scanning the horizon, searching for the whiteness.
I do not notice the gentle slope
that tells me the world is round.
Oblivious to all except the smell,
burned in my memory, the acrid smell of defeat.
I'll get you yet, I promise, as the sun sinks into the blue,
turning the sky into a blazing fury
that matches the rage burning behind my eyes.
Moby-Dick will die even if it kills me.
* My Moby-Dick is not the great white whale,
Ahab's object of turmoil.
It is all the small fishes in everyday life.
They make it difficult to navigate the waves
that already crash against the side of your boat,
which incidentally, you designed and constructed yourself.
Defeating the small fishes make you stronger,
then you will win the larger battles.
~ Regina *
Photo by Robert K. Wallace. Permission to reproduce Kienbusch's "Ahab" granted by Kranshaar Galleries, Inc. New York.
Artists have for decades tried to depict their perceptions of Ahab. More often than not their works portray Ahab in his maddened state. One artist who gives us a radically different version of Ahab is William Kienbusch. In his swirling mass of blue, white, taupe and moss green, it is difficult to see Ahab's madness, but I believe it is there, hidden in the mist.
My initial reaction to the piece, when studying it in the context of the novel, was a revelation that the painting Ahab contains a duality. According to the title, Ahab should be in the picture somewhere. To the right of the central white mass, there is indeed a series of lines that could be interpreted to be the shape of Ahab. The wildness of the sea is shown in the strong circular patterns of white and blue that could be interpreted as just sea foam, but also hints at being the whale's spout. The chaotic motion of the water shows how Ahab's actions result from disaster and will cause disasters in the future. The taupe and moss green represent the earth, solid ground which Ahab abandonded long ago; and also his sense of reason which left him not so long ago. Ahab is not completely detached from reality though. His one good leg does appear to touch a strip of green just below the whale.
Ahab's actions become increasingly erratic in the book, as does the motion of the waves in the painting. Detachment and distance from the crew is juxtaposed with this somewhat warm emotional outlet with Starbuck. This swinging between mania and sanity is also reflected in the painting's hazy swirls and relatively clear view of the whale in the center.
An epiphany about Keinbusch's painting came when I contemplated whether this is a vision that Ahab could have seen. Yes! Not only is he seeing the vision, he himself is present in the vision. This explanation steps away from the depiction of Ahab's madness and highlights his confusion and turmoil at not being in control of himself any more. The closeness of the two images is a blow to Ahab's pride, so close to the target, yet so far away from the goal. The motion of the waves attest to his tortured mind reeling over the occurance, again and again.
The artist, William Kienbusch, has been known for his paintings with marine themes. The center white mass may indeed be the emergence of his island motif which is "in a sense his signature" according to Elizabeth Schultz in her recent book Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth Century American Art. This brings a whole new aspect to the painting. Ahab as an island, trapped in a swirling mass over which he has no control. He is stuck waiting for whatever chance he may get to land upon the beach, and thus regain control. The frustration of being helpless is even worse in that his condition is the result of his failure to reach a goal. His requirement for support comes, literally, from a whale bone, a carved peg leg, white, representing chaos in the painting.
The beauty of abstract art is that it can be interpreted by the viewer in accordance with their own experiences. The artist has given us a hint that the work may be more profound than our initial judgment of it in context to its title. The masterful text of the book Moby-Dick could be used in many ways to support/justify anlmost any view of the characters within. This range of possibilities is a virtual godsend for artists who love to do interpretive works and do not always explain them to their audience. Just as Melville himself sought to inspire the reader to think on a higher level, Kienbusch urges us to look past the chaos to find the plethora of hidden intentions that each person must individually glean from the work.
The section of reading that struck me the most was in Chapter 1 Loomings. Ishmael is justifying his decision to be a sailor by telling the audience that he does not feel the "archangel Gabriel thinks anything less of me...Who ain't a slave? Tell me that...I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way--either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed around, and all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content." (p. 15) his observations ring true even today. we are always a slave to something--our job, our family, our school or even our religion. things would go much better if everyone could realize that the thumps you get are a result of someone else getting thumped, and on it goes. we are all too tense and uptight about life-few of us can relax and enjoy things, small things, every day. when it does get stressful all we really need to do is find someone to massage our shoulders, then when they get thumped, we can massage theirs.
after the fact:
melville managed to get so, so much into this book that it is almost unbelievable! there are so many things the audience can "read" into this story. There are references to great works of the past, like Macbeth, in addition to the extensive references to whale texts. The STORY is awesome, just in the legend of the white whale, plus the psychology of it all. Insights to human nature that we gain as a result of reading MOBY-DICK are mind-blowing. Melville is subtle, yet bold in criticising everything from England to Christianity. How could he ever consider a life work like this FINIS? He in fact stated that "heaven forbid [he] should ever finish something!" Admitted like a true psychotic (we all are just a bit, you know). While at times Melville's switching writing styles, voices of narration, and thought in mid-paragraph is extremely annoying, it is this that makes the story a living story. It is nearly impossible to tell any story without getting sidetracked into other thoughts. The story is so human. The people are so human. Only the whale is a break into the seeming supernatural. The whale's struggle to survive is much more powerful than the humans struggling for revenge. How powerful is that?! This story reflects how the will of man often destroys him. Ahab is so hell-bent on revenge that he destroys the lives of his crew and himself. It is easy to see how the leisurely reader could dismiss MOBY-DICK as merely entertainment. The deep seated meanings and connotations of the story can only be realized through careful thought about and comparisons to the readers own life experiences. Even if you've never been to sea, after reading this book you have survived a mad sea captain, a determined whale and a shipwreck from which ONE survived to tell the tale. It makes one want to sit down and do a bit of philosiphizing about the state of mankind.
First reaction to "Ahab" by William Kienbusch:
I like the colors! The border is a foggy, swirling mass of sky and water contrasted by the white fog/mist/spray from the whale. It's so full of motion; the wind is whipping the clouds around and the sea foam is swelling higher and higher. If it is Ahab in there, he seems to be preparing to pounce on Moby-Dick. It appears that Ahab's head is missing--ahh, in other words, his head is void of all other thoughts. He has a clouded vision, he is thrashing in the cloudy murkiness and his target is clouded by his own rage. Profound.
Please stay tuned for further developments on the state of mankind and its relationship to MOBY-DICK!