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Monday, November 14, 2016

Moby Dick: When a Man Shakes his Fist at God

When my tenth birthday arrived a favourite aunt presented me with a book. It was an abridged version for young readers of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The thrills and adventures and the parade of vivid characters which I encountered among its pages were what then impressed themselves upon me. The more profound themes omitted from this young readers’ edition I would encounter much later.

When as an adult I read Melville’s massive unabridged narrative it swiftly became clear just how much had been left out of the slim children’s version which had introduced me to the story. The actual plot line – the vengeance-driven pursuit of the white whale known as Moby Dick by Ahab, the captain of the whaling vessel Pequod, takes up only about half of the six hundred-odd pages. The rest are devoted to any and every conceivable aspect of whaling, life at sea in the 19th-century, and discourses and musings on any number of subjects both spiritual, practical and philosophical, including an entire chapter which struggles to define the exact nature of ‘the whiteness of the whale’.

Melville even devotes a chapter to discussing his own concerns about the sustainability of whale populations faced with such slaughter, concluding from his 19th-century perspective that it always will be kept within reasonable limits – and ironically though understandably unable to predict the later horrors of an explosive-tipped harpoon fired from the safety of a ship’s deck. In Melville’s age whaling was still an extraordinarily dangerous business which could – and did – take the lives and limbs of many who pursued it.

What qualifies Melville’s story to become a post on this blog is not so much the pursuit of the white whale, but the narrative’s preoccupation with what we might call the Christian-heathen interface. Is it really by chance that Melville’s three harpooners, upon whose skills and daring the entire economic fortunes of the [1]voyage rests, are in turn the African Dagoo, the Native American Tashtego, and the South Pacific islander Queeqweg, who is himself the son of a chief? Can it be simple coincidence that the names of several of the other characters, including Ishmael, Ahab and the prophet Elijah have such a stirring Biblical ring to them?

The straight-laced Nantucket puritanism of the time is self-evident, but what gives the story such an edge is that Melville wilfully sets up this God-fearing righteousness against the bravery of Dagoo and Tashtego, and the clear moral dignity of Queeqweg, who more than once in the story puts himself in harm’s way for the common good – once, indeed, to save the life of a young ferry passenger who had fallen overboard. This selfless act of risking his own life to save a complete stranger is done without a moment’s hesitation while others only look on in anguish. For Melville there is no doubt here who carries the moral high ground, and the heathen-hearted and radically tattooed Queeqweg emerges as one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire narrative.

Why does Ahab pursue the whale? Revenge, plain and simple. Having years before lost a leg to the white whale, Ahab is now looking to even the score. And this is where things get several shades darker. The entreaties to his captain by the first mate [2]Starbuck, who is the lone voice of reason among the crew and the book’s moral compass, fall on deaf ears. The ego-driven Ahab is entirely prepared to abandon the economic reasons for the long voyage, and thus risk ruin for the ship’s owners who have placed their trust in his captaincy, to throw all of his available resources – his crew and the ship itself – into following his own self-serving agenda.

The stage-by-chilling-stage of winning over the Pequod’s crew to abandon both their commissions and their own hard-working good natures to follow him in his egocentric desires is something which Ahab accomplishes in the way of all demagogues: with charismatic displays of dramatic gesture and gung-ho speeches full of ringing soundbites which offer simplistic solutions to what in fact are complex and irresolvable issues. At various times Ishmael the narrator actually refers to his captain as a megalomaniac, even though he finds himself as swept along by the force of his captain’s will as his fellows.

Ahab, outwardly a Christian, masks a heart darker than any heathen in the narrative. He is certainly blasphemous, and on several occasions voices his defiance both of the natural world and of God. His stance at times actually has him going toe-to-toe with the Deity – a face-off which he clearly both relishes and welcomes. For Ahab, God is not his superior but his equal, even his rival. In contemporary psychological terms Ahab is a true narcissist: he thinks that everything is about him, and interprets the events which happen around him in that light. And in typical narcissistic fashion those events become a self-fulfilling prophesy: he is the master of his world – in this case, that world is his ship and crew – because he has ordered things to be that way.

