Moby Dick Redux: It’s about the oil

29 Apr

That’s right, Moby Dick, the 19th century novel by Herman Melville, one of the great novels. Of course we’re beyond it, it was published in 1851. Whales were hunted for their oil, which was used for lubrication, and, above all, lighting. Though whaling began to die out a decade after Moby Dick was published—oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859—it was big business when Moby Dick was published, and America’s whaling fleet was the largest in the world.

Rather than continuing on with my own observations, however, I thought I give you a Martian interpretation of the book. Well, not real Martians, a fictional ones, a pair invented by Margaret Atwood and plopped into a New York Times op-ed:

“‘Moby-Dick’ is about the oil industry,” they said. “And the Ship of American State. The owners of the Pequod are rapacious and stingy religious hypocrites. The ship’s business is to butcher whales and turn them into an industrial energy product. The mates are the middle management. The harpooners, who are from races colonized by America one way or another, are supplying the expert tech labor. Elijah the prophet — from the American artist caste — foretells the Pequod’s doom, which comes about because the chief executive, Ahab, is a megalomaniac who wants to annihilate nature.

“Nature is symbolized by a big white whale, which has interfered with Ahab’s personal freedom by biting off his leg and refusing to be slaughtered and boiled. The narrator, Ishmael, represents journalists; his job is to warn America that it’s controlled by psychotics who will destroy it, because they hate the natural world and don’t grasp the fact that without it they will die. That’s enough literature for now. Can we have popcorn?”

Seems about right.

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2 Responses to “Moby Dick Redux: It’s about the oil”

  1. Charlie Keil May 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    I remember being surprised by some Islamofascists hidden in the depths of the ship being brought out for “special services” at the eleventh hour to do battle with the whale. How could they have been kept hidden from the rest of the crew? What was the point of keeping them secret for so long?

    • Bill Benzon May 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

      Well, I don’t know, Charlie. I’ve just gotten to the chapter where Ahab reveals his special whaling crew. But why he had that crew, and why he kept them hidden until he had no choice, beats me. But they weren’t completely hidden as at least one crewman made a point of indicating that he heard sounds from below decks.

      That they were Muslims, I don’t know how that would have played in mid-19th Century America. I suppose they’re some kind of Other, but then so’s Ahab and, for that matter, Moby Dick hisownbadself.

      Melville is certainly playing around with ethnic multiplicity. After all he starts off by pairing white, Protestant Ishmael with brown, South Seas cannibal Quequeeg. The other two harpooners that we know about (until the unveiling of Ahab’s crew) are non-while, one being a Native American and the other being black African. The crew itself is from all over the world.

      There’s a chapter (40 “Midnight, Forecastle”) where we’re below decks in the evening and the sailors are hanging out and grooving. We get these nationalities/ethnicities, in order: Nantucket, Dutch, French, Iceland, Maltese, Sicilian, Azore, China, Native American (Tashtego, harpooner), Manx, Lascar, Tahiti, Portuguese, Danish, England, African (Daggoo, harpooner), Spanish, St. Jago’s (wherever that is), and Belfast. So that’s quite a mixed crew. And that fact that Melville devoted a whole chapter to an evening’s chatter among these men suggests he was making some point about that.

      Ahab’s crew appears eight chapters later (48 “The First Lowering”), five of them:

      The figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas;–a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere.

      At this point, I don’t know much more than that.

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