A grand, ungodly, god-like man

As inspiration for my own novel, I’m looking to Melville, specifically to his infamous Captain Ahab, “a grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Ahab is obsessive to the point of insanity, seeking to extract vengeance from the epic white whale. It’s Ahab’s intensity and energy that pushes the narrative forward, farther into the deep oceans of the high seas. In the story, Ahab is Shakespearean in scope, making for a rich metaphorical discussion, but from a writer’s perspective, there’s something about Ahab that is also a little more difficult to put a finger on. He doesn’t quite fit the bill as a traditional antagonist. He’s ungodly, yes, but ultimately, Captain Ahab’s fight is with himself.

It’s this ambiguity that interests me. Moby Dick is an adventure story, but there’s no clear hero and no obvious foil. The whole crew of the Pequot is caught in the hurricane of Ahab’s madness, and while they recognize it, they can’t quite ever bring themselves to stop it. (Maybe there’s a parallel here to the rise — and I hope the eventual fall — of Donald Trump’s Presidential aspirations.)

Chaotic forces conspire, and in the end Ahab’s insanity wins the day. It’s a similar thing to the “antagonist” in my novel. He is also a ship captain, as it so happens, but his life isn’t quite so grand, and that’s part of his problem. It isn’t an inner obsession with a Leviathan that’s propelling him toward an epic and tragic adventure. He came up to Alaska, years back, for adventure, but now he’s stuck. Nonetheless, like Ahab, his inner turmoil creates chaos around him and others get sucked up into the tornado. But does this make him a villain? Hell, we’ve all got issues, right?

Neither my Captain nor Melville’s are like the truly ungodly types, those biblical antagonists of old. It isn’t quite like Ahab’s namesake, for example.

Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him (I Kings 16:33)

Melville’s Captain Ahab may not fit the bill as a traditional villain, but it worked for Moby Dick. There was enough adventure and energy to captivate, and I’m thinking that this approach might also work for my novel.

In Melville’s day we were still inspired by the belief that we had great Leviathans to pursue — though Moby Dick is clearly a warning against Western Civilization’s insanity-inducing pursuit of wealth, “progress,” and greatness — but that was then. Clearly there are those of us still optimistic about new frontiers, particularly in science and technology, but the sense of being caught up in a grand narrative seems largely behind us. The American Dream now largely recognized for what it is: a lovely fairy tale for the privileged few but a nightmare for large swaths of peoples and nations. Now, we live in the wreckage. And maybe that’s what my Captain is dealing with, at a subconscious level. Tyler from Fight Club calls us the “middle children of history.”

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Well, that’s all for now. I’m back to writing. I’ve got my own white whale to hunt down.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

2 thoughts on “A grand, ungodly, god-like man”

  1. Your post is thought-provoking. I’ve never read Moby Dick so I just downloaded it.

    I see Donald Trump as a Leviathan. I’m not much of an activist, so I light a candle on my alter and pray for him every day – pray that the love and compassion I and others send out into the world sparks him and those like him to open their eyes in love and compassion.

    I look forward to reading more of your writing.

    Namaste, Ellen


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