01 July 2009

Melville and Ellis on breaking out of the world

There's a book you should read that you very well may hate. A lot of people who read it do, although I'm not one of them. It's called Spiritually Incorrect Enlightenment, the second in Jed McKenna's three-book series about enlightenment and other things that are bad for your sanity.

Incorrect has a lot to do with Moby-Dick, and that's the level on which I bring it up. You see, Jed came up with a way of reading that book so it actually made perfect goddamn sense, which is more than any Melville scholar has managed. It's actually been well established in academia that Moby-Dick is essentially ineffable. But Jed proved otherwise by establishing a whole new archetype in the character of Ahab. He calls it the Break-Out Archetype: someone bent on breaking reality, on burning it to ground to see what's left because they can't do otherwise.

I'm posting because I've just realized that Doktor Sleepless, the title character in a comics series by Warren Ellis, also fits the definition of the Break-Out Archetype. He is driven, amoral, monomaniacal, and unswerving. He doesn't reflect on the sacrifices he makes constantly because he is certain of his path.* There is no Plan B. He is alone and self-sovreign. Emotional attachments are meaningless, including the Doktor's first love and Ahab's toddler son.

One thing and one thing only matters: the destruction of that which is between him and his ultimate goal. For Ahab, that was the white whale; for the Doktor, it's the total destruction of Heavenside (and assumedly the world afterward). He's hell-bent in more ways than one, yet he embraces his madness as a new and more coherent form of sanity.

Ahab and Doktor Sleepless are lies. Their personas are pure invention, devised purely to manipulate everyone they know into helping them succeed. Ahab manages to fake it as a sane, sea-worthy Nantucket whale-captain for weeks before the Pequod is safely out to sea and he lets Crazy Ahab out of the box -- and even then, he convinces his men to support his insane chase for Moby-Dick. Likewise, on the first page of the first issue of Doktor Sleepless, our title character deliberately takes on the persona of a cartoon mad scientist so that he can get the attention he needs without anyone taking him too seriously. They are finely crafted masks that the characters wear with specific intent and not a drop of self-deceit. Both, however, reflect on an actual transformation and an actual loss of some tangible part of the characters' earlier persons. Ahab lost his leg in Moby-Dick's maw and spent weeks raving and sick aboard the Pequod till he emerged permanently changed, no longer the same man, yet pretending he was. And the Doktor -- hell, where to begin? When he saw his parents killed he stopped sleeping (a first transformation, possibly from being Oblivious to the Mass of Men stage**) and then over a decade later he had a "breakdown" when he unlocked The Darkening Sky, the cryptic book his parents had been reading from/using when they died (a second transformation). It was only after the breakdown that he was able to become Doktor Sleepless, the mad scientist bent on world devastation, because that transformatino was the one that made him the break-out archetype.

Like their persons, the good Doktor's and Ahab's goals wear masks. Doktor Sleepless' agenda is not the end of the world. It's the end of himself. Just as Ahab kills off a shipful of whalemen to succeed in destroying everything he is, so does Doktor Sleepless drive Heavenside to utter, stark-raving chaos designed to eat itself just as the Doktor devours his own self. These may sound like acts of callous or vindictive sadism unrelated to the true goal at hand, but they're not. The true goal -- self-immolation -- cannot be accomplished without this outside destruction. It is certainly callous, but that's it. It's wholly necessary to the characters' paths.

Interestingly, Doktor Sleepless displays one point of the archetype that Ahab doesn't. The Doktor is filled with "Elation. Lunatic joy. Stark, raving happiness. Transcendental exultation." He's got that mad scientist maniacal laughter in droves. Ahab, on the other hand, just doesn't, which is interesting in and of itself. To quote Jed twice in one paragraph, "all the uncertainty, fear, doubt, mediocrity, pettiness, striving, ambiguity and myriad other chains that bind us and weigh us down have been sliced away. His fate is known, his success certain. He is hurtling at thrilling velocity into perfect freedom. He knows it, and he would be unspeakably happy about it." Setting the world on fire brings him a manic, unceasing, defiant, impregnable job satisfaction. That is what the break-out archetype is all about.

*Jed explains this well: "It's not that he's unaware of the cost, but that he knows it to be irrelevant; a non-issue."

**This references another of Jed's concepts that's outlined very well in Spiritually Incorrect Enlightenment (a book I usually just call "Incorrect").


  1. Just FYI: You graduated; you don't have to write essays anymore.

  2. Ha. But this is the fun kind of world analysis. No grades, no deadlines, no peer reviews -- just me and my brain trying to figure shit out. I like this.

    Oh, and NO CITATIONS. YES!!!