Monday, January 16, 2006

Chasing Moby Dick: eliminating the evil inclination?

As promised, I've got more to say about Moby Dick. Just think of it as that essay I struggled with in high school, redux (and, by the way, I'm still struggling).

I prefer to state the question about the symbolism of the white whale differently, as in: what's up with Ahab? What is he trying to do, and why? (In the allegorical sense, that is--because without the allegory, Ahab is just a more somber Captain Hook, pursuing the alligator that ran off with his hand.)

In trying to answer the question, this is one of the times I'm with those folks who believe in relative truth: there certainly is no one answer to this question. But the following is an answer--and my answer, at least for now:

Ahab is an absolutist. He sees the whale as the embodiment of whatever is evil and untamable in the universe, and therefore it's worthy of his monomaniacal quest. Strangely enough, that vision puts him in the company of some other uncompromising (although very different) figures of fiction--Don Quixote, starry-eyed idealist, comes to mind.

The Don is a sort of flip side to Ahab--his pursuit is of the good. But he goes after it with an absolutist vision that's very out of touch with reality, as does Ahab in his very different pursuit.

Here's Melville on the subject of Ahab's attitude towards the whale:

All that most maddens and torments, all that stirs up the lees of things, all truth with malice in it...were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hum the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar (like a cannon thing), he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

Talk about extremism and fanaticism, talk about scapegoating! Realists try to jolt people such as Don Q and Ahab out of their narrow and uncompromising visions: the Don has his Sancho Panza as foil; Ahab, his Starbuck. I wish both Sancho and Starbuck luck. The task they've chosen is difficult--in fact, well-nigh impossible.

One of Ahab's biggest troubles is his idea that there is one single thing that embodies all that's wrong with the world. It's what gives his quest its intensity and accounts for its gleam of insanity. It's a simplistic vision of evil, and Ahab's hubris lies in thinking he can eliminate that evil.

Should we then give up the task of opposing evil, of fighting against it? Absolutely not. I am not suggesting a fatalistic, "que sera, sera" attitude towards the world. Evil must be fought against on many fronts and with many weapons: persuasion, isolation, and force. But there is no one thing that embodies evil, and no way to eliminate it from the world.

To give an example close to home: as a neocon, I oppose tyrannical and cruel regimes that trample on people's civil liberties, and I applaud the spread of democracy. But I am not so naive--at least, I try not to be--as to think that the process is either easy or perfect. Nor do I think it will eliminate human folly or evil. Not by a longshot.

It seems to me that Ahab not only believes the white whale to be the embodiment of all that's evil and that he can vanquish it, but he actually thinks that eliminating evil--if it could in fact be done--would be an unequivocally good thing. In this, also, he is an absolutist.

And in this he would seem to be correct, at least at first glance. Eliminating evil--who wouldn't want that to happen?

But would the elimination of evil--if possible--be unequivocally good? That's not a trick question, either. I'm not an expert on comparative religion, but you may be surprised to find (as I was) that Judaism answers that question: "no." In this it has a great deal in common, I believe, with Buddhism.

Here's a discussion of the subject I came upon a while back. It offers a parable:

The Jewish definition of “Evil” is a matter much more involved than the definition of “Good.” Here’s my best try: The force within each of us that causes us to act in an aggressive or an acquisitive manner -- that is a reflection of the Evil Inclination. Unchecked aggression or acquisitiveness lead to terrible evil. Violence, theft, slander and betrayal are all products of these forces left unrestrained.

That’s the basic equation. It sounds simple. Beware of spiritual ideas that sound simple. They rarely ever are.

Jewish lore tells a tale of a time when Evil was actually captured (B. Tal. Yoma 69b). Now, one might think that if Evil could really be physically contained, the most sensible thing to do with it would be to destroy it right away. So much for sensibility. It turns out that Evil’s captors paused before they acted on their first instincts.

Evil was held captive for three days, during which time its fate was debated. The Talmud does not record many details from that debate. I suppose they decided to leave that part up to our imaginations.

Well, three days passed... And then, someone made a startling realization. During the time of Evil’s imprisonment, all chickens in the land stopped laying eggs. It was as if they had gone on strike.

