In seeking to make some sense for myself of the way the world has turned since the terrible morning of September the 11th 2001, I revisited works by two political philosophers: The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord and Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Both men would have resisted or resented the label of political philosopher, and understandably, for their learning, thinking and writing encompassed far more. But the remarkable political prescience in these books marks Debord and Melville as harbingers and provides a telescope to look beyond September 11.
Guy Debord – he dropped the hyphenated Guy-Ernest – was born in Paris on 28 December 1931. He was the theoretician behind that now commonplace phrase "the society of the spectacle". That we live – and have lived for some time – in such a world is beyond question. Many bandy about Debord’s portentous and evocative coinage, whether in bemoaning how mass media invade everyday life or in lamenting how news has been spectacularised to provide entertainment rather than information. In all of this hubbub, it is rare for the name of Debord to crop up. He remains largely forgotten; perhaps worse still, the range and meaning of his ideas has been adulterated and simplified
What Debord meant by the society of the spectacle comprises far more than the dictatorship of television and other forms of electronic communication. To Debord, the mass media represented only the "most stultifying
superficial manifestation of the spectacle". The problem was deeper and wider: as he declared in Thesis No. 1 of his book, The Society of the Spectacle:
1 The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
In Thesis 4 he anticipated the simplistic identification of the spectacle with mass media only. Ominously, No. 4 elaborates:
4 The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.
And No.34, at the end of Section I, Separation Perfected, avers:
34 The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.
Founded on "incessant technological renewal" and the "integration of State and economy", the spectacle is the whole of social activity appropriated by the spectacle for the spectacle. Art, science, everyday life, politics, urban planning, to list but a few: in all of these, the spectacle replaces reality with images.
The Society of the Spectacle was published in November 1967 by the Buchet-Chastel publishing house in Paris. Comprised of 221 theses, it was a profound critique of the alienation and commodification of consumer
capitalism. Six months later, theory was to become praxis as the events of May 1968 in the Sorbonne, then more widely in the French capital and thereafter throughout France and the world, shook the Gaullist establishment and archaeo-conservative governments globally. Debord’s 221 theses were the chief articles of faith sparking and sustaining the worldwide student-led revolts of that miraculous month.
Almost 36 years since its first publication, The Society of the Spectacle retains its stimulating, provocative and predictive qualities. Debord, though, has been dead almost nine years. On 30 November 1994 he shot himself in the heart, not wanting to succumb to the incurable illness of alcoholic polyneuritis. He provided reasons, broadcast in the film Guy Debord, son art et son temps (Guy Debord, his art and his times), screened by Canal Plus in France on 9 January 1995:
"As with all incurable diseases," read a title at the end of the film’s flighting, "there is much to be gained by neither seeking nor accepting medical care. This is the opposite of an illness that you contract through an unfortunate lack of prudence. On the contrary, contracting it requires dogged determination over a whole lifetime."
Leaving aside the piquant irony of a Debord film flighting on television, it was perhaps apt that this last, if posthumous, public act should be in the form of a film because Debord invariably described himself as a filmmaker, and only allowed himself to be called a theoretician. Thus it is likely he would recoil at being appropriated by Cultural Studies academics, anarchists and direct-action activists. No doubt he would also disapprove of this paper’s appellation of him as political philosopher. What is certain that besides being a filmmaker, he was prime mover in founding the Situationist International (SI), which grew out of the earlier Letterist International (LI) that he also helped establish. It was situationist graffiti such as "sous les pavés, la plage" ("under the paving stones, the beach") that appeared across Paris in May 1968.
