Trump, Pale Ravener of Horrible Meat


What is it that draws people to Donald Trump, given his history of exploiting underlings when he needs them and casting them off at a moment’s notice? Most recently we have been watching South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham fall under Trump’s spell after being one of his most vocal GOP critics. It appears that former National Security head Michael Flynn was willing to lie to the FBI for Trump, and he may not be the only one who did so and who now feels betrayed. Do any of those who work for Trump seriously think he will thank them for it?

I don’t have a good explanation for why people work for Trump, but I have an image: these “advisors” are like the pilot fish in Herman Melville’s terrifying poem “The Maldive Shark.” They serve as Trump’s “eyes and brains,” guiding him to his prey. Yet like the fish in the poem, they “never partake of the treat.”

Following the poem’s imagery, Trump would be a “Gorgonian head,” a “dotard lethargic and dull,” and a “pale ravener [devourer] of horrible meat.” The images work for me, but I’ll give him a pass on “pale sot” as he avoids alcohol.

For the record, there is no “Maldive shark” but the Maldives, a string of islands and reefs in the South Pacific, are a haven for sharks. Melville may have encountered them there when he was a sailor.

Here’s the poem:

The Maldive Shark

By Herman Melville

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat—
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Further thought: I sometimes worry that I give Trump too much credit in posts like this. Might he not be trivial rather than horrible, small rather than big? I do, however, find something darkly grand in his insatiable need for praise and in his bottomless narcissism. Trump, like sharks, is noteworthy for his singular focus.

Attempts to control this appetite–pilot fish who think they can use their smarts to get the shark to do their will–bring to mind a Schopenhauer passage that Nietzsche cites in The Birth of Tragedy. Both philosophers compare humans to a man in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean boasting of the power of individual will. The fragile ego (eyes and brains) has the illusion that it can control the boundless realm of the id, but in the end it is swamped. Here’s the passage:

Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis and relying on it.

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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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