Saturday, May 21, 2016

Moby Dick as the Left Fist of God


     Moby-Dick, or the white whale.
     A hunt. The last great hunt.
     For what?
     For Moby-Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is old, hoary, monstrous, and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked; and snow-white.
     Of course he is a symbol. 
     Of what? 
     I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.
          —D. H. Lawrence

     “…But as I was going to say, if thou wantest to know what whaling is, as thou tellest ye do, I can put ye in a way of finding it out before ye bind yourself to it, past backing out. Clap eye on Captain Ahab, young man, and thou wilt find that he has only one leg.” 
     “What do you mean, sir? Was the other one lost by a whale?” 
     “Lost by a whale! Young man, come nearer to me: it was devoured, chewed up, crunched by the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!—ah, ah!”
          —from Moby-Dick 


     I consider Moby-Dick, written in the mid-19th century by an American fellow named Herman Melville, to be a book containing more profundity and genuine spiritual wisdom than many religious scriptures, including the Old Testament of the Bible. The novel could reasonably be called Upanishadic; or at least it could be called one of the most Upanishadic texts in all of American classic literature, especially in fiction. This is largely because Moby-Dick is a mystical text; an elaborate parable describing, in allegorical or poetical terms, the nature of “God,” or, if you prefer, of Ultimate Reality, the ultimate Kantian Thing in Itself, from which this apparent world we live in unfolds. Melville was a kind of transcendentalist mystic, which was somewhat in fashion in his day, and which is manifest in this his greatest, most acclaimed, and most analyzed novel. 
     So I suppose the thing to do here is to present my case.
     One recurring symbol of the Divine Infinite in the novel is the sky, and, more particularly, the sun. For example in chapter CXVIII, “The Quadrant,” on a beautiful sunny day in the North Pacific, off the coast of Japan, Captain Ahab, in a fit of disgusted, rebellious impatience, suddenly decides to stop using his quadrant (an astronomical instrument used for determining latitude) for navigation, literally and symbolically refusing to look to the heavens for guidance any longer. He throws the quadrant to the deck, smashes it…and immediately afterwards commands the helmsman to steer toward the Equatorial fishing ground to the southeast, which is the white whale’s most likely location.
     Another example: On the very same day that Ahab directs the ship toward the central ocean where Moby Dick awaits, a typhoon unexpectedly rises, shredding the ship’s sails, smashing Ahab’s whaleboat, gravely endangering the ship, and, with a kind of St. Elmo’s fire, causing the masts and rigging of the vessel to glow with a luminous electrical corona. The crew of course see this as a bad sign, with the usually carefree, irreligious second officer Mr. Stubb becoming unusually serious and downright frightened, so that he begins praying, essentially, with exclamations of “The corpusants have mercy on us all”—corpusants being an old-fashioned name for the luminous plasma discharge. So upon renouncing the guidance of the heavens and directing the ship in the direction of the white whale, the heavens themselves seem to remonstrate with the whole ship and essentially give fair warning of what they are getting themselves into.
     Melville places more spiritual emphasis upon the sea, however; which is understandable when one considers that water is the universal symbol for Spirit. In the very first chapter of the book the narrator discusses his deep calling to go to sea, and he shares such ruminations as this:
Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happens to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.
Ishmael continues to make such watery, meditative statements throughout the tale, like, “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God”; and in a chapter in which he describes standing watch at a masthead on the lookout for whales, he becomes particularly poetically metaphysical: 
…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form; seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.
At the conclusion of his biographical sketch of old Perth, the ship’s blacksmith, a man who ruined his own earthly life, lost his family in a horrible calamity, and turned to a life of the sea, the narrator strongly implies that becoming a whaleman is true renunciation; and we may surmise that, likewise, true renunciation is an essential step toward becoming a symbolic hunter of the Whale.
     Before moving on to the obvious, most central symbol of the mysterious Divine, I will point out that the ocean seems more of a metaphor for the emptiness, the boundless, infinite field of being, from which manifestations of divinity arise, and not so much a distinct manifestation itself. In the jargon of the Hindu Vedantist philosophy, the shoreless sea would represent Nirguna Brahman, the unthinkable Ultimate Reality which bears no discernible characteristics. The aspect of “God” which is a manifested agent in our world, Brahma the personification of the highest reality, Ishvara the Lord of the Cosmos, the occasionally wrathful “God Almighty,” is the Whale.
     An obvious case of whale as God is Melville/Ishmael’s mention of “Vishnoo,” the divine sustainer of the cosmos in Hindu theology, in his first earthly avatar manifesting himself as a gigantic fish—with, it should be remembered, the 19th-century narrator considering whales to be the biggest kind of fish. So Vishnu first appeared in this world as Leviathan. Also, of course, whales in general are referred to as Leviathan repeatedly in the novel, which lends some Christianity to the god-as-fish motif. When Ishmael first sees Moby Dick swimming majestically through the sea, he compares him to the great god Zeus (alias Jupiter) after He assumed the form of a white bull, swimming from Phoenicia to Crete carrying the beautiful maiden Europa. And the most blatant, unignorable instance is the case of “Gabriel,” a crazed whaler turned prophet aboard the whaling vessel Jeroboam who insists that Moby Dick himself is none other than an incarnation of God Almighty. Towards the end of the story Moby Dick is called, flat-out, “the grand god,” and the body of the ship after being rammed by him the “god-bullied hull.” As early as chapter I of the story, when Ishmael is receiving his call to the sea in his dreams, the White Whale is there, lurking in the deep shadows of his subconscious mind:
By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.
And this was before he had ever heard of the white whale Moby Dick.
     At this point it is expedient to mention a certain feature of the novel that many readers and critics have disliked since its publication; and that is a great number of chapters (no fewer than 37 of them) that are straightforward discussions of whales and the whaling industry that do not necessarily make any direct contribution at all to the plot. There may occur as many as five of these chapters in a row, which I must admit distract from the story and can get a little tedious. They discuss every possible angle the author could think of regarding whales and the hunting of whales. But there are two symbolic reasons why these seemingly extraneous chapters are included; and one of them is to provide hints at the divinity and divine wrath lurking within whales in general, and in the White Whale in particular.
     Consider: Ishmael mentions that the whale is the greatest being of all, the greatest that has ever lived, with the sperm whale being the largest species (this being due to the fact that larger whales like blue whales and finbacks were too fast and elusive for sailing ships and rowboats in those days to come anywhere near them), with Moby Dick implied to be the largest sperm whale of them all. Whales have existed since immemorial time: “I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over.” The sperm whale in particular is called the terror of all other sea creatures, with most human whalers not daring to hunt it.
     The whale is implied to be formless, as we cannot see its shape when it is covered by water, and when killed and pulled out of the water it loses its true shape. And if we fall into the water and come near enough to see it as it is, we die. Furthermore, the narrator emphasizes that the sperm whale has no face: if you look at it from the front all you see is a blank wall, with its eyes, nose, and mouth all located elsewhere. 
But in that great Sperm Whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature. For you see no one point precisely; not one distinct feature is revealed; no nose, eyes, ears, or mouth; no face; he has none, proper; nothing but the one broad firmament of a forehead, pleated with riddles; dumbly lowering with the doom of boats, and ships, and men.
It does, however, show off its tail, thrusting its flukes high into the air whenever it dives; and Ishmael compares this to the LORD who may show his hind parts to an Old Testament prophet, but will show the glory of his face to no one. 
     It is emphasized that Moby Dick is also colorless, being white; and in the noteworthy chapter XLII, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael points out not only that whiteness is associated with purity and supernaturalism, but that according to science, everything as it really is could be called white in the sense that it is ultimately colorless, color being a perceptual construct of the human mind, not something truly inherent in nature.
     The whalers, those symbolic renunciant pilgrims of Spirit who seek the greatest Mystery, have evolved many legends concerning the whale Moby Dick—those who believe in his existence, that is, as there are many who haven’t heard, or if they have heard do not believe. The legends suggest that Moby Dick cannot be killed, and is immortal. Furthermore some sailors maintain that he can appear in more than one place simultaneously, making him ubiquitous if not omnipresent (with immortality being a kind of ubiquity in time). 
     Then there is the gold doubloon which Ahab has promised to the first sailor who spots Moby Dick on the day that he spouts red gore and is slain. This coin is the symbol, the representative, the “talisman” of the white whale aboard the Pequod. The coin was minted of “purest, virgin gold” in Ecuador, a country lying on the Equator and thereby situated, in a sense, in the middle of the world. The doubloon is covered with images and rune-like symbols with each person looking upon them interpreting them differently, and with the most mundane minds interpreting them most mundanely. 
     Moby Dick himself is finally located at the Equator, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which Ishmael asserts is the center of the world map, with the Atlantic and Indian Oceans being mere arms to the Pacific.
     Put all this together and we have Moby Dick the white whale as a vast, timeless, immortal, unkillable, supernatural, all-powerful, ubiquitous being with no discernible form, no face, and no color; which is found in the center of the world, in the center of all things, at the heart of Reality. And that, my friends, to a theistic mystic at least, is “God.” 
     Melville/Ishmael makes many other statements suggesting that whales in general, and the white whale in particular, are God, or at least divine instruments, occupying a broad spectrum, with one end of the spectrum fading out into such subtlety that the symbolism is very vague and questionable. But some of the more obvious miscellanea that support the thesis are: There are at least two mentions of religious temples or shrines made from the skeleton of a whale, with the dimensions of one of these carefully tattooed on Ishmael’s arm (along with many other tattoos, causing Ishmael’s symbol-covered body to be reminiscent of Parker in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back”); Moby Dick’s lower jaw is bent into a sickle shape, allowing associations of a Grim Reaper wielding his fateful scythe (and actually it is not uncommon for old bull sperm whales to have twisted or otherwise deformed lower jaws, as they use them in combat amongst themselves in fights over females); the harpooneer Queequeg—a purplish yellow South Sea Island cannibal with his teeth sharpened into points—at one point declares that mere sickness does not have the power to kill him, but only, in Ishmael’s words, “some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer,” like a whale or a storm at sea, for instance; and it is mentioned again and again in the story that the ship Pequod itself is plentifully inlaid with sperm whale teeth and bone, Ahab’s stool or “throne” is made of whale bone, and even Ahab’s peg leg is composed of sperm whale bone—hinting that the world of the ship itself and even “God’s” most bitter enemy contain “God” in their composition, like Emerson’s omnipresent Brahma:

          They reckon ill who leave me out;
          When me they fly, I am the wings;
          I am the doubter and the doubt,
          And I the hymn the Brahmin sings. 

