time NYT columnist Maureen Dowd is a “regular gal,” I’m Prince William. [https://crooksandliars.com/2019/07/maureen-dowd-lashes-out-being-called-elite]

    She ramps up her self-pity party by whining about an invented “purity racket” and by claiming that she’s the victim of a mob of twtr “lefties,” who have set up a “digital” guillotine. [https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/27/opinion/sunday/maureen-dowd-trump-impeachment.html]

    Dowd and her paper have a distinct whiff of ancien regime about them, but it’s not the “digital” bit they should be worried about.

    But not to worry, Maureen. A real trip to the guillotine involves a parade of sharpened pitchforks, a hail of mud and empty vials of insulin, and the soft keening of tumbrel wheels grinding “past due” student loan notices littering the cobblestones above the Georgetown steps, not cocktail party swooning.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Delicious riposte by the Baltimore Sun’s editorial board, telling Donald Trump to go Cheney himself after he maliciously tweeted about Rep. Cummings and the predominantly African American district he represents in Baltimore.

    In his vicious, unpresidential swipes at Cummings – who seems about to subpoena communications by Jared and Ivanka – Trump called Maryland’s 7th district “rodent infested,” and “the worst,” saying that “no human being would want to live there.” As others have pointed out, that is Trump declaring that no human beings do live there, only people who should go back to their “shithole” countries.

    The Sun’s response is measured, eloquent, and pointed. It tells “the most dishonest man ever to occupy the Oval Office,” that it’s, “Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one.”


    • Tom says:

      Rather than going through the standard ritual of condemning the President’s racist tweets, the media should spend time analyzing the likely reasons for Trump’s tweets and what they reveal about the mental capacity of this “very stable genius”. For example:

      (i) Donald Trump constantly craves attention. The more outrageous Trump is, the more attention he gets and the better he likes it. He has no inner sense of his self-worth so relies on others to validate he’s important in some way.

      (ii) Donald Trump has difficulty generating any original thought. Many journalists have noted how frequently the President’s tweets echo something he has just watched on Fox news.

      (iii) Donald Trump has a low level of literacy. He doesn’t read and is taxed by the mental effort of pinching out a few tweets.

      (iv) Donald Trump is lazy and he probably thinks spending the weekend tweeting makes him look industrious.

      (v) Donald Trump also hopes that the resulting furor over his tweets will distract the public and the media from the fact that he isn’t really doing anything. Whatever happened to the idea of the Republican party becoming the healthcare party? What’s going on with Iran? What’s going on with North Korea? Is the economy slowing down, and if so why? What about that Fox news poll that showed Biden beating Trump by 10 points? What’s the President’s response to people taking to the streets in protest in Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, and Moscow? Nothing, as far as I can see, probably because he doesn’t like the idea of Americans taking to the streets in protest.

      The next time the President sends out a racist tweet, the media should take ten seconds to acknowledge that, yes, Trump is a racist and a hatemonger, and then move on to discuss the issues that the President doesn’t want anyone talking or asking questions about.

      • Ed Walker says:

        Good ideas. I particularly like i and ii. The media could make it clear every time that ignoramus amplifies Fox and Friends and keep track.

  12. David Mazel says:

    re Melville and capitalism, you might want to read his short stories “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (about oppressed New England factory workers) and “Bartleby” (about a Wall Street lawyer and his recalcitrant employee). And a great nonfiction combo is Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity.

  13. pdaly says:

    The mentions above about destroying whales to get at their lucrative oils, makes me think of the recent Netflix documentary “The Great Hack.”
    One of the people the documentary follows in real time is Cambridge Analytica’s former director of program development Brittany Kaiser, but it starts right after she quits CA.
    She mentions that personal data has surpassed oil as the most lucrative commodity in the world.

    As an aside most of the names in the documentary I’ve heard before, but never the Brittany Kaiser. Yet she seems to have plenty of interaction with all the main characters in the Mueller investigation. The documentary doesn’t explore what made Brittany quit CA.

    Carole Cadwalladr’s articles and tweets about Brittany are informative, however.

  14. Fran of the North says:

    They call them extraction industries for a reason.

    Once the resource (e.g. whales, oil, gold) has been plundered, pirates go in search of other easy pickings.

    Stewards on the other hand, realize that their long term interests are inextricably bound to the fate of the resource, and act responsibly to preserve and protect. To e.a.f.’s point above: Do we really need to turn old growth forest into 2×4’s and pulp wood? Do we fish the species to extinction just to satisfy our taste buds?

