Moby-Dick, Cheney, et al.

photo of whaling shipIn times of catastrophe and chaos we often turn to poetry and prose to make sense of the madness. Melville’s monumental masterwork, Moby-Dick is no exception. Captain Ahab, the monomaniac with a mission, has long been the metaphor for vengeance and obsession. Over the years people have been drawing comparisons to Hitler and Stalin and most recently George Bush — some even offer Osama Bin Laden as Ahab’s avatar.

On the Pequod, Ahab’s word is law and it is this which paralyzes resistance….He never speaks but in the imperative mood. He commands even the sun. For when the noon observation is taken, it is officially twelve o’clock only when the captain says ‘Make it so.’ Ahab will smash the quadrant and denounce the whole procedure and all science included.

C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In

Think of Melville’s whale of mass destruction, the grotesque quest for oil and the lives that hung on Ahab’s obsession. Did the 19th-century novel foretell the war in Iraq, or can the USS Pequod still be saved?

Who is your Starbuck? Who would you cast as the modern day Ishmael, Stubbs or Queequeg? What themes in Moby-Dick do you see in the 21st century?

Andrew Delbanco

Director, American Studies, Columbia University


Melville: His World and Work

Jonathan Raban

Author (of many things, but most recently), My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front and the forthcoming novel Surveillance

Sidney Blumenthal

Former senior adviser to President Clinton

Washington bureau chief,

Author, How Bush Rules

Susan Cheever

Author, American Bloomsbury

Extra Credit Reading
Philip Rubio, The “Whatever” Presidency, History News Network, July 3, 2006: “Recall that in his single-minded pursuit of Moby Dick, mad Captain Ahab was willing to take down the Pequod (named for the Indian tribe massacred by European settlers) with all aboard–and he did, all save the fictional narrator named Ishmael. Remember, too, that before that “White Whale” had crushed the ship and its crew, there were those aboard who knew better but would not speak out.”

donroach, War on terror is no Moby Dick, Converse It!, August 29, 2006: “The white whale, after taking Ahab’s leg, probably had nary a thought about the obsessed captain whereas terrorists continually rail against, plot against, and seek to destroy America. Perhaps that’s a subtle difference to Jaffe, but it’s a major critical difference between the war on terror and Ahab’s war in Moby Dick.”

Michael Kimaid, Bush as Ahab: Aboard the Modern Day Pequod, counterpunch, May 28, 2005: “In Herman Melville’s epic compendium Moby Dick, Ahab nailed a golden doubloon to the main mast; a prize for whomever harpooned the white whale. Is that not in part what motivates our crew today, as well as the Pequod’s owners, Bildad, Peleg, Halliburton, and their likes?”

Cardozo, Of Big Fish…and Taking the Bait, The Bush Diaries, October 25, 2006: “The whaleman, Ishmael, finds himself forced to share a bed with Queequeg, an ominous looking, cannibalistic island native who he nevertheless befriends and for whom he develops profound respect. In Melville’s world, what we do not understand is subject for fierce curiosity, not for knee-jerk condemnation and “preventive” slaughter.”

Laura Leibman, Moby-Dick as Political Allegory (Lecture Notes and Reading Questions), Reed College, March 12, 1997: “The logic of reading Moby-Dick as an allegory is based on three fundamental notions: 1) the historical circumstance of Melville’s day would have make politics an inevitable subject; 2) the entire narrative structure is based on a jeremiad–an innately political form; 3) Melville infuses the narrative with overt markers of allegory thereby encouraging such a reading.”

Geraldine Murphy, Ahab as Capitalist, Ahab as Communist: Revising Moby-Dick for the Cold War, Surfaces: ” It would be simplistic to assign a progressive Melville to one camp and an anti-Communist Melville to the other, especially since the American Studies critics wrote rather more energetically against the grain of progressive scholarship represented by Brooks and Parrington than within it; nevertheless, both groups did recast Melville in their own political image, as their interpretations of Moby-Dick and Melville’s succeeding novels illustrate.”

CliffsNotes, Moby-Dick

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, the Whale, (full text provided by the Literature Network).

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  • I think you’re reaching comparing ‘Moby Dick’ to Iraq.