It may as well be noted that the main reason why Ahab stayed in seclusion before and shortly after the beginning of the Pequod’s voyage is that his whale bone leg suddenly snapped while he was walking near home, with the jagged end stabbing him in the groin, seriously injuring him; so Ahab’s sworn enemy and reputed cause of all his suffering, the whale, continued to task him even when he was on dry land. (It also is significant that Captain Ahab has a white scar, a streak of Moby Dick’s whiteness, reputedly running the entire length of his body, which evidently was caused by him being struck by lightning while participating in some kind of pagan ceremony.)
     As the sun is to the sky, so the white whale is to the ocean; yet despite all this, as is proper for a mystical text, there is also a fair amount of hinting that the whale is merely a phenomenal agent or manifestation of the world-transcending emptiness of God, as is everything else really, including Ahab himself and his tempter the fire-worshipping Zoroastrian Mephistopheles. I am reminded of a passage in the Old Testament, I think in the book of Isaiah, in which the evil king of Assyria is declared to be, despite his personal belief that he is working out his own selfish ambition, an instrument or agent of God in unleashing His divine vengeance upon the rebellious people of Israel. But Moby Dick, though monstrous and fierce in his wrath, is never really portrayed as evil. He fights only in self defense or in defense of his own kind, and mainly just minds his own business. In the final chase of the white whale he is apparently in mid transit from one place to another and continues to follow a straight line, ignoring the ship, until the boats are lowered after him with lethal intent. And even then he gives fair warning before committing to the final onslaught. So Moby Dick is not exactly the Godhead, but is more like God’s left fist.
     One recurring theme supporting the idea of whale as servant, agent, or instrument of God is the continued comparisons to the great fish or whale or Leviathan that swallowed the prophet Jonah in the Bible. The whale performed God’s will, but wasn’t exactly God. And Ishmael wasn’t exactly Jonah either of course, but was indeed a spiritual fugitive who defied the great power, and was punished by it, but was eventually spared for a higher purpose.
     One odd borderline case concerns the fact that the white whale’s body was fouled with old, bent harpoons, lances, and ropes tangled together from many previous attempts on his life. (This apparently was not extremely uncommon; for example the non-fictional whale Mocha Dick, on which Moby was largely based, allegedly had nineteen harpoons found embedded in his body, most of which were presumably relics of earlier, less successful attempts to kill him.) So the image is of a formless, colorless, faceless entity which bristles with the outward appearance of the results of human actions. These human artifacts which protrude in a tangle from its body lend the inscrutable being a perceptible, recognizable outward shape and color, so to speak.
     I mentioned above the multitude of seemingly extraneous chapters describing everything Ishmael could think of concerning whales, including cetacean taxonomy and physiology, whales in art and legend, and how to cook whale and what it tastes like, much of which information has nothing obviously to do with the actual plot of the story; and I mentioned that the first of two reasons for these chapters is to drop symbolic hints about the mystic identity of the Whale. The other reason is this: Ishmael was the only person on board the Pequod who wasn’t simply trying to kill Moby Dick, or simply trying to make a living as a whaler without deep reflection on what his profession was all about. He deeply wanted to understand the whale as perfectly as he could. In chapter CIV, “The Fossil Whale,” Ishmael says, “Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels.” This is why he is the sole survivor of the ultimate oceanic spiritual quest, and of the divine apocalyptic wrath finally poured upon the world of the Pequod, the only one found worthy of salvation. He is a jnani, one who attains the ultimate good through knowledge. He is the only one who yearned to know the highest being face to face. But of course he has no face.  

      
      





Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Whale (an Introduction)


     “Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale’s direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal.” 

     “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb.” 


