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Ahab’s Quenchless Feud: The Tragic Vision in Shakespeare and Melville1 Richard B. Sewall Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning. . . . All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought. . . . He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it. — Moby-Dick, Chaper X LI This is a remarkable passage, an achievement of rhetoric and rhythm, of sound and sense, that would repay the most exhaustive stylistic analysis. It is also a classic statement of at least one phase of the tragic hero’s vision— the first phase, the vision of evil, the glimpse into the abyss, all that Melville later suggests in the metaphors in the chapter called The Try-Works; the look into fire, the Catskill eagle’s swoop into “ the blackest gorges.” But of the many important aspects of the passage, I wish to choose one around which to center my remarks. As we read the passage a powerful impression grows that there is something more going on here than the fictionist at work at his art. The rhetoric itself goes beyond anything that our young narrator, Ishmael, however “ quick to perceive a horror,” has been represented as being capable of. In its anguish and bitterness it all but breaks the barriers of the fictional structure that would contain it. We are caught up. We sense a new voice, as of one desperately involved; and we wonder, of course, if it isn’t Melville’s. After such an experience we are face to face with an old problem in literary discussion: the question of the author’s involvement in his own fictions. In the present instance, Melville’s involvement is, I 207 208 Comparative Drama think, demonstrable, although neither here nor elsewhere in the book can a perfect equation be made between Melville and Ahab, or Mel­ ville and Ishmael. Shakespeare’s involvement in his tragedies— into which matter we shall shortly move— is surely problematic. And the whole question is hazardous, highly “intentionalistic.” But it should not be dodged, I think, especially in discussing tragedy, which from the beginning and more than any other form has seemed to insist that we the audience become involved, too. It will be objected, perhaps, that the question has nothing at all to do with our involvement as audience or readers. Suppose we could prove that Melville was talking here, that he regarded himself as one of those “ deep men” driven almost mad by that “intangible malignity which has been from the beginning.” Does this make the passage anything more than an interesting exhibit in Melville’s welldocumented and private “quarrel with God” ? Do we identify or empathize more readily once we are assured of the connection between the passage and the “real” experience of a “real” man of flesh and blood? The answer is by no means an unqualified yes. In fact, when writers of fiction intrude too much, become too polemical or insistent, we are likely to be repelled. But, provided we never lose contact with the work of art as selfcontained , the more and the deeper perspectives we can see it in, the better. Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” for instance, is a beautifully self-contained poem, but it would be inhuman to suggest that it does not gain in meaning, in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 207-218
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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