Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Injured Ahab


“…as sick men we are the effect of universal mixing, love and chance.”
--Georges Canguilhelm

In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), at one point in the course of Ahab’s relentless hunt for the elusive white whale, the vengeful sea-captain struggles to board a fellow whaling-ship to obtain news of his prey.  

Because this is the first time that Ahab has “stepped on board of any vessel at sea but his own,” the novel’s ever-present narrator Ishmael notes that, in this moment, the Pequod’s commander is “abjectly reduced to a clumsy landsman again; hopelessly eyeing the uncertain changeful height he could hardly hope to attain" (336). 

At David T. Mitchell notes, both as he contemplates this awkward transition and throughout Melville’s novel as a whole, Ahab is repeatedly represented as “a product of his own physiological condition,” the victim of a physical injury that seems to situate him outside of the parameters of what is regarded as the “traditionally able-bodied profession of whaling” (“‘Too Much of a Cripple’: Ahab, Dire Bodies, and the Language of Prosthesis in Moby-Dick.” [Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 1, March 1999], 17, 8).  

In the representation of the Pequod’s captain, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson has argued, readers are presented with “both a sublime and a threatening version of the disabled figure,” a “cultural emblem for the restricted self””—in short, a corporeality that “stubbornly resists the willed improvement so fundamental to the American notion of the self” (Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature [New York: Columbia UP, 1997], 45, 46). 

There is no question that stubborn resistance is undoubtedly Ahab’s own attitude toward physical impairment: as critics have frequently noted, like the “crippled beggar” that Ishmael spies on the London docks, Ahab figuratively spends his every waking moment “holding a painted board before him, representing the tragic scene in which he lost his leg” and “ruefully contemplating his own amputation” (221).  

Understandably “irritated” and “exasperated” when, apparently oblivious of his situation, the officers of the Samuel Enderby lower the man-ropes for always-impatient sea-captain to climb, Ahab is only reduced to the status of a clumsy landsman as a result of their failed perception (336).  

In his attempt to board the vessel, Ahab ultimately benefits from an unexpected coincidence.  Like the captain of the Pequod, the captain of the Samuel Enderby has also been maimed by the notorious white whale: from the folds of his jacket-sleeve, the good-natured Captain Boomer thus reveals “a white arm of sperm whale bone, terminating in a wooden head like a mallet” (336).  

The fellow sea-captain readily understands the dilemma facing Ahab and, in a quick improvisation, Boomer orders his men to lower a blubber-hook, at which point Ahab “slid[es] his solitary thigh into the curve of the hook (it was like sitting in the fluke of an anchor, or the crotch of an apple tree), and then giving the word, held himself fast, and at the same time also helped to hoist his own weight, by pulling hand-over-hand upon one of the running parts of the tackle” (337).  

A clumsy landsman no more, Ahab attains the previously uncertain heights after all.

On board the Samuel Enderby, Ahab greets the outstretched mallet-hand of the ivory-armed Captain Boomer with a gesture of solidarity: “Ahab, putting out his ivory leg, and crossing the ivory arm (like two sword-fish blades) cried out in his walrus way, ‘Aye, aye, hearty!  let us shake bones together!—an arm and a leg!—an arm that never can shrink, d’ye see; and a leg that never can run’” (337).  

In this moment of rare camaraderie, after having collectively achieved what he could “hardly hope” to attain on his own, Ahab nevertheless focuses on what his ivory leg—and Captain Boomer’s ivory arm—are unable to do.  

I think the question remains, however, whether the representation of disability and embodiment in Melville’s Moby-Dick is ultimately limited to—and therefore circumscribed by—the narcissism of its famous antagonist.  Is the novel’s entire perspective on disability shaped by the always rueful and frequently vindictive gaze of an individual obsessed with his own injury?  Are all of Moby Dick’s disabled viewed through the lens of the “traditionally able-bodied profession of whaling” and thus regularly reduced to the status of clumsy landsmen?  

Are they all simply products of their physiological condition?

As Samuel Otter has noted, Melville’s literary career is marked by a continued “pursuit of issues attached to bodies: the presence of human physical and cognitive variation, the impulse to interpret human difference, the relationships between the material and the metaphorical, the response to ‘disability,’ the pressures of the ‘normal’" (“Introduction: Melville and Disability,” Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2006, p. 9).  

As Otter recognizes, an ongoing meditation on the meanings and representations of “disability” constitutes “a crucial part of [Melville’s] fascination with how meanings are invested in and extracted from human bodies” (10). 

As a result, I believe that the depiction of disability in terms of the bodily prison-house of Ahab’s monomaniacal self-absorption is only one side of the coin of Moby-Dick’s representation of human impairment.  

Interestingly, a review of Moby-Dick that appeared in the London Athenæum on October 25, 1851 characterizes the novel as “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact” whose “style …is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English," while a review appearing in the London Spectator on the same day labels it “a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalism of civilized life, and rhapsody run mad" (Reprinted in Melville, Moby-Dick [New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002], p. 597, 599).  

I believe Melville was in fact interested in what Georges Canguilhelm has identified as “the effect of the very laws of the multiplication of life that characterize our status ‘as living beings’” (278-279), and that his representation of these effects is crucial to his famous novel's narrative style and depiction of character.   

As Robert F. Murphy has suggested in his memoir entitled The Body Silent, when confronted with disabling illness, “[m]y identity has lost its stable moorings and has become contingent on a physical flaw" (105).  One consequence of this experience of physical contingency is a “powerful pull backward into the self”—as Murphy observes, “[o]ur lives are built upon a constant struggle between the need to reach out to others and a contrary urge to fall back into ourselves.  Among the disabled, the inward pull becomes compelling, often irresistible, outlining in stark relief a human propensity that is often perceived only dimly” (109).   

Moreover, as Drew Leder argues in The Absent Body, unlike the (apparently) healthy body, which functions as “a transparency through which we engage the world” (82), “the painful body emerges as an alien presence,” an objectified “other” that both is and is not one’s “self” and that “exerts upon us a telic demand” (73).

It is important to note that, although Ahab’s stubbornly resistant reaction to his injury registers a common stereotype regarding the experience of disability (particularly on the part of the able-bodied), it is nevertheless unusual in the context of the disabled community at large.  As Tobin Siebers has suggested, disability by its very nature entails the necessity of reliance on others—a concept that is perhaps hard to digest in a culture premised upon the purported necessity of self-reliance.   

Even more broadly, in “Crips Strike Back: The Rise of Disability Studies”  Lennard J. Davis has argued that “the category of disability is permeable—anyone can become disabled, and in fact, most people will develop impairments with age" (American Literary History, Vol. 11, No. 3, Autumn 1999, p. 502).  

This permeability is strikingly registered in the many injuries and idiosyncrasies of Moby-Dick’s whalemen.  Although the profession may be, in the American cultural imagination at least, a hallmark of masculine able-bodiedness, in Melville’s novel, it is practiced by men who are frequently missing arms, legs, and toes (Ishmael notes that “[t]oes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men” [324]).  

More often than not, these “isolatoes” literally represent the walking wounded: acknowledging his own “hypos,” Ishmael’s narrative insistently catalogues the various mental and physical injuries or disabilities of those around him (including the ship’s cook with his problematic “knee pans” and the alcoholism of the Pequod’s blacksmith, to name only a few).

If, as Tobin Siebers has suggested, “disabled bodies change the process of representation," then it is possible that Melville’s often odd and at times (wonderfully?) unwieldy novel is meant to register its own kind of literary sea-change in the representation of human embodiment and contingency.

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