Important Quotations Explained

Quotes Important Quotations Explained
4. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

This passage comes at the end of Chapter 96, as Ishmael snaps out of a hypnotic state brought on by staring into the fires of the try-works. The image that Ishmael conjures here is typical of his philosophical speculation and his habit of quickly turning from a very literal subject to its metaphorical implications. This passage is a warning against giving in to escapism—fantasy, daydreaming, suicide—and suggests that woe and madness can be profitable states for one with enough greatness of soul. For one who is intelligent and perceptive—whose soul is “in the mountains” and greater than the average person’s—such states of mind provide a higher plane of existence than contentedness and sanity do for a normal person. In other words, Ahab may be insane and “for ever . . . within the gorge,” but his inherent greatness makes even his destruction more important than the mere existence—the “soar[ing]”—of other, more banal individuals.