May 30, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Every so often, you hear about the dream of writing the Great American Novel. Sorry, but it is the opinion of El Cabrero that that one has already been scratched off the list for over 150 years. To quote from the great song-poem Tweeter and the Monkey Man,

There ain't no more opportunity here, everything's been done.

I am, of course, referring to Moby-Dick. I'm re-reading that jewel for the umpteenth time and it just keeps getting better and better. I'm not about to go on a long Moby-Dick jag just yet (although that probably will happen before too long), but there is a connection between that classic and the topic at hand at Goat Rope the last few weeks, i.e. violence and how we might be able to reduce it.

If you recall anything about the story, it may well be that Captain Ahab of the Pequod lost a leg to the Great White Whale in an earlier voyage and, to put it mildly, kinda took it personally.

Dr. James Gilligan, author of Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, refers to the character of Ahab several times in his 1996 work in discussing the tragic nature of violence and the typical American response to it:

Probably no American novel speaks more powerfully to the tragic flaw of violence in the American character than does Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick. In the novel, Captain Ahab, who embodies the purest, most extreme example of one strain in our national character, becomes convinced that Moby-Dick, the great while whale, is the embodiment of evil. Ahab pursues Moby-Dick in the mad conviction that if only he can find him and kill him, he will have attained justice and destroyed evil. The voyage of Ahab and his men, aboard the Pequod, is the story of that tragic quest when ends in the destruction of Ahab and his entire crew, except for Ishmael; it is he alone who returns to bear witness.

Gilligan finds that of Ahab in the American drive to punishment and retributive justice, which hasn't worked all that well in practice:

When I think of the mentality that is willing to sacrifice even rational self-interest, not to mention concern for others, for the sake of some abstractly conceived notion of justice and the punishment of evil, I can only think of Captain Ahab. Like any tragic hero, Ahab was convinced that he knew the difference between good and evil, he knew that Moby-Dick was evil, and he knew that if only he could kill Moby-Dick he would destroy evil and restore justice to the world. In exactly the same way, we know that "criminals" represent and symbolize evil, that if we can only kill or immobilize them all, we will have destroyed evil and attained justice. What else are our endless, futile, and self-defeating crusades, called the "War on Crime" and the "War on Drugs," [the Gentle Reader may think of other wars as well] but our version of the voyage of the Pequod? What else has "Crime" (or "Drugs") come to symbolize, in the American mind, that wasn't already contained in Ahab's image of that symbol of absolute evil, the great white whale, Moby-Dick? And where else are we sailing our ship of state except toward exactly the same kind of tragic and self-destructive shipwreck to which Ahab sailed the Pequod?

Here's one more for the road:

What is the nature of our tragic flaw as a nation, the flaw that has resulted in our uniquely high levels of criminal violence? I think it is the same as Captain Ahab's, which is why he is the my model of our flawed American character. I would describe the flaw as a Puritanical kind of moralism and punitiveness, which is generated by the illusion that "we" have a monopoly on the knowledge of good adn evil (conveniently forgetting what happened to the last couple who ate the fruit of the tree of that name), and that we know that "we" are good and "they" are evil. And lest it be thought that since Ahab was a man he represents only the male minority in the population, it is worth remembering that unless the female majority voted as it did, the Captain Ahabs of this country would never attain power.

I would only disagree to the extent of saying that Melville's Ahab was way cooler than some of the people we've elected.

IT'S A GUY THING...the recession, that is, as Business Week reports.

BACK TO THE MONKEY MAN. Here's an interesting NY Times item on some differences between apes and humans and pros and cons of group behavior.

CLEAN COAL? Don't hold your breath.

DEFINITELY NOT AS COOL AS AHAB. Here's The Nation of former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan on the propaganda leading up to the war in Iraq.


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