Tag Archives: Moby Dick

The Answer My Friend


Chapter 44 of Moby Dick finds Ahab in his cabin, fighting a vicious headache. Having announced the target of his predation to the Pequod’s crew, he now suffers from the inescapable fact that he cannot specify where Moby Dick rolls, sounds and wallows. At this moment, what heaps and tasks Ahab is not some abstract inscrutable malice but rather the whale’s carnal invisibility.

Even when given golden incentive through the doubloon nailed to the mast and entranced by their captain, the lookouts in the topmast can only scan a single migratory vein, with even such limited scrutiny possible only when weather conditions are optimal. The masts of the scattered fleet are not linked into a network of fixed haliographs, such as the one devised in a later decade by General Nelson Miles during his hunt for the most wicked indian who ever lived; nor are they able to transmit radiophonic signals, no matter how much lightning they may inadvertently conduct.

Unlike terrestrial hunting where the environment is stable and where the hunter might also remain silent and still while waiting for prey to roam into range, whaling is a hunt where all the variables are constantly in motion: the ocean is moving; the whales are in motion, sometimes with the currents, but often not; and the whale ship is in motion, too, dependent on winds that may or may not favor the systematic tracking of probable – but never definite – migratory patterns. Thus Ahab bends over his charts:

The charts store information about seasonal migrations and feeding patterns, and also identify specific sightings of Moby Dick, not only in his own past voyages but also those encounters recorded in the stories of his fellow captains in the whaling fleet. Sifting, weighing and balancing all these variables and probabilities inside his head, Ahab ultimately seeks to transform the pencilled vectors of his charts into a fountain of whale blood.


Let us now move away from the dark vortex of Ahab’s headspace and consider the shadowlands of our own national security obsessions, as represented in the vast surveillance octopus of the NSA. As described in an excellent Wired report, Stellar Wind is the catchy code name for the world’s largest data mine, now under construction in Bluffdale ,Utah.


At the core of the project crunching the yottabytes will be the the world’s fastest supercomputer, generating so much heat that it will require 60,000 tons of cooling equipment, heat released by the creation of the most exhaustive behavioral map of a species ever conceived, a dynamic map that aims to capture every burp and twitch of the Naked Crowd. This lethal funnel of decryption and pattern analysis will eventually deliver an obliteration of individual privacy so thorough as to rip the notion of inalienable human rights from whatever remains of the American narrative, and leave us: where?

With a Stellar Wind blowing hard in our faces, we turn once again to Chapter 44, and to Ishmael’s astute diagnosis:

Eagle Mutation?

Inscrutable Things

                          … all twisketee be-twisk, like him – him –     Moby Dick
Harpoons, lances and iron darts lie all twisted and wrenched in the flesh of the white whale, creating a strange sort of fluid vulnerography. On a prior voyage, Queequeg took note of the whale’s twisted corkscrew body; Queequeg, upon whose own body a prophet had inscribed a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume.

Queequeq may well understand that Moby Dick’s flesh also carries a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, a theory that tasks and heaps Ahab, a theory that he believes is nothing but a mask for the most inscrutable malice; The inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. 

Unable to wreak sufficient hatred by himself, Ahab winds the crew up into an electrified killing machine geared to obliterate this bloody glyph, yet in the end the wounded whale sucks him into its unfathomable depths, voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.

Melville does not spell it out quite so explicitly, but John Huston and Ray Bradbury jiggle the line, and present us with the powerful image of the mad captain bound to the whale by his own violent scrawl, his arm still beckoning to the crew, while the nib of his ivory leg points to the obscure depths. The darts and lines meant to constrain and subdue the whale in a tangle of barbed lashings will now stitch whatever remains of Ahab into the cipher’s lethal inscrutability.

This image of Ahab, his lightning self finally extinguished by the whale’s deep water sounding, his broken body hanging and waving amidst the barbs, summons another haunting image to mind, from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque describes an attack by the German soldiers, crossing through the death zone of barbed wire and machine guns: I see one of them, his face upturned, fall into a a wire cradle. His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.

Two more inscrutable things, hanging in a toxic fog of gas and smoke, lone survivors clinging to the wire like Ishmael clinging to Queequeq’s coffin, to tell the tale.




After a nasty brush with death while hunting large fellow mammals, still fairly early in the unfolding drama of the Pequod, Ishmael experiences a moment of profound philosophical immersion: There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. 

Most acute at times of trial and tribulation, such a wayward mood gives birth to a free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy. In this dissonant coupling of the words genial and desperado by way of a comma, Melville captures an essential element, possibly the most essential element, of a distinctly American philosophy that brings complex undertones to the simple Pilgrim hymns of our Shining City On A Hill, undertones of the sort that might produce a death metal soundtrack for the rock & rolling Humvees of Operation Enduring Freedom.

In an act of sober pragmatism, Ishmael draws up his Last Will and Testament, inviting Queequeg to serve as his lawyer, executor and legatee. Task accomplished, he then looks around himself with deep contentment, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience. His earthly affairs in order, he is now fully prepared for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.

Internally complex and contingent, desperado philosophy can resolve itself in a wide variety of ways, depending on the character of individuals and the circumstances that confront them. Ishmael, for one, comes to embody the brave existential stoicism of a skeptical believer, someone with doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly, as expressed in those many passages where Melville begins to sound like Kierkegaard. Yet inside a different bag of bones, driven by a different ethos and influenced by different historical conditions, desperado philosophy may well express itself as the most perverse sort of nihilism, a murderous cynicism that uses the senseless absurdity of the cosmos as a cover.

That more nihilistic side is certainly alive and well in America as we enter the year 2012. Consider for example what for my eyes offers the emblematic image for the year 2011 in America. A pear shaped man named John Pike, employed as a campus police officer and dressed in riot gear, casually sprays a row of young men and women who are dressed like college students prepared for a rainy day. Indeed, they are students at UC Davis, and they are sitting across a campus pathway in peaceful protest, as part of a blooming Occupy movement.

Mr. Pike, honored in the past for brave and selfless acts, holds the red can in a way that resembles a suburban homeowner coating his plants with fungicide. Yet this particular can contains Oleoresin Capsicum, commonly known as pepper spray. Pepper spray is classified as a lachrymatory agent, that is, it will make you cry, sometimes to the point of blindness. The pear shaped Mr. Pike believes in the righteousness of his brutality. Pathways must be kept clear, and clean, as clear and clean as the conscience of a quiet ghost.

Let us now summon another emblematic character into the scene; Jon Corzine, former governor of New Jersey, former US senator; and a former CEO at Goldman Sachs. Yet in October 2011, Mr. Corzine found himself at the head of a relatively obscure financial chop shop named MF Global Holdings. The “MF” was an alphabetic memory trace for a former corporate incarnation called Man Financial. Among the global holdings, Mr. Corzine had purchased large slag heaps of toxic derivatives linked to bonds issued by insolvent European governments, such as Greece.

A veteran if somewhat rusty bond trader himself, Mr. Corzine understood that these derivative instruments might soon create a Mother Freaking whirlpool into which his Malignant Fantasy would disappear without a trace. His teams of young, eager traders, looking forward to their XXL Christmas bonuses, all saw the same patterns on their screens, and they knew what Miserable Fate awaited them. But wait, thought Mr. Corzine – why not  simply pledge the money from our customer accounts, to cover our haunches from the invasive probes of margin clerks until the crisis is past, devil fetch the hindmost? If it all goes as pear shaped as Mr. Pike, no worries and no tears: these transactions are far too complex for mere lawyers to comprehend. Such thinking qualifies Mr. Corzine as an exemplary Man For Our Times.