“Oh, Starbuck! . . . On such a day . . . I struck my first whale — a boy-harpooner of eighteen! Forty — forty — forty years ago! — ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led. . . .”
Reading Ahab’s lament late in Melville’s novel, reading it in the dark of night with the temperature dropping and the snow beginning to slide out of the enveloping cloud, I thought of the life I have led, not forty years since I was a boy-student in my first year of college, but fifty years.
“– aye, eye! what a forty years’ fool — fool — old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? . . . But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. . . . What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst no so much as dare?”
Fifty years ago I was eighteen. Forty years ago I was a graduate student at Princeton, my life focused, intently focused, not on whaling but on German literature.
I am Ahab. I have children and grandchildren. I have a second wife. I have friends and I have had lovers. I have sailed at night on brilliantly lit drilling rigs akin to Ahab’s vessels. I know the pull of ropes and the heavy hardness of steel. Like Melville, I know the Bible. He mined the far-flung documents of whaling lore for his books. For my books I have combed archives for accounts of German Freemasonry and Yugoslav nationalisms, for philosophical and botanical references, for the secrets of homo- and heterosexuality, for the revelations of barbed wire advertising, for the phallic standing metaphor. I am an obsessive scholar and my white whale has been the blind impulse to know and to write.
Sex, yes. Love, yes. Shared lives, yes. Children, yes. Family, yes. Family endures. But ideas are my white whale. When I was silent at dinner last night, I was planning an essay. Late to breakfast yesterday, I was writing an essay. When I called out in my sleep three nights ago, I was protecting my sister from an image I had called up in my writing.
I am Ahab. And I know how the story ends.
I hug you across space and the night, dear friend and brother and shipmate.
and I you, on a cold, bright morning