The Touch, The Feel

... of evil: the fabric of our lives

by Herman Melville<br>
Norton Critical Edition, 726 pp., $17 (paper)
by Herman Melville
Norton Critical Edition, 726 pp., $17 (paper)

... All My Means Are Sane, My Motive and Object Mad.

-- Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick

If you haven't dusted off a copy of Melville's Moby-Dick since college or high school or ever, you should. Melville tells us just about all we need to know about evil, our participation in it, and the necessity of fighting it. The story, you might remember, is simple enough, but it dives deep: The maniacal Captain Ahab, his leg amputated by the white whale Moby-Dick, has created false pretences to lure his crew on a pursuit of the whale and his vengeance. And though they sense that Ahab is mad, his crew goes along with it because, as with you and me, there's something in us that this kind of madness speaks to: In it is the promise that we can join our ought and the world's is by force. As Ishmael, the hero of the novel and its only survivor (sure, I'll give the ending away), tells us in Melville's explosive language, "the white whale swam before [Ahab] as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them until they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignancy that has been there from the beginning ... all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain ... all evil ... [was] made practically assailable in Moby Dick. [Ahab] piled upon the whale's white hump all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." Now, friends, that is a novel. Reading it takes patience, to be sure -- Melville's gunning for Shakespeare here, after all -- but there's no better examination of what it is we talk about when we talk about evil. And, in the end, we're talking about ourselves, as the failed hero Starbuck makes clear near the end of the book: "'Oh, Ahab!' cried Starbuck, 'not too late is it, even now ... to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!'"

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