     When I was a college student one of the best teachers I ever had, Mr. Van Vactor, declared to my English class that the two greatest American novels ever written are Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Melville’s Moby-Dick. (Incidentally, he also claimed the three greatest novels of all time, written in any language, to be Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. So Dostoevsky is the supreme novelist, according to Mr. Van Vactor.) My teacher also declared the white whale in Moby-Dick to symbolize life itself, which is an idea that I will attempt to refute eventually.
     In fact discussing the symbol of the whale is at present my main interest in discussing Moby-Dick; but I feel that there are some preliminary issues that should be dealt with first, including, and please forgive me, the belabored recent theme of political correctness. I don’t want the discussion of the great mystical symbol to be sullied by postmodern politics, so I quarantine the latter here in a more comprehensive, introductory discussion of the novel. 
     Huckleberry Finn has already been censored, bowdlerized, and/or banned in school systems across the United States, primarily because it is racist—exemplified most obviously by one of the main characters being called Nigger Jim. Jim is a good person, and a deeply religious one, and his character was based on a black slave that Twain particularly liked and respected when he was a boy; but he talks funny (for example he says “den” instead of “then”) and is a slave, plus of course he’s called a nigger. Like just about any fiction written before the late 20th century, it’s sexist, homophobic, and transphobic too, but we needn’t get into that, because I’d rather discuss Moby-Dick.
     Melville’s great novel also could be called racist (and sexist, and homophobic, and possibly Islamophobic as well), despite the fact that it contains zero use of the word “nigger.” Actually, at the time Moby-Dick was first published, it was extraordinarily, outrageously non-racist, with contemporary critics condemning Melville’s repeated suggestions that non-European non-Christians can even be superior in certain ways. In the novel, the protagonist Ishmael’s dearest friend aboard the whaling ship Pequod is Queequeg, a South Sea Island cannibal with his teeth filed into points, who exhibits more fearlessness, more “Christian charity,” and more of a sense of honor than most or all of his white companions. All three of the black secondary characters—the huge African harpooneer Daggoo, the cabin boy Pip, and the old cook Fleece—are described with obvious respect and sympathy as human beings, but Fleece talks with pretty much the same substandard English as Jim (one line in his classic Sermon to the Sharks is, “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned”), and of course all the higher officers aboard the ship are patriarchal white men. There are almost no female characters at all, which may be viewed as sexist, and homosexuals and shemales are not mentioned at all, which nowadays may be condemned as politically incorrect heteronormative propaganda. So for all I know Moby-Dick also, the other of the alleged two greatest American novels, may be disapproved reading in American academic institutions. 
     One fairly obsolete way in which the novel is politically incorrect is the fact that to some degree it glorifies the hunting and killing of whales. Commercial whaling has pretty much gone the way of chariot-making, so nowadays people probably don’t take so much offense to Ishmael’s livelihood as they would have in the 1980’s. But in defense of 1840’s-era Nantucket whalers, most of them were still sincerely of the opinion that whales are just a kind of really big fish, and they had little idea of ecology, so they didn’t realize that whaling could be considered an ethically criminal act. Also, in those days whalers did not shoot whales with deck-mounted cannon firing explosive-tipped harpoons; rather, men in wooden sailing ships would lower rowboats and chase whales to kill them with hand-thrown steel harpoons and hand-held spears; and the sperm whale, being the world’s largest known predator, would sometimes fight back, causing the sperm whale fishery to be a particularly dangerous one. Many whalers were killed by enraged bull sperm whales fighting for their lives. So at least the whales had a fighting chance. I’ve considered that traditional Spanish bullfights also at least give the bull some chance at winning, which is a better deal, methinks, than simply being trucked to a slaughterhouse.
     Moby-Dick is definitely a guy book. No woman could ever, ever have written it. Ever. There were no females on board the Pequod; and considering the rough and very dangerous nature of sperm whale hunting in the mid 19th century, I would guess that there were extremely few, possibly zero, female American sperm whale hunters in those days. In fact the book is such a guy book that it may be quite archaic, like the Iliad or Beowulf, since it still harbors a primeval sentiment of masculine heroism (although much tempered and refined with philosophy and deep feeling), with few civilized men nowadays inclined to live such an outrageously daring lifestyle. They wouldn’t have much chance to live like this even if they wanted to, unless maybe they want to be elite military commandos, or maniacs who hunt grizzly bears with bows and arrows. 
     For those of you unfamiliar with the book, I suppose I should summarize the plot a little. A man calling himself Ishmael, our narrator, feels a restlessness for the sea and a calling to go on a whaling voyage. So he signs up to be an able-bodied crewman aboard the Nantucket whaler Pequod. Strangely, the captain of the ship remains in seclusion until after the voyage begins, so Ishmael knows little of him, except that one of the ship’s owners referred to Captain Ahab as a great-souled, godlike, yet troubled and gloomy man. It turns out that on his previous voyage Ahab and his crew had tried to kill a huge white sperm whale called Moby Dick. The whale destroyed the pursuing whale boats, so Ahab, much too proud and maniacal to admit defeat, actually jumped into the water with a small knife, in a futile effort to kill the creature. At this point Moby Dick sheared off one of Ahab’s legs with its twenty-foot-long, twisted, scythe-shaped lower jaw. All this happened during the cruise prior to the one on which Ishmael signed up.
