An old man’s ruinous quest


There were many quests on the Pequod. It is like the 8 million stories in the naked city. Everyone has a story and each story is different. So it was on the Pequod.

Perth, the blacksmith was an old man of 60 said Ishmael. Though I don’t consider that so old. At that age he “postponedly encountered that thing in sorrow’s technical called ruin.” Until then he had been a famous artisan with ample work thanks to his reputation for fine work. He owned a house and garden, “embraced a youthful daughter-like, loving wife, and three ruddy children; every Sunday went to a cheerful-looking church, planted in a grove.” Life was perfect.

Yet “one night under cover of darkness, and further concealed in a most cunning disguisement, a desperate burglar slid into his happy home and robbed them all of everything.” But this was no ordinary burglar that ruined the lives of the family, it was actually the blacksmith himself. He was drawn on a quest not unlike that of Captain Ahab. Perth was not satisfied with his idyllic life and instead “the houseless, familyless staggered off a vagabond in crape, his every woe unreverenced; his gray head a scorn to flaxen curls.” Perth could not resist the call of the sea; he went a-whaling.” He was almost as mad as Captain Ahab. Why would he do that?

For some reason his perfect life, to Perth seemed like death, so he sold everything, leading his family to ruin, and went to sea.  Melville described Perth’s seduction this way:

“Death seems the only desirable sequel for a career like this; but Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored; therefore, to the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have left in them some interior compunction against suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them—“Come hither, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come hither! Bury thyself in a life which, to your equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death. Come hither! Put up thy gravestone, too within the churchyard, and come hither, till we marry thee.

Hearkening to these voices, East and West, by early sunrise, and by fall of eve, the blacksmith’s soul responded, Aye, I come! And so Perth went a-whaling.”


Perth left his perfect wife an d family only because he wanted more. Why? What drove him to do that? But how many of us have done the same thing? And his family went a dying! He let his family die and chased after the thousand mermaids that were calling him to sea. One more insane quest.

I actually knew a person who gave up his professional practice, sold his lovely house, bought a sailboat, and eventually abandoned his family so he could sail the south seas. He did not go a-whaling, but he had the same idea and frankly, in my opinion ruined his life and wrecked his family.

It was an obsessive quest. These things actually happen.

I know that not many of us are likely to go a-whaling, so our spouses need not fear the specific fate of Perth’s wife and children.  But there is more than one kind of obsessive quest. The quests need not be religious either to be obsessive. It also need not be “successful,” Some people (not just men either) at the expense of ruining important relationships, excessively seek career advancement, business enhancement, wealth, fame, fortune, the attraction of an alluring partner, and many other pursuits. Ahab is not the only irrational quester. All of us need to be careful out there. One can pursue one’s bliss, but that pursuit may have immense hidden costs. We must be careful out there.

Don’t expect wonders supernatural, and above all don’t make gods of our pursuits.

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