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Dermatopathology: Practical & Conceptual

July – September 2010 | Volume 16, No. 3

Captain Ahab revisited—the protagonist of Moby Dick as seen in a book illustration

Bendick, Christoph

Ahab's mark

In a previous issue of this journal, [1] I examined Ahab, the protagonist of Melville’s epic tale Moby Dick, which describes the intrepid captain of the Pequod and his relentless hunt for the white whale Moby Dick. The whale had severed one of his legs, thus taking vengeance upon the animal became Ahab’s obsession.

Ahab is the bearer of a “lividly whitish” mark, a pronounced line, either birthmark or scar, which runs, as rumor has it, the entire length of his body, as if splitting him in two: “Threading its way out from among his gray hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say. By some tacit consent, throughout the voyage little or no allusion was made to it, especially by the mates. But once Tashtego’s senior, an old Gay-head Indian among the crew, superstitiously asserted that not till he was full forty years old did Ahab become that way branded, and then it came upon him, not in the fury of any mortal fray, but in an elemental strife at sea. Yet, this wild hint seemed inferentially negatived, by what a gray Manxman insinuated, an old sepulchral man, who, having never before sailed out of Nantucket, had never ere this laid eye upon wild Ahab. Nevertheless, the old sea-traditions, the immemorial credulities, popularly invested this old Manxman with preternatural powers of discernment. So that no white sailor seriously contradicted him when he said that if ever Captain Ahab should be tranquilly laid out – which might hardly come to pass so he muttered – then, whoever should do that last office for the dead, would find a birth-mark on him from crown to sole.” [2]

Ahab, who “stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbours,” [3] who by his own claim is “Fates’ lieutenant” [4] has attracted the interest of readers, psychologists, writers and visual artists since the book was published. However, it was only in the 20th century when Sigmund Freud developed his insights into the mechanisms of the unconscious that the interest in the novel and its characters increased tremendously.

In 1999, Sena Jeter Naslund published Ahab’s Wife (Fig.1), an epic work which pays tribute to Melville’s book using it as a looking-glass into the America of the early 19th century. She also refers to the birthmark: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last. Yet looking up – into the clouds – I conjure him there: his gray-white hair; his gathered brow; and the zaggy mark (I saw it when lying with him by candlelight and, also, taking our bliss on the sunny moor among curly-cup gumweed and lamb’s ear). And I see a zaggy shadow now in the rifting clouds. That mark started like lightning at Ahab’s temple and ran not all the way to his heel (as some thought) but ended at Ahab’s heart.” [5]

Apparently, here Naslund contradicts the Manxman’s suspicion that the mark runs all the way from Ahab’s crown to his sole, letting it end at his heart – a poetic license which has no equivalent in Melville’s novel. However, she takes up the comparison between lightning and the mark. In the New Testament, lightning is not only associated with the wrath of god but also with the devil. [6]

Fig. 1

Sena Jeter Neslund, “Ahab’s Wife” or, “The Star Gazer.”

Depictions

Illustrations of Moby Dick are innumerable, ranging from those with a serious artistic claim (e.g., Jackson Pollock [Fig. 2]), via caricature (e.g., Gunnar Krieger [Fig. 3]), to trivia like a mug in the form of Ahab’s head (Fig. 4). But the majority of artists dealing with Ahab as the opus’ central character come from the sphere of book illustration. The German standard bibliography published in 1976 [7] lists more than 100 artists to have contributed illustrations to Melville’s book and today, 35 years later, the number may well be substantially higher.

Surprisingly enough, the birthmark, Ahab’s most prominent feature (apart from his whalebone leg prosthesis which appears in virtually every illustration of his) is hardly ever shown. A reason for this specific lack of artistic adaptation is difficult to determine – one should assume that this hallmark of the captain’s physiognomy would be a highly welcomed addition to his face’s image, characterizing him similarly as his artificial leg does. The arguably most famous of all Moby Dick illustrations, those of Rockwell Kent, [8] do not take the mark into consideration (Fig. 5).

But there are exceptions – one with a particular artistic claim is Benton Spruance’s portfolio “The Passion of Ahab” [9] who drew his main impetus for the work from Lawrance Thompson’s book Melville’s Quarrels with God. [10] It is accompanied by 26 lithographs, one showing Ahab’s face as if in that very moment struck by lightning is displayed on the cover of this issue. The same illustration in black and white adorns the title page of the portfolio (Fig. 6).

