Captain Ahab, a Tyrant for All Seasons

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab


Once I began looking for literary versions of dictators like Qaddafi (see yesterday’s post), I started finding them everywhere. An article in Vanity Fair by Nathaniel Philbrick reminds me that Captain Ahab is also one such figure.

Philbrick describes Moby Dick as an essential survival manual that helps us face up to history’s autocrats:

For me, Moby-Dick is more than the greatest American novel ever written; it is a metaphysical survival manual—the best guidebook there is for a literate man or woman facing an impenetrable unknown: the future of civilization in this storm-tossed 21st century.

Written at a time when America was wrestling with the question of slavery, Moby Dick, Philbrick says, is about much more than whaling:

Contained in its pages is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that had contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 and were about to precipitate a civil war in 1861, and that have continued to drive this country’s ever contentious march across 160 years, up through the current “war on terror.” This means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important. It is why subsequent generations of readers have seen Ahab as Hitler during World War II or, closer to our own day, as a profit-mad, deep-drilling oil company in 2010, or as one of several power-crazed Middle Eastern dictators in 2011.

Ahab stands in contradistinction to the Pequod’s wonderful interracial friendships, which Melville characterizes as “divine equality.” Philbrick breaks down the captain:

In Melville’s view, it doesn’t take much to become a demagogue as long as you learn a few simple tricks. Dictators such as Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi are not geniuses; they are paranoid despots and expert manipulators of men. If you want to understand how these and other megalomaniacs pull it off, read the last third of Moby-Dick and watch as Ahab tightens his stranglehold on the Pequod’ s crew in his increasingly horrifying quest for the White Whale.

Philbrick contends that Melville also provides for us a description of an ideal leader:

In the midst of a disorienting crisis, what is needed more than anything else, he suggests, is a calm, steadying dose of clarity, the kind of omniscient, all-seeing perspective symbolized by an eagle on the wing: “And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.” This is the anti-Ahab, who instead of anger and pain relies on equanimity and judgment, who does his best to remain above the fray and who even in the darkest of possible moments resists the “woe that is madness.”

Philbrick says that, in Melville’s time, the Catskill eagle eventually showed up in the figure of Abraham Lincoln. This raises the question of whether we have any Catskill eagles in politics today.

I don’t think Obama is there yet although I think he has potential to grow into one.  He appears to have the ability to both soar into sunny realms (he appears both firm and aloof) and, as a recent article in The Washington Post revealed, plunge into the “blackest gorges.”  (The article describes how the president reads ten randomly selected letters a day from citizens, which expose him to the anger and despair of parts of America.) If he learns better how to move between those two realms, becoming both strong and connected and projecting an image of authority, he could become the man his supporters hope for.

I don’t see anyone amongst the declared Republican candidates who comes close to either soaring or diving.  Meanwhile, an angry whale watches as the ship approaches.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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