     Having his leg bitten off, and being defeated and humbled in such a way (with the loss of his leg suggesting a kind of emasculation), causes the extremely proud Ahab to essentially go insane. He becomes a monomaniac completely obsessed with one thing: gaining total revenge on the white whale (despite the obvious fact that he was trying to kill it when it bit his leg off). So Ishmael’s whaling cruise becomes highjacked by its own captain’s mania as the ship sails the oceans of the world to seek and do battle with Moby Dick, implied to be the biggest, baddest whale in the whole world. They eventually find him in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, and do battle with him there, and the white whale, the legendary, biblical Leviathan, in accordance with his mysterious nature, fights back.
     The writing of the story was inspired, evidently, mainly by three things. First, Melville himself, although descended from an aristocratic old Dutch family in New York, had the wanderlust as a young man and actually served as a harpooneer on a sperm whaling voyage around the year 1840. This accounts for his very detailed accounts of how a whaling voyage is conducted. Also, the story was partly inspired by the final, fateful cruise of the American whaling vessel Essex, which was rammed and sunk by an infuriated bull sperm whale in the South Pacific in 1820, resulting in the deaths of most of the crew. Also it was inspired by the historical fact of an albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick which was usually encountered off the coast of southern Chile, and which had a reputation for being a dangerous fighter, having learned successful tactics in its combats with rowboats filled with humans trying to kill it. (A sperm whale, after all, has the largest brain of any animal on earth, including humans, so it is presumably a relatively intelligent being.) Before Mocha Dick was finally slain in 1838 he was alleged to have survived at least one hundred attempts on his life, sometimes involving him turning upon and smashing the boats which pursued him. He was finally killed while trying to defend a wounded female sperm whale. Old Mocha Dick reminds me a little of the Apache hero Geronimo: both of them fought a righteous fight, even though it was doomed to ultimate failure.
     The reason why men risked their lives to hunt these beings is that the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, has a body suffused with very high quality oil. The bulbous “case” of a sperm whale’s head alone may contain 500 gallons of the stuff, with the blubber, when rendered, yielding very much more. The whale apparently uses a head full of fine oil in part as a lens for focusing sound, as it is the loudest animal in the world, using blasts of noise for echolocation and to stun or even kill its prey, which in adult males is almost exclusively the deep-sea giant squid. Eventually sperm oil was rendered obsolete by petroleum; which, although of lower quality as a lubricant at the time than high-grade spermaceti, was much more plentiful in the world, and less dangerous and expensive to harvest. But on with the book.
     The story is overflowing with symbols, and evokes layer upon layer of meaning. At some levels it is an allegory, and at one level in particular an apocalypse, describing how a kind of great-spirited genius/antichrist (Ahab), overflowing with heroic yet demonic and destructive pride, leads the whole world (the Pequod with its international crew) to its destruction. In this apocalyptic respect it is similar to Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It also resembles the legend of Dr. Faustus, who sells his soul to the diabolical Mephistopheles (symbolized by the Parsi oracle and harpooneer Fedallah) to obtain his heart’s desire. It also reflects a few elements of King Lear. Also there are numerous references to the biblical Book of Jonah. But probably the one character in all of literature that Ahab is most compared to is the fallen angel Lucifer, once God’s right-hand man, in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The unfolding story itself is more about Ahab than Ishmael, as the obsessional old sea captain gradually realizes that he is driven by Destiny or the fate of his own character to attempt what is hopelessly impossible, to defy the highest, irresistible power just for the sake of asserting his own dignity, or at least his own rejection of a reality, an order of things, that he has come to hate as unjust and the cause of everything bad in his life.
     One other character, aside from Ishmael, Ahab, and the Whale Itself, plays a major, central role in the story, and that is the first officer of the Pequod, Mr. Starbuck. As I’ve already mentioned, there are no women on the ship, and almost none in the entire story; and largely because of this, Starbuck, more than anyone else, displays the feminine aspect, the feminine spirit, of humanity. He is brave, and has slain many whales with his own lance, yet he is sensitive, quiet, and devoutly religious. He leaves home for years at a time to pursue his profession, but he deeply misses his wife and son the whole time, and prays for them. He is the only person on the ship who dares, or has the wisdom, to oppose the Captain in his quest to kill Moby Dick. He repeatedly tries to talk him out of it, and on one occasion even seriously considers murdering him for the good of everyone else…yet he is too gentle, too passive, to actually save the world. He also is restrained by a sense of duty, and he dutifully obeys his commanding officer even though he knows him to be wrong, and possibly even evil. In a way, I think, he symbolizes Ahab’s conscience, which is a good conscience, yet which is insufficiently robust and forceful to restrain Ahab from his quest for vengeance and impious self-justification. A whole book could probably be written just on Starbuck. Probably it’s already been written.
     There is so much to investigate, and so much to remark upon in Moby-Dick. Some symbols are so enigmatic that one wonders if Melville himself really could articulate what he was trying to convey by them. Consider the seaman Bulkington, for example. He is a tall, well-built, good-looking, and quiet man who is a great favorite among his shipmates. He returns to Nantucket after a years-long whaling voyage, and almost immediately signs onto the crew of the Pequod for another years-long voyage. Yet almost as soon as the Pequod leaves port he apparently falls overboard or jumps overboard and is never seen again. Why? Mysteries lurk throughout the story.
     But the biggest, baddest symbol of them all is the Whale Himself, Moby Dick. And with all due respect to Mr. Van Vactor, I will explain what I think he (the white whale, not Mr. Van Vactor) stands for. That is the purpose of the next installment.






