Simply Absurd

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Third Web Paper
On Serendip

Simply Absurd

Daniela Miteva

"Each life unfulfilled you see,
It hangs still, patchy and scrappy;
We have not sighed deep, laughed free,
Starved, feasted, despaired-been happy."
Robert Browning

Introducing the idea of the evolution of species, Darwin emphasized on the importance of the "struggle for existence" as the driving force for that process. Facing scarcity of resources in their habitats, some species gain certain traits that help them utilize the available resources in a more efficient way. Thus, given a competitive advantage over the other species in that habitat, the species that are better adapted to their environment have greater chances for survival than others do. Drawing on the history of H. sapiens, Nietzsche supplanted Darwin's "struggle for existence" with "struggle for power" as the driving force for ontogenetic development and evolution of the phylogeny. What instills power into people?

Knowledge rather than physical strength gives people the necessary power to claim their lives. On the intrapersonal level, knowledge of one's goals and motivation are the prerequisites to attain one's life. Understanding one's self and the mechanisms one uses to compose coherent stories of the numerous observations equals making sense of the universe. The ability to comprehend one's own inner world complements the ability to compose an articulate story to account for the findings. Therefore, on the interpersonal level it is of paramount importance that one is able to articulate one's ideas by molding them into palpable notions by means of language and, thus, maintain ascendancy over people. Yet, having attained power to live, people face only death. Analyzing Ahab's experiences, Melville suggests that life itself is absurd.

Insights about the universe and the importance of language in shaping it give Ahab power to claim his own life and maintain ascendancy over the crew. Aware of the mutability of the surrounding world, he aspires to define the attributes of life and comprehend the underlying logic of the world: "All visible objects are... but pasteboard masks."(Moby Dick, 140). He believes that "Truth hath no confines" (140) and in doing so he refuses to be confined in his search for it. Avoiding the pitfalls (The 4 Great Errors as Nietzsche defines them) that hamper one's efforts to attain truth, Ahab does not allow himself be deceived.

The error of confusing cause and effect (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols): Understanding the universe is the meaning of Ahab's life. Having identified such an aim, Ahab has attained the power to live. Finding the ultimate truth is his vocation. It is the frustration and subsequent hate, evoked by this inability to comprehend the ultimate truth Moby Dick personifies, not the leg he lost, that fills him with gall and animosity towards the whale: "The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate" (140). Aware of the true cause of the journey, Ahab does not seek revenge, but attainment of knowledge. So, it is a positive impetus (the search for truth) not a destructive one that inspires and energizes him. On the ship trying to thrush through the impenetrable wall that surrounds Ultimate truth, Ahab does create his world.

The error of false causality: Using language to transmute his world into an actuality, Ahab brings Starbuck under control: "Starbuck now is mine; he cannot oppose now without rebellion" (140). The vivid pictures the captain builds, coupled with the indomitable logic of his reasoning, make Starbuck abandon his primary convictions and defer to the captain. Ahab is so convincing because he reminds Starbuck that nobody is inherently entitled to know the truth. But instead of being discouraged, people should aspire to attain knowledge of the world they inhabit: "Are they not one with Ahab, in the matter of the whale?"(140)It is the realization of this common aim that makes the crew and the captain akin. Not fear of Ahab but understanding, sympathy and admiration for his goal and courage to pursue it prevent Starbuck and the rest of the crew from rebelling. Having identified with Ahab's aim, they begin to live. So, the crew needs Ahab who incorporates this aim, in order to be able to live.

The error of imaginary causes: "Human beings are not the effect of some special purpose or will, or an ideal of morality."(Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols) Rejecting the role of any supreme being in his search for the ultimate truth, Ahab is aware of his importance as a creator of his world. As such he has identified his own moral values and has assumed the responsibility for them. If he breaks any of his internal laws, guilt will be his punishment. Because it is inflicted via the consciousness, Ahab cannot escape it. So, morality is possible only if people assume the responsibility for their actions. The values Ahab has internalized rather than fear of external punishment by a supreme being guide Ahab on his journey towards truth and understanding of the world.