Had folks looked further, they would have realized that other strange things had been occurring – or more precisely, not occurring, during those three days. No houses were built. People didn’t show up for work. No marriages took place. No homework was done... and I suppose that no lawns were mowed, no leaves were raked, no trash taken out, and no gutters were cleared either.

The reason was obvious. The Evil Inclination is that which causes God’s creations to act aggressively and acquisitively. Building houses, and families, and careers – these are activities that require healthy, yet well controlled, measures of both aggressiveness and acquisitiveness.

Folks realized that the Evil Inclination could not be obliterated. It couldn’t even be held captive forever. For Evil’s own source is also the source of creativity and productivity. The only thing that could be done before setting Evil loose again in the world, would be to wound it. So Evil was blinded, and then set free. Thus, it was placed at a decided disadvantage in its continuous struggle with Good.

And here the idea is stated in a different way, and tied to that illustrious (although much-maligned) father of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud:

What gives this idea a Jewish "twist" quite different from the original Zoroastrian teaching is that the evil impulse, in Jewish thought, is not entirely evil. It is not, like the Zarathushtrian "hostile spirit," completely inimical to goodness. The Jewish "evil impulse" is only evil when it is obeyed and yielded to without restraint. The evil impulse is sinful lust in excess, but in moderation it is necessary in order to prompt people to procreate; it is sinful greed in excess, but in right order, it is the drive behind trade and the pursuit of lawful profit. The Jewish "evil impulse" thus resembles Freud's concept of the "id," the amoral motive power behind human actions either for good or evil - and indeed, Freud was inspired by Jewish moral philosophy in his own thinking.

Ahab is an idealist without moderation or judgment, a man who believes he can do away with evil if he only pursues it with enough intensity. As such, he becomes a fanatic, and signs a pact with evil itself. It's a pact that ends up destroying him, his ship, and his crew--all but Ishmael, who alone survived to tell the tale.


At 4:05 PM, January 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A reasonable meditation, but you've misunderstood (or, say rather, "underestimated") the more protean nature of the white whale. While this might work if you merely consider the whale as a symbol, but it doesn't work -- or rather falls short -- when you see that the whale is drawn larger than a symbol and rises to the level of emblem and avatar.

To further complicate the matter, you should consider that the whale and the Pequod and all who are aboard here are one.

At 4:57 PM, January 16, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

to vanderleun:

Perhaps I misunderestimated :-)?

Yes, indeed all aboard here are one. That's what I was at least attempting to get at with the last part of the essay--that one can't separate out the evil impulse and expect it not to affect everything and everybody.

In my original version of the essay, I'd included the beginnings of a riff on yin and yang (I even found a picure of the yin-yang symbol for a visual), and was trying to tie it all together. But I ran out of steam and hit the delete button. Ah, well.

At 5:22 PM, January 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neo, your post reminded me of an interview with Cpt. Fick I watched on C-Span. After Baghdad fell he took his men to visit Babylon so they would gain some insight about Iraq and Iraqi's. When they arrived an older man was waiting and offered them a tour. The first thing the old man said was "Call me Ishmael".


At 6:43 PM, January 16, 2006, Blogger Sparky said...

The unanswered, and unasked question is, "... And then what?" If Ahab kills the whale, does he go home and have lunch? Live happily ever after? Enter a retirement home and spend his remaining days retelling the tale to his singular friend? In doing so, he would become a much more pathetic and worthless human being than he was when he was chasing the whale. It's always the quest itself that's more valuable than the result of the quest. This is what defines the human condition: an ongoing struggle, not to defeat evil, but in doing so to become something that one is not. By exceeding one's boundaries and becoming greater than the enemy, one experiences personal evolution. Like the vision in Thus Spake Zarathustra, the man bites the head off of the snake that had crawled into his throat, spat the head of the snake far away, and sprang up, a transfigured, light-surrounded being that laughed.

