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Learning from Captain Ahab - two stories of civilization

Chris Hedges and Greg Grandin both call on Melville's Moby-Dick to bring us commentary on the crisis of our civilization. 

Excerpts below - click on the headline (link) for the full text.

The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies

Chris Hedges, Truthdig
The most prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage. He is our foremost oracle. He is to us what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to czarist Russia.

Our country is given shape in the form of the ship, the Pequod, named after the Indian tribe exterminated in 1638 by the Puritans and their Native American allies. The ship’s 30-man crew—there were 30 states in the Union when Melville wrote the novel—is a mixture of races and creeds. The object of the hunt is a massive white whale, Moby Dick, which in a previous encounter maimed the ship’s captain, Ahab, by dismembering one of his legs. The self-destructive fury of the quest, much like that of the one we are on, assures the Pequod’s destruction. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed—just as many of us know that a consumer culture based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation and the continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed...
(27 January 2014)
Hedges goes on to say that our hope lies in the human imagination. The source article at Truthdigalso includes a Soundcloud recording of the essay.


The Two Faces of Empire: Melville Knew Them, We Still Live With Them

Greg Grandin, Tom Dispatch
A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It’s a well-known story, and over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

But what’s really frightening isn't our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age. The respectable types are the true “terror of our age,” as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly 50 years ago. The really scary characters are our soberest politicians, scholars, journalists, professionals, and managers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves as morally serious, and then enable the wars, devastate the planet, and rationalize the atrocities. They are a type that has been with us for a long time. More than a century and a half ago, Melville, who had a captain for every face of empire, found their perfect expression -- for his moment and ours.

For the last six years, I’ve been researching the life of an American seal killer, a ship captain named Amasa Delano who, in the 1790s, was among the earliest New Englanders to sail into the South Pacific. Money was flush, seals were many, and Delano and his fellow ship captains established the first unofficial U.S. colonies on islands off the coast of Chile. They operated under an informal council of captains, divvied up territory, enforced debt contracts, celebrated the Fourth of July, and set up ad hoc courts of law. When no bible was available, the collected works of William Shakespeare, found in the libraries of most ships, were used to swear oaths.

From his first expedition, Delano took hundreds of thousands of sealskins to China, where he traded them for spices, ceramics, and tea to bring back to Boston. During a second, failed voyage, however, an event took place that would make Amasa notorious -- at least among the readers of the fiction of Herman Melville....

One of the things that attracted Melville to the historical Amasa was undoubtedly the juxtaposition between his cheerful self-regard -- he considers himself a modern man, a liberal opposed to slavery -- and his complete obliviousness to the social world around him. The real Amasa was well meaning, judicious, temperate, and modest.

In other words, he was no Ahab, whose vengeful pursuit of a metaphysical whale has been used as an allegory for every American excess, every catastrophic war, every disastrous environmental policy, from Vietnam and Iraq to the explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Ahab, whose peg-legged pacing of the quarterdeck of his doomed ship enters the dreams of his men sleeping below like the “crunching teeth of sharks.” Ahab, whose monomania is an extension of the individualism born out of American expansion and whose rage is that of an ego that refuses to be limited by nature’s frontier. “Our Ahab,” as a soldier in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon calls a ruthless sergeant who senselessly murders innocent Vietnamese.

Ahab is certainly one face of American power. In the course of writing a book on the history that inspired Benito Cereno, I’ve come to think of it as not the most frightening -- or even the most destructive of American faces. Consider Amasa...
(26 January 2014)
Greg Grandin is author of The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

Captain Ahab image via Petesimon/wikimediacommons. Creative Commons 3.0 license.

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