Ardent in his efforts Ahab is often referred to as "mad". Is he really? Paulo Coelho defines the term as "inability to communicate your ideas" (Veronika Decides to Die, 114). Harnessing the power of language, Ahab builds vivid pictures of reality into the minds of the crew and makes them see the world from his point of view. The crew understands him. Therefore, being a Master of language, Ahab is not mad. And yet, because of his insights about the world, Ahab cannot remain detached or composed. Transmuting his goal into an actuality is the meaning of his life. Because he is aware of the inscrutability of the surrounding world, he is so intent upon finding the truth. The zeal to make sense of his own life that makes him look mad. Unlike him, the crew is not so ardent about finding the truth. Deferring to Ahab who incorporates the ideal, the crew is not passionately engaged in the realization of that aim. If Ahab attains knowledge, so will they through him. Therefore, they do not channel their efforts in that direction. And, thus, "By lack of understanding they remained sane." (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.163)

The error of free will is what Ahab stumbles upon, however. If he is taking the responsibility for his actions, can he be free? If his mind, intent upon achieving a single aim, controls him, can Ahab have free will? In the Twilight of The Idols Nietzsche claims: "Whenever responsibility has been assigned, it is usually so that judgement and punishment may follow." The concept of free will is a social adaptation, through society can exert influence on the individual rather than a means for self-attainment. If free will only helps to regulate the human interactions inside society, is Ahab's death his punishment in compliance with the social norms? Seeing the dead body of Parsee, Ahab suddenly realizes his responsibility: "The harpoon dropped from his [Ahab's] hand." (Moby Dick, 423) Guilt ridden, he renounces upon his aim to attain knowledge: "I only wish we were where they [cherries] grow" (425). The loss of an aim of life rather than death itself is his punishment. Without an aim, Ahab's whole existence becomes meaningless. Isn't it absurd then that Ahab deludes himself that he is free to choose his course in life, when he cannot extricate himself from the numerous constraints he himself and society create?

Yet, Ahab manages to transmute his goal of understanding the universe. Shortly before he dies, he becomes aware that searching for an ultimate truth is meaningless. He himself creates his world: "It is thou, thou [Ahab], that madly seekest him."(423)He finds the ultimate truth, namely that his life itself is absurd. Having achieved his only goal, is there a meaning for him to continue to live?

Understanding the universe, Ahab attains the power to become better adapted to his environment and increase his chances for survival. Yet, attaining the power concomitant of knowledge leads to only his death. Is Ahab's life meaningless then? Ahab's aim and values instill life into Ishmael, showing him what it means to be alive. On that ship, Ishmael learns to appreciate life and cherish it. Starting the voyage out of desperation or total boredom: "This is my substitute for pistol and ball" (18), Ishmael imbibes the vital forces of the captain and the crew. "Buoyed up by that coffin [the ship]" Ishmael embarks on the journey of his life. Consequently, Ahab's experiences help Ishmael to attain his life. Teaching the crew and Ishmael how to live, Ahab's story is beneficial to other people, because it helps them become better adapted to the surrounding world.

The power to live Ahab gains by identifying an aim leads to death only. His life, dedicated to finding the truth is an absurd game in which Ahab himself defines the rules. Winning and losing this game are equally absurd, because they result only in renunciation of the aim and death. In the course of the game Ahab's values lose their meanings. Embracing the ideal of knowledge of the universe, Ahab aspires to break free from the bonds of ignorance and claim his own life. Assuming the responsibility for his actions in order to extricate himself from the bonds of religion, he repudiates his freedom. Yet, attaining the power that comes from the realization of the absurdity helps other people live. Living for the sake of others: Isn't this altruism moral?


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. Accessed on April 18, 2004

Coelho, Paulo. Veronika Decides to Die. London: Harper Collins, 2000

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 2001

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Penguin Books, 1990

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