SPOILER ALERT. The popular CBS show The Mentalist had a razzle-dazzle finale ending its third season. Not only was Captain Ahab mentioned, and the Blake poem that had ended the second season reiterated, but Patrick Jane confronted his White Whale, Red John, and shot him point blank in a shopping mall. (It turned out to be a bad man, but not Red John.)
Melville’s Moby-Dick has come up several times in this series, as has the problem of vengeance, and it is the question of “vengeance” and the problem of evil (the dark side of humanity) that is being talked about today on the internet. As I wrote in my prior blog on The Mentalist, the Blake poem, The Tyger* was written in 1794, and whatever religious resonances it contained, it also clearly referred to the Reign of Terror as perpetrated by the Jacobins. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/05/20/criminal-minds-and-the-pathology-of-rural-america/.) Today’s undereducated television audience is probably more attuned to the Devil or fallen flesh (our purported dark interior) than it is to specific historical provocations that stir a poet, so today’s blog will try to pull together some themes that question the morality of “vengeance.”**
If there is an archetype for humanity seeking to stamp out evil, it is the Promethean Captain Ahab, his leg torn away by “Moby Dick.” His detractors (Ishmael, Starbuck, and the majority of Melville scholars, including those on the Left) have seen him engaged on a vindictive, futile, hubristic, and suicidal quest to abolish evil. If one understands that Melville wrote his masterpiece after decades of antislavery agitation that threatened to sunder the Union, one must concede that Melville had a very specific evil in mind, and that was the Slavocracy, as Charles Sumner and other antislavery men termed the national government as controlled by Southern slaveholders.
It is not irrelevant that Melville was sometimes read as “Jew” or “Hebraic” and identified with Ahab, or that David Herbert Donald, Sumner’s biographer, hinted that he was driven by Jewish blood through his mother (See Vol.1 of Donald’s biography, published 1960; the tone abruptly changed in Vol.2, published 1970, possibly because of the civil rights movement.)
The Mentalist is no New Age mystic, indeed is not a psychic as some viewers would like to think. He is rather something very like Captain Ahab: a “fighting Quaker,” a materialist, a loner, and a shrewd mapper of his environment and the correlation of forces arrayed against his individuality. He sees corruption in high places, and cannot count on the legal system to catch the serial killer who murdered his wife and child; indeed, the legal system is hand-in-glove, he thinks, with evildoers, and is compromised by procedures at best. Thus the analogy I am making here with Melville as moralist, horrified by the institution of slavery, but also constrained by his family’s connections to take a public stand against it, except through indirection in his novels.
Consider now the hatred directed against the Jews of Western Europe after their emancipation in the 19th century. The polarizing Dreyfus case was only one example of the failure of a civilized government to enact justice. It was from this crucible that the journalist and playwright Theodore Herzl conceived the daring mission to create a Jewish state. What role did the civilized nations play in the accelerating events that led to the horrors of the 20th century, and that threaten the Jewish state as I write this? The “Christianized” West was either complicit or indifferent to the murder of the Jews, and continued their indifference when the war was concluded, notwithstanding the supposed U.S. or U.N. support for the Jewish state. It was the willingness of Jews to take casualties in 1948 (plus arms supplied by a briefly friendly Soviet Union with its own agenda) that made the State of Israel possible, not helpful Western intervention. Writing in the early 1940s, Harvard’s star sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose “structural functionalism” still rules in academe, and who was cited favorably by David H. Donald, in Sumner Vol.2, described the Jewish national character as reflective of a vindictive, savage God. One wonders how many liberal Jews today are fleeing from that archetype, joining in the anti-Ahab chorus as they imagine themselves to be assimilating and therefore acceptable to the American ruling class, those “moderate men” who hold to “virtuous expediency” (as Melville would have derisively put it).
Which brings me back to the higher law. John Locke wrote of the right to resist authority when the constituted government breaks its contract with the people. What makes Patrick Jane such an interesting character to me, is his uniqueness in popular television crime shows (with the possible exception of Bobbie Goren). You don’t see many apparent atheists depicted as the hero of a series, by necessity taking the law into his own hands, appealing to rough justice, or perhaps the higher law of Truth and Justice, as Sumner would have seen it. (Compare this series with Blue Bloods, frankly Irish Catholic in its sympathies, and where everything is done “by the book.”)
What do we mean, then, by “vengeance,” and who defines its legality? And is the unforgiving Bruno Heller/Patrick Jane a writer who is running ahead of public opinion, indeed running ahead of his own authorial instincts? Melville, insofar as he identified with his mad Captain Ahab, surely was.
*Tyger Tyger. burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye.
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat.
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright.
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye.
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
** On 6-2-11, CBS replayed the episode “Red Moon” that ended with a serial killer, set on fire by a guard, reciting some lines from “The Tyger” as he is dying. This episode was written by Bruno Heller and directed by Simon Baker. After the poem is heard, “Patrick Jane” looks extremely disturbed. I suspect that both actor and author are more interested in “the dark [Satanic/vengeful] side” of our species than in exploring the moral dilemma of a man seeking justice in a society where the law is unevenly applied. See recap here: http://www.cbs.com/primetime/the_mentalist/recaps/310/recaps.php?season=3. To sum it up: without religion, the hounds of hell are released. “The mentalist” is an anti-hero, not meant to be an exemplar, and he is often read that way by viewers, as Red John himself. But as a regular viewer of the show, I prefer to think that both Heller and Baker know what they are doing, and that their view of [Ahab] coincides with mine.