303. Splitting apart (VIII)
Moby-Dick is acclaimed as a classic, so much so that even though most people have not read it we all know the plot. Captain Ahab, the peg-legged captain, takes his crew on a futile quest for the titular whale; a quest that ends in madness and the destruction of his ship, the Pequod, and the death of the crew save the narrator, Ishmael. Yet Moby-Dick was only “rediscovered” and proclaimed a classic around the 1930s, having sunk without trace upon its release.
Moby-Dick was drawn from the depths for a specific reason; it was seen as a novel that was for democracy, for the left, and against autocracy. The leftist intellectuals in the 1930s who lauded Moby-Dick as the quintessential American story had Mussolini and Hitler in mind. The reader was meant to think, “Here is the result of one man’s rule: madness and ruin, complete destruction.” The lesson: we Americans are anti-Ahabs; as with Ishmael himself, we are landlubbers—Nantucket ways are strange and fearful to us.
Who is Ahab? Not Stalin. Stalin, you must understand, was a democrat; he created the people’s democracies, so he could not possibly be Ahab. Mussolini is more the mark. Mussolini, who, as a former journalist and Socialist deputy, was more akin to the democratic intellectuals who promoted Moby-Dick than they would like. Indeed, the real target for the Ahabic caricature was any responsible man. Mussolini was more responsible than Stalin, hence he was Ahab.
What place would be most fearful for a left-wing intellectual? A ship. A small self-contained community for which one man is responsible. The sea captain is an extremely responsible position; and there were captains who really took the dictum that they should go down with their ships seriously—a position of maximal responsibility in accordance with Gnon, for if the vessel is sinking because of the captain’s errors his commitment to go down with his ship usefully removes his faulty skills from the, so to speak, shipping pool. The democrat—the left-wing intellectual—will abominate the ship, for there are few places to shirk and hide onboard; and the lines of responsibility are very clear, everyone knows where the buck stops. There is no committee to game or appeal to, and few opportunities to manipulate the mob.
The man at sea is caught between nature—the unpitying sea—which makes him feel small and unimportant and an uber father-figure, the captain. For the left-wing intellectual, it is rebarbative to be made so small and unimportant. The captain—Ahab with his big ambitions—must be made a tyrant, cruel and insane. Now, there are always mutinies; and yet there is a sense in which, unlike a revolution that engulfs a whole country, it is easier to see who is really at fault on a small ship.
Everyone agrees that Moby Dick, his big white self, stands for God or some metaphysical beyond—the ineffable. The democratic message: those responsible men who seek something greater, something ineffable, are insane and will kill everyone. So Moby-Dick can be seen to support secular materialism. “Don’t go chasing Moby Dick, there’s nothing more than matter. You’ll go mad and die.”
None of this detracts from Melville’s novel; his novel really is excellent, mostly it has been reframed in a certain way; but we should remember that the 19th century was a high time for novels, there are stories of equal quality that have been forgotten because they were not amenable to political interpretation. In a juvenile line, consider Mr. Midshipman Easy, a once popular but now forgotten yarn by a naval captain. Mr. Easy’s father does not believe in private property and is infatuated with “the rights of man”; his son believes the same, but is rescued by a stint in the Royal Navy, where he learns personal responsibility and so becomes a successful privateer. Of course, those cavilling intellectuals in the 1930s were the same men as Midshipman Easy’s father, afraid their children would run away to sea.