Ahab is not driven by pride; he is a man guided by wound.
This wound is worth meditating on, for it can explain more than anything else the nature of the relationship between an I and a You. When Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick’s scythelike jaw, he simultaneously struck out with a dagger to wound the whale. The ferocity of Ahab—a man, Peleg reminds us early on, who “has his humanities”—is ridiculously palpable. Why, with harpoon lost and boat destroyed, floating in the turmoil of the white-frenzied froth of the depthless ocean, would a man try to kill a whale—a creature whose heart lies fathoms deep beneath its skin—with a six-inch blade? There is no simple answer, but there is one that sounds simple. For Ahab’s I-self and Moby-Dick’s You-being to enter into relation, a wounding contact has to be made that threatens Ahab’s life entirely. The result of the wound is madness as much as it is pain. Ahab has a hell loosed inside him. He is described as a man whose soul is leaking out of him, and if it is true, his soul is leaking out through the wound that Moby Dick has given him.
Once bodily healed, he walks upon his jawbone leg that knocks upon the wood of the deck—a deck as wrinkled with Ahab’s pacing as is his forehead furrowed with thought. Ahab is described as a man who walks half on death and half on life, and the description is as figuratively important as it is literal. Ahab’s courage, his fundamental approach to life, which is to say his understanding of how meaning comes to be meaning, is not in recovering from the wound, not in learning how to “heal,” but rather in striving to stay absolutely wounded. He must return to his wound’s source to do so. For the wound has given proof of the soul in place of belief in the body. Fact has been shattered, for fact is but a use of “truth,” a body of truth, a knowledge that gains insight as profit. Thinking is no business venture; nor is faith. Ahab is a broken idol, a shattered image—and such shattering has given him the tremendous gift of his hatred, a hatred whose force thrusts him outside the prison of body, the prison of world, the prison of language, into inscrutable proximity with mystery.
By mystery I also mean something quite simple—the open possibility of meaning before meaning has taken form and, in taking form, has become but a mask of truth in which we read the mask as “meaningful.” What is at stake is the nature of reality. Whatever the result of the first fulfilled prophecy in Moby-Dick—the prophecy that brought Ahab to the white whale to be wounded—the notion of the way in which the world is real altered irretrievably. The madness Ahab suffered in the bowels of his own ship, the very madness from which he’s still recovering when Ishmael signs his name on the line, is the vertiginous result of having the world shattered, as if the world were but a hollow stone we mistook for the world, now broken, and we must confront the expanding absence it had contained. Ahab says, “Truth has no confines.” He means so literally. Only a wounded man can speak so—and he can only be wounded by You. The futile stabbing of Moby Dick strangely parallels the wound Ahab himself suffers. Not that he wounds Moby Dick in any significant way. The point is simpler. For the I-Thou encounter, as Martin Buber describes it, to be a living relationship—this I that says You, and in saying You, says I—there must exist a reciprocity, even if that reciprocity is vastly unequal. It is in such relation, Levinas might say, that formal logic’s ability to explain relation is overthrown. We can bring meaning to that unexplainable inequality. The nature of the I is to act positively in the world: the I wounds as an addition. As such, Ahab inscribes wound on the parchment-white skin of Moby Dick. (It’s worth noting that Moby Dick’s blood is described as inky black. As such, the mark with which Ahab wounds the whale fills with ink, a repetition of the very creation of the world. See Tzimtzum.)
The You of Moby Dick wounds oppositely. You wounds by increasing lack, by adding nothingness, and for that soul brave enough to confront that nothingness, to dwell in it, and then to refuse to leave it, there is no choice but to return to that which created the wound. For one cannot exist in two worlds at once—in the world where one walks on a living leg and simultaneously, in the world where one walks on a ghost leg. In the world the wound is written, it sounds as positive as fact. The world is shattered when the wound itself is wounded—when our capacity to want to know, to want to make meaning, to want to write beautifully or think beautifully is amputated, and in its stead we sense the Nothing over which such hollow desires hovered. We tend to think of such capacities as art, science, philosophy—all of Ahab’s “humanities”—as sufficient unto themselves, and we realize, once we’ve confronted You (if we ever confront a You), that they are not.
It is the wound that by harming us completes us. This completion is not perfection. Rather, the wound completes us with our imperfection. To bear the wound is also to bear the lack the wound opens. The physical wound cicatrizes, but the metaphorical does not. The wounded contain an emptiness, and desire leaps out of such emptiness, such lack. Desire propels one toward that which may fill the lack. Ahab pursues Moby Dick along such a desirous line. He does so, it seems, not to heal himself. Ahab lives the wound.