YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 30, 2013

Railroading Captain Ahab

Everett Henry's Map of the Pequod's Voyage

Everett Henry’s Map of the Pequod’s Voyage

[What follows is an excerpt from my book Hunting Captain Ahab; it sums up my argument that progressives are incapable of describing this “great book” with accuracy, for they would have to admit their overweening statism as embodied in the White Whale (Leviathan).

Rockwell Kent's Starbuck shielding his eyes

Rockwell Kent’s Starbuck shielding his eyes

[Clare:] One feature of the (reinstated) organic society favored by many progressives is central to the Melville problem. Before the age of science, discovery, and increasing lower-class demands for a fully-realized popular sovereignty, Church and State conducted their affairs in secrecy. Their subordinates, ordinary people, were free to confess their sins to their betters, but without reciprocity; when Ahab fleeced double-talking “liberals,” from one point of view the gesture was tantamount to deicide and fratricide. For many of the corporatist thinkers who shaped the Melville Revival, Captain Ahab was the classic American type: a frontiersman, a “nosey Hebrew” (as D.H. Lawrence would say) whose curiosity must be moderated; similarly Melville’s dubious “character” as husband and father would preoccupy numerous Melville critics in the twentieth century. Much of the history I shall present is derived from published or archival materials long available but hitherto undescribed to students of American literature; literary scholars and curators have examined the astonishing archives of Henry A. Murray, Charles Olson, and Jay Leyda and biographies of Murray and Olson have been published by the most reputable presses. Many questions still remain tantalizingly unanswered and invite further research, but it is clear to me, if not to previous investigators, that in the unmonitored autodidact Herman Melville, Murray, Olson, and Leyda had an able instructor, a mirror, and an irresistible adversary who, insofar as he was Captain Ahab, must have been nervously deranged, twisted by hate. The isolato Ahab was the paradigm of social irresponsibility and his own worst enemy, while sociable Ishmael was the scholars’ antecedent doctor to society. Here is Ishmael’s ominous blood and soil account of Ahab’s origins in his native habitat: Nantucket was originally settled by peaceful Quakers, but they have been invaded by outside influences, they were “variously and anomalously modified by things altogether alien and heterogeneous.” (As Melville’s antebellum readers would have known, “…Nantucket Quakers [were] members of a sect notorious for its literally visionary beginnings and its subsequent antislavery zeal.” [i])

[Ishmael as narrator:]”…For some of these Quakers are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance.

” So there are instances among them Nantucket Quakers of men, who, named with Scriptural names—a singularly common fashion on the island—and in childhood naturally imbibing the stately thee and thou of the Quaker idiom; still, from the audacious, daring, and boundless adventure of their subsequent lives, strangely blend with their unoutworn peculiarities, a thousand bold dashes of character, not unworthy a Scandinavian sea-king or a poetical Pagan Roman. And when these things unite in a man of greatly superior natural force, with a globular brain and a ponderous heart; who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters and beneath constellations never seen here in the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently; receiving all nature’s sweet or savage impressions fresh from her own virgin voluntary and confiding breast, and thereby chiefly, but with some help from accidental advantages, to learn a bold and nervous lofty language—that man makes one in a whole nation’s census—a mighty pageant creature, formed for noble tragedies. Nor will it at all detract from him, dramatically regarded, if either by birth or other circumstances, he have what seems a half wilful overruling morbidness at the bottom of his nature. For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” (73-74).

[Clare:] In Moby-Dick’s pivotal chapter “The Quarter-Deck,” Starbuck, echoing Ishmael’s earlier diagnosis, reproaches Captain Ahab for abandoning his proper search for profits; the quest for vengeance against a “dumb brute” is blasphemous and mad. Ahab reproaches the imperceptive first mate, suggesting twice that he adopt the ways of geology and dig: “Hark ye…the little lower layer.” Then, lest Starbuck or other dense readers remain in the dark, Melville spills it: “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”[ii] Starbuck is briefly won over, but protests in a chapter that directly follows Ahab’s railroading speech:

[Chapter 37, “Sunset,” Ahab:] “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

[Chapter 38, “Dusk,” Starbuck:] “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! …he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me. I think I see his impious end; but feel I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut. Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries;-aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below!…Oh, life! ‘tis in an hour like this, with soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed–Oh, life! ‘tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee! but ‘tis not me! that horror’s out of me! and with the soft feeling of the human in me, yet will I try to fight ye, ye grim phantom futures! Stand by me, hold me, bind me, O ye blessed influences!”

