Above Photo: A model for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851): ‘Capturing a Sperm Whale’, colored engraving by J. Hill, 1835, after William Page (1811-1885). Photo by: Pictures from History / Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
The classic novel by Herman Melville still offers a prescient glimpse into the American character.
And perhaps our ultimate fate as a species.
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, is among America’s greatest novels. It is a prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a nation and perhaps a species. Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness, and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage. Melville’s description of the ship’s captain, Ahab, is a description of the bankers, corporate boards, politicians, television personalities, and generals who through the power of propaganda fill our heads with seductive images of glory and lust for wealth and power. We are consumed with self-induced obsessions that spur us toward self-annihilation. Melville is our foremost oracle. He is to us what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to czarist Russia.
Joining Chris to discuss Melville’s novel is Nathaniel Philbrick author of Why Read Moby Dick? as well as books such as In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleboat Essex, Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy and The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and The Battle of the Little Bighorn.
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Studio: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino, Rebecca Myles
Chris Hedges: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is America’s greatest novel. The one book the writer William Faulkner said he wished he had written. It is the most prescient portrait of the American character, and our ultimate fate as a nation, and perhaps a species. Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness, and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage.
Melville’s description of the ship’s Captain Ahab is a description of the bankers, corporate boards, politicians, television personalities, and generals who, through the power of propaganda, fill our heads with seductive images of glory and lust for wealth and power. We are consumed with self-induced obsessions that spur us toward self-annihilation.
Melville is our foremost oracle. He is to us what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England or Fyodor Dostoevsky to Czarist Russia. America is given shape in the form of the ship the Pequod, named after the Native American 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 Ahab by biting off one of his legs. The self-destructive fury of the quest, much like a society that is unable to wrest itself from its addiction to fossil fuel, assures the Pequod’s destruction.
And those on the ship on some level know they are doomed, just as many of us know we are doomed. We, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march towards environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions are ignored or ridiculed. Even with the flashing red lights before us, the increased droughts, rapid melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, monster tornadoes, vast hurricanes, crop failures, floods, raging wildfires, and soaring temperatures, we, like Ahab, blinded by hubris, bow slavishly before the enticing illusion of a limitless power, superior intelligence, and physical prowess. We believe in the eternal wellspring of material progress. We are our own idols. Nothing will halt our voyage, it seems to us to have been decreed by natural law. “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run,” Ahab declares.
Joining me to discuss Melville’s novel is Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Why Read Moby-Dick? as well as books such as In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex; Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War; Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy; and The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
So Nat, I want to begin with this quote from Ahab. He says, “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event… some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If a man will strike, strike through the mask! …To me, the white whale is… outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; And be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principle, I will wreak that hate upon him.”
Can you talk about that? It seems, to me, the core of the novel.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. I mean, I think it speaks to any demented leaders being completely convinced that what is opposing him or her is inherently evil and is out there, and how to get at it.
Ahab has been attacked by a white whale. He decides that the whale represents all evil out there. And so he sees something beyond the real world, that there is God, but there is also something malevolent out there that Ahab is desperate to revenge himself upon.
And when he says, whether it’s actually the whale or something behind it, I’m going to do everything I can to attack it. It’s paranoia, it’s delusion, but it’s brilliant in its own way. This is not your ordinary whaling captain. This is someone who is reaching for the philosophical stratosphere as he flails around trying to revenge himself on a brute beast.
Chris Hedges: I read a book called Shielding the Flame by Marek Edelman, who was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And he chose that title – He became a doctor after the war – Because he saw the deity as malevolent, and that his role, both in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and as a doctor, was shielding the flame; Protecting human life from that malevolent force. I wonder if that is where Melville was coming from?
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. I mean, he had read Nathaniel Hawthorne, and what appealed to him about Hawthorne was the power of blackness; How Hawthorne found that unspeakable evil that is out there, that even to talk about it is to risk going insane. And yeah, I think Melville would have, and particularly Ahab would’ve sympathized with that, that whatever is out there is out to get him and is inherently malevolent.
Chris Hedges: Well, Melville told Hawthorne, he wrote, “[I have written a wicked book],” didn’t he?
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yes. “And feel spotless as the lamb.”
And I think that’s it in many ways. That’s an author as an artist working at his highest state, where you can plunge into the most sordid mystical depths, and yet feel insulated from it through the power of your art. And Melville was just operating with all the cylinders firing and inhabiting a sensibility that, I think for most of us, is uninhabitable.
Chris Hedges: To what extent did Melville identify with Ahab?
Nathaniel Philbrick: I think Melville saw more than he would’ve liked in Ahab. I think any artist does.
And as Melville says elsewhere, “all mortal greatness is but disease.” You know, to have any kind of ambition, whether it’s artistic, political, or personal, is to challenge forces that are beyond your control, that are ultimately working to serve you, but not necessarily to serve others. And that can be interpreted as evil.
