Saturday, January 14, 2006

The great white whale metaphor: Moby Dick

Sigmund, Carl, & Alfred recently put Gerard Van der Leun on the couch. As could have been predicted, the results are well worth reading.

Following the rule of threes, the three analysts (SC&A, speaking with one voice, as "they" always do) asked Van der Leun which three books are a must-read for Americans. His answer:

Well, that would be tough, but just off the top of my head I'd say: The King James Bible (Whether or not you believe.) The Works of William Shakespeare (Otherwise you know nothing of reading and writing.) Moby Dick (The great American novel has been written and this is it. Prophetic vision of America that proves more true with every passing year.)

Can't argue with those choices; not at all.

Ah, Moby Dick (hyphenated or un)! I first encountered him in an abridged version in junior high, followed by the real (looooong) thing in high school, where I clearly remember struggling rather unsuccessfully with the obligatory essay question, "Discuss the symbolism of the white whale." That protean metaphor for just about everything stumped me then, and I only started thinking hard about it many years later when I re-read old Moby as an adult.

I'm sure Gerard Van der Leun would have no trouble whatsoever tossing off a few thousand or so fascinating words on the subject of that "prophetic vision of America that proves more true with every passing year." I, for one, would love to read such an essay, if he ever cares to write it.

But till then, I've got a few things to say about Moby Dick myself.

I've thought about it quite a bit over time, since it's one of my favorite books (hated that 50s movie, though--what a lot of bloody water, and Gregory Peck was just way too Mr. Nice Guy to ever be Ahab).

So, what does the whale symbolize, anyway? I've called it a "protean" symbol, meaning "readily taking on various shapes, forms, or meanings." So one thing we can agree on is that the text offers a lot of room for us to see any number of things in it. Evil, for starters. Or unbridled nature, with Ahab representing the hubris of fighting the way the world is set up, thinking he can subdue the chaos.

Or, well--I'm planning to discuss my own take in another essay, some time soon.

But right now my point will be brief (hey, it's already not been brief, you say? Ah, well).

Whatever your preferred Moby Dick metaphor, it can be extended to some present day situations. Here are my current offerings:

(1) To Hitler, the Jews were Moby Dick.

(2) To the Arab world, the Israelis are Moby Dick.

(3) To quite a few Europe on the left, "Zionists" (read: "Jews") are still Moby Dick.

(4) To those suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome, Bush is Moby Dick.

(5) To many who detest Bush, Iraq is Bush's Moby Dick.

17 Comments:

At 4:06 PM, January 14, 2006, Blogger Dymphna said...

My "Moby Dick", taking into account the full phallic allusion of his name is usually referred to as a woman, though she is mostly run by men:

The Grey Lady, also known as The Old Whore, The Doxy, The NY Times...long may her stock price continue its decline...

BTW, this is a good subject for me, since on Saturdays my subject at Neighborhood of God is "Ain't It Awful." In this one, I address Judge Cashman's 60 day sentence for the child molester....I can give you some good references on clinical studies if you address this area of the sequelae of childhood abuse...let me know and I'll pass them on.

~!D

 
At 4:40 PM, January 14, 2006, Blogger Motor 1560 said...

For me, the hunt by Ahab for the white whale represented mans struggle to subdue the wild, the force of nature both in nature and in himself. So, put me in the unbridled nature category.

I think the original meaning of the term bête noir, "black beast"; the thing of hatred, aversion and fear; is best used where both anti-semitism and BDS are concerned.

I have, frankly, never "understood" anti-semitism; which could have something to do with being raised in its complete absence. And, I am repulsed by the vile specter of its reemergence.

It reminds me of the initiation rites of some very ugly movements in which ingrained cultural taboos have to be broken for an individuals full acceptance into the society of the dammed.

 
At 4:53 PM, January 14, 2006, Blogger Ron said...

Life itself is Moby Dick, and I'm a crazed, ranting, peg leg fool chasing after it!

 
At 7:17 PM, January 14, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I was a theater major in college, with a minor in Medieval English literature. I am an evangelical Christian. You would think that I would have automatic endorsement for Shakespeare and the KJV. I wouldn't put them on my list of essentials anymore. The language of both (Early Modern English) is no longer clearly understood; not just by the great unwashed, but by most educated people. It is not merely that some words are unfamiliar, such as "clep'd," but that the words we think we know we get wrong. Words that we easily recognise, such as "silly," have meanings in Shakespeare that have morphed or fallen out of use. You have to study these works, under the tutelage of some one or some reference explaining what is being said and what is being referenced. Literature that can no longer be picked up and read, but can only be accessed with assistance, is an entirely different experience.

It can be a very pleasurable experience, but it is not the same as reading literature. Was the writing great? Absolutely. Shakespeare remains the finest writer in English, and the KJV remains the standard for strength of phrasing, for power of expression. But assigning them now destroys the interest in literature rather than heightening it. A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, I might have kept them on my list. No, not even at fifty.