[Clare:] Standing by Starbuck, one Melville scholar has construed these pages as evidence of Ahab’s protofascism:

[Christopher Durer:] “Like Adolph Hitler, Captain Ahab reaches for the “folksoul” of the crew, and manipulates their minds with the sinister skill of Joseph Goebbels. As in Nazi Germany, so on board the Pequod, the excesses of the will play a major role, as is illustrated in the various speeches of Ahab, and her fated course is, in effect, another triumph of the will. Again, paralleling the transformation of the German nation under the Nazis, the crew of the Pequod becomes “a folk organism and not an economic organization,” since Ahab deliberately rejects the commercial advantages of whaling for a collective psychological fulfillment, resulting from the revengeful pursuit of one whale, seen as the enemy of the state…Ahab is in reality a prototype of a twentieth-century fascist dictator.”[iii]

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

Ahab and Starbuck as imagined by John Huston and Ray Bradbury

[Clare:]For many Melvilleans, ineffably tied to their tormentor, the most unassimilable element of Melville’s psyche has been Ahab’s materialism yoked to universal standards of ethical conduct. To the extent that Melville is Ahab, he is mad, self- and socially destructive, tyrannical, and an arch-villain. Such views conform to the terror-gothic scenario, amplified by conservatives since the Radical Reformation, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the American and French Revolutions, then the intertwined reform movements of the 1830s-1850s, especially abolitionism. In the “tale of terror” brains and mobs are indissolubly merged; the pregnant bourgeoisie, swollen with a new class and its chimerical socialist utopias, has delivered catastrophes from the French Revolution to Bolshevism and Nazism. In two-dimensional artworks, this aristocratic narrative of the drowning Narcissus/crashing Icarus is frozen as the apocalyptic sublime, the style attributed to mass politics and America. Harold Lasswell, political science consultant to the influential postwar Committee For Economic Development, transmitted such neo-classical diagnoses of “romantic Fascism” and urged the adoption of Murray’s projective testing to implement a program of personnel screening and preventive politics, sighting latent radicalism in prospective leaders in government, industry, labor, and education before they succumbed to the blandishments of Ahab, thereby obviating sleazy witch hunts. Threatened or dispossessed elites continue to flood popular culture with identical antidemocratic propaganda, shaping academic disciplines and mental health treatments to blunt the tools of fiery artisans and their radical descendants.

Defining Melville’s mental states, then, was not simply grist for variously voyeuristic or discreet literary historians, but part of ongoing “Cold Wars” to diagnose and delimit normality and deviance. For some Melvilleans, the divisive apostate Melville, like his characters Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, the “Hegelised” German-Jewish geologist Margoth, and other Bad Jews, has been cast out; ‘Melville’ and other Good Jews have been taken in and ‘tolerated’ by ‘the nation.’[iv] The national bedrock is the sanctity of (upper-class) property (i.e., overweening state power: Leviathan), not the republican principle of equality before the law. Melville has been selectively embraced by a reconstructed lovely family–an erasure of conflict evident in the letters of Melville’s mother and wife. In my study of the Melville Revival, I challenge Starbuck’s view of Ahab as totalitarian dictator along with the concomitant argument followed by some Old and New Leftists that the voyage of the Pequod is an unambiguous allegory of capitalist technology and exploitation, Manifest Destiny, and mind-management in its harshest aspects.[v]

Labor Vincit Omnia


[i] 22. Carolyn Karcher, Shadow Over The Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), 172.

[ii] 23. Neither statement was included in the dialogue of the movie Moby-Dick (1956); thus there is no way to link Ahab’s quest to Mapple’s Sermon (which in the film does include the imperative to seek and preach the truth in the face of worldly opposition); moreover the interchange takes place in Ahab’s cabin and Starbuck challenges his authority immediately. The director was John Huston; the script writer Ray Bradbury.

[iii] 24. Christopher S. Durer, “Moby-Dick and Nazi Germany,”Melville Society Extracts 66 (May 1986): 8. Constructions of Ahab as Hitler invariably depend upon irrationalist explanations for the appeal of fascism and Nazism; rational political and economic interests have been erased.

[iv] 25. See William Braswell, Melville’s Religious Thought: An Essay in Interpretation (Durham, North Carolina: Duke Univ. Press, 1943). “Melville was aware of the deification of science in some quarters. Henry Kalloch Rowe, in his History of Religion in the United States, writes: ‘Many scientists were so enamored of their facts and hypotheses that they claimed too much. They seemed to take pleasure in the destruction of that which was old. They inclined toward a materialistic explanation of all phenomena to the exclusion of spiritual reality altogether.’ It is scientists of this type that Melville derides in Clarel in the character of Margoth, a Jewish geologist who says that ‘all’s geology,’ and who would do away with the ‘old theologic myth.’ Because of Margoth’s insensibility to spiritual things, the pilgrims condemn him severely, and Melville adds an extra touch by causing an ass to bray after certain of Margoth’s speeches” (111, my emph.). Even more crudely put, see Vincent Kenny on Margoth: “…a geologist, a ‘Hegelised–/Convert to science.’ He calls the Bible a tissue of lies and insists that the so-called Holy Land must be made over in the name of progress. Unlike the Syrian monk with his gentle appeal, Margoth repels everyone within sound of his loud voice.” In Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 382-383. Insofar as Melville is seen to espouse these classically Christian antisemitic views, he would be a positive figure to organic conservatives discussed in this book.

