10.20.2009

How will it end?

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge." --from chap. 41 of Moby-Dick
I'm convinced that I've seen Moby-Dick the way Melville intended it, seen it not as the modernists saw it -- as a meditation on dialectical tensions between (as I noted in my dissertation) doubt and “intuition” (Matthiessen 408), order and chaos (Pease 113), “poetry” and “journalism” (Stewart 192), “heart” and marketplace (Gilmore 124), “self and the not-self” (Chase 108), “comprehension” and quest (Feidelson, Jr. 169-173). It's not those things -- it's about the sub-linguistic structure of that kind of opposition... and the idea of something else. It's about how "X and not-X" is itself only part in a larger schema, namely the opposition of the One and the Many.

What I love about the excerpt above is that Ishmael is penitent, that he acknowledges his own culpability. The modernists hated Ahab -- they took him as representative of all that was worst in the 20th century, as a figure akin to Mussolini, Stalin, and even Hitler. But the modernists missed the tremendously important point about Ishmael's involvement in what happened. He was not dragged to destruction -- he walked willingly toward it, possibly cheering "Yes we can!"

Is it fair to suggest a correspondence between Obama and Ahab? Well it would only be unfair if you cannot imagine that a unifying leader might be a force for good (Wrangler). If you immediately associate "unity of vision" with tyranny, then both Ahab and campaign-Obama (possibly not President Obama, who seems divisive as any President) must be regarded as frightening.

But what I did while I was writing my chapter on Moby-Dick was to begin again in thinking about Captain Ahab. "Yes," I had to say to my dissertation advisor, "I realize that every major critic in the 20th century aligned Ahab with evil; nevertheless, I want to revisit the scene of their judgments."

I introduced two happier historical parallels for Ahab -- the first was Martin Luther King, Jr., who certainly must be seen as a unifier, and who gathered up quite a "crew" as he spoke of uniting against racism and injustice. The other, more a propos, probably, was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's efforts to save the Union against faction and secession is almost universally respected; but somehow, nobody has testified to the similarities between Lincoln and Ahab.

After Ahab has unified the entire crew in a quest to kill the white whale, in chapter 36, there remains one skeptic. Trying to convince Starbuck, Ahab lowers his voice and speaks to his first mate privately:
So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn—living, breathing pictures painted by the sun. The Pagan leopards—the unrecking and unworshipping things, that live; and seek, and give no reasons for the torrid life they feel! The crew, man, the crew! Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! See yonder Chilian! he snorts to think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck!
To unify diverse factions! -- Turks, Chilians, and Stubb himself! Come, Starbuck, even you must see the wisdom in that. I think history remains to tell us whether, and under what conditions, Obama might unify a divided people. Obviously, even a vast majority of his political opponents would hope that he comes out looking more like Lincoln than like Mussolini. Right now, I feel like I am only in chapter 41 of a book with 135 chapters. I don't know how things will turn out, but I know that if I am to speak honestly of my role in all of this, I will have to say, paraphrasing Ishmael,
I, Casey, was one of that crew; In October of '08, my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Obama's quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.
In the book, of course, the murderous monster gets the last laugh. " 'God keep me!--keep us all!' murmured Starbuck, lowly."