I would characterize Ahab as experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrom from having had is leg bitten off by the beast. I see similar emotional scars carried by all too many people, especially military personnel, and there being way too little assistance in helping people heal those scars and integrate their experiences. I hear stories all the time of soldiers who cry for months, years, their whole life after a horrific experience. The slightest thought, song, or sight can set them off. I've got my scars that I don't care to describe. I suspect that most people have their own scars in some way. I think military people are trained not to take up an Ahabian vendetta. But there's still little understanding or guidance to go from an Ahab consumed with vengeance to that transformed, light-surrounded being that laughs at evil in Zarathustra's vision.

At 6:56 PM, January 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, Ahab goes down with the whale. And then the whale takes the ship down. And the ship takes the eagle down. But the coffin bobs up and Ishmael takes a float until the Rachel comes along.

At 7:00 PM, January 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see this is all a plever cloy on the part of Neo to get me to write something about the novel. I may yet be drawn into it since I've read the book at least 9 times over the years and am probably due for another pass. Right after the 14 books already on my desk and the seven due from Amazon.

That said, Moby Dick is the most protean of our novels. Indeed it is among the most protean of all novels. As far as the eternal quest among our contemporaies for the "great American novel" it should be thown over since that book has been written and it is Moby Dick. After its initial publication in 1851 it quickly tanked and vanished from publishers' lists. In a way, it prefigured Melville's slide into obscurity. The world was not ready for Moby Dick or Melville. It took about fifty years for the world to catch up and it is still catching up today. Moby Dick and the Pequod are destined to sail forever just beyond our ability to grasp them.

On the one hand, any book as great as Moby Dick acquires around it a nimbus of meaning other than what was intended by the other or more than was intended. That's the nature of great works of art. They live and accrue meaning long after their creators are dust. Hence, it is impossible for us to see Moby Dick as it originally appeared. We can only see it through the glass of ourselves and the veil of our times. In a way, that's good since it "makes it new" by default.

Rather than get into my own way of framing Moby Dick (I'll leave that for another time.), I'd just point to the most commentary I've read about it and that shaped my own thinking.

There are two books I'd look at to get, not the nub of Moby Dick, but to at least have the book bracketed.

The first is that title that is probably the greatest work of American literary criticism and central to a deeper understanding of America itself, F. O. Matthiessen's American renaissance; art and expression in the age of Emerson and Whitman.

This book is, it seems, forever out of print -- a condemnation of what passes for literary criticism in academia today -- and is a bit hard to condense in a comments section. Briefly it seeks to understand why five of the greatest works of 19th century American literarture [Melville's Moby-Dick, multiple editions of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, and Thoreau's Walden.] all came into existence between 1850 and 1855. I also note that this same period saw some of the strongest work of our greatest American poet, Emily Dickenson, created. Matthiessen's explication of how and why this was so is worthy of an essay in and of itself. I'll just note that this work is key and let it go at that.

The second, and much more dated and flawed book, is Studies in Classic American Literature by D.H. Lawrence. Unlike "American renaissance," the Lawrence rants are available on line.

Here's a brief excerpt from this effort,which now reads as a bit hysterical in tone, but is still of value.

D.H. Lawrence, Classic Studies in American Literature, Chapter 11

'The ship! Great God, where is the ship?'

Soon they, through dim bewildering mediums, saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of the water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooners still maintained their sinking look- outs on the sea. And now concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight -

The bird of heaven, the eagle, St John's bird, the Red Indian bird, the American, goes down with the ship, nailed by Tashtego's hammer, the hammer of the American Indian. The eagle of the spirit. Sunk!

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed; and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism. It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equalled; and it is a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness.

But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.

The terrible fatality.


Doom. Doom! Doom! Doom!

Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America.

Doom! Doom of what? Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.

Ah, well, if my day is doomed, and I am doomed with my day, it is something greater than I which dooms me, so I accept my doom as a sign of the greatness which is more than I am.

Melville knew. He knew his race was doomed. His white soul, doomed. His great white epoch doomed. Himself, doomed.

The idealist, doomed: The spirit, doomed.

The reversion. 'Not so much bound to any haven ahead, as rushing from all havens astern.' That great horror of ours! It is our civilization rushing from all havens astern.

