On Ahab: “Canst Thou Draw out Leviathan with an Hook? Thou Should’st Bet I Might!”

'Captain Ahab,' by Mike R. Baker (2007)

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants? Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears? Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more…None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?  (Job 41:1-10)

Having, in my quest to discover the heart and nature of the American experience this past year, become something of a devoted Mellvillian, I find myself unable to read this sublime passage without thinking immediately of Ahab. In fact, I can imagine Melville reading verse 10 — “None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?” — as a challenge: “Who can do this? Let me introduce you to a certain whaling captain…”

We can read the figure of Moby-Dick in a number of ways, but all interpretations seem to lead back to the divine, specifically, the awesome, destructive divine. This, of course, parallels Yahweh’s leviathan, a metaphor the god-head gives Job for his devastatingly sublime power. But in the face of such destructive divinity, Melville’s Ahab is no Job: he does not — will not — bow down to this power. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!” Ahab outlandishly declares; and yet, we believe he would, if given the chance. Such is the persona Melville created to answer Yahweh’s challenge: Ahab can and does “stir up” a leviathan via Moby-Dick and in this way manages to stand — grudgingly — before God.

Of course, Ahab dies and Moby-Dick swims on with his life, but that fierce attitude is unforgettable: to be able to stand up and essentially spit into the face of an all-consuming power is not a trait to cast aside lightly: Yahweh, in Job, is not exactly Jesus’s loving God the Father, for in this text Satan essentially goads him into destroying the lives of Job, Job’s family, and Job’s servants simply to flex his deistic muscle. Ahab, traumatized physically, mentally, and spiritually from his first terrifying encounter with the White Whale, recognizes something of this reckless Yahweh in his God, and so “stirs up” sublime trouble simply, it seems, to insult the deity — to “strike the sun.”

I do not think that the persona of Ahab as we have it could occur in the literature of any culture other than America, for the mad captain’s blasphemous quest represents utter independence, the completed notion of Emerson’s self-reliance. Not nearly so much a role-model as a human Lucifer-archetype to behold in terror, Ahab, the anti-Job, seems from a nightmare of what a truly independent and self-reliant American could be: with an Ahab in president, our country would soon crash into fiery ruin; but what a sublime destruction that would be.

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