In Cetus the Whale, [11] artist Catherine Kanner shows Ahab with a fine line coming from his left hairline and disappearing near the left angle of his mouth (Fig. 7). Here, the mark is visible but not prominent. It underlines, however, Ahab’s wild and determined facial expression which is, so to speak, framed by the high stiff collar of his coat.

Illustrator Jorge Lacera has created a picture [12] which leans more towards caricature than serious artistic form, showing Ahab with moustache, whiskers and long hair (Fig. 8). He is dressed in a blue navy suit and his artificial leg is formed like a hook from bone, while the foot on the other side looks almost like a fin. On his left forehead is a broad mark reaching down to an apparently incapacitated left eye.

Even a Japanese science fiction series has taken possession of the story of Ahab: In Hakugai’s “Legend of Moby Dick,” [13] which aired in Japan between 1997 and 1999 and spanned 26 episodes, we see a youthful captain with thick gray hair and a patch over his left eye (Fig. 9). A prominent white mark runs all over his left face starting at the hairline of the left forehead and reaching his left chin, leaving open the question if the mark continues or ends there.

Given the vast interest of artists in the novel in which Ahab takes a central point, one would expect that more attention had been given to the characteristic mark which is not only a physical feature but which stands also for Ahab’s innermost ambitions and claims: “Our captain has his birth-mark; look yonder, boys, there’s another in the sky – lurid-like, ye see, all else pitch black,” [14] says a crew member of the Pequod – pondering the idea that the captain’s mark is reflected in the skies or, vice versa, that the body of “King Ahab,” as Ishmael, sailor on the ship and narrator, calls him at one occasion, is a mirror of the firmament’s mystery: ” . . . some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.”[15]

Fig. 2

Jackson Pollock, Moby Dick (Blue), 1943, Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan.

Fig. 3

Gunnar Krieger, Ahab.

Fig. 4

Ahab-mug.

Fig. 5

Rockwell Kent, Ahab.

Fig. 6

Benton Spruance, The Passion of Ahab, title page.

Fig. 7

Catherine Kanner, Ahab.

Fig. 8

Jorge Lacera, Ahab.

Fig. 9

Hakugei, The Legend of Moby Dick.

Summary

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of the most important, if not the single most important book in American literature. Its central figure, Captain Ahab, is a fascinating and multifaceted character. Numerous artists and illustrators have tried to depict his physical figure as well as his daunting inner ambitions. However, apart from his leg prosthesis, a second characteristic feature, his striking birthmark, is rarely shown in illustrations. The article points to some examples where the mark is considered by the artist.

Christoph Bendick, M.D., is from the Department of Dermatology, University of Health Sciences, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This article was reviewed by Cris Anderson, M.D., and Almut Böer-Auer, M.D. Contact author via email: cambodia_derma@yahoo.de .

References

1. Bendick C. History: Captain Ahab – A case for dermatologic diagnosis? Dermatopathology Practical and Conceptual 2004;10 (3):16.

2. Melville H. Moby Dick, Chapter 28. Available at: http://www.online-literature.com/melville/mobydick.

3. Melville H. Moby Dick, Chapter 133. Available at: http://www.online-literature.com/melville/mobydick.

4. Melville H. Moby Dick, Chapter 134. Available at: http://www.online-literature.com/melville/mobydick.

5. Naslund SJ. Ahab’s Wife, or the Star-Gazer. Chapter 1. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.

6. “Jesus said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like lightning.’” Luke 10:18

7. Kruse J (Ed.). Illustrationen zu Melville’s Moby-Dick. Schleswig: Schleswiger Druck- und Verlagshaus, 1976.

8. Melville H. Moby Dick or The Whale, with 269 Illustrations by Rockwell Kent. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1930.

9. Thompson L. The Passion of Ahab, with 26 lithographs by Benton Spruance. Massachusetts: Barne, 1968.

10. Thompson L. Melville’s Quarrel with God. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.

11. Sheller J (Ed.). Cetus the Whale, with 12 illustrations by Catherine Kanner. California: Pacific Palisades, Melville Press, 1996.

12. Lacera J. “Here is the final design I did for Captain Ahab or an upcoming Moby Dick themed edition of sketch-o-rama. My take on Ahab was to show him as a withered, ghostly, deranged gentleman.” Available at: http://lacera.blogspot.com/2007/09/ahab.html.

13. Hakugai. Legend of Moby Dick. Available at: http://ahistoryofnewyork.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&tag=Moby-Dick&limit=20.

14. Melville H. Moby Dick, Chapter 40. Available at: http://www.online-literature.com/melville/mobydick.

15. Melville H. Moby Dick, Chapter 36. Available at: http://www.online-literature.com/melville/mobydick.