  15. gmoke says:

    Moby Dick took Ahab’s leg. That might be a primary motivation that goes beyond the simplistic Randian interpretation.

    Lots of depth to Melville. I’ve been thinking that, these days, it might be time to reread The Confidence Man, although I think it would have to be an annotated edition in order to get all the contemporary references in which Melville skewers other American writers and thinkers.

    PS: One of the models for Moby Dick was “the alleged killing in the late 1830s of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, in the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha. Mocha Dick was rumored to have 20 or so harpoons in his back from other whalers, and appeared to attack ships with premeditated ferocity.” Another was the destruction of the whaling ship Essex by a whale.

    PPS: I’ve been thinking recently about the chapter in Moby Dick which describes the feeding frenzy of the sharks tearing at the carcass of a whale next to the ship and how one shark is slashed across the belly and starts eating its own entrails.

    As I say, lots of depth to Melville.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I see more depth in Ahab than simple revenge. Besides the speech I quote here, see Ishmael’s discussion of Ahab in chapter 42.

  16. Badger Robert says:

    The whale was white. And somewhere in the writer’s reach for immortality, whaling gets transformed for a practical way to make money in a dangerous world, to an obsession with whiteness.
    And for Melville, who had been around the world, whiteness was probably just another superficial characteristic.
    But in ante-bellum US society it was an obsession.
    What other aspect of US society was dominated by whiteness? Cotton fever.
    As Melville was writing his great work, he see the two strands of religious revival separating and neither willing to see slavery was something that could be modified and addressed rationally.
    Ahab may have been trying to destroy whiteness, but there is no doubt the need to so was driving him mad.

      • Badger Robert says:

        It would have been hard to write a long book while residing in New England and New York, without it being partly about the Old Testament and slavery and the coming clash of the old and the new. And Ishmael emerges a free man on the open sea.

  17. PSWebster says:

    More critique today Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/30/subversive-queer-and-terrifyingly-relevant-six-reasons-why-moby-dick-is-the-novel-for-our-times

    From it general consensus seems to be: he was a good drinker; he was gay and in unrequited love with Hawthorne, it was not only his leg the whale tore away (never heard that one before) and a stellar list of readers and commentators sure to make us proud.

    Still: probably the greatest American novel written. That is a big claim but it is way up there anyway.

  18. earlofhuntingdon says:

    In anticipation of Melville’s 200th birthday this Thursday, Philip Hoare has a good essay in today’s Guardian, with enjoyable illustrations: “Subversive, queer and terrifying: six reasons why Moby-Dick is the novel of our times.”

    The book features gay marriage [Ishmael and Queequeg], hits out at slavery and imperialism and predicts the climate crisis – 200 years after the birth of its author, Herman Melville, it has never been more important.


    • Tom says:

      And speaking of birthdays, Napoleon Bonaparte’s 250th is coming up on August 15th. Vive L’Empereur!

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Philip Hoare founded the Moby Dick Big Read project. Chapter One, Loomings, is read by Tilda Swinton.


  19. sleeve98 says:

    My god. Evidence of literacy – and on the internet, no less. To quote Apu, “you may consider my gob to be thoroughly smacked.”

    (some (apparent) children on one of Blender’s forums decided that my citation of Orson Welles’ wine ads meant that I was grousing about a release delay. Finding this post the next day is a breath of fresh air.)

  20. Tom says:

    OT but it just occurred to me that with all Trump’s ranting about rat-infested Baltimore, doesn’t the White House have a rat problem, too? Haven’t we all seen photos of those black rodent traps placed outside the White House? An old Yahoo news report from December 31, 2017 refers to recurring problems with rats, mice, ants, and cockroaches in places such as the Situation Room and around John Kelly’s office. And then there was the new President’s comment when he took up residence: “That White House is a real dump!”

    • elk_l says:

      Congress, of course, is thoroughly rat infested, too. That is fully documented in “How the Rats Re-Formed the Congress”
      by Ralph Nader.

  21. Rayne says:

    Taking advantage of my editorial powers to add a comment after they are closed on this post, I am sharing a link to Toni Morrison’s lecture essay, Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature, from 1988. Michigan Quarterly Review has generously made it available from their archives on Morrison’s passing this week. In this essay beginning somewhere around page 14 she discusses Melville’s Moby Dick and the theme of whiteness. It’s incredibly important to hear this from a person of color, especially someone of Morrison’s skills in literary criticism.

    What a remarkable thinker and writer she was, and what immense contributions she made to the American literary canon. May she rest in power.

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