    But I suppose it’s good fodder for lit papers in school …

  • astralseed

    I think the Moby-Dick metaphor gives the Bush Administration too much credit. Ahab’s struggle was quite insular and limited to his own vessel and thus the struggle is one-dimensional. By contrast, the decisions of the Bush administration effect many other “vessels” (i.e., nations, people) and vice versa. The interconnected nature of the world’s political situation makes unilateral action impossible. If anything, I think Cheney, et al have revealed themselves as wishing they have Ahab’s despotic power, but in reality have learned that they ARE subject to domestic and international pressures. Their power is not absolute, and it is pricisely this assumption of power by the Bush administration that has negated their hegemony in the long-run.

  • mynocturama

    Well, if you consider the very strong parallels between the whaling industry and the need for whale oil in the 19th century, especially during its first half (the American petroleum industry started, I believe, in 1859, with Edwin Drake drilling in Pennsylvania:, and our need for oil and the entanglements, political and economic, of the oil industry today, it actually isn’t much of a stretch or a reach.

    Many American “adventures” in the world were driven by whaling, and it’s bound up in “Moby Dick” (the full title, by the way, is “Moby Dick, or, The Whale”) with nationalistic pride and a sense of America’s place in the world. I’m no economist or historian of economics, but I do think the whaling industry was a huge and vital part of 19th American economy, and played a major role in the USA’s development into a powerful player on the world stage.

    So, again, adventures abroad in pursuit of natural energy resources…sounds vaguely familiar, wouldn’t you say?

    And there’s the big BIG theme of confronting something nonhuman, something immensely alien, especially in the case of whales, and the question of what to do, how to respond. Exploit it to our ends, incorporate it into our purposes, thereby dispelling the potentially terrifying alienness or strangeness? Or observe, and preserve, and try to relate in some way, with respect and awe?

    Anyways, don’t want to end up writing a term paper here. But here’s a relatively famous passage, a scene where the Pequod comes across a group of nursing whales, that’s worth quoting and posting, I think, simply because it’s beautiful:

    But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; — even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.

  • I’ll buy that analogy mynocturama and raise the pot by remarking that free market forces brought an end to whaling* and allowed us to switch to a petroleum economy.

    Letting the market handle it with appropriate regulation might indeed be the cure for our current petrol woes.

    Worth a thought.

    *on a large commercial scale and ignoring countries that continue to hunt whales only because they could stop right now little economic problems and no one in Norway or Japan is using whale oil lamps to light their house.

  • loki

    Call me Ishmael! Could be an appropiate begining of a time traveler through war-torn Iraq!

  • Igor

    > …free market forces brought an end to whaling…

    Excuse me? What free market forces brought is near extermination of whole species of whales, not end to whaling. This is the same as to claim that free market forces brought an and to killing American buffalos of Californian gold rush. And the same is happening with fishing nowadays, depletion of resources brings an end, market or no market.

    Here’s one case study, USSR, not a vestige of free markets in any meaningful sense, but it abandoned its whaling activities after signing of the treaties, against it’s own economic interest, in fact, after all that spending on building its numerous whaling flotillas. So it’s either limit in resources of government (societal) regulation, your pick.

  • terrence

    Moby-Dick fans, don’t miss the 11th annual Moby-Dick reading marathon. A non-stop reading of the Great American Classic. Noon, Wednesday, January 3, 2007. The marathon lasts approx. 25 hours. Come and go as you please. Light whaleship fare, including grog and cider will be served. Coffee and snacks will be available throughout the night. Breakfast at 8 a.m. New Bedford Whaling Museum. New Bedford, MA

  • Sir Otto

    How about the Christianity aspect of the novel? The glowing masts in the shape of the cross. The crucifixtion of Ahab on the whale at the end. How can this be integrated into the jihad of the discussion?

  • Some would argue that the “tragedy of the commons” brought whales to near extinction and is doing the same for fish, today. Thus the need to put regulation in the hands of private industry.

    But that doesn’t seem to works either with the myopic desire for short-term profits leading to overexploitation of stocks.

    So what is the solution? Like Odysseus, rather than Captain Ahab, it seems that we are between the Charybdis of neoliberalism and the Scylla of over-regulation, with the only path one of more cooperative and sustainable resource use.

    On the topic of Iraq, Odysseus’ choice also seems appropriate. For the US there is the Charybdis of an untenable long-term engagement that swallows up lives and finances and spits out anger and the Scylla of imperial fatigue that is weakening the nations pride. Circe provides the answer. Steer closer to Scylla, who may take a few men (Donald and soon Dick and George, as well as others that misguided the ship–hopefully) and humble the ship of state, but she provides a safer way to preservation of the national soul.

