I’ve often thought about what it takes to be great. Success, in hindsight, always seems fated. Individuals divinely chosen at birth, each moment and life experience a step towards their ultimate achievement. Yet, one could follow their exact path and reach a far different destination — in fact, this might be precisely the worst thing to do.
There exists a period before an ordinary individual becomes great; we call this purgatory, madness. Not all who embark on a heroic quest succeed, and those who fail are so often struck with ridicule and scorn; believed to have always been fated to succumb to their foolish goals, and their stories used as a lesson in hubris.
From the crucible of madness, both greatness and evil are born — to excise the bad, leaving the good untouched, requires surgical precision. For this task, we must become familiar with madness, and there are few better teachers of madness than Moby Dick.
The story begins with Ishmael, a mariner seeking existential respite after a creeping sense of ennui takes hold of him — an affliction he describes as “growing grim around the mouth”. Ishmael travels to the whaling town of Nantucket; there, he hoped, he would find salvation as a harpooner aboard the Pequod. Ishmael proclaims:
“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”
The novel’s themes and meditations interweave throughout, but binding them together is the hunt for the white whale, Moby Dick. It’s nearly a third of the way through the book when Captain Ahab finally appears before the crew and sets them on this quest. It’s at this moment the reader is presented with contrasting views, hinting at the tale’s deeper meaning.
In a previous encounter, Captain Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick, replaced now with a peg of whalebone — in a sense, now part leviathan himself. Fate’s teeth cut much deeper than his wounds; he now believed it was his destiny to face the evil beast once again, and that either he or it would perish.
Much of the crew was enamored with this tale and felt it a righteous quest. But not the first mate, Starbuck. Upon hearing the Captain’s speech, Starbuck begged for common sense. Though the largest and whitest of leviathans, it was still an ordinary whale living on its own accord. It did not view Ahab as an enemy, nor was it aware of his existence. The crew had tacked off to sea to hunt whales, not just that whale. Seeking vengeance was a foolish endeavor.
Among the crowded deck, Ishmael ponders Moby Dick. Its immensity; its whiteness, its legend — how could it be a mere beast? A whale was itself semi-mythological, only making themselves known to the few who braved the perils of the open ocean, otherwise reserved for the pages of the Old Testament and tall tales in dark, salty taverns.
It’s later in the novel that the symbolism of the great leviathan is affirmed. It’s noted that, like the visage of a god, one could not look a whale in the eyes — for its sheer grandeur made it impossible. What’s more, the armada of beasts swam swiftly through the ocean’s depths, indifferent to the strifes and troubles of those at the waves’ crests.
To Ishmael, Moby Dick was nature itself. Unconcerned with the perils of man, yes, but not to be confused with an unworthy target; both a simple commodity to be burned as fuel, and much more. Captain Ahab’s quest was the symbolic pursuit of mastery over the forces of the universe.
The essence of Moby Dick has very little to do with whaling, though Melville tries desperately to convince you otherwise — going so far as dedicating chapters to a literary history of the beasts, and diving into excruciating detail of their behavior and anatomy. In a Straussian sense, this is meant to challenge you and push you off course. For Melville, suffering is key. Captain Ahab’s quest drags the Pequod’s crew around the world, and ultimately leads to a final battle with the great leviathan. Only Ishmael survives.
The journey’s fateful end elicits confidence in the lesson of the story — a critique of the monomaniacal pursuits of charismatic leaders. I think this to be too simplistic. I believe the tale to be a portrait of human conquest in defiance of an increasingly secular world; itself a litmus test for the belief in greatness in the modern age.
It is no wonder this novel is considered one of the greatest pieces of American literature; I would contend it is the great story of American Dynamism. What is more becoming of the spirit of our nation than the pursuit of mastery over nature at great self-peril? The early roots of venture capital itself stem from investments in whaling vessels; the slaying of great beasts to light our young nation, or to sink to the watery depths.