Both the LI and SI are key to how Debord set about reformulating Karl Marx’s theories. In Thesis 1 of The Society of the Spectacle, you will have noticed the deliberate echo of Marx’s Capital
"The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, its unit being a single commodity."– Marx, Capital, Part I, Chapter I. Commodities
1 The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
"Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Section I, Separation Perfected, Thesis 1
What is astonishing is the way Debord developed, elaborated and distributed his theory. Its evolution took the form of a search for what he called "The ‘North-West Passage’ of the geography of real life" (Pref., 100; Eng., 10) That psychogeographic passageway ran as a systematic drift through the city past and present, a dérive the LI called it. It was a surrender to the promise of the city, a willingness to be diverted by it:
real-life detours in the footsteps of which would follow Debord’s détournements: elegant, precise prose that had been deliberately plagiarised, reworked, re-imagined and rethought so as to emerge utterly revivified.
By living this way in the world, the LI aspired to create a mode of life understandable and accessible to all, and one that everyone could follow. To that time in late 1952, when the LI gathered in the shabbier cafes of the Latin Quarter of Paris to drink and plan their rambles, Debord ascribed the animosity that was continuously directed at him by the establishment, the academy and the intelligentsia:
"Some think that it is because of the grave responsibility that has often been attributed to me for the origins, or even for the command, of the May 1968 revolt. I think rather that what has displeased people so persistently about me is what I did in 1952."
The LI, following Isidore Isou’s Letterists, reduced poetry to its smallest, most basic component: the letter. That technique was then extended to all artistic and social activities, among them architecture and cinema. Isou it was who invented the collage-like genre of détournement, whereby extant materials were cut up and put together to create an entirely new work.
The LI was followed by the SI, the manifesto of which stated: "We have to multiply poetic subjects and objects, and we have to organise games of these poetic objects among these poetic subjects. This is our entire program, which is essentially transitory. Our situations will be ephemeral, without a future: passageways." (Debord, 1957)
From these senses of play – the ludic qualities – of the LI and SI, Debord was to progress on his odyssey towards the writing of The Society of the Spectacle.
Here I wish to turn to Herman Melville, not a figure one readily associates with playfulness. From the age of 47 to 66, Melville was deputy inspector in the New York Custom House. He died on 28 September 1891, some eight weeks after his 72nd birthday. Just over forty years before, on 18 October 1851, his novel The Whale was published in London; publication of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale followed in New York on 14 November of that year. It was dishearteningly received. Only six years later, after a visit to the Holy Land, Melville all but abandoned prose; the last prose work published in his lifetime, The Confidence-Man, in retrospect seems a cruelly reflective title. Yet Melville had embraced the possibility of such a disastrous end to the voyage he had embarked on with Typee in 1846 and Omoo a year later, both of which were immediate successes. In the spring of 1850, he had recorded that: "So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sorts of books which are said to ‘fail’."
In his magnum opus, a concordance to the world, Leviathan of salty experience, learning, allusion, profound puns, voluminous references and encyclopaedic whale lore, Melville failed magnificently. Melville scholar Newton Arvin noted that: "The sailing of the Pequod is to be for Ishmael a temporary passage out of existence". [Herman Melville, New York: William Sloane Associates, Inc. 1950]
For Melville, the writing of Moby-Dick was to be a permanent passage out of existence.
Henry A Murray, touching on Melville’s discovery of the Unconscious, opined:
He was aware he was on a thrilling adventure, for he likened himself to Columbus ...
Melville proceeded to lose himself. This casting adrift was better, it seemed to him, than subjugating himself to a straight course in a humdrum world; ‘better to sink in boundless depths than float on vulgar shoals; and give me, ye Gods, utter wreck, if wreck I do’." [Review of Lewis Mumford’s Herman Melville, in the New England Quarterly, Vol. 2, July 1929]
The gods granted Melville that wish. But in the century and a half since the White Whale was first descried, to shouts of "There she blows! –there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!", Melville’s stock and that of his masterpiece have soared. He is remembered just as Debord is neglected. There are other points of comparison.