APPENDIX: DAGGOO AND THE QUESTION OF RACISM

     Following is Melville/Ishmael’s introduction to Daggoo, one of the men of African ancestry aboard the Pequod. Judge for yourself whether this account could be called racist or anti-black (and remember that this description was published in 1851, a time when slavery was still legal in the southern USA).
Third among the harpooneers was Daggoo, a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage, with a lion-like tread—an Ahasuerus [i.e., Xerxes] to behold. Suspended from his ears were two golden hoops, so large that the sailors called them ring-bolts, and would talk of securing the top-sail halyards to them. In his youth Daggoo had voluntarily shipped on board of a whaler, lying in a lonely bay on his native coast. And never having been anywhere in the world but in Africa, Nantucket, and the pagan harbors most frequented by whalemen; and having now led for many years the bold life of the fishery in the ships of owners uncommonly heedful of what manner of men they shipped; Daggoo retained all his barbaric virtues, and erect as a giraffe, moved about the decks in all the pomp of six feet five in his socks. There was a corporeal humility in looking up at him; and a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress. Curious to tell, this imperial negro, Ahasuerus Daggoo, was the Squire of little Flask [the third mate], who looked like a chess-man beside him.
Human equality without sameness: an ideal that some modern ideologues seem incapable of comprehending.   
     

    

Saturday, May 7, 2016

How Could a Free-Thinking Buddhist Monk Vote for Donald Trump?


 "The whole history of the world is summed up in the fact that, when nations are strong, they are not always just, and when they wish to be just, they are no longer strong." —Winston Churchill