The last ghastly hunt. The White Whale.

What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-being of the white race; he is our deepest blood-nature. And he is hunted, hunted, hunted by the maniacal fanaticism of our white mental consciousness.

We want to hunt him down. To subject him to our will.

And in this maniacal conscious hunt of ourselves we get dark races and pale to help us, red, yellow, and black, east and west, Quaker and fireworshipper, we get them all to help us in this ghastly maniacal hunt which is our doom and our suicide.

The last phallic being of the white man. Hunted into the death of upper consciousness and the ideal will. Our blood- self subjected to our will.

Our blood-consciousness sapped by a parasitic mental or ideal consciousness.

Hot blooded sea-born Moby Dick. Hunted maniacs of the idea.

Oh God, oh God, what next, when the Pequod has sunk? She sank in the war, and we are all flotsam. Now what next?

Who knows ? Quien sabe? Quien sabe, senor?

Neither Spanish nor Saxon America has any answer. The Pequod went down. And the Pequod was the ship of the white American soul.

She sank, taking with her negro and Indian and Polynesian, Asiatic and Quaker and good, business- like Yankees and Ishmael: she sank all the lot of them. Boom! as Vachel Lindsay would say.

To use the words of Jesus, IT IS FINISHED. Consummatum est!

But Moby Dick was first published in 1851. If the Great White Whale sank the ship of the Great White Soul in 1851, what's been happening ever since?

Post-mortem effects, presumably.

Because, in the first centuries, Jesus was Cetus, the Whale. And the Christians were the little fishes. Jesus, the Redeemer, was Cetus, Leviathan. And all the Christians all his little fishes.

No real conclusions to be found in Lawrence at this date, but there are some hints.

At 12:35 AM, January 17, 2006, Blogger Judith said...

Freud is a direct intellectual/philosophic descendant of the talmudic and hassidic sages. They knew human psychology inside and out.

At 5:11 AM, January 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a nice post, neo-neo con. I enjoyed it immensely. Thank you!

That bit of Jewish Philosphy kinda reminds me of the recent movie called Serenity, where the Galactic (or is it Solar System?) Government tries to get rid of the dark side of humanity only to discover that most of the people lose the will to do anything (and a fragment of people become reavers).

I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that 'The end of Evil would the the end of History (or Time or Humanity or _insert ones own perspective_)'. It just seems too ... contained within abstract or conceptual boundaries for my tastes.

I'd like to believe that we would somehow... struggle on ... without Evil. But that is just my take on things. :)

At 6:05 AM, January 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Talmud is being misquoted.

The impulse that was captured for three days was the sexual impulse - and that's why no chicken laid an egg for three days.

Enigmatically - as is par for Talmudic parables - the sexual urge is released after the sages "line its eyes with kohl". To enhance its lures? Or so the besotted may see more clearly? Up to the reader... remember, this is the culture that considers the Song of Solomon a holy book, and counsels that marital sex on Sabbath eve is semi-sacred.

In the same passage, the sages capture and destroy the impulse to idolatry. The force of pagan worship nowadays is therefore assumed to be diminished from what it once was.

"Evil" is described in Jewish texts as the "yetzer haRa" - the word "yetzer" literally translates as "creator" or "creative urge".

So it's the "Bad Creative Urge". In this sense the garbled quote is faithful to the original.

This same impulse is described as "Satan" - a word whose Hebrew root means "one who leads astray" or "deceiver". In traditional Jewish imagery, Satan (and the Angel of Death) is presented as a drunken fool.

Evil in Judaism is therefore a misapprehension of truth, or a failure to live up to truth. There is no kingdom or prince of evil whose power/weight equals that of G-d. Instead, choosing falsehood(=injustice) leads to evil. And since G-d is life, it leads also to death.

At 8:31 AM, January 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because evil arises from the expression of certain aspects of human nature it can only be eliminated by eliminating free will. That would definitely be a bad thing!

At 4:34 PM, January 17, 2006, Blogger Dwight said...

Wonderful post and comments.

