Motherless Ahab

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»I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.«
JAMES BALDWIN, Notes of a Native Son, 1955

Moby Dick is, among so many other things, the story of a dictator, a man who relentlessly follows an authoritarian line of destruction – no matter what his advisors tell him. A tyrant, who cannot be stopped, even though his most persisting adversary onboard is tempted to kill him. He gets his way by an uncompromising relentlessness, a somewhat enchanting charisma that spellbinds nearly the whole crew into submission; and by performing some ridiculous rituals to manifest the power of his authority.


The Pequod is in dire straights when a thunderstorm grabs hold of her on the open sea. Ahab takes on the powers of nature, yelling at the storm: »There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her? There lies my puzzle; […]«

So, let me this time read Moby Dick as the sprawling story of a motherless man. He is utterly unwilling to look into his existential loss and consequential pain and therefore has to project it outwards onto a seemingly mythic animal. He clings to his hate. That’s basically what propels the ship, and the story, forward. He lures the crew as well as the reader into his trauma trance. No sacrifice is too big, nobody else’s life counts. There’s no self-empathy, hence there’s no empathy with any other creature.

Narcissists like Ahab are still hijacking states, companies, classrooms and families. And we still seem to have quite a hard time stopping them. Maybe that’s why we react to him so strongly. Maybe that’s why literature is full of men like him, too.


Although, frankly, I think we could use more stories of men who acknowledge and face their pain; who don’t inflict it onto others mindlessly; who stop themselves from steering whichever ship they are responsible for into doom.

And while we’re at it, let’s remind ourselves that the all-capable superheroes are just the flipside of Ahab’s golden coin, following the same overwrought machismo logic of grandiosity.

I get it, that these other characters will inevitably be less glorious in their evil and less immaculate in their heroism. They will doubt their certainties, foster their own growth and those of others, reformulate their identities over and over again, and cherish the openness of questions more than the finality of answers. However, they would probably stand a chance to figure as the male role-models we so desperately need. (z)


a penny for your thoughts…

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