Libbie Katsev, Moby-Dick and X-Files

Chasing Creatures of the Unknown: Moby-Dick and the X-Files

In the X-Files episode “Quagmire,”[1] the FBI agents Mulder and Scully pursue “Big Blue,” a lake dwelling sea monster that may or may not exist. Over the course of the episode, Big Blue eats Scully’s dog, Queequeg, and Mulder and Scully discuss Moby-Dick.[2] Through comparing Mulder to Ahab, the X-Files provides a new, more sympathetic, perspective on the character of Ahab and the nature of his quest for Moby-Dick.

Over the course of the episode, the characters take on different roles that parallel those of the characters in Moby-Dick—most significantly, Mulder as Ahab. Scully, whose father nicknamed her Starbuck, takes her dog, Queequeg, on this case, because Mulder dragged them off too abruptly for her to find a dogsitter. This ultimately results in Queequeg being eaten when he chases after Big Blue’s scent. Here, Queequeg the dog is, as in Moby-Dick, a “savage” companion—in fact, he is even cannibalistic: Scully names Queequeg after he eats the dead body of his former owner.  And Scully herself takes the places of both Starbuck and Ishmael; she is a rational, rule-following subordinate who follows Mulder and leads Queequeg to his death in the process. Mulder drives the show, spending every episode chasing after nonhuman supernatural creatures in search of “the truth.” The way in which the X-Files characters play out their roles retrospectively interprets which characters in Moby-Dick are significant, and for what reasons. Ishmael’s existence is totally erased in the course of Mulder and Scully’s conversation: Ahab becomes the key figure of the novel, with Scully/Starbuck to provide rational commentary. Through this, we can understand that although both Mulder and Ahab are introduced to their respective stories after Ishmael and Scully, they are the central figures to the plot. Without them, nothing would occur, and the narrator characters would have no story to tell—in a way, validating what Scully calls Mulder’s (and Ahab’s) “megalomaniacal cosmology.”

Scully, who has been abducted and lost a sister while pursuing what Mulder believes to be “the truth”—the existence of extraterrestrial life—tells Mulder that she is struck by how similar he is to Ahab: “You’re so consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or mysteries, everything takes on a warped significance to fit your megalomaniacal cosmology.”  Both Ahab and Mulder exhibit this “megalomaniacal cosmology,” wherein they believe that the universe and its mysteries have singled them out personally. When Scully asks Mulder why he’s so determined to find Big Blue, she says he “listen[s] only to himself, hoping to catch a glimpse of the truth, for who knows what reason.” Mulder describes himself as “the key figure in …a global conspiracy.” Ahab, seeing the Andes, says, “The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab…all are Ahab (332). All of these statements exhibit megalomania: Mulder believes a global conspiracy centers entirely around him, which justifies the lengths he goes to to find the truth. Ahab sees himself not only in “towers” and “volcanos,” but in “all.” Both imagine themselves as being at the center of a universe full of unknown, powerful, nonhuman forces, which are just as obsessed with Mulder and Ahab as Mulder and Ahab are with them.

However, Mulder is eventually validated: the last shot of “Quagmire” is Big Blue swimming across the lake, and the series ultimately confirms that Mulder is at the center of a conspiracy. There are also ways in which Moby-Dick validates Ahab’s “cosmology,” in the way supernatural events seem to converge on him. Ahab seems to attract characters with supernatural abilities, such as the prophets Elijah and Fedallah. Elijah hints that Ishmael and Queequeg shouldn’t ship with the Pequod (87). Fedallah says before Ahab can “die on this voyage,” he must see two hearses: one “not made by mortal hands” and the other made of wood “grown in America”; that Fedallah must die first, and that “hemp only can kill [Ahab]” (377). Both are ultimately proven correct, down to the last detail. The biblical symbolism of Ahab and Elijah’s names and the fulfillment of the prophecies confirm that Ahab has truly encountered supernatural forces on his quest, and also that he and his quest are somehow significant: prophets usually don’t bother predicting the dooms of ordinary people. Ahab’s megalomania may be a flaw, but his cosmology is validated. This is why Ahab works as a lasting symbol for quests for the nonhuman—even Mulder’s, centuries later and under very different circumstances. Ahab is proven right even as he is condemned, and Scully’s comparison to Ahab does not necessarily dismiss the validity of Mulder’s quest for the nonhuman. Ahab is a warning sign to those who would follow in his footsteps, but in a way, he is also a tantalizing symbol of man’s ability to encounter the “truth” of the nonhuman—he confirms that there are forces in the world beyond humanity, and that they sometimes single out humans.