Chris Hedges: DH Lawrence describes Moby-Dick – And these are his words – a vision of a doomed white civilization. Do you think that’s a correct interpretation of the book?
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s plenty of interpretations of the book, but Lawrence is one of our great interpreters of American literature. Being English, he had that distance, and yet having been to America, he experienced it.
I think Melville had felt that America had reached a crossroads where we were turning in upon ourselves in terms of the country. Where we were headed West, conquering our way, destroying Native cultures in this relentless quest to push our borders West. And he saw that as inherently evil. In another book, he talks about the metaphysics of Indian hating, of how anything that’s the other we interpret as bad, despicable, and worthy of destruction. And that’s the great redemptive power of Moby-Dick, where you have characters like Queequeg, where Melville is insisting that is not the right way to go. I think that really is a direct criticism of America in Moby-Dick.
Chris Hedges: But he names these forces as deeply self-destructive. C.L.R James’s comment on Moby-Dick, he calls it the biography of the last days of Hitler. So I think what Melville is saying certainly – And what Lawrence and C.L.R James are echoing – Is that these forces ultimately destroy us.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Absolutely. And that is the crux of Moby-Dick. Here we are, hell-bent in this pursuit of a white whale, knowing full well that it is not going to go well for anyone. And that’s where we are today. Where, you know, fossil fuels… What we need to do to maintain the level of civilization – And I have quotes around that – Is destroying the underpinnings of the planet itself to sustain us. And so it’s completely self-destructive. It’s what the fur trappers went through, the fisheries are going through now, where deficiencies make it so effective in reaping these harvests that you ultimately kill the goose.
Chris Hedges: Well, there’s this poignant moment in Moby-Dick where Melville writes that at least the whales are safe under the Arctic ice.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Melville loved whales, and he wanted to have some hope that they would outlive our destructive urge to turn their blubber into oil. And obviously, we’ll give him that. What he could not have foreseen when he wrote Moby-Dick is that the urges that sent Nantucketers and all whalers remorselessly against sperm whales and other cetaceans would be redirected to petroleum, which would have its own adverse effects on the environment in a very fundamental way.
And that’s what makes this book so timeless. Melville’s talking about something from the 19th century that is spot on to where we are in the 21st, because human nature is human nature. We are lethal. When the first homo sapiens began walking this planet, everywhere we went, we wreaked havoc on the species around us. And it’s only inevitable that it one day will come back to get us.
Chris Hedges: Edward Said, after the attacks of 9/11, brings up Osama bin Laden, and he likens the pursuit of Osama bin Laden to Ahab’s pursuit of Moby-Dick. This is him: “An imperial power injured [at home] for the first time, pursuing its interest systematically in what has become suddenly a reconfigured geography of conflict.” I thought that was a really interesting analogy from Said.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. I mean, it sort of turned itself on its head, and particularly was against the grain of how people in America were feeling at that time. They wanted to kill the whale like Ahab, snuff it out, without any attempt to see it in a larger context. So I think that is a very provocative interpretation of post 9/11 and Melville.
And that is the power of Moby-Dick. It is endlessly relevant, because humans are humans, and as our technology changes, as we make our way into the future, there are fundamental aspects of our behavior, of who we are, that are hardwired into us in a way that we may know what we’re doing is insanely self-destructive, but we’re just unable to contain ourselves.
Chris Hedges: So the Pequod is kind of a microcosm of American civilization. And one of the things that’s fascinating is that Melville’s keenly aware that the dirty work of Western civilization, as on the clipper ships and the whalers, was done by the exploited. He has this quote: “Yes; All these brave houses and flowery gardens come from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.” – This is Ishmael talking about New England’s prosperity – “One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”
And of course, the authority figures are white men: Ahab, Starbuck, Flask, Stubb. But the dirty work, from the harpooning, the gutting of the carcasses, that’s the task of the poor and the task of people of color. I just wondered if you could talk about those class divisions on the ship.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah, well, Melville… There’s a Native American, Tashtego, from Martha’s Vineyard. There’s Daggoo, an African. And there’s the African American cook, who evocatively at one point looks down at night while the sharks are feasting themselves on the carcass of the whale strapped to the side of the Pequod, and talks about the terror, really, of the shark, and what is that?
And so, as Melville will say elsewhere, the work of our republic, our economic might is provided by either enslaved Americans or those that have been employed under very onerous terms. I mean, this is how the economic miracle works. And with Moby-Dick, you see it in a cross section of how America has all this land, has all these resources, but the real genius is in how it harnesses its workforce.