    Yeah, yeah, I know. This isn’t Dharma, and if it’s philosophy, it’s of a very crude and shallow sort. It is, however, still challenging established views, and possibly even favoring an outwardly better world. Don’t worry: It will be all over soon. Nothing lasts. Everything is impermanent. So there—some Dharma, right off the bat.
     I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I lost most of my interest in politics, most of what little there was to begin with, after realizing that what is good and right from an ethical point of view is not necessarily good and right from a political point of view. If we assume that the primary purpose of government is to ensure the prosperity and well-being of the people it governs, then sometimes favoring one’s own people and being unfair or uncharitable toward others is the sound, valid choice from a political perspective. 
     The classic, most obvious example is war. From the perspective of ethics, particularly Buddhist ethics, war is mass murder, period. War is always a bad thing. It is morally superior to die than deliberately to kill. But if the purpose of a government is to protect its own people, then war may be an absolute political necessity. The position of the Allies during the Second World War is a case in point. If we didn’t fight against the Axis Powers, then our country, and the world at large, might be devoid of Jews, blacks, and other “inferior subhumans” right now, with furthermore no constitutional rights for anyone.
     Also, if we consider the history of classical Rome, we see that the political policies of Rome with regard to its own citizens were, relatively speaking, extraordinarily fair, especially at first before tyrannical Caesars took control, although quite ruthless toward outsiders, especially towards perceived rivals and enemies. Rome mercilessly conquered much of the Western world, sometimes perpetrating atrocities like the Third Punic War, yet at the same time introduced to the West what were extremely advanced, liberal, effective systems of law, governance, education, etc.. The UK and the USA also became great powers, for good and for otherwise, as a result of such ruthless actions as the UK’s Opium Wars and the USA’s war on Mexico in 1848, in which we essentially beat up the Mexicans, invaded their country and capital city, and stole from them Texas, California, and everything in between. Although the UK eventually returned Hong Kong to China, few Americans suggest that we should give Texas, California, etc. back to Mexico. Although the Mexican population of the Southwest USA is apparently increasing, which I guess is only fair. 
     So I have reconciled myself philosophically to the idea that politics is to some degree its own sphere, and, like nature itself, is necessarily to some degree amoral. The first priority of a government should be the prosperity and well-being of its own people, with other considerations, like the well-being of everyone else, being still good and valid, but not to the extent that the nation itself is significantly harmed by it. I say all this by way of introduction, although it may not be in reality a major consideration in what follows. 
     Perhaps I should say here that it looks like I won’t vote Donald Trump for president. I won’t vote for Hillary Clinton either. It looks like I won’t vote for anyone, unless by absentee ballot, largely because I will probably be living in rural Burma next November. But if I were in America at that time, and if I did vote, and if Donald Trump were running for president as a Republican or Independent or whatever, I would very probably vote for him as America’s only really viable option. If Trump weren’t running, then if I did vote it would be to throw my vote away on whomever is the Libertarian candidate. So I do favor Donald Trump (even if he wouldn’t favor the likes of me), and endorse him to some degree, although it is mainly due to a lack of anyone better.
     I have never voted for a Republican president. I consider Ted Cruz, Trump’s only remaining rival within the Republican party, to be at least as bad a choice as Hillary Clinton. (Ha, since writing that I learned that Cruz has dropped out. All academic now.) The Republicans have tended to favor militarism, Bible-thumping, tax breaks for the rich, and gratuitous, excessive Machiavellianism way too much for me ever to have endorsed them. As a young man I once resolved that if Ronald Reagan’s face ever appeared on money I would emigrate to Australia. But one reason why I like Trump is because the Republican Party itself hates and fears him. I’ll soon get back to that point. 
     I really don’t care very much if Trump builds a wall to keep Mexicans out or prevents Muslims from immigrating to America. I suppose the USA has the right to guard its borders and filter who comes in. (I would like it if he promised Edward Snowden a fair trial if he returns to the USA, though.) I don’t care all that much if he is a racist or a sexist, or even if personally he is a colossal jerk. I do not, however, consider him to be evil, or “literally Adolf Hitler,” and I consider it extremely unlikely that if he were elected he would overthrow the US Constitution and have himself declared Dictator for Life, as some lefties seem to expect of him. His actual policies are almost irrelevant—which may seem ridiculous or bizarre to some Americans who see the upcoming presidential election as the climax of a kind of Western ethical crisis. As mentioned above, ethics are not the primary point at issue; and professional politicians exploit ethics in a Machiavellian manner anyhow, further demonstrating the ultimate pragmatic amorality of successful politics.


Donald J. Trump, master of "the American Dream"


