Thursday, January 3, 2013

Starbuck's Heart

It was a whirlwind of a holiday, but a good one.  I've been the living embodiment of the old adage, "If you need something done, give it to a busy person to do."  I visited friends and family, and had a "slumber party" with my best friend and her two little ones.  I nearly finished knitting a blanket.  I polished my course syllabi.

I also finished the article on Moby-Dick that I've been working on forever.  I started it back before my mom became ill, in the months after my dad died.  And I've worked on it little by little ever since.

By now, I'm sure everyone's sick of hearing me go on about Moby-Dick, but I can't help it.  I have to talk about one of my favorite scenes in the novel, because it's been on my mind a lot lately.

At one point in the ill-fated quest for the white whale, the first mate, Starbuck, contemplates an immoral and illegal act.

He thinks about killing Ahab.

At this point in the novel, it is quite clear that the captain is insane and that he's unwilling to listen to reason.  He intends to use the ship to pursue his own vindictive quest, and he doesn't care about the well-being of the crew or the trust that the ship's owners have placed in him. 

The Pequod has just weathered a typhoon; the storm has cleared, however, and the ship is now back on course.

Starbuck is a devout Quaker.  He has openly expressed his disagreement with Ahab's decision to pursue the white whale at all costs, and at one point, Ahab has threatened to kill Starbuck if he continues to oppose his will.  Starbuck has repeatedly prayed to God to save them all from Ahab's insanity.  From Starbuck's perspective, the typhoon might well be regarded as the hand of God, expressing divine dissatisfaction with Ahab's course of action.

But then, the typhoon suddenly ends, as abruptly as it began, and the ship is back on course, in pursuit of Moby-Dick.

Starbuck goes below deck to notify Ahab of the change in the weather.  As he does so, he notices the rack of loaded muskets in the bulkhead.  At this point, the narrator Ishmael remarks,
Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck's heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought; but so blent with its neutral or good accompaniments that for the instant he hardly knew it for itself. (386)
Starbuck reflects upon the fact that, at an earlier point in the voyage, Ahab had threatened him with one of those very muskets.  He pauses to pick up one of the guns and checks to see whether it's loaded.  Instead of emptying it, however, he holds it "boldly" and begins to think.

Melville's description of Starbuck's interior monologue is a fascinating example of how "evil thoughts" can be accompanied by "neutral or good" elements.  Itemizing Ahab's various demonstrations of foolhardiness or insanity, Starbuck asks,
But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship's company down to doom with him?--Yes, it would make him the wilful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship come to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way.  If, then, he were this instant--put aside, that crime would not be his. (387)
Starbuck doesn't call it murder.  He considers "putting aside" the "crazed old man" as a way of saving innocent lives.  After all, in his mental address to Ahab, he notes, "Not reasoning; not remonstrance, not entreaty wilt thou hearken to; all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is all thou breathest" (387).

Ahab will not accept anything less than total obedience from those under his command.  Starbuck fully realizes that, under such circumstances, there can be no reasoning with such a leader.  Mutiny is the only option, murder a distinct possibility.  As Starbuck muses, "The land is hundreds of leagues away ... I stand alone here upon an open sea, with two oceans and a whole continent between me and law" (387).

Starbuck has a wife and a small child that he may never see again, if Ahab continues down the path of his self-appointed vengeance.  Starbuck is well-liked on board the Pequod; it is unlikely that anyone would question his decision and, as he points out, he is currently "two oceans and a whole continent" away from the law that would prosecute him for Ahab's murder.

In the heart of even an honest and upright man, evil thoughts arise.  As Melville's novel suggests, honesty and integrity do not simply flow spontaneously from people of innately good character.  They are the result of choice; they stem from a recognition that "neutral or good accompaniments" can hide the true nature of an evil thought.

Starbuck's heart is not pure, but Starbuck is nevertheless an honest and upright man.  As we read this chapter of the novel, we can't help but sympathize with the first mate: Ahab is crazy.  His survival means the almost certain death of many others.

And yet, Starbuck's credo has always been that murder is immoral.  He opts to do what he believes is right, despite the "strangely evolved" promptings of his own heart.  Ahab might well have killed him at one point; Ahab may well cause the death of the crew in the near future.

The point Melville's novel seems to be making is that integrity stems from principle, not circumstance.  It cannot depend upon the action of others, because there will always be accompanying "good" or "neutral" thoughts that can initially appear to excuse immoral acts.

This is the paradox of Starbuck's heart: the extent of its integrity is proven in precisely those moments when his thoughts are most impulsive and impure, when the temptations of immorality are strongest.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."