In a bygone age, mankind would seek divine inspiration and fortitude for daring pursuits. Nietzsche’s great insight was that this would work for us no longer. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he speaks of the ubermensch, an individual able to transcend nihilism and find their own meaning in a world seemingly devoid of it. This state, he writes, resembles that of a child; resistant to conformity and deeply creative — able to imagine the impossible. To Nietzsche, the hope for mankind lay in regaining what we all once had, but lost.
Though written decades earlier, it is fascinating to compare Melville’s existential themes with that of Nietzsche. To be child-like as an adult, is to be viewed by many as a bout of madness.
On their voyage, other ships attempt to dissuade Captain Ahab in his pursuit; they speak of the pointlessness and danger. Modern society often shares this sentiment. Many are far too quick to decry bold visions, declaring ignorance and grave social costs. I believe these statements to be entirely incorrect about pursuits of greatness, but often strikingly true about the criticism surrounding them.
Where would we be without individuals hunting white whales?
Who is so foolish to believe they could land a rocket upright? Shall we accept the status quo, or break it? It’s the answer to this question that makes Elon Musk a Rorschach test; by your snap opinion of this man one might deduce your thoughts on many other things.
In conversation with Starbuck, Captain Ahab boldly lashes out:
Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.
Rage is a fuel; it alone is not good nor evil. Though “striking the sun” is a metaphor for an impossible task, it is apt precisely because, today, it is not. Upon the shoulders of 20th century greatness, Elon could very well send the next Tesla towards the great ball of fire.
If Captain Ahab had succeeded, the story would be much more plain — another tale of adventure. The crew, having secured the largest and most famous of whales, would be joyous, and Captain Ahab lauded. Even had you believed this to be an ordinary whale, there was still every reason to hunt it, and every reason to believe you’d succeed. It's Captain Ahab’s failure that challenges us to see the seeds of greatness within the tempest of madness. It is not his bold vision that is flawed, but how, especially as he closes in on his goal, he breaks.
My colleague, Katherine Boyle, recently wrote about childishness. Let me be clear; there is a difference between child-ish and child-like. In the pursuit of greatness, there is no excuse for shrugging responsibility. In Dune, Frank Herbert captures the truth of messianic delusion:
“Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.”
This alone was Captain Ahab’s doom – a Sword of Damocles splitting the Pequod in two. After a first clash with Moby Dick, and even after much death and destruction that preceded only pyrrhic victory, Captain Ahab did not call off the hunt. Continuing to chase the leviathan for three days on end was childish.
To be child-like is to believe the impossible can be achieved, and to pursue it; to be child-ish is to be selfish, and to sacrifice the innocent at the altar of your desire. The novel is recounted from the perspective of Ishmael – famously beginning the story by announcing his name. One must imagine the more admirable and heroic descriptions of Captain Ahab should Moby Dick instead be strewn limp against the Pequod’s hull.
There is great danger in the pursuit of greatness, but greater danger, still, in never reaching your potential. The story of Captain Ahab is a cautionary tale for ambitious leaders, not a critique of them; to stay course and not drift into fatal delusion. This balance, of course, is very difficult. While whaling is not for everyone, if you’ve grown grim around the mouth, or are afflicted with that everlasting itch, know there is an ancient remedy about. Without brave captains, society enters the doldrums — victim to the whims of the breeze and ocean currents, just aimless pawns of nature.
Moby Dick was initially a literary failure, perhaps written for a time that had yet to come. It would be a hundred years later that a passing essayist found a disheveled copy at a bookstore, immediately recognizing its profound qualities and brilliance.
My profession is characterized by the hunt for individuals crazy enough to believe they can change the world. In a word, I seek madness.
Call me Ishmael.
"It is odd to watch with what feverish ardour Americans pursue prosperity, ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they might not have chosen the shortest route to get it. They cleave to the things of this world as if assured they will never die, and yet rush to snatch any that comes within their reach, as if they expected to stop living before relishing them. Death steps in, in the end, and stops them, before they have grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes them."