     So following are the main reasons why I (provisionally, for the time being) endorse Donald Trump for US President. Even if you despise the man, at least you may see that not only stupid hicks and neo-Nazis can favor him. Consider this an anthropological study, or a case of pragmatism taking precedence over moral ideology.
     >Trump is filthy rich, in addition to having cojones and being a political outsider, and consequently he kisses the ass of nobody. Most politicians in the current American political scene are stuck in a morbid system in which their Party and their financial backers get strings attached and thereby limit the powers of whomever they buy. Obama, for example, after starting as some idealist Great Hope (and I voted for him too), apparently has degenerated into a politically correct puppet. So Trump is relatively independent of this screwed up political system which hampers the effectiveness of its executive officers. The main reason why the Republican Party itself hates and fears Trump is mainly that he won't kiss their collective behind. Nobody can control him the way a professional politician can be controlled; and an obedient puppet is hardly likely to accomplish anything “great,” or even really significant, unless it is significantly for the worse.
     >He is the stereotypical “alpha male” who has the force of character to go against the current of the political status quo (like an ever-increasing national debt, let alone corrupt politics) and to make significant changes for the better. It has been human nature for a million years for the majority to support a strong, dominant leader, especially in times of crisis, which we arguably are in nowadays. Few who are familiar with the old Star Trek TV show would argue that Captain James Tiberius Kirk was the right man for the job of commander. And one of the most outstanding qualities of Captain Kirk was an unusually high magnitude and quality of cojones. And Trump, much more than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, has this qualification.
     >He is a skilled businessman, and since the USA is in an economic mess, it is more likely that he would be able to turn the mess around. What America needs is a skillful chief executive who can drive a shrewd bargain when negotiating treaties and trade agreements, which is something that the US has done badly over the past few decades.
     >With regard to his foreign policy he may be farther to the political left than his main rival Hillary Clinton. One of Trump’s policies in particular that I can’t help but like is that he is willing to be on friendlier terms with Russia, whereas Clinton seems intent upon continuing the Cold War. (I happen to like the Russian people, and think our two countries have been enemies for far too long. I agree that we should extend a hand of friendship and be allies if at all possible. The same probably goes for China too, although Russia is more interesting to me, and probably has more common ground with us Americans.) But part of the problem is that the American political machine, as part of its status quo, has been interfering in international politics in a partly successful attempt to get as many countries as possible under US influence, in order to dominate world politics in a kind of Pax Americana; and of course some other countries like Russia and China don’t like this. Better a more or less cooperative community of independent nations with the USA being one of the big guns than a kind of crypto-Empire with America calling the shots—especially if the latter is prohibitively expensive for America. The Obama administration, partly, I assume, due to Obama’s inability or unwillingness to go against the political current (unlike a strong president like JFK), has largely continued with the second Bush administration’s interference in West Asian and North African politics (let alone electronic surveillance of the American people in the name of national security), with calamitous results. A little more of minding our own business could make us more respected and popular in the world, as well as saving money. 
     >Again, although he’s technically a Republican, the Republican party’s elite hates and fears him, and I am no Republican; and I consider the far right to be just as foolish as the far left, although nowadays in America they are less of a danger to freedom and individual rights.
     >Also again, Trump is not a professional politician, and for that reason he is more in a position to think “outside the box,” providing fresh solutions to problems that the professionals, obviously, have been unable to solve. He is, however, a veteran executive officer, and an extremely successful one. It may be that treating American economics as a business problem may be much more effective than relying on professional politicians trying to please their voters and string-holders.
     >But one of the most important reasons why I (provisionally) endorse Mr. Trump is that he is not politically correct, and I consider PC to be a dangerous cancer on American society. It is a kind of mandatory hypocrisy, institutionalized dishonesty, in which a person dares not say what he or she really feels for fear of persecution. Furthermore, although many do not realize this, political correctness hysteria is based upon a newish progressive liberal ideology, suffused with so-called Social Justice, Marxism, and third wave feminism, that is rife with pseudoscience, sloppy thinking, and just plain falsehood. Consider, for example, the “progressive” axiom that both genders and all races are naturally exactly the same, with any apparent differences being oppressive cultural constructs. To question this at all, even with scientific evidence, is howled down with shouts of “Racist!” and “Hate speech!” But the idea that the different genders and races naturally have different strengths and weaknesses, and thereby different ways in which they best contribute to society (speaking generally, admitting individual differences), has objective, empirical support; so if that is “sexism” or “racism,” then to that extent sexism and racism are true and valid. Yet I think almost all of those who endorse such “hate speech” would agree that everyone is equally human, and equally entitled to equal human rights, respect, and opportunity. So, we Americans are in the midst of a kind of culture war, and I consider Trump to be more on the side of empiricism, reason, and common sense, and more against a philosophically flimsy neo-liberal ideology.
     Consider the following long quote, which is actually from a vehemently anti-Trump article on the website nymag.com: 
For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome. This is just one aspect of what Trump has masterfully signaled as “political correctness” run amok, or what might be better described as the newly rigid progressive passion for racial and sexual equality of outcome, rather than the liberal aspiration to mere equality of opportunity.
Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”
And so they wait, and they steam, and they lash out.
The end of the first paragraph is indicative of what I just touched upon—a specious pseudoscientific ideology being forced upon the American people. The way it works is this: The ideology insists, based upon its own wishful thinking rather than upon empirical evidence, that both biological genders and all races are the same in every way, except for unfortunately undeniable, obvious physical differences. Consequently, ergo, if there is not exact sameness in career choices and material success, then there must be, ex hypothesi, oppression and a lack of equal opportunity. So things that men, and especially white men, do better than others on average, are seen as evidence or even proof of patriarchal oppression. Men come to be discriminated against in order to handicap them sufficiently that everyone else does everything as successfully as they do. Which of course weakens the country, but America is seen by the far left as a malignant force to be taken down anyhow. And many, many Americans are becoming thoroughly fed up with this, and are turning to Donald Trump as their champion. And they are not all ignorant hicks, and they are not all white racists and misogynists, and they are not all from the conservative right.