In reading all of it, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," which takes the Moby Dick symbolism in a slightly different direction. It is almost as if he combines the whale and Ahab in his monstrous Judge. One of the most frightening books I've ever read.

At 6:34 PM, January 17, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I wouldn't get up in the morning for Ahab or Moby Dick. Just not interested, not like you Neo.

But the greater philosophical points you make concerning the elimination de facto of Evil, and on the particulars of it being either accomplishable nor to the Good, does bring interest.

I look at it from a philosophical POV, not a theological or literature pov.

To me, evil and good are manifestions of free will. Therefore one way to eliminate evil is to eliminate free will. If people can't choose something, then they can't comitt evil overtly or subtly.

Creation and Destruction, are another manifestion of the dichotomy. One cannot truly create if one cannot truly destroy. Destroy the function of destruction, and creation will stagnate and grow mutinous. Destroy creation, and you will have ever living death, never renewal or birth.

If good and evil is in everyone, then a socialist utopian might think that a central controlling body like the government can create Good by subjecting the masses into decisions they have not chosen.

If evil is served by the existence of Bush, and good is served by the destruction of Bush, then all means are appropriate in getting rid of Bush. And much good would result, de facto according to the logical axiom.

Bad reasoning eventually catches up to you. Especially with an improper and stupid understanding of Good and Evil by socialists, economics, and businesses. They don't know what Evil is, so how they can lie that they know how to fight it?

Ahab doesn't realize that the evil is in him, his obsession and his vengeance.

Removing evil or good would eliminate free will. A steam engine needs all its parts, not 1/2 of its parts.

Attempting to conquer evil is not foolish at all, so long as the moral agent understands the problem and the solution.

Eliminating free will isn't a bad thing at all. Not if you ask the Democrats, not if you ask the Socialists, and not if you ask Mister Democracy is against God's will Zarqawi.

At 1:31 PM, January 18, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Beings without free will, that are just programed like computers and animals, cannot committ good or evil actions. A person understands intuitively that it takes a human being or a sapient being to committ evil or good actions. Some people think of animals as humans, but those are the PETA nutheads.

To even have the concept of good and evil, requires epistemology and epistemology requires free will in the form of the moral agent, a human being. Or any being with free will.

A person therefore cannot commit only Good actions nor can he committ only Evil actions. Because if he is incapable of doing Evil, then he is not Good. This is the balance principle. The concept of LIght would not exist without the concept of its opposite, Darkness.

Again, metaphysics. Leading to ethics, good and evil.

If you remove a person's ability to committ evil or good actions, or destroy the Good or the Evil, then the only means to do that is to destroy free will.

A person cannot choose to remove all Evil from himself, just as a person cannot choose to remove only the bad bacterial from his body. Good and Evil make up something greater than the sum of its parts. Remove the parts, and you remove the end result.

Without free will, a person cannot be said to be a moral agent, responsible for his actions, nor responsible for evil or good.

If you want to think that a cat that kills a mouse is evil, go ahead. If that is your personal philosophical belief, that a computer that goes on the fritz and disables ATC that then downs a plane full of children, did an evil thing because he just didn't know any better, then by all means, continue to believe so.

But that is not the philosophy I hold to.

Free will isn't the lack of perception. It is the difference between lower orders of life and higher orders of life, for the religious people that would be after Adam ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Symbolizing the acceptance of free will, free from the dictates of God.

The idea of responsibility factors into place whether a person knew what his actions would cause and or not. Therefore the difference between manslaughter and murder, a moral as well as a legal difference.

If it was as you said, that reality worked no different based upon what people knew about their actions, then Good and Evil would not take into intentions. But it does.

And so you have a conflict in your own personal philosophy, which says that if a person did not realize he was doing evil, he would still be doing the same evil as if he did know.

That isn't how justice works nor even how the world works.

People's knowledge and intentions, do matter. And the reason they matter is because free will is not about choosing, the is about the ability to choose.

At 12:58 PM, January 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahab was successful in destroying evil as he destroyed himself. Self destruction is the result of submitting to evil. This is the message I get from the story. Eliminating evil from one's own life is the way of the Masters of all legitimate religious


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