[v] 26. D. H. Lawrence (1923) is cited by Ronald Mason, The Spirit Above The Dust (London: John Lehmann, 1951), as characterizing the Pequod as a sign for American industry. (Indeed,  Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature demonized America as a mongrel country that would, aided by the machine, destroy Europe and the white psyche. Ahab was destroying phallic power as epitomized in the White Whale, hence for Lawrence, Moby-Dick was a warning to true aristocrats.) With the exception of the try-pot, however, the technology of whaling ships had not changed for three hundred years when Melville wrote Moby-Dick. The mechanics of whaling partook of craft in hunter-gatherer societies, not the increasingly divided labor and mastery of nature characteristic of industrial processes. The few exceptions to the bad Ahab reading include Raymond M. Weaver, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic (New York: Doran, 1921); Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 7; Henry Alonzo Myers, Are Men Equal? An Inquiry into the Meaning of American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell Univ.Press, 1955, c.1945), 51-55; Cecil M. Brown, “Through a Looking Glass: The White Whale,”Partisan Review (1969): 453-459; and Toni Morrison,“Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,”Michigan Quarterly (Winter 1989): 16-17. Hicks and Myers see Ahab as reformer; Myers, a pluralist, recognizes Ahab’s driving (but misplaced) intensity; he is the romantic “earnest reformer” (like those 19th C. crusaders assaulting “ignorance, clericalism, slavery, alcohol, capitalism, war”); whereas Cecil Brown sees a heroic revolutionary (contrasted with the “jew-bastard” surviving liberal, Ishmael); for Toni Morrison (a cultural nationalist), Ahab is a great foe to racism: “the only white male American heroic enough to try to slay the monster that was devouring the world as he knew it.” Most recently, Richard C. Doenges presented a paper “Ahab Redux: or Playing the Devil’s Advocate,”at the “Melville and the Sea” Conference, June 19, 1999, Mystic Connecticut. Doenges sees Ahab as both mad and a tragic hero with the whale a representation of Nature in its hostile mode; I view this as a moderated reading, not one entirely favorable to Ahab, who, unlike Ishmael, as the author argues, was blinded by the fire.

Readings by liberals and leftists hostile to Ahab include Charles H. Foster, “Something in Emblems: A Reinterpretation of Moby-Dick,” New England Quarterly (Mar. 1961): 3-35, who views Father Mapple as an ultra-abolitionist the likes of Garrison, Richard Hildreth, and Gilbert Haven, but Ahab as Daniel Webster, an apologist for slavery and a demagogue. Some see Melville, or Ahab (or both) as ineffectual bohemian, consummate narcissist or world-destroying arch-capitalist; or anticipator of Hitler and Stalin: see V.F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature (New York: Scribner’s, 1932), 272-273; Henry Bamford Parkes, “Poe, Hawthorne, Melville: An Essay in Sociological Criticism,” Partisan Review 16 (Feb.1949): 157-166; Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study (N.Y., Macmillan, 1949), 101; John Howard Lawson, The Hidden Heritage (New York: Citadel Press, 1950): 428; James B. Hall, “Moby Dick: Parable of a Dying System,” Western Review (Spring 1950): 223-226; C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (self-publ.1953), its last chapter (suppressed in a later edition) linked Ahab to a duplicitous Jewish communist named “M.” See also Leo Marx,”The Machine in the Garden,” New England Quarterly 29 (Mar. 1956): 27-42; and H. Bruce Franklin, The Victim As Criminal And Artist: Literature from the prison (New York:  Oxford Univ. Press, 1978): Chapter Two.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] For Sumner’s view of railroads as modern improvements see https://clarespark.com/2013/11/30/railroading-captain-ahab/, and https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.  I see Sumner as a proponent of […]

    Pingback by “Race relations” as managed by the Left | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 4, 2014 @ 8:56 pm | Reply

  2. […] Railroading Captain Ahab […]

    Pingback by SOCIALISM, NOT ACCESS TO CARE, IS OBAMA’S PRIZE | Home Grown News Media — February 13, 2014 @ 5:41 pm | Reply

  3. […] Why is this relevant today? The Leninist Left and the Social Democratic Left seem to have merged sometime after the 1960s upheavals, but they drew upon longstanding efforts by “progressives” to fend off the red specter, with the Left upholding Popular Front antifascist politics. Today, white males are seen as the enemy by the reigning academics in the humanities: like Ahlstrom’s frontiersmen they are individualistic, self-reliant, overly emotional, antinomian, ecocidal, racists, sadistic killers (Cormac McCarthy’s targets in Blood Meridian? or see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_of_the_Hunter_(film)), and probably given to (communitarian) country music, even some rock and roll. And white males (especially those in the wild South and West) are the chief villains of US history, and of course comprise the unregenerate population of the Republican Party and the even more unspeakably “anti-Christian” conservative movement. For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2013/11/30/railroading-captain-ahab/. […]

    Pingback by The Frontiersman/Settler as all-purpose scapegoat | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 25, 2014 @ 4:45 pm | Reply


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