How we cite our quotes:
What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad – Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and – Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. (37.4)
Ahab’s ability to do his own psychoanalysis shows us the limits of his insanity. Even though his object is crazy, he’s able to find sane ways of evaluating and reaching it. So, if you know you’re crazy, are you crazy?
The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. [. . .] All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of 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. (41.19)
Here we’re introduced to Ahab’s monomania, his single-minded fixation on the White Whale. Basically, what’s driven Ahab crazy is that he’s not very good at symbolism. As a clever Shmoop reader, you know that things don’t just symbolize whatever you decide to make them mean; the limits of their symbolic potential are determined by context. But Ahab takes the White Whale out of context and projects onto it, and not just everything that makes him angry, but everything that’s enraged any human being ever, since time began. Nothing can really hold all that symbolic weight. Not even an inscrutable white whale.
Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab’s full lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object. (41.20)
Insane Ahab isn’t just a different man from sane Ahab – he’s sane Ahab plus. It’s not a transformation that he goes through, but a process of addition: to everything that Ahab was before has been added his monomania.