That path of the Unconscious – those detours of the mind – constituted Melville’s dérives. The ludic quality of Debord’s LI activities and subsequent creation of situations with the SI have a parallel of sorts in the playful allusions with which Moby-Dick is replete. And Melville is an exponent nonpareil of détournement. In Call me Ishmael, his brilliant case-study of Moby-Dick, published coincidentally in the same year as The Society of the Spectacle, the American poet Charles Olson observed:
"Melville’s reading is a gauge of him, at all points of his life. He was a skald, and knew how to appropriate the works of others. He read to write. Highborn stealth, Edward Dahlberg calls originality, the act of a cutpurse Autolycus who makes his thefts as invisible as possible. Melville’s books batten on other men’s books." [Skald: composer and reciter of poems in ancient Scandinavia honouring heroes and their deeds.]
Debord’s writing battens on those of Hegel and Marx and countless others. But it does far more. As Thesis 207 in The Society of the Spectacle has it:
"Ideas improve. The meaning of words has a part in improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress demands it. Staying close to an author’s phrasing, plagiarism exploits his expressions, erases false ideas, replaces them with correct ideas."
In the next thesis, the subject of détournement is elaborated: "Détournement is the antithesis of quotation, of a theoretical authority invariably tainted if only because it has become quotable, because it is now a fragment torn away from its context, from its own movement, and ultimately from the overall frame of reference of its period and from the precise option that it constituted within that framework. Détournement, by contrast, is the fluid language of anti-ideology."
Debord would play out his theories: theory became life, and life theory. Invoking Chateaubriand, he wrote of himself that "Of the modern French authors of my time, I am therefore the only one whose life is true to his works."
Melville wrote of his ocean-going and whaling experiences as a young man, but also out of his voracious reading. Melville took his countryman, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, very much at his word. "A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts," wrote Emerson, continuing:
"The student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary ... He should see that he can live all history in his own person."
This insight comes from another great Harold, the late Melville scholar and peripatetic philosopher Harold Beaver, who took off from the sure comforts of being Professor of American Literature at the University of Amsterdam to embark on an Ishmael-style voyage, almost as if he said to himself in the words of Moby-Dick’s narrator, "I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world".
Beaver remarked of Melville: "His complete inner life was to be the ‘text’; the complete storehouse of the world’s books, its interpretive ‘commentary’. Moby-Dick presents his individually forged passport to a universal culture."
He continued: "For as the Pequod circles the world, so this universal and global book must range through universal and global references in space and time, through all religious creeds and philosophical ideas (ancient and modern) ...
"So spin me – not a yarn, but a whole I>cyclopaedia! Like harpooneers we flounder about, half on The Whale and half in the water, ‘as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath us."
Given its all-encompassing nature, it is no surprise that Moby-Dick has much to say about September 11 2001 and the war on Iraq. In a moment of eerie synchronicity, the strikes on the World Trade Center occurred just as Melville academics, scholars and devotees were preparing to celebrate the150th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick on the 18th of October 2001. And as footage of the two jetliners crashing into the twin behemoths of capitalism was shown over and over by global television networks, the wraiths of Guy Debord and The Society of the Spectacle were discernible, obscured from broad view by the media clichés and conventional wisdom surrounding the terrible event.
Take Thesis No.57 of SS [p.37]: "The society that ... local revolutionaries.
And No. 44: "The spectacle is a permanent opium war .... to transcend it."
Debord posited also that the spectacle transformed everything into its opposite. In his notion of the "reversible connecting factor", explored in his films, he asserted the principle of negation inherent in the structures of domination. If monuments were symbols and the spectacle concentrated on a single point, then annihilation of such symbols most clearly uncovered the hitherto invisible circumstances in which people actually lived. That idea accords with what some voices outside the American polity were saying after the shock and awe of the attacks subsided. They were scarcely heard.
Another Debord insight, had anyone bothered to raise it, would have been more audible, perhaps even seized with relish. Debord’s 1978 autobiographical film, In girum imus nocte et consumimir igni, made potent reference to the nihilistic motto of Rashid al-Din Sinan, the Old Man of the Mountain who was the twelfth century leader of the Assassins, the Levant’s millenarian terrorists. The Old Man’s secret, Debord’s film tells, was "surrendered, it is said, only in his last hour, and then only to the most faithful of his fanatical disciples: ‘Nothing is true; everything is permitted’ "
That recalls Thesis No.9 of The Society of the Spectacle:
"In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood", which in turn is a détournement on Hegel, in The Phenomenology of Mind, a reversal of Hegel’s proposition there.
