Striking Through the Mask: Part Three (Moby-Dick)

by Ezekiel Fry

Hark ye yet again,—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. (Melville 140)

I have discussed at length a part of the significance found in these pivotal words from Ahab during his famous quarter-deck speech in my previous work. Now however, it is perhaps time to step out of the metaphysical, and step deeper, into “the little lower layer” in fact, and look at these words in connection to tangible, everyday realities. Although Ahab’s rage is seemingly directed entirely upon the form of Moby Dick himself, it is the inability to see the waking world in full, the inability to recognize the everyday—the human essence—that seems to lurk at the “lower layer” of Ahab’s difficulty and subsequent anger. Kenneth W. Warren in his book So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism quotes Robert Park who invokes the philosopher William James’ statement that each human carries with them a “personal secret” that will not yield itself to another’s view (88-9). It is within this realm of the hidden self that the humanist nature of Ahab’s quest may be found.
The idea of an unknowable aspect, or personality, within each human body is certainly true of Ahab and his crew, as it is perhaps of all humanity. Aboard the Pequod, as much as anywhere else, each individual holds their own true self behind their “pasteboard mask” as it were. We walk through life very much as Ahab puts it, prisoners not only to the whim of some unknowable God, but prisoners to ourselves and to those who we would truly know, and who would truly know us. Ahab seeks not only to tear the mask from the creator, but from himself, and all those who stand within his proximity. The nature of his quest, of his obsession, is hinted at time and again by Ishmael, but the secret self, that which lies at the “lower layer” of Ahab’s soul, and the souls of those who follow him, is something that is beyond Ishmael’s reach. Melville writes, concerning the hidden motivations of each individual:

How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man’s ire—by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be—what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? (158)

This passage displays Ishmael’s appraisal of the outward show—the cries that go out from each individual (and yet strangely in unison)—and his fumbling surmises around the hidden nature, or source, of these shows. It is very much akin to Hamlet’s pivotal statement concerning the “lower layer” of his person. Hamlet introduces the outward show and then proceeds to hint at the “subterranean miner.” Shakespeare writes, “For they are actions that a man might play;/ But I have that within which passeth show—/ These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.84-5). Here again we do not get any closer to understanding that “which passeth show,” but it is upon this personal truth (that Hamlet may not even be fully cognizant of himself) that the weight of the entire play rests upon. Claudius, Polonius, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, and the rest all attempt to “dive” beneath the surface of Hamlet’s “trappings” to gain an understanding of the internal workings of his being. It is telling that each of these divers is fated to die. Hamlet, and perhaps through him Shakespeare, seems to tell us that there is a segment of each individual that will be forever beyond another human’s reach. Ishmael himself surmises, but this as far into the maw as he will venture. Even in the end, much as it is with Hamlet, Ahab does not give us a true indication of his hidden self. His final tirade seems to speak around the actualities of the situation. Hamlet tells nothing in the end of his truth either, but leaves it to Horatio. In this way it is the outward story that is passed onwards, and not that “lower layer.” Ahab’s attempt to “strike through the mask” fails, just as the attempts of Hamlet’s adversaries fall short of their mark. The question lingers through these moments: can anyone know the Truth of another?
That which lies beyond the mask, which is glimpsed at moments, Ahab tells us, is a source of both knowledge and consternation. In seeing this “personal secret” behind all tangible actions the viewer is forced to reorient themselves, to add a new set of hints to their assumptions of the mask which they are viewing. While these hints give forth knowledge of a kind, and Ahab certainly believes this, it does not give a better indication of what the identity of the figure behind the mask might be. It may in fact be that each glimpse of movement in the depths further obscures the subject being viewed. Each new hint brings the figure further into shadow rather than into light. Here rises the consternation for both Ahab and all who would look beyond. The only way to truly know someone—to touch their “personal secret”—is to “strike through the mask!” But how is this to be done?
If we return to Melville’s Benito Cereno we will find some of these same humanist questions lingering. As previously discussed (see part one), the identity and the motivations of Babo are never deciphered. Like Iago, of Shakespeare’s Othello, Babo gives forth subtle indications throughout the text, and certain key factors may be ascertained simply from his position in the world. However, also like Iago, the moment that he is exposed, the instant that the inner-workings show themselves behind his mask, he becomes silent. Not a word is uttered by the now exposed rebel. Once the mask is removed, we begin looking for an explanation. If Babo (again, much like Iago) has used his tongue to further establish the truth of his own mask, then once that mask is seemingly shattered his tongue can no longer be of use to him. His silence becomes his only weapon, his only hope of retaining his personal power, and within this power lives his “personal secret.” To the flummoxed observer (Be it Captain Delano or Don Benito or the reader themselves), who has been jarred by the sudden removal of the mask—the ripping aside of their own assumptions and prejudices—Babo’s powerful silence works as a catalyst for further disorientation. Within this silence lies both Ahab’s idea of a “still reasoning thing” and the fear that “there’s naught beyond.” The latter fear, which manifests itself to Ishmael in the form of the “colorless, all-color of atheism,” is perhaps more terrifying than the words that seem to exist unspoken within Babo’s silence. The concept that there is nothing but the mask, especially when applied to a human being, that the “personal secret” and unknowable nature of the human heart is nothing but a cruel joke, is as Ishmael states in regards to atheism, something from which we “shrink” (Melville 165).
This fear, that the mask is all, leads to the need to dehumanize, the need to subdue and destroy. In this way, Ahab places all his woe upon Moby Dick, a figurehead for all that is wrong within (and without of) the human spirit, and Babo’s head (which was the source of his power, as Melville’s narrator adroitly states) must be removed from his body. In the case of Iago, Othello must view the now silent figure no longer as a man, but as a demon incarnate. In the face of the nothingness beyond Iago’s mask, Othello must ground himself in something. Iago ceases to be a man, but his power remains. Othello stands in front of the workings which one may never see and must turn the blade on himself rather than attack that which was once Iago. It is in this way that Babo’s head continues to dominate the tale of Don Benito long after it has been removed from his body—long after his human essence has been destroyed. Moby Dick too, who is kin to the sperm whale’s head which Ahab attempts to converse with, holds his silence. The spear may be darted into the whale’s side, but the head will never speak, even when it is severed from the body and hoisted on board. The mask for Ahab is pervasive. It is everything. The “naught beyond” is never experienced that we witness, but who is to say what happens when Ahab takes his final dive? Pip returns from such a sounding, but without the ability to disseminate his findings. Madness may very well be the only living relic of too deep a search, but the humanist concern remains: May we truly know one another? Judging from the fates of Don Benito, Ahab, Hamlet’s foils, and Othello it would seem that the answer is a tragic no. This may very well be, but the desire to know, the desire to understand that which lies beyond our personal mask and the masks of our fellows, are motivations that drive the world forward in every way. Death lies at the end of the struggle for all, with little to no resolution, but the dance continues. The very fact that there may be no answer to the question is most assuredly reason enough to continue searching for one.

*All pagination for Moby-Dick is from the Norton Critical Edition.