“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” Captain Ahab in Moby Dick
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall–I will do such things,–
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
At times, thoughts of revenge have driven me mad. Thoughts, but I do not act on them. The thoughts pool like dirty water in my mind. They become a home to disease, and plots to inflict the terrors of the earth on my enemies. But these plots find no actors, know no conspiracies, and drop into the fetid water as no more than bitter letters.
I have borne enough insult, humiliation and loss in my wanderings across the seas of power to dream on revenge. The modern office is a company of strangers, where tragic drama is frowned upon and cynical detachment is preferred. But decisions on jobs and titles and projects and favours are as fateful for soul-making as the adventures of a whaling ship.
Once, after many years of being passed over for promotion, I was subjected by a boss to the silent treatment for weeks on end. It was only broken by a suggestion that I go to some other part of the organisation, where I could be completely forgotten by him. For a few weeks I discussed this exile with the area, but I was unwilling to go because the job did not suit my skills; the new manager I knew I could not work for; and I believed surely I deserved better. At some point, when I still believed I was negotiating the arrangements, I learnt from this new manager, who I was intent never to work for, that I had already been transferred. The paperwork had been signed by my old boss two weeks before, and no-one had even told me. I later learned the new manager had told all her staff months before, before the idea was even put to me, that I would be working there. The plot to use me for their purposes had been hatched without me. The basic dignity afforded to anyone to be involved in decisions about their own work was denied me. I had been traded like a chattel.
This humiliation broke my identity as a professional public servant. It smashed my sense of self. It led to thoughts of suicide and a deep depression. The world seemed like a great wall of inscrutable malice, seeking to destroy me. The depression was a war within myself between my own letters of the underworld and an instinct for another life-affirming response. As in Dostoyevsky’s Letters from the Underworld, I immersed myself in a “state of cold, malignant, perpetual rancour” in which I would taunt and worry myself with my own fancies.
“Of those fancies it will be ashamed, yet it will nevertheless remember them all, exaggerate them all, and even imagine to itself things which have never happened, on the mere pretext that one day it may obtain its revenge, and that therefore it must, in the meanwhile, forget nothing.”
Dostoyevsky also anticipated the impotence of my dreams of revenge:
“Or perhaps it will actually embark upon a scheme of revenge; but if it does so the thing will be done only by fits and starts, and from behind a stone, and incognito, and in a manner which makes it clear that the mouse distrusts alike its right to wreak vengeance and the ultimate success of its scheme, since it knows in advance that its poor attempts at retribution will bring upon its own head a hundred times more suffering than will fall to the lot of the person against whom the vengeance is aimed, but upon whom not so much as a scratch is inflicted.” Letters from the Underworld p. 7.
It seemed to me that the injury done to me was too great to fight back, and so I withdrew into a dark night of the soul. Machiavelli said that “Men should be either treated generously or destroyed because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot.” So I was both destroyed and unable to take revenge. I only dreamt on the bitter root.
Revenge is barren of itself: it is the dreadful food it feeds on; its delight is murder; its end is despair. Friedrich Schiller
As the months passed the bitter fancies – imagined conspiracies with the court that would undo the courtiers who had undone me – receded. Writing, and not power, would be my salvation. My redemption lay in literature and culture, and not the small prizes of office politics.
Rather than dwell on revenge, I began to mourn the life and dreams I had lost.
I could not give up my life in the oceans of power, but sailed them not in the Pequod, but in The Flying Dutchman.
Image source: Jay Hunter Morris performing as Captain Ahab in San Francisco Opera performance of Moby Dick