Monday, February 18, 2019

White whale and wide wall: American obsessives Ahab and Donald Trump

Ahab, illustrated by Rockwell Kent. "In the mid-20th century, he's an argument against totalitarianism," said Will Hansen, curator of the Herman Melville exhibit at The Newberry. "And now he's this demagogue leading us over the cliff."

     Even Ahab, the great figure of self-destructive obsession in American literature, gets pushback, immediately, while he’s still selling his quest to the doomed crew of the Pequod. He displays the ounce of Spanish gold belonging to whoever first sights the white whale and nails it to the mast. The crew cheers. But Starbuck, the young chief mate — and future eponym for a famous chain of coffee shops — isn’t huzzahing with the rest. He’s scowling.
     “What’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck,” Ahab demands. “Wilt thou not chase the white whale? Art not game for Moby Dick?”
     “I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow,” replies Starbuck. “But I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.”
     It might be a stretch to compare Ahab and Donald Trump. One man is sun-bronzed and lean, the other orange-dyed and stout. But the two men do share a leadership style — both issuing “orders so sudden and peremptory.”
     And Ahab’s white whale does resonate with Trump’s wide wall. When Starbuck elaborates his objection, “To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous,” he is referring to the unreasoning whale.
     Echoed by the dumb thing of Trump’s wall, which is stupid because it is racist, unnecessary and expensive. Most Americans, like Starbuck, are clear-eyed enough to oppose such vengeful folly.
     Moby Dick is on my mind, having walked through the excellent “Melville: Finding America at Sea” with organizer Will Hansen, The Newberry Library’s director of reader services and curator of Americana.
     “The great American secular Bible,” he said, pausing before, “the first editions of Moby Dick, first published in London.”
     “It was fairly common in the 19th century for American writers to first publish in England, probably because America had no copyright protections,” Hansen said. "England was starting to get more copyright protections, thanks to Dickens, if you first published in England it was thought you had a better case to sue if somebody pirated your work."

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  1. Well let us indeed hope this will be his white whale. It's a good metaphor.

  2. Melville was good with obsessives. One hopes that Trump doesn't turn out like Bartelby the Scrivener, who refuses to be displaced.


    1. Despite the stubborn irrationality that Bartleby exhibits to the agonizing frustration of everyone he encounters, I kind of sympathize with him, even without the dead letter office reference.



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