  • Sutter

    This may be more appropriate for the meta-discussion, but the segment with Susan Cheever was quite painful. I know it’s hard to find people on short notice to participate, but if you’re going to do an ambitious high-concept episode like this one, it doesn’t do to have a guest who is completely unwilling to play along (or to resist the premise in an interesting way). In fact, I was especially disappointed, because I had been eagerly awaiting “American Bloomsbury” since the “Transcendental Women” show. Now, I’m far less sure.

  • Just after Susan Cheever’s entry into the conversation and her assertion that Moby Dick is grander than the current political narrative, I found myself wondering about using Gilligans Island instead for the characters in the current administration. Anyone want to take a stab at that one?

  • BillK

    If Quequag is the character about whom Ishmael gains understanding, I would say we, the people of the United States, are Quequag. Through the tremendous injustice of the War in Iraq we have learned how capable we are of going along with monomania. So we have gained understanding of ourselves, to our great sadness.

  • Igor – Excuse me? What free market forces brought is near extermination of whole species of whales, not end to whaling.

    Right. When we started running short on whales, we shifted to a petrol economy. We stopped hunting whales and the species came back.

    The extermination of the buffalo herds had more to do with explicit Army policy to force the Plains Indians onto the reservation.

    Sidewalker So what is the solution? Like Odysseus, rather than Captain Ahab, it seems that we are between the Charybdis of neoliberalism and the Scylla of over-regulation, with the only path one of more cooperative and sustainable resource use.

    I think there is a middle ground where reasonable regulation is utilized and responsible businessmen realize that there are short and long-term interests to think about. More – I’d say most people IN business are this way; I know I am.

    But the media harps on the Enron’s of the world so much you’d think the greedy bastards are Legion. Which ain’t the case as far as I can tell.

  • zensparrow

    Moby Dick is, above all, a narrative of obsession. Ahab is viciously single-minded in his quest for superiority. Victory, as he alone defines it, is paramount. His crew exists only to enable his quest. All passers-by on the vast ocean of life serve only one purpose: Can they further his purpose or not? (“Have ye seen the white whale?”) The terrible loss of life – his crew’s and ultimately his own – are secondary considerations. He is willing to sacrifice all to achieve vengeance. And to thereby establish his undeniable superiority – by vanquishing his hated enemy, even though his entire world is destroyed in the process. Personally, I like the comparison of Ahab with Cheney. I nominate Bush for Stubbs.

  • carolina

    Cari, you’ll not want to ‘Call me,Ishmaele’. Might Queequeg be our baffled world – those with whom we once we smiled? Susan Cheever is dead on – to cast character, is to mitigate our great American Melville.

    Is not the great white whale – innocence – merely searching krill??

  • RobMor

    I think that trying to “cast” the novel in the contemporary context is misguided when you seek to assign characters to single politicians or other people. What proves the genius of the novel is that both the USA and Ossama bin Laden are the White Whale. In many people’s eyes (and not just radical Muslims’), the US in many ways embodies evil, and in American eyes radical Muslims and bin Ladin in particular embody evil. This duality shows the vital need to better understand one another’s perspectives rather than being locked in a blindly obsessive perspective as both Bush and bin Ladin are.

  • David Weinstein

    I think Jonathan Raban on air and RobMor in this thread have hit the nail on the head about how radical Islam and radical Bush and the equally radical republican right are the white whale in each other’s eye’s and psyche’s.

    I agree with Susan Cheever in her remarks if not in her apparant lack of tolerance in trying to pin political operatives today onto Melville’s characters. For one, Melville wrote in the soulful context of late American romanticism even if his subject matter foreshadowed the existentialists. This appreciation of and depth of soul is no where to be found in American life and in politics today.

    Remeber one of the major attractions of George Bush to the American voting public in both elections was his folksiness, someone you’d like to invite to your barbecue as comapred to professorial Gore and ivy league Kerry. But nevertheless the existential terror and rage of Captain Ahab can be found benath Bush’s folksy veneer as well as in the Christian right (although the evangelical are waking up to Bush co. as witnessed by the last election)

    Remember Bush is a dry drunk, a man who adopted a very conserative, American brand of Christianity as a way to stop abusing addicitive substances. But as far as I know, he never did the hard but miraulously transformative work of a twelve step program where one must admit one’s powerlessness before the substance(s) and face honestly and unflinchingly one’s inner demons.

