Starbuck was the 2nd-in-command of the whaling ship, Pequod, in Herman Melville’s classic novel tale, Moby Dick. And a very good first mate he was, that Starbuck: a brave man, having great common sense, keen morality and natural leadership. He was extremely loyal to his captain–so loyal, in fact, that it cost him his life.
The captain he served was Ahab, a character infamous in American literature because of his fatal obsession with a “White Whale,” the hugely legendary Moby Dick. Ahab was bent on vengeance against the creature because it had bit his leg off during an early whaling expedition, back in the day.
Early 19th century, that is. Herman Melville published his magnum opus novel, Moby Dick, in 1851.
If ever you read the book, you’ll embark on a literary voyage of prodigious explorations about the whaling industry during that era of history. Melville enshrouded his great tragic tale in massive whale-facts, whale biology, and twined it all about with archaic sailing lingo. Quite a maritime education it is, reading Moby Dick, and thus hauling in, chapter by chapter, great biological truths as copious as the squid in Pacific swells.
And very psychological. Captain Ahab was a real looneytune. But he knew how to rein in his own madness in such a way that it was not readily apparent to most folks, including the unsuspecting mariners who signed up for a 4-year whaling expedition aboard the Pequod under his quirky command. The whaling had company recruited thirty seasoned sailors at Nantucket, to sail around the world and gather great riches by collecting the precious, very costly whale oil, valuable for burning in lanterns for light during that era.
But the unsuspecting sailors didn’t know what they were getting into. What they understood to be a potentially profitable whaling expedition turned out to be something quite perilous and different. Halfway across the Atlantic, cranky ole Ahab gets up and starts his eerily obsessive spiel about the White Whale. The irrational look in his eyes indicates that his interest in their exploit is manically different from their own hopeful profit motives. Could be trouble.
In contemporary parlance, you might say Ahab was OCD.
These days, you may occasionally hear people mention, in a casual way, obsessive compulsive disorder. They may even joke about it, with a flippant phrase–“my OCD.” For instance, my wife points out to me, whenever we’re traveling in an unfamiliar city, that I am obsessive about not ever going in “the wrong direction” just for the sake of getting on some main transportation line or interstate highway. I admit this is mildly obsessive, because our sojourn might possibly be simplified just by heading in the wrong direction for a block or two, or a mile or two, in order to eliminate some other logistical problems.
Ahab’s obsession, however, was of a different species. His peculiar OCD allowed him to rein in his madness until the object of his obsession was immediately at hand. This didn’t happen in its full destructive capacity until the Pequod had sailed over halfway around the world. His eccentric captaincy permitted the crew to navigate successfully across the Atlantic, down and around the the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, through the Indian Ocean, Indonesia, and out into the vast Pacific where they finally encountered the great Leviathan, Moby Dick.
The truly disorderly part of OCD is when a person’s obsession is irrational, and injuriously counterproductive. When the fretful sailors find themselves in the middle of the Pacific tropics, having suffered a multitude of dire warnings, omens, prophetic signs, and a perilous near-death encounter with the phantom himself, Moby Dick, Ahab’s irrational obsession is suddenly let loose in all its frothy turbidity:
“Quick!–all hands to the rigging of the boats–collect the oars–harpooneers! the irons, the irons!–hoist the royals higher–a pull on all the sheets!–helm there! steady, steady for your life! I’ll then times girdle the unmeasured globe; yea, and dive straight through it, but I’ll slay him yet!”
‘T’was then that Starbuck spoke his warning, passionately:
“Great God! but for one single instant show thyself, … never, never wilt thou capture him, old man–In Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness. Two days chase; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone–all good angels mobbing thee with warnings:–what more wouldst thou have?–Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh,–Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”
But Ahab didn’t listen. His OCD had turned darkly agin’ him. In this tragic tale, the consequential fate was laid upon not only his own damned self, but also upon the thirty men under his command.
Be careful, all ye sailors upon this world’s myriad of vessels, to whom you entrust your fate!