Sunday, February 27, 2011

Moby-Dick through Current Events

I read a long academic essay entitled Moby-Dick After September 11th taken from a Law and Literature text-book in 2003. At first I was skeptical of the article, as I was not able to see many correlations between the tragic historical event and the epic novel. I figured it would be a simple article summarizing similarities; however, it turned out to be a very compelling piece about how the context of current events can affect one’s view of a novel—in this case Moby Dick. The two main time periods cited were the post-9/11 era and the Cold War era; the latter of which gave a very interesting new view of the themes for me. During this time, a critic named Francis Otto Matthiessen evaluated the book in terms of the increasing antipathy of the Soviet Union and the United States.

“In the later nineteenth century America, Matthiessen interpreted Moby-Dick as a conflict not essentially between Ahab and the White Whale but between Ahab and Ishmael” (Donoghue 170). Ahab represented totalitarianism, but he started out as a distinctive American aberration. Ishmael was a type of American democracy, as his dealings with Queequeg and the crew of the Pequod made clear. Ahab’s tragedy is that of an unregenerate will, which stifles his soul and drives his brain with an inescapable fierceness (Donoghue 170). This notion of characterizing these individuals with the only two sovereign social systems in the modern world of the time lets us delve into the conflict between man and his master as a whole. As the article continues (spoiling the end of the novel nonetheless), it tells of how nobody else survives, but Ishmael to spread the story of the journey. In other words, it is alluding to the belief that nothing but capitalism will survive after the climax of the Cold War.

Matthiessen, at this time, saw the communist party as blind to everything but their one pursuit, as confident in assuming an identification of their wills with immutable plan or manifest destiny, as liable to regard other men as merely arms and legs for the fulfillment of their purposes, and, finally, as arid and exhausted in their burnt-to-souls (Donoghue 171). Not coincidentally, that description also fits Ahab’s attitude towards the crew. This would eventually lead them to self-destruction and, as prophesized, shows capitalism surviving the ordeal and continuing on in history. This contrasts directly with Ishmael’s contemporary view of the world and his lack of racism, which he believes will be what rises from the debris after the Cold War.

Even though these metaphors seem to fit rather well, Matthiessen has been criticized for converting American classics into Cold War propaganda novels. The problem I had with his analysis is that he sees the opposing social systems in black and white—good and evil. Not only that, but there have been similar arguments during the Nazi/Fascist movement, which can fit Ahab’s motives exactly the same way as the Soviet Union has. Also, he works off the bias of being in a capitalistic government and does not take into account the Marcusian principle that both systems essentially lead to the same ends—the struggle against a form of life which would dissolve the basis for domination (Marcuse 55).

“Reading Moby-Dick again now, I think it inevitable that I interpret it as a revenge play, with all the simplifications that it entails. It is also a book of the Old Testament rather than the New; it has no place for a Sermon on the Mount or for turning the other cheek” (Donoghue 162). Much in the same way, I can say that this novel is viewed differently than it was thirty years ago, during the Cold War; however, there are many disturbing similarities between now and that period of constant fear. Now the adversary has turned into the Middle Eastern terrorist regime, which plays the role of the immovable Ahab seeking revenge on the white whale, or the United States. This just shows that there are innumerable ways to view the conflicts of Moby Dick and interpret them into separate themes. Whether it is Ahab versus the whale, Ahab versus Ishmael, or even the harpooners versus the mates, the conflicts can somehow be molded into the context of the current events taking place. I believe this allows vast interpretations of the novel and does not solidify it with one simple moral. This article definitely allowed me to get a sense of how broad the understanding of Moby Dick can be and while reading, I am sure it will help me notice many of the different directions the theme can go.

Donoghue, Denis. "Moby-Dick After September 11th." Law and Literature 15.2 (2003): 161-88. Print.


  1. This is good work - not only to you ably summarize Donoghue, but you contextualize him within Matthiessen's work (as summarized by him, obviously), and in relationship with Marcuse. That you can do this, and articulately state your own views, is quite good.

    To push you a little farther, let me add that many people made similar arguments using or about MD in the wake of 9/11. There was a prominent article in *The Atlantic*, for instance, which envisioned Bin Laden as MD, and us (collectively) as Ahab - which, given how badly Iraq and Afghanistan have gone for us (in my highly opinionated viewpoint) isn't a bad analysis.

    But setting aside the specifics - why is MD seemingly friendly or open to this analysis? It's because one of the novel's central concerns is with the Nation-State, or the American state in particular. The novel has some individual political concerns, but that's not the real point - it's about, in part, our political System (the capital S is deliberate). Go through the extracts before the beginning of the novel - notice the presence of Hobbes there, which makes my point.

    What I'm saying is, that if you're interested in this topic there is lots to be legitimately done with it, both applying the novel to our times, and exploring why it's friendly to such readings.

  2. Your paper is really good and understandable and I feel like I understand what some of the article was about that you read. I guess what I would have liked to read about would be more of the recent things that Moby-Dick relates to, the post-911 events. I think just because that's what the article was called and because you briefly mentioned it in your first paragraph. But I know there's only so much you can do in a short essay like this, I just think that should be something you should consider to put into it if you choose to revise this paper.