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.