Chris Hedges: Well, and these sailors, once they came back from these voyages that could last two to three years, were just cast onto the street. Cities like New Bedford. They were virtually homeless, penniless. They were just thrust aside.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. I mean, the irony… Here on Nantucket, they were Quaker Nantucketers who were abolitionists when it came to Southern slavery, but when it came to the whale fishery had no qualms about enlisting a system of work that was as exploitative as anything happening down South.
And in fact, when Nantucket’s whale fishery was founded back in the 17th century, the early Nantucketers used the Native American population and ensnared them in a system of debt servitude, whereby they developed… A Native American would have a judgment against him in court, be sentenced to several years in the whale fishery, and those sentences were available for people to basically bid on. And so this is where the Nantucketers had come from when it came to the increasing economic sophistication of whaling. As Melville says in Moby-Dick, “they are Quakers with a vengeance.”
Chris Hedges: Well, the owners of the Pequod were Quakers.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yes, they were. And there’s that wonderful beginning of the book when they’re talking about the lay that a whaleman will make. And of course, you know, it’s a fraction, so the larger –
Chris Hedges: You should explain what a lay is.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. A lay is, when you went on a voyage, a whaling voyage, you signed up to get a certain percentage of the final take on the voyage. And it was a fraction of the voyage. And Quaker whale ship owners were very good at convincing greenhorns from wherever that the higher number, which was on the bottom, meant that you were going to get more when it was exactly the opposite. And so Ishmael talks about the lay he ends up getting, which is just miserable.
Which was typical. If you were not a Nantucketer, it was an economic system designed that, by the end of the voyage, the seamen made no money, and if anything, owed the company store, so to speak, the slop chest, money. And so what do you do? You get drunk and then get back on a whale ship.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about the first time Ahab appears on the quarterdeck. So he is in his cabin for the first few days of the voyage, and he holds up in front of the crew this doubloon, this gold coin. He promises it to the first crew member who sights Moby-Dick, the white whale. He nails the doubloon to the mast.
And Melville writes that Ahab knows that, “the permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man… is sordidness.” And of course, that’s what Ahab does. Can you talk about playing to that sordidness?
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. I mean, it’s an absolute lack of respect for your fellow man, and to see it as something to be exploited, as something to be dismissed, as less than human. You know, it’s capitalism taken to the Nth degree. And it’s there all over Moby-Dick, where Ahab needs these crew members, and he’s wonderful at whipping them up in the equivalent of a political rally from the quarterdeck. But he sees them as instruments to his will. He has no sense of their needs, what they deserve in terms of not just this voyage, but as human beings.
Chris Hedges: Well, Starbuck calls all of this behavior blasphemous. And then there’s this amazing scene, this kind of dark mass, this Eucharist of violence and blood. It is this almost fascist rally. Can you talk about that moment? Because at that point, Starbuck, who realizes what’s happening, becomes powerless.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Right. And in many ways, Starbuck is the moral fulcrum on which the novel is based. Because Starbuck, unlike even Ishmael who admits to being caught up in Ahab’s charismatic gravitational force, Starbuck, the first mate, doesn’t, and Starbuck realizes exactly what’s ahead: This guy is demented. What he wants to do is illegal. He is hijacking this ship contrary to what the owner’s manifest insists that he does for his own personal means. And what he is legally bound to do is to oppose that, and he flirts with that idea of actually taking up arms against Ahab. But ultimately, he’s just not strong enough, and he allows it to happen.
And I think, how many of us have seen, not only in our own experience but in the past, in history, instances where a demented leader is enabled by those that are just simply exhausted and ultimately terrified of what opposing this maniac will bring down upon them?
Chris Hedges: Well, Ahab is quite conscious of this. In the book, he says that Starbuck is helpless, “Amid the general hurricane… ‘Starbuck now is mine;’” Ahab says. “…Cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.’” And then Melville writes, “…the honest eye of Starbuck fell downright.” This is a fascinating moment for me, because Starbuck was one of the most courageous harpooners, a very dangerous task on a whaling ship, and it’s this juxtaposition between physical and moral courage.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Absolutely. And Starbuck is a good guy. He’s a family man, but he’s a warrior when it comes to the whale fishery. He is as good as it gets. But Ahab takes the voyage in a direction that no Nantucket whaleman has really experienced. It’s a metaphor for life, where we’re under control of someone who is going to take us to places we don’t want to go. The only brave thing to do is to oppose him, but ultimately, you just look at the options and say, nope, I’ll go with the rest. It’s that grim fatality. And it’s heartbreaking, really.
And there is that final moment towards the end of Moby-Dick where Starbuck and Ahab, Starbuck says, hey, come on, man. There’s a green valley. You can go back to your son back on Nantucket. I can go back to my wife and my family. And Ahab is tempted, but ultimately, no.
