I. In this riff, Chapters 118 and 119 of Moby-Dick.
II. Ahab has already gone mad before The Pequod sets sail on this particular voyage, but Ch. 118, “The Quadrant,” feels like a tipping point where his madness spills a bit too outside of himself. Starbuck has already expressed his mortification for their revenge mission, but it’s not until the end of “The Quadrant” that he seems to fully comprehend the depth of Ahab’s madness:
“I have sat before the dense coal fire and watched it all aglow, full of its tormented flaming life; and I have seen it wane at last, down, down, to dumbest dust. Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of thine, what will at length remain but one little heap of ashes!”
What prompts this strange, deathly, foreboding analogy? A monomaniacal monologue from Ahab, of course.
III. Starbuck—and physical foil to Starbuck’s metaphysical moralizing, Stubb—witness Ahab castigate his quadrant in a fury, trampling upon it “with his live and dead feet” alike.
Ahab’s anger comes down again to the limitations of reading, of knowing through the signs and symbols of the world. Gazing at “its numerous cabalistical contrivances,” he censures the device as a “Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains.”
For Ahab, this navigation tool does not measure up: “what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more!” He curses the “vain toy,” which can attest where he is, but cannot find him the object of his murderous desire, Moby Dick.
IV. Ch. 119, “The Candles.”
The titular candles here are the three masts of The Pequod, which, struck by lightning during a typhoon, catch on fire. Hence, Ahab’s ship doubles Ahab’s body, which has been afflicted with its own lightning scar.
The scene is bombastic, and Ahab attends it in a kind of prayer-like reverie. He delivers another monologue that indirectly echoes Starbuck’s undelivered admonition that Ahab might end “a heap of ashes”:
“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. … In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here…Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”
Here, Melville—or is it Ishmael?—delivers stage directions:
[Sudden, repeated flashes of lightning; the nine flames leap lengthwise to thrice their previous height; Ahab, with the rest, closes his eyes, his right hand pressed hard upon them.]
V. Ahab at this point is full-on crazy. He directly addresses the lightning and fire, in which he finds a kind of power unconstrained by maps and charts, a force that no quadrant might locate. He vows to read the lightning, to find meaning by groping in blindness, a thing of ashes:
“I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. Take the homage of these poor eyes, and shutter-hands. I would not take it. The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground.
Ahab continues to read the lightning with his eyes closed. He claims that he is darkness, the dark that affords the light its position through opposition, and goes so far as to claim the lightning as his father:
Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not.
But mother? Sweet mother, I know not: “Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her?”
Again—Moby-Dick is a novel of orphans wailing.
And fathers? Well, they’re out there, in the natural phenomena, I guess—symbols are all Ahab needs to father him.
VI. Ahab’s series of satanic inversions continues. He envies the lightning’s “unbegotten…unbegun” singularity. He also evokes in his anti-prayer the “unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time.” Ahab tries to read god through this “clear spirit”: “Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it” — but dimly here does so much work. Ahab is a failed transcendentalist.
VII. He reads in the fire another orphan, another outcast figuration of himself (and Ishmael, and the others who crew The Pequod):
Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!”
Ahab now dominates not just The Pequod, but the voice of the novel itself. He reads the lightning, worships the fire, and finds not solace but the confirmation of his vengeance in its clarifying spirit.