Friday, April 1, 2011

Call Us All Ishmael

Revision to Moby-Dick Through Current Events

It seems I have read dozens of articles based on current events that find the need to cite Moby-Dick—to categorize today’s “good guys” and “bad guys” into archetypal roles in Melville’s epic novel. For example, one Atlantic magazine article was quoted saying, “Osama Bin Laden appears to be Moby-Dick, submerged in the safety of his hilltop… The United States rushes in foolishly and blindly in order to garner its revenge as reminiscent of Captain Ahab chasing his white whale” (Bergen 1). At one point, I simply did not understand why people insisted on using this metaphor to describe certain people and concepts; they skew and simplify people’s intentions to fit the mold of Melville’s characters. The problem is, the Pequod and its crew are not simple characters—throughout the novel, they present complex ideas, they contradict themselves, and they develop as characters. To describe Ahab as simply a “misguided leader blindly looking for revenge” would show a carnal understanding of the novel and, therefore, should not be used as a light metaphor. However, this has not stopped an inundation of critics from comparing current events to Melville:

Matthiessen 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—similar to Ahab’s pursuit. 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 (Donoghue 171).

Donoghue also analyzed the novel in a way that incorporated it to the twin tower attacks. Unlike Bergen, the Atlantic magazine columnist above, Donoghue was able to place the United States and Al Qaeda in many different roles. He was able to view it the same way Bergen did, but he was also able to flip the roles—Al Qaeda being the revenge-seeking, religion-based Ahab hunting the United States, the white whale that indirectly caused their lifestyle so much harm (Donoghue 170).

After reading many articles of this nature, I came to the realization that there needs to be a reason why Moby-Dick is so open to interpretation—why is it so easy to incorporate such general concepts to single characters in this novel? The only pattern I detected was the omniscient presence of America in all of these examples. As discussed in class, many past students writing essays on Moby-Dick build up interesting interpretations with the given material, only to demolish it in their conclusion by stating that, “Moby-Dick is special because it does not have one specific meaning”. This last quote, in my opinion, is only half true; yes, it can be interpreted in different ways, but I think the reason for it is because Melville based many key factors of his novel on broad American symbols that are still relevant today—factors that a reader at even a low level can interpret in many extensive ways.

One article that really stuck out to me is called “Moby-Dick and American Symbolism”, in which analyst Alan Heimert relates Melville’s symbols to their likely political origins in 1850’s America. Heimert describes the 1850’s as a dramatic culmination of a complex series of political developments that had arrested national attention for nearly a decade. It is no surprise, then, that Melville found himself deeply involved in debate over many of the vexing questions of the 1840’s. He had joined in on the controversy over American expansion, imperialist war, and the character and future of the Democratic Party (Heimert 498). “It was against such a broad and intricate backdrop of political thought, speech, and action—the full pattern, and not isolated threads—that Moby-Dick was composed in the explosive months of the 1850’s” (Heimert 499).

This biographical section of the article made me realize the true propensity to which Melville’s liberalism and political ideas may have had on his writing. Heimert then goes on to reinforce his argument by pointing out clever symbols that Melville uses to symbolize the whole Pequod community as a compact America. The Pequod itself, he points out, is described as, “being put together by every contrasting thing from the three main sections of the United States: oak, maple, and pine wood; iron; pitch and hemp. And it is manned by thirty isolatoes—all, Melville remarks, federated along one keel” (Heimert 501). In other words, it is a ship construed and built upon with material found all across the country and driven by a large array of immigrants. This symbolism here seems too strong to be seen differently, given Melville’s political background.

Heimert continues by describing The Pequod’s main inhabitants; he specifically focuses on the mates. Every one of the three mates is a white man with power over others, but they too symbolize the different types of white men. Starbuck is the representation of the Nantucket Yankee, who is the ever-loyal “calculating man” of the commercial code. The good-humored Stubb seems a member of that essentially Western spirit which Melville attributed to the convivial frontiersman. Then there is the very pugnacious Flask, whose personality seems to derive from the fiery and intractable race of the South. Not only that, but the harpooners represent the three races on which each of the American sections had built its prosperity on in the early 19th century. Stubb’s squire is an Indian; Starbuck’s comes from the Pacific islands; and Flask, perched precariously on Daggoo’s shoulders, seems, like the southern economy itself, sustained by the strength of the imperial Negro (Heimert 502).

The next portion of Heimert’s essay is what I found exceptionally intriguing. After going through many pages to build up a static representation of a mini-America through the ship and its crew—he decides to humbly stop and open the other characters/concepts to interpretation. He successfully explains the more obvious symbols in order to give the readers’ minds an open template to construe countless numbers of understandings. He goes on to cite other critics’ view of Ahab in history; “so common was the likening of American invasion of other nations’ rights to Ahab’s aggressions that by 1848, critics saw no need to amplify Ahab’s actions when they alluded to the Mexican War (Heimert 503). As with the whale itself, who critics suggests could be associated with the sublime aspirations for imperialism that Melville is known for being associated with politically (Heimert 506).

“Melville managed to codify, as it were, the nation’s political rhetoric. By doing so he created a masterpiece that in its coherence, as in its universality, outranks not only as literature, but as political insight, the utterances that served Melville as his raw material” (Heimert 534). What this particular article showed me, that none of the others could, was a reason as to why it is so easy to incorporate the novel into current events. It is because its central concern is the political System of the American state, and Melville very intricately set up a blueprint of this state with his descriptions of the ship and its minor characters; I believe he purposely added ambiguity to his central characters so they can be interpreted in many different ways. That way, even though his characters are complex, people are still able to associate their actions with real-life situations. He also pegs such a diverse cast of characters that it is hard to find a race that is not represented. If I were to add my own symbol based on the given assumptions, I would call all of us Ishmael—the common citizen—the one that observes all of the Starbucks and the Stubbs and the Flasks and the Ahabs and interprets them in our own way based on the current situation.

Bergen, Peter. "The Long Hunt for Osama - Magazine - The Atlantic." The Atlantic — News and Analysis on Politics, Business, Culture, Technology, National, International, and Life – Web. 01 Apr. 2011. .

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

Heimert, Alan. "Moby-Dick and American Political Symbolism." Http:// Web.

1 comment:

  1. Let me first note what is exceptional here.

    1) You compactly present a body of well-executed research; you even, for instance, make an intelligent application of Kermode to your research without even bothering to cite him.

    2) You deal, very intelligently (again, seemingly influenced by Kermode) with central issues in literary criticism, or in hermeneutics more broadly: why is it that we value works which are subject to wide-ranging interpretation, *yet* we all know, at least intuitively, that interpretation has its limits, and not all readings are viable.

    3) You reinvent an earlier essay, rather than just extending it.

    That's all great, and I value this contribution to our class greatly. I do have one substantial criticism, though. As well as you did, you come too close to just ending on a repetition of Heimert's insight. Now, it is true that you are reading Donoghue and Bergen through Heimert, so your approach is still viable - but I'd like to have seen something more. Here are a couple ideas.

    a) A discussion of the *range* of the political symbolism in the novel. That is, can we extract (for instance) liberal and conservative (or neo-conservative readings) or are only a more limited set of symbolic readings of America (say, only a certain range of liberalisms) viable?

    b) More with Ishmael. It's too easy to just call a guy who sleeps with a cannibal and adopts a cannibal lifestyle an everyman. You at least need to earn that claim through more detailed discussion.

    c) Maybe your own application of MD's American symbolism to some dimension of current thought/politics/events?

    Really good work - but the ending has its limits.