Posts Tagged ‘Moby Dick’

President Ahab

July 10, 2020

I haven’t learned to make bagels or organized my 10,000 digital photos as a Covid quarantine project, but I did just re-read Moby Dick for the first time since college.

I didn’t go into it looking for this—politics was the last thing on my mind— but I couldn’t help reading it through the lens of Our Current Terrible Situation.

Trump is Ahab, the monomaniacal ship captain who is willing to destroy everything for a personal obsession. In Ahab’s case, that obsession is vengeance against the white whale that took his leg; in Trump’s case it is self-aggrandizement. 

Ahab rejects all warnings of disaster—from a passing whaling ship whose captain has lost an arm to the whale, then from another ship whose captain has lost his own son to the whale. 

He casts aside science, destroying the ship’s quadrant when it doesn’t give him the navigational information he wants to hear. “Curse thee, thou quadrant,” he calls as he smashes it on the deck. “No longer will I guide my earthly ways by thee…. I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee!”

He spurns human relationships and love, bluntly refusing to help that other bereft captain search the waters for his shipwrecked son. He rejects pleas by Starbuck, the first mate, to give up his obsessive quest and return home to his young wife and child. 

Of course his drive ends in utter disaster, with the ship destroyed and all 30 crewmembers drowned except for the narrator, Ishmael. 

Trump, Trump, Trump… both pre-Covid and even more so now during Covid.

Ahab: “All my means are sane; my motive and my object mad.”

But I was also struck by the parallels between the people enabling Ahab and the people enabling Trump.

There are the owners of the whaling ship—profit-minded businessmen who turn a blind eye to Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick and choose to believe they’re sending the Pequod off on a normal whaling voyage. (Republican Establishment figures and corporate funders who have gone along with his nomination and presidency.)

Starbuck, the moral and cautious first mate, who tries to persuade Ahab to turn back and even considers assassinating him but in the end doesn’t have the will to oppose him. (All the generals and politicians who joined the Trump Administration thinking, “I can stave off the worst excesses.”)

Stubb, the reckless and jolly second mate, who’ll go along with anything for excitement. (People who wanted to “shake up Washington” with a reality show star.)

And the crew. 

That comparison was the most unsettling. Why, indeed, did the 30 experienced whaling men of the Pequod accede to Ahab’s madness? They learned about Ahab’s obsession early in the voyage; they saw one dark omen after another; why didn’t they mutiny?

“ ‘This is what ye have shipped for, men!’ ” Ahab reveals to them. “ ‘To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.’”

“ ‘Aye, aye!’ shouted the harpooners and seamen, running closer to the excited old man. ‘A sharp eye for the White Whale, a sharp lance for Moby Dick!’ ”

I remain perplexed by the dynamic within the crew. None of them were set to benefit by chasing Moby Dick around the world; they’d have done better to stick to the lucrative business of killing whales for oil. Some were apparently intimidated by Ahab. Others coveted the gold doubloon he offered as a prize for the first man to spot the whale. But mostly they seemed caught up in the power of Ahab’s obsession.

“Whatever pale fears and forebodings some of them might have felt before,” says the narrator Ishmael, “these were not only now kept out of sight through the growing awe of Ahab, but they were broken up, and on all sides routed, as timid prairie hares that scatter before the bounding bison.”

Elsewhere Ishmael admits that he too is perplexed—not just by his crewmates’ endorsement of Ahab’s mission but by his own.

“How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man’s ire—by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at time his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be—what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he night have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go…. 

“For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill.”

Trump’s racism, bullying, and scapegoating—his verbal bonfires consuming immigrants, Muslims, the disabled, anyone concerned with their health during this epidemic—the barely-cloaked exhortations to vigilante violence….

Like the crew of the Pequod responding to Ahab’s vengeance, millions of Americans have found Trump’s darkness magnetic and exhilarating. 

And now with 3.1 million infected and over 133,000 dead, we are facing our own shipwreck. 

But the parallels between the Trump era and Moby Dick aren’t perfect. 

For one thing, Melville ascribes a grimly heroic core to Ahab—someone willing to sacrifice his own life for his mania, someone who challenges God’s justice—and there is nothing remotely heroic in draft-dodger, golf-playing Trump. 

For another, we are not 30 sailors on a lone ship in the boundless South Pacific. 

We’re a nation of more than 320 million. Some 66 million of us chose Clinton in 2016—3 million more than chose Trump. An estimated 15 to 26 million of us turned out over the past month for anti-racism protests, which have been called the biggest protest movement in American history.  It’s as if the Pequod had a second, larger crew who were ready to depose Ahab.

And—most important—we have another election coming up this November.

Get involved. Register to vote, by absentee ballot if it’s available in your state. Fight voter suppression. Connect with an organization like Flip the West, Swing Left, or Indivisible to mobilize voters in swing states: You can make phone calls, send text messages, write postcards, or donate from the Covid-safety of your own home. 

It’s time to change captains and get rid of President Ahab, before he takes even more of us down on his doomed ship.

Photo by Olga Shpak, Marine Mammal Council