     Most professional politicians in America, especially those tending toward the left, are effectively crippled, or at least hobbled, by PC hysteria. I have no doubt that President Obama is basically a good man, and he’s obviously an intelligent one; but from being the idealist Great Hope he has declined into a political correctness puppet who is continually making a public fool of himself in order not to offend anybody. A relatively recent example of this occurred when a 14-year-old boy, a smartass kid who happened to be a Muslim, perpetrated a bomb hoax at his school. He took the insides out of an electric alarm clock and put them into a kind of suitcase, along with some other wires and stuff, so that it looked very much like a bomb. (He claimed to have “built a clock,” although simply taking the insides out of a case and putting them into a different case could hardly be called building a clock.) He then took this “clock” to school, where a teacher advised him not to carry it around from class to class, as people might get the wrong idea. The kid deliberately disregarded this advice, and not only carried it around, but provocatively was plugging the strange object into electrical outlets in a classroom and setting the alarm to go off in class. A teacher got worried and informed the principal, and the principal, out of concern for the school’s security, informed the police, and the police came to investigate and detained the bomb hoaxer—since, after all, the kid really had committed a crime, like mischievously bringing a fake bomb into an airport. Immediately the liberal media declared the school’s reaction to be politically incorrect Islamophobia, which caused a deluge of obsequious fawning on the 14-year-old provocateur. (His elder sister allegedly had already been temporarily expelled from school for a previous bomb threat.) The climax came when President Obama himself weakly and foolishly contacted the kid, praised his cool "clock," and invited him to the White House for a friendly visit. That is political correctness hysteria at the highest level, and a case that made Obama look like a fool around the world, kissing the backside of a teenage Islamic bomb hoaxer. Trump is unlikely to play such games.
     So one of the biggest reasons why I readily accept the idea of Trump being president is that I despise PC culture as a disgraceful retreat into regressive, mandatory groupthink and, if it consolidates its power, into eventual inquisitions, witch hunts, and rampant persecution of any who stand in its way. And at present, Trump is America’s greatest hope for an effective counter response.
     Before abandoning, for the time, the topic of “mandatory groupthink,” I will point out that if a cultural ideology were uplifting, strengthening, mostly true, and relatively “enlightened,” then I might be able to endorse its encouragement in a society, for the good of that society. But the ideology fueling PC is, as I’ve already mentioned, philosophically feeble, being based not upon empirical evidence or logic so much as on Gender Studies pseudoscience and sloppy, wishful thinking. Also it promotes intolerance, mass hysteria, and civil strife. At any rate I have little choice but to favor the political right in this case, otherwise before long I may be persecuted in America for being a Buddhist monk, thereby defying PC by appropriating Asian culture. (I wish this were a joke) Ironically, the political right in America has become the defender of classical liberal values abandoned by the left. It has also become, very interestingly, a haven for a new breed of counterculture, a new movement of intellectual rebels thirsting for freedom from a repressive system.
     This whole situation is not so divorced from genuine Dharma as many people might think. Freedom, as well as Truth, could be called my religion; a synonym for Nirvana is “Liberation”; and at present freedom of thought and expression is under attack not so much by fundamentalist Christians on the right as by fundamentalist regressives on the left, a.k.a. Cultural Marxists, a.k.a. social justice warriors. For those of you who are doubtful of what is going on in this regard, you might find interesting the linked video of a discussion of political correctness on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, with ultraliberals literally screaming in hysteria in an attempt to shut the whole discussion down. This is going on all over the country, not just at UMass Amherst. It’s going on at Trump rallies also, with most of the hatred, hostility, and howling hysteria coming from anti-Trump protesters on the political far left, as far as I have seen.
     >I may as well add that to some degree my preference of D. Trump to H. Clinton is simply a matter of personal taste. I would prefer a Putin to a Merkel as the strong, fearless leader of my country, and not only for pragmatic reasons. Putin comes closer to Captain Kirk also. In the war on testicles being waged in the West, with Western Europe and Canada already having succumbed, and Hillary C. the leader of the American Anti-Testicles Party, I have little choice but to vote in favor of cojones.
     All in all, I do not consider any of the candidates for US President to be anywhere near the position of Best Possible Person for the Job. And although Trump is clearly a huge gamble, since nobody really knows how good or bad of a president he would be, only he has even the potential to accomplish anything really “great.” Hillary Clinton’s election would be a practical guarantee of more of the same stuff, a continuation of a status quo leading to greater national debt, continued corruption and hypocrisy in politics, and more dangerous and harmful PC hysteria. Only Trump has any chance at all of correcting this, and I am willing to take that risk for the sake of my beloved country of origin. (That is one symptom of having cojones: a willingness to take risks.) I love America.
     Putting the situation extremely simply, Mr. Trump is the only candidate with the strength and the independence to swim against the current of a pathologically corrupt political system. President Obama may have had that strength at first, but before long he was swept along by the current of events and the momentum of the established political machine. And Hillary Clinton apparently has zero intention of swimming against the current; she is the representative of the establishment, she is its personification, its marionette, with plenty of strings attached to keep her in line.
     Recently it occurred to me that the SJWs, if they existed in the 1930s, would certainly, certainly be on the side of the appeasers for Hitler—you know, ideological supporters of Neville Chamberlain with his idea that if we just give Hitler what he wants, he'll calm down and become a nice person. They'd spit on “war mongers” like Winston Churchill for insisting from the beginning that Hitler must be resisted. They'd hysterically scream and rave in favor of appeasing Hitler, hating the guts of politically incorrect, “hate speech”-spewing resisters. I betcha they'd be exactly like that. They’re already like that with regard to appeasing radical Islamists. As I said at the beginning of this discussion, or propaganda tract, or whatever it is, cold, hard facts must take precedence over virtuous ideology in the realm of politics if a political entity is to survive and prosper. But really, I do not see the Clinton Democrats as really holding the moral high ground. Trump appears to have non-hypocrisy more on his side at any rate. Plus he probably is not in favor of men dressed like women hanging around in women’s public restrooms.
     Getting back to Winston Churchill, just recently I heard a reference to a message that Franklin Roosevelt sent to Churchill just a day before he (Roosevelt) died. I have been unable to locate the exact quote, so I paraphrase it from memory. There was some kind of crisis afoot (remember, this was during WWII), and the dying Roosevelt advised Churchill not to take it too seriously, as crises are continually cropping up in this world, and most of them have a way of working themselves out. That’s a useful thing to bear in mind, I think. We often appear to be racing toward a cliff or brick wall, so it’s easy to prophesy doom; but we humans do have some common sense, and we usually make adjustments sufficient to avert disaster, usually. So fear mongering over the current rise of an ugly political far left and a resultant culture war in the USA, or over a Trump presidential administration, is probably unnecessary, although it can make interesting reading, and it can give some perspective on an alternative point of view.
     Those of you who are not Americans (and my blog stats indicate that about half of you are not), may see American cultural upheavals as typical of American silliness and foolishness. For the most part you are correct; although this same silliness is largely the product of freedom of thought, one of the most sacred ideals of the United States, no matter how much that ideal is sometimes trampled. This same freedom that allows howling hysteria over trivial quasi-issues also allows for genius, for genius most readily arises from chaos.



...or, vote for Oat Willie




NOTE: In order to forestall political bickering back and forth, ad nauseam, I do not intend to publish comments to this post. Deal with it.