    I do think Bush’s faith is genuine. But becasue he has not grapled with his own dark side he will constantly project that darkness outside himself, be it onto Al Qaeda or onto Saddam Hussein or whoever. The Christian right projected its darkness onto gays and gay marriage in 2004.

    Part of Bush’s dark side, I venture to guess, is an existential one. He drank and abused subtances becasue of the lack of meaning, comfort and connection inside himself. But becasue he chose not to do the terrifying work of looking into himself to find out why, he found a religious creed that would supply all the answers in an external, rigid, dogmatic, and dare I say, easy way.

    Bush found natural allies with the religious right that sees all metaphysical answers in a fundamentalist manner. They are terrified that more substantial or true spirtual answers might be more personal or complex than their dogma allows and so lash out with rage against the ihite whale of trangression against the dogma, be they gays, or relativist liberals, or secualar humanists or whoeer doesn’t get with the .

    Bush’s war against Iraq is just another way to fill that existential hole. He desperately wants to be a “consequential” president because he is desperatoely not satisfied with who is essentaially becasue he doesn’t knw who he is. So he will abuse his power, lie to the American public, himself and the world, on a grandiose mission to democratize the Middle East. But really it could be any grandiose and ultimately empty enterprise to escape that existential terror.

    Iraq is indeed Bush’s white whale.

  • miriama

    The Moby Dick show–what a fun and enlightening hour of radio! I learned lots I didn’t know. Del Banco was terrific. And I liked the moment when Susan Cheever was questioning the premise and very rectitude of the game, protecting the book against this philistine assault, and Chris sort of pressed on undaunted and with evident enjoyment. It was not the phony deference or grim adversarialism of a conventional interview, but just like a spirited sparring between friends in conversation. Very fun. Thanks, folks.

  • Prolifer

    As a prolifer, I would see Moby Dick’s commentary on slavery, in today’s scene, as a commentary on abortion, and I think the dynamics are the same. Moby Dick is sort of like an American Revelations of John, limited to America, it’s true maybe at any time.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    The media is not just the narrator of events, it becomes an active participant and vehicle of propaganda. Propaganda plays a critical role in war. U.S. media executive teams, shareholders, advertisers, clients/customers, and lastly consumers are part of the war machine; one that is not likely to be quietly dismantled. Are there any shareholders complaining about the war hurting there returns-on-investment?

    It is not clear to me the fitting Moby Dick role for the various media stakeholders. However, the media stakeholders account for such an important component of contemporary geo-politics that they must be included in any analysis of this sort. With respect to propoganda and its relationship to politics (e.g. perception management…where’s Rendon?), the situation has more resemblence to an Orwellian vision than Melville’s. Perhaps, certain media mouthpieces have the Ahab obsessiveness, without the strategic thinking?

    Excellent show.

  • joshua hendrickson

    I’ve never read all of MOBY DICK, but I have read the chapter On the Whiteness of the Whale a couple of times, finding it one of the most fascinating pieces in American literature. As a writer, I find the blankness of white its most terrifying aspect: the emptiness of paper, waiting to be filled (or not) with creative (or shoddy) words. It is the essence of the pre-created cosmos, and while I don’t believe in a Creator, I still find the metaphor to be haunting.

  • Is not the great white whale – innocence – merely searching krill??

    Not to get so very literal but sperm whales eat squid, octopuses and rays. Krill are right off their diet.

  • I’m sure carolina meant “krill” in a representative, symbolic sense. Given the topic of conversation, after all, we’re dedicating a lot of guff here to NOT talking literally, no?

  • Well, sure. But I spend 10 hours a day working with machines that do yes/no – it gets you in a certain mindset.

  • carolina

    Mr. D.Q., Mr. B. D.,

    On any other vessel, I might have been ‘laced in my baleens’; thank you kindly, both of you.

  • Mere badinage …

  • Steve Nagel

    The religious dimension seemed set aside in the discussion. I wonder. Melville lived in a strongly religious society, as did his mentor Hawthorne. Could Moby Dick be read as a critique of absolutism? perhaps of a secular type that was emerging in the new mythos of contemporary society? Is this connected to the Platonic element mentioned? The perfect is always the enemy of the good.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Was there any mention of the book of Job? Interesting omission.

  • tdevotta

    After listening to the podcast on Moby Dick, I was kind of wondering whether Tony Blair would fit into Ishmael shoes, I always felt that he got into it because he had nothing better to do.