Chris Hedges: It isn’t just rhetoric, it isn’t just fascistic ritual, but Ahab has his internal security force, his Stalinist secret police, the “five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air.” This is Ahab’s secret because he hides them from the rest of the crew, private [inaudible] crew. So just talk about that, that art of propaganda, but also Ahab’s understanding that he needs, in the end, a force of coercion.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. He needs a force of coercion. But what’s really interesting in Moby-Dick is towards the end when Ahab and Starbuck are talking, and Ahab is feeling that, do I really want to go? No, it’s his security detail that says, oh no, you’re in this. Ahab, ultimately, is as much a part… Who is really calling the shots here? And I think there’s been many a dictator who finds him or herself in that position, where the forces you’ve created to enable you have their own momentum and own will that ultimately not even you can oppose because you are dependent on them.
Chris Hedges: Well, that’s the theme of Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant.” He’s part of the British police force in, I think, Burma, and by the time he gets to the rampaging elephant, it’s already calmed down, but he has to shoot it because it’s what the crowd expects of him. There’s a very similar kind of, you’re captive to those kinds of forces.
I want to talk about the internal battle. So this is between Ahab’s hubris and his humanity. He clearly has a yearning for love that makes him a fascinating, complex figure, which he expresses to the Black cabin boy, Pip. And perhaps you can also flesh out a little bit about what happens to Pip. But talk about that moment. There’s a moment of tenderness, really.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Absolutely. Pip is equivalent to Lear’s fool in Shakespeare’s play. Pip is the cabin boy, known to dance, and is antic, and everyone loves him. But he is terrified of… When actually put on a whale boat, twice he jumps over the side of the whale boat in terror at what’s happening, as I think any rational person would.
And the first time, they go back and rescue him, but say, not the next time. And they don’t, and he stays out there on this vast sheet of water without any other vessel in sight, and goes insane. His sensibility, as Melville says, is dragged to the depths where these great sea insects crawl. He sees the underpinnings of the universe, and he comes up mad. And yet he’s not Ahab mad. He is someone who is still immensely attractive and is the one soul in Moby-Dick that Ahab can find some emotional connection with, because Ahab has been dragged to the depths and is using that to get back as an act of revenge.
And it has such a level of poignancy to it, and shows that Ahab, even though he is this creature, he has his humanities, as is said of him, which makes it all the more poignant in terms of what will ultimately happen.
Chris Hedges: Well, there’s that line, I’m going to butcher it, something like “[All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad],” or something. Ahab’s fully aware of his own demented quality. He even says to Pip, “’Lad, lad, I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health.’”
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yes, yes. Oh, that’s it. And with Pip, we see… I mean, I think with Pip, it’s Melville and Ismail’s most eloquent expression of what a terrifying universe we are really in. Whether it is evil, whether it is good, whatever it is, it is beyond us and in control of us, and ultimately, we are helpless in our attempts to determine our own fate, because there are things larger than us that are governing this. And so with Ahab, who has taken the opposite pole, he is trying to take control of his life, while Pip has relinquished that control and is barely holding anything together, you see the two sides of seeing too clearly into the terrifying reality of what life is all about.
Chris Hedges: Well, Ahab is quite aware of the fact. He calls this, “…remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I keep pushing, and crowding…” He’s aware, in a way, that he is possessed.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah, he’s possessed. And yet he has this ability to seem completely sane as he talks about it. And that is the eerie, gripping quality of that insanity, that there’s no real outward manifestation of it if you’re the owner talking to Ahab before he leaves, or the crew members. And yet once you realize where he is really coming from, you realize it’s an insane quest. He’s going to punch through the pasteboard mask and get at the truth of it? That’s just not going to happen.
And yet, there is a metaphysical truth to that. And so that’s the almost creepy nature of Moby-Dick, in that, yeah, he’s insane, and yet, he really is seeing with a clarity into the essence of life. And where does that put us? Ultimately, this is a very unsettling portrait of man and the universe.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about the Rachel. This is a ship. It had sighted Moby-Dick. They had given Moby-Dick chase. The captain of the Rachel, his son was on a whale boat that had been lost. He’s desperately searching for his son, and he implores Ahab to help him. That moment reminds me of the school shootings, I think, I don’t know if it does to you as well, because Ahab refuses. Ahab turns his back, even though Ahab, of course, is a father.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Absolutely. Yeah. I hadn’t thought of that modern day resonance, but right, it is that… Look, this is the danger of dogma. Whether you say, it’s my freedom, my personal freedom, and nothing will interfere with that, despite the fact that it’s having all these horrible repercussions. Here is Ahab. He is on this quest. Nothing will divert him from it, even this plea of a fellow father to retrieve his own child.
So yeah, I mean, it’s when someone is willing to turn their back on what makes us human so that what they feel is more important than anything: their own personal freedom. And that just shows you how solipsistic that is, how a lack of any kind of empathy for anyone out there. You must stay true. I must stay to the mission, no matter what it does to those around me.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was Nathaniel Philbrick on Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.