As much as any revenge narrative can, Melville’s story describes, not the indulgent fantasy revenge of so many [3]film plot lines, but the real emotional consequences of the way in which the desire for revenge eats away at the soul. Revenge, like black magic, is ultimately destructive in a way that eventually consumes the one who practices it. And so it is in Moby Dick, with Ahab’s senseless ego-driven vengeance spelling the doom both of the whale, himself, and his ship and crew. [4]All are dragged to the same watery destruction, and it is not the unreasoning white whale, but the ship’s master, who ultimately seals the fate of this doom-laden voyage.

In the end, and in spite of his rounding on the Pequod, we must conclude that the whale is no more a conscious agent of destruction than the sea itself. Moby Dick, like the sea in which he swims, simply exists: a force of nature neither good nor bad, but merely indifferent. It is Ahab, and the [5]Ahabs of this world, who we need to worry about.

[1] A whaling voyage of that time could last as long as two years, and for all the hardships and dangers was essentially viewed as an economic enterprise. For a whaler to return to its home port without its quota of whale oil to light the lamps of America and Europe would have meant financial loss and even possible ruin for the whaler’s owners.

[2] In case you were wondering: yes, the coffee house franchise did purloin the name of the character in Melville’s narrative.

[3] A revenge-themed film such as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill can entertain us, but it is to Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Sicario that we must look for a realistic – and chilling – treatment of a revenge which leaves its character bereft of his own humanity.

[4] Not quite all, as Ishmael becomes the lone survivor who is rescued by another whaler to live on and relate the terrible events of the last voyage of the Pequod.

[5] I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I didn’t have Donald Trump’s recent election to office in mind when I wrote these lines. And neither am I going to pretend that I don’t have Ahab in mind when I watch Donald Trump in action. The Pequod can be both a 19th-century whaler and an entire nation, and Trump’s “charismatic displays of dramatic gesture and gung-ho speeches full of ringing soundbites which offer simplistic solutions to what in fact are complex and irresolvable issues” are wholly Ahab’s. Time will tell whether such Machiavellian demagoguery will indeed drag the States – and even the world at large – into danger, but I must hope for my friends in America that it might not be so.

What is a demagogue? A demagogue can be anyone who in the field of politics appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the public, rather than presenting reasoned and consistent argument. So rather than seeking the common ground, a demagogue will feed the flames of any racial, religious, xenophobic or other divisive prejudices. The social and political landscape created by a demagogue will therefore be one of schism, of sharpened divisions within a community, rather than one which binds a community together. To a demagogue, divisiveness is more useful than unity because this broadens the possibilities for manipulation.

When does a demagogue become Machiavellian? The term Machiavellian comes from Niccolo Machiavelli, the 15th-century author who portrayed such a character in his book The Prince. A demagogue becomes Machiavellian when that person places political expediency above moral values. Ironically, Donald Trump's election campaign supplies us with a textbook example of Machiavellianism, in that he remained silent while white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups across America declared their allegiance to him. For Trump, votes - any votes - apparently were more important than asserting correct moral values and 'doing the right thing'.

Note added 23 November 2016: President-elect Trump has now disavowed the support given to him by extreme far-right groups, but this is of course after they already had given him their vote. To have disavowed them at the time they announced their support for him would have claimed the moral high ground big-time. To do so after the election is truly Machiavellian.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or The Whale, was first published in 1851. Sales were modest, and it was out of print for the last four years of Melville’s life. During his lifetime it earned the author little more than a total of $1,200. It was republished a year after Melville’s death, and interest and literary acclaim gradually increased. Many editions are now available.

The top image is an untraced source. The other images are from John Huston’s 1956 film version of Moby Dick, from the 1998 TV mini-series Moby Dick, and from Ron Howard’s 2016 film In the Heart of the Sea, which relates the true story of the sinking of the whaler Essex by a whale, and which tragic incident in part inspired Melville to write his own narrative. The last image is the 1889 painting The Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky, in the Russian Museum, Leningrad.

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