Podcast • November 10, 2011

Harold Bloom’s Moby-Dick

Harold Bloom is giving us a one-man performance of a one-act play. He invited us months ago to his class at Yale on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and finally here it is and here we are. ...

Harold Bloom is giving us a one-man performance of a one-act play. He invited us months ago to his class at Yale on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and finally here it is and here we are. Because this is Harold Bloom on stage, himself the “living labyrinth” of literature, his jazz-like solo improvisation is endlessly allusive — to Lear (“81 years old, my age”), to Macbeth and other Shakespeareans; to Yahweh, Job and Prometheus; to the canonical American writers from Emerson, Hawthorne and Henry James to Dickinson and Frost, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane; to the 20th Century novelists Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner. But only Walt Whitman sits at the pinnacle with the author of Moby-Dick. “These are the two great American books,” Professor Bloom is remarking on our way into Harkness Hall, “Leaves of Grass in its various editions, side by side with this miracle of a book Moby-Dick, almost flawless, I think. What else is of that eminence?”

How strange, he adds, that Whitman and Melville, exact contemporaries in the ambience of 19th Century New York, never acknowledged each other. “I don’t know what to call them. They’re not ships. Whales maybe, leviathans — passing in the night and never taking note of the other. And yet I can no longer read one without reading the other.”

Moby-Dick is not a novel,” Professor Bloom remarks. “It is a giant Shakespearean prose poem, quite deliberately.” And Captain Ahab of the Pequod is no more villain than hero. He is an Emersonian figure, “self-reliance gone mad.” He is a dark hero on the Greek scale, our American Prometheus. It’s not the least of Melville’s genius that Moby-Dick is new on every reading. Not the least of Harold Bloom’s genius is that, having read the book hundreds of times, he never teaches it quite the same way. He is speaking here, with barely a written note, in a classroom with about a score of Yale undergraduates. He reminds me of Sonny Rollins playing his tenor horn, drawing on a lifetime of memory and imagination, devotion and practice.

To have these ferocious killers of the natural world, these great hunters of whales, who, after all, in relation to these harpoons, are at a terrible disadvantage — except for this great monolithic vast Leviathan, straight out of Job — it’s very unfair. And you can feel, at times, submerged in the book, Melville’s own horror at what is happening. And of course we know what the ultimate consequence of this is, the decimation now of these great beasts, who are, by the way, mammals: warm-blooded breathing creatures like ourselves, almost destroyed now, for all our “Save the Whales” campaigns… There has to be, though I don’t understand it myself, some peculiar inverse ratio between the trope of whiteness in this book and the horrible paradox that these killers — including the gentle Starbuck, still the best lance out of Nantucket, the bravest man in a boat, and the fearful Ahab — are Quakers: opposed to war, to this day, opposed to conscription. Although I always remember President Richard Nixon was a Quaker. Heaven help them all, and us. What should we do with the paradox of a hunt in which we cannot possibly be on the side of the human hunters, Quaker or not, and have to be on the side of Moby-Dick, even though that goes against the deep Biblical symbolism which is involved? And Melville is all too aware of this…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon at Yale University, October, 2011.

Podcast • October 13, 2009

Donald Pease: Obama’s "Transnational" Presidency

Re-read Moby-Dick and be cured of these absurd Nobel blues. The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama underlines the world’s idea of our “transnational” President, our transnational country and our transnational moment. So does Moby-Dick, ...
Re-read Moby-Dick and be cured of these absurd Nobel blues.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama underlines the world’s idea of our “transnational” President, our transnational country and our transnational moment. So does Moby-Dick, the mother of all literary imaginings of America in crisis. My teacher in conversation here is the Dartmouth analyst of novels and dreams, Donald Pease. His teacher in turn is the Caribbean prophet of post-colonialism and Melville commentator, the late great C. L. R. James (1901 – 1989). Joseph O’Neill, the post-9/11 novelist of cricket-in-New-York, Netherland gets invoked for his confirmation that the deepest dreams of humanity play themselves out in games, too.

Herman Melville, C. L. R. James & Donald Pease: deep dreams of America as the utopian world-nation.

