In 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.
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?
- Director, American Studies, Columbia University
Melville: His World and Work
- Author (of many things, but most recently), My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front and the forthcoming novel Surveillance
- Former senior adviser to President Clinton
Washington bureau chief, Salon.com
Author, How Bush Rules
- 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.”
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, the Whale, (full text provided by the Literature Network).