The slow build-up the appearance of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick is almost unbearable, but when Ahab does appear Melville describes him in the most wonderful language.
Captain Ahab stays ashore while his ship is crewed and fitted. He’s sick, but the crew is told that he will board the ship when it is ready to embark on its three-year voyage to the Southern oceans. We are given some hint of his monomania by an ultimately incoherent old seaman, the prophet, who speaks to Ishmael.
Nor is Ahab seen when the ship sails. He arrives in the dead of night and stays in his cabin as the ship leaves the freezing waters of Nantucket and heads towards the tropics. As the weather brightens, the temperature rises, and the seas become bluer so Ahab comes alive, like some zombie, ready to stake everything in his insane, vengeful pursuit of the great white whale.
And thus Melville introduces him:
“He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness.”
“Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.”
“Alive, but branded,” that is Ahab.
“Moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.”
I love the “crucifixion in his face.” We are dealing here with a mad Christ.
“The barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak.”
“Cloven,” like the devil.
I am all agog to follow this madman on what will surely be his last voyage. Where he goes, I will go–but not in the wild Southern oceans but in my snug bed.