Chasing Moby Dick: eliminating the evil inclination?
As promised, I've got more to say about Moby Dick. Just think of it as that essay I struggled with in high school, redux (and, by the way, I'm still struggling).
I prefer to state the question about the symbolism of the white whale differently, as in: what's up with Ahab? What is he trying to do, and why? (In the allegorical sense, that is--because without the allegory, Ahab is just a more somber Captain Hook, pursuing the alligator that ran off with his hand.)
In trying to answer the question, this is one of the times I'm with those folks who believe in relative truth: there certainly is no one answer to this question. But the following is an answer--and my answer, at least for now:
Ahab is an absolutist. He sees the whale as the embodiment of whatever is evil and untamable in the universe, and therefore it's worthy of his monomaniacal quest. Strangely enough, that vision puts him in the company of some other uncompromising (although very different) figures of fiction--Don Quixote, starry-eyed idealist, comes to mind.
The Don is a sort of flip side to Ahab--his pursuit is of the good. But he goes after it with an absolutist vision that's very out of touch with reality, as does Ahab in his very different pursuit.
Here's Melville on the subject of Ahab's attitude towards the whale:
All that most maddens and torments, all that stirs up the lees of things, all truth with malice in it...were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hum 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 (like a cannon thing), he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."
Talk about extremism and fanaticism, talk about scapegoating! Realists try to jolt people such as Don Q and Ahab out of their narrow and uncompromising visions: the Don has his Sancho Panza as foil; Ahab, his Starbuck. I wish both Sancho and Starbuck luck. The task they've chosen is difficult--in fact, well-nigh impossible.
One of Ahab's biggest troubles is his idea that there is one single thing that embodies all that's wrong with the world. It's what gives his quest its intensity and accounts for its gleam of insanity. It's a simplistic vision of evil, and Ahab's hubris lies in thinking he can eliminate that evil.
Should we then give up the task of opposing evil, of fighting against it? Absolutely not. I am not suggesting a fatalistic, "que sera, sera" attitude towards the world. Evil must be fought against on many fronts and with many weapons: persuasion, isolation, and force. But there is no one thing that embodies evil, and no way to eliminate it from the world.
To give an example close to home: as a neocon, I oppose tyrannical and cruel regimes that trample on people's civil liberties, and I applaud the spread of democracy. But I am not so naive--at least, I try not to be--as to think that the process is either easy or perfect. Nor do I think it will eliminate human folly or evil. Not by a longshot.
It seems to me that Ahab not only believes the white whale to be the embodiment of all that's evil and that he can vanquish it, but he actually thinks that eliminating evil--if it could in fact be done--would be an unequivocally good thing. In this, also, he is an absolutist.
And in this he would seem to be correct, at least at first glance. Eliminating evil--who wouldn't want that to happen?
But would the elimination of evil--if possible--be unequivocally good? That's not a trick question, either. I'm not an expert on comparative religion, but you may be surprised to find (as I was) that Judaism answers that question: "no." In this it has a great deal in common, I believe, with Buddhism.
Here's a discussion of the subject I came upon a while back. It offers a parable:
The Jewish definition of “Evil” is a matter much more involved than the definition of “Good.” Here’s my best try: The force within each of us that causes us to act in an aggressive or an acquisitive manner -- that is a reflection of the Evil Inclination. Unchecked aggression or acquisitiveness lead to terrible evil. Violence, theft, slander and betrayal are all products of these forces left unrestrained.
That’s the basic equation. It sounds simple. Beware of spiritual ideas that sound simple. They rarely ever are.
Jewish lore tells a tale of a time when Evil was actually captured (B. Tal. Yoma 69b). Now, one might think that if Evil could really be physically contained, the most sensible thing to do with it would be to destroy it right away. So much for sensibility. It turns out that Evil’s captors paused before they acted on their first instincts.
Evil was held captive for three days, during which time its fate was debated. The Talmud does not record many details from that debate. I suppose they decided to leave that part up to our imaginations.
Well, three days passed... And then, someone made a startling realization. During the time of Evil’s imprisonment, all chickens in the land stopped laying eggs. It was as if they had gone on strike.
Had folks looked further, they would have realized that other strange things had been occurring – or more precisely, not occurring, during those three days. No houses were built. People didn’t show up for work. No marriages took place. No homework was done... and I suppose that no lawns were mowed, no leaves were raked, no trash taken out, and no gutters were cleared either.
The reason was obvious. The Evil Inclination is that which causes God’s creations to act aggressively and acquisitively. Building houses, and families, and careers – these are activities that require healthy, yet well controlled, measures of both aggressiveness and acquisitiveness.
Folks realized that the Evil Inclination could not be obliterated. It couldn’t even be held captive forever. For Evil’s own source is also the source of creativity and productivity. The only thing that could be done before setting Evil loose again in the world, would be to wound it. So Evil was blinded, and then set free. Thus, it was placed at a decided disadvantage in its continuous struggle with Good.
And here the idea is stated in a different way, and tied to that illustrious (although much-maligned) father of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud:
What gives this idea a Jewish "twist" quite different from the original Zoroastrian teaching is that the evil impulse, in Jewish thought, is not entirely evil. It is not, like the Zarathushtrian "hostile spirit," completely inimical to goodness. The Jewish "evil impulse" is only evil when it is obeyed and yielded to without restraint. The evil impulse is sinful lust in excess, but in moderation it is necessary in order to prompt people to procreate; it is sinful greed in excess, but in right order, it is the drive behind trade and the pursuit of lawful profit. The Jewish "evil impulse" thus resembles Freud's concept of the "id," the amoral motive power behind human actions either for good or evil - and indeed, Freud was inspired by Jewish moral philosophy in his own thinking.
Ahab is an idealist without moderation or judgment, a man who believes he can do away with evil if he only pursues it with enough intensity. As such, he becomes a fanatic, and signs a pact with evil itself. It's a pact that ends up destroying him, his ship, and his crew--all but Ishmael, who alone survived to tell the tale.