Moby Dick, now, is still quite accessible. Notes and tutelage augment the understanding, but the work itself can still be read in great gulps.

I don't know what my three choices would be.

 
At 7:43 PM, January 14, 2006, Blogger Sigmund, Carl and Alfred said...

If the question were rewritten, I'd add Mark Twain to list of must read authors.

He was the American that best bridged writer with storyteller- and we are all better for it.

 
At 9:23 PM, January 14, 2006, Blogger camojack said...

I'm a (mostly; ¼ Cherokee) white male...my relative greatness will have to be decided upon by others.
(Although humility ain't my strong suit)

But white males seem to be one of the few socially acceptable butts of humor these days. Us, and blondes...

 
At 12:08 AM, January 15, 2006, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

Moby Dick? It's fine and all; but it's just an interesting allegory. Among the cranky intellectuals, I imagine any Conrad would be preferred over Moby Dick.

Me, I'm insane for Twain. Other than Shakespeare, no writer in English comes near him. And it's squirrely to count The Bible and all of Shakespeare as a single tome each to answer the question, so I'll have to make a case for the twenty pounds of Twain I reread constantly.

You don't read Twain, Shakespeare, and the Bible, at least not after first blush. You mine them, you plant them in your mind and cultivate them, you dissect them, you test your mettle against them, you seek comfort and solace in them. They are a lens, a microscope, and a telescope all at the same time.

Saying you "read" them is like saying you're "fond" of your children.

The knowledge of god is the bread of angels. Twain is the baguette of sippican, I'm tellin' you.

 
At 7:04 AM, January 15, 2006, Blogger benning said...

AVI: Why not the New King James? Far more readable, but retains the poetic beauty.

camo: So what about us White Males who happen to be blonde?

Nice post, neo. Can't wait for your longer essay on Moby Dick.

 
At 12:56 PM, January 15, 2006, Blogger aqualung said...

Bush Derangement Syndrome? Is that what afflicts those who are deranged as Bush? Must be. As for the rest of us, we think Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist may be Bush's Moby Dick(s)...

 
At 2:13 PM, January 15, 2006, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

Moby DIck as "unbridled nature, with Ahab representing the hubris of fighting the way the world is set up, thinking he can subdue the chaos" fascinates me. You DO have a way with words.

Rousseau's "noble savage" and all its bloody spawn -- the 20th-century isms that would deny human nature and impose utopian collectivist dreams on the huddled masses yearning to breathe free -- comes to mind.

 
At 2:49 PM, January 15, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Ah Sissy--you may have finessed my next essay on the subject!

 
At 3:55 AM, January 16, 2006, Blogger camojack said...

At 7:04 AM, January 15, 2006, benning76 said...
camo: So what about us White Males who happen to be blonde?


Man, you're done for...

 
At 9:26 PM, July 27, 2006, Blogger enemywithout said...

Didn't anyone read "Hero with a thousand faces"? The whale is a symbol of rebirth.

 
At 9:25 AM, March 13, 2008, Blogger liorabs said...

To Greenpeace and lovers and preservers of Gaia and ecology Ahab would be the hateful hitler and the demographically exploding countries with a poligamistic culture would be the virus that is eating up Gaia while Moby Dick, the white whale, an unfortunate covetable desireable creature standing by itself is a symbol of nature and earth, pure being, victims of man, who will take man down with them.
i.e. as times change the entire symbol changes meaning (yes, as you said, protean).

 
At 9:26 AM, March 13, 2008, Blogger liorabs said...

To Greenpeace and lovers and preservers of Gaia and ecology Ahab would be the hateful hitler and the demographically exploding countries with a poligamistic culture would be the virus that is eating up Gaia while Moby Dick, the white whale, an unfortunate covetable desireable creature standing by itself is a symbol of nature and earth, pure being, victims of man, who will take man down with them.
i.e. as times change the entire symbol changes meaning (yes, as you said, protean).

 
At 9:26 AM, March 13, 2008, Blogger liorabs said...

To Greenpeace and lovers and preservers of Gaia and ecology Ahab would be the hateful hitler and the demographically exploding countries with a poligamistic culture would be the virus that is eating up Gaia while Moby Dick, the white whale, an unfortunate covetable desireable creature standing by itself is a symbol of nature and earth, pure being, victims of man, who will take man down with them.
i.e. as times change the entire symbol changes meaning (yes, as you said, protean).

 
At 9:27 AM, March 13, 2008, Blogger liorabs said...

To Greenpeace and lovers and preservers of Gaia and ecology Ahab would be the hateful hitler and the demographically exploding countries with a poligamistic culture would be the virus that is eating up Gaia while Moby Dick, the white whale, an unfortunate covetable desireable creature standing by itself is a symbol of nature and earth, pure being, victims of man, who will take man down with them.
i.e. as times change the entire symbol changes meaning (yes, as you said, protean).

 

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