A modern key into Melville turns on seeing that the hero of his masterwork is not the narrator and only survivor Ishmael — that was “the Cold War reading.” Neither do the feckless New England mates Starbuck, Stubb and Flask come close to checking the mad totalitarian Ahab or saving the ship or the day. Rather it’s the motley, polyglot sailors and whale hunters, Melville’s “mariners, renegades and castaways,” who sense what’s going on and stand for an alternative. It’s the crew from every nation and corner of the world who are victims of the tale and the only heroes in it. They’re not just the most skillful seamen but “the most generous and magnificent human beings on board,” in C. L. R. James words. Above all it’s the South Sea pagan Queequeg who embodies the universal ideals of skill, brotherhood, courage, heart.

Melville drew on that first and deepest dream of America, as a global utopia of transnationals — America as a trans-nation before it was a nation. Kansan-Kenyan-Hawaiian Barack Obama mined the same dream as a candidate. I was struck in the moment by how boldly, beamingly he put forth the basic premise in his campaign digression to Berlin in July ’08, where a vast crowd cheered his self-introduction “as a citizen,” he said, “a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.” He was drawing on the dream of his father, whose father had been a cook and house servant to the British, until America “answered his prayer for a better life.” Obama was holding up a renewed dream of America not as world’s policeman, much less world ruler, but as the world’s story.

Obama’s opposition picks up on the transnational theme, too, and turns it upside down. The rabid right feeds fantasies that Obama wasn’t even born here, that he’s a closet Muslim, an immigrant without papers, and/or a “soft terrorist,” a European implant or maybe a space alien. But the taunts surely say less about Obama than about the failed, fear-stricken voices that are reduced to nutbag versions of nativism and neo-imperialism.

Donald Pease leads me to believe that’s what the Nobel Committee was saying, and celebrating from the world’s perspective: that America has found its voice of glory just in time to face the transnational catastrophes: war, hunger, environmental ruin.

DP: Barack Obama is a man of dreams, a figure who solicits fantasy work. He knows how transpose waking dream work into a recognizable representation of a goal. So when Obama took the deepest American dream: that everyone can achieve prosperity–and said that I embody that, and then linked it to the deferred dream–the raisin in the sun, and then associated that with one of the most memorable of Sam Cooke’s songs–an anthem from the sixties, “A Change is Gonna Come,” he condensed all of those dream objects into a persona whereby he did not have to do anything except address the audience as you. “You.” However you project me, I will be that projection, that fantasy projection, for you. When he had done that, he was not defeatable. The Republicans ran a very savvy campaign: McCain constructed himself as a P.O.W from Viet Nam. He tried to erase Abu Ghraib from the American public consciousness by saying that he was the figure they did it to… He was working at the level of the dream figure. When they chose Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin became the equivalent of the pioneer mother. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan regressed the nation to colonial settlers in relation to the Indians. Sarah Palin was the ur-colonial mother who said she would willingly sacrifice not only the son who was already fighting in Iraq; she would sacrifice any child she bore in the name of the security of the homeland…”

CL: Donald Pease, I thought you were a literary critic. It turns out you’re a psychoanalyst.

DP: Literary critics are bed partners of psychoanalysts. You can’t be a decent literary critic without believing in the psyche…

CL: You’re known as a champion of the “trend” in “American Studies” on campus toward the “transnational.”

DP: The transnational is a fact of life. The disappearance of the Cold War enabled everybody to see that America was the node in a network of transnational relays, of economic circulation across the planet. Transnational is not a trend; it is an accurate description of the way this planet is in 2009. Barack Obama needs a global event—that is, an event that solicits the interest of everyone who is, as he puts it, a citizen of this planet—in order to connect his person with his vision. The problem with what happened with the Olympics, the reason that event was taken as such a terrible loss, was that he was supposed to be the transnational leader who would immediately solicit everyone’s agreement for whatever he asked. But he knew, or he should have known, that there were places in the Americas that needed the Olympics, both culturally and socially, much more than Chicago. What he needs now is an event that requires Obama as the figure who can respond to it responsibly.

CL: Like what?

DP: Part of it is linked now to the so-called green revolution. If and when he goes to China you will see, or I hope we will see, an event, an encounter take place, that will spell out the significance of every country across this globe living for the sake of the green revolution. The Chinese are right now embracing this as primarily a commercial venture but they are also embracing it as a planetary ideal. Obama shares that ideal, not just with the Chinese, but with everyone. That, I believe, can become the other face, the locus, of Obama.

December 5, 2006

Moby-Dick, Cheney, et al.

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 ...

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, Salon.com

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).