For both Ahab and Mulder, the nonhuman creatures they pursue—Moby-Dick and aliens—are stand-ins for larger unknowns.  Scully tells Mulder, “It’s the truth or a white whale. What difference does it make? I mean, both obsessions are impossible to capture, and trying to do so will only leave you dead along with everyone else you bring with you.” The fact that Scully sees “the truth” and “a white whale” as interchangeable shows that the leviathans both men seek are significant because they symbolize something else, some understanding about the nature of the universe. Big Blue’s capture could lead to the “truth” about supernatural phenomena. And Moby-Dick, to Ahab, is the mask through which man can “strike” the “unknown but still reasoning thing,” that has changed his destiny, and the “wall [that keeps him prisoner], shoved near” (140). Ahab believes that Moby-Dick is merely the physical manifestation of the barrier between humans and the nonhuman powers that govern them, and that Moby-Dick’s death will liberate him. Moby-Dick on his own is not the object of Ahab’s quest; the object is that which Moby-Dick represents. Although Scully’s statement is critical, it again vindicates both Ahab and Mulder by admitting that their obsessions with nonhuman creatures do have larger causes—the creatures are not just “dumb brute[s]” (139). This deeper level to Ahab’s obsession is why he remains a culturally relevant archetype for characters on quests for the truth. Furthermore, Scully’s reference to “life’s cruelties or mysteries” positions Mulder, and by extension Ahab, as explorers, and also as the injured parties. “Cruelties” and “vengeance” implies that they were wronged. Mulder and Ahab do not just lead others to their doom; they are victims, albeit victims who drag others down with them.

Mulder responds to Scully’s comparison of him to Ahab by talking about Ahab’s disability, saying that he’s wanted a peg leg ever since he was a child. He says, “If you have a peg leg or hooks for hands then maybe its enough to simply keep on living. You know, braving facing life with your disability…But without these things you’re actually meant to make something of your life…. So if anything, I’m actually the antithesis of Ahab, because if I did have a peg leg, I’d quite possibly be more happy and more content not to be chasing after these creatures of the unknown.”

Interestingly, Mulder chooses to focus on the aspect of Ahab’s character that is most obviously linked to Ahab’s own victimhood. He defines and dehumanizes Ahab by his peg leg. “Chasing after…the unknown” is a symptom of being physically whole, not otherwise marked in some way. To Mulder, physical disability would allow emotional peace. This is not the case for Ahab, who chases Moby-Dick out of the desire for vengeance for his lost leg. However, Mulder’s reading of Ahab is consistent with Moby-Dick in that Ahab is defined and dehumanized by his disability. In Stubb’s nightmare where Ahab kicks him, Stubb thinks, “It’s not a real leg, only a false leg.’ And there’s a mighty difference between a living thump and a dead thump…the living member—that makes the living insult, my little man” (112).  Although Ahab has no obvious vulnerability as a result of his peg-leg, the fact that it is nonliving, and nonhuman, diminishes the insult. Ahab’s disability protects him from Stubb’s anger and seems to lend him superhuman power in the way he can bind the crew to his will and intimidate Stubb. At the same time, though, Ahab is still seen as less human as a result of his disability. In this way, Moby-Dick creates Ahab—a superhuman man, who is no longer capable of being human in the same way as his crew, and therefore wants to “chase…the unknown.” Mulder, too, has been marked by the nonhuman: though not physically disabled, he is internally scarred. He seeks the truth because his younger sister was abducted by aliens, and he is traumatized by her loss. For Mulder, physical scarring is preferable to psychic pain and the resulting doomed quest; for Ahab, physical scarring causes psychic pain and his quest. Others, like Captain Boomer, have been similarly disabled by Moby-Dick without pursuing doomed quests for vengeance. However, as Mulder’s statement suggests, the desire to chase the unknown may be an innate quality that both Ahab and Mulder posess. Ahab seems predetermined to encounter the nonhuman from the description of the scar on his face, a physical marking he had even before he met Moby-Dick. The scar resembles the mark on a tree after “upper lightning tearingly darts down through it…leaving the tree greenly alive, but branded” (109)—Ahab is physically like a lightning rod, attracting nonhuman forces that irrevocably change him.

On the whole, by examining him through the lens of Mulder, “Quagmire” presents a slightly more sympathetic view of Ahab. We see that to interact with the nonhuman is to be scarred, to be marked as separate, to have your doom prophesized for you, and to be ultimately victimized along with those who follow you. Although Ahab is certainly not an innocent character, reading him through the lens of Mulder, a similar but more likeable character, elevates the more understandable aspects of Ahab and his quest. Thus, Ahab’s complexities give him the potential to be referenced in later works like the X-Files, and the X-Files is a useful entry point into re-examining Ahab. Given the many characteristics Ahab and Mulder share, “Quagmire” raises the question of what makes a doomed quest for the nonhuman acceptable. Is it Mulder’s likeability and love for his sister that redeem his quest? Is it that he and Scully, despite all their losses and close calls, manage to survive?


[1] Newton, Kim. “Quagmire.” The X Fikes. Fox. 3 May 1996. Netflix. Web.

[2] Melville, Herman, Hershel Parker, and Harrison Hayford. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

 

 

 

 

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