There are further observations to be made on this chilling credo of the Assassins. Debord found an equivalent philosophy in his favourite film, Marcel Carne’s masterly Les Enfants du Paradis. Astonishingly made during the Nazi occupation of the French capital, it is a complex contemplation of the nature of performance and an evocative portrait of popular Parisian theatre in the early 19th century. Among its real-life characters is the thwarted playwright Lacenaire, who turned his literary genius to criminal exploits and was executed in 1836. The film has an exquisite moment – included in Debord’s In girum film – when Lacenaire turns to his aristocratic rival, Comte Mornay, and his retainers, and says: "It takes all kinds to make a world ... or unmake it." The appeal for Debord of that reversible connecting play on words must have been enormous.
And that verbal Manichaeism is extended in the palindromic title of Debord’s autobiographical film.
This Latin palindrome translates as "We turn in a circle by night and are consumed by fire". Of it Debord said:
"the ancient phrase that comes completely back upon itself, which was constructed letter by letter like a labyrinth one can never leave, in a manner that so perfectly marries the form and content of perdition".
The appeal of its letter-by-letter construction to a sometime Letterist need not be elaborated.
Moby-Dick has its own assassin in the character of Ahab’s whaleboat pilot, Fedallah. Literally, this translates as "the sacrifice or Ransom of God: feda + Allah. According to Harold Beaver, Dorothee Melitsky Finkelstein interpreted the name as a pun on fedai – "the devoted one" or "he who offers up his life". Those appellations applied to the Assassins, those "avenging ministers" or "destroying angels" sent by the Old Man of the Mountain on commando strikes against the princes of Islam in the name of "the hidden prophet", the seventh and last Imam, Ishmael – Ismail in Arabic. And Fedallah it is who urges Ahab to take the pledge that "Hemp only can kill thee", becoming by that encouragement the assassin of theOld Man of the Ocean. In hunting Moby Dick, Ahab is caught round the neck by the velocity line, made of hemp, which is attached to his harpoon that has just struck the whale, and dragged into the depths.
Perdition lies at the heart of Moby-Dick. Eternal death and damnation await Ahab and the Pequod which in sinking takes with her a passing sky-hawk. Melville tells us that the ship, "like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it." Devils and fallen angels: such is the world of Ahab. Charitably, he has been seen as a fallen angel, most recently by critics such as Clare Spark in Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, published four months before September 11. This Manichaean coeternality is suggested by Melville himself, in Chapter 16, The Ship, when Ishmael is signing up for the Pequod. Captain Peleg tells Ishmael: "He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab".
But crucial is what Melville told the man to whom he dedicated Moby-Dick, his literary hero and neighbour, Nathaniel Hawthorne, celebrated author of The Scarlet Letter, among other works. The secret motto of Moby-Dick, revealed Melville, was what Ahab utters when he baptises the fiendishly pronged harpoon he has had specially made to hunt the White Whale, a weapon that takes for its baptismal waters the blood of the Pequod’s pagan harpooneers Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo.
"Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" deliriously howled Ahab:
"I do not baptise you in the name of the father but in the name of the devil."
Here we have Satan and Jehovah at war, an Armageddon of the Old Testament, not the New.
Eloquently, Charles H Foster in his essay "Something in Emblems: A reinterpretation of Moby-Dick ", judged:
"The baptism is Melville’s unmistakable verdict that however grand and godlike Ahab may be, however much he is master of men and of language, however much we may find our own account in his war with the gods and fate, we are finally to view him as the ‘ungodly man’, the denier of God, the partner of the devil. Here, of course, Melville made symbolically his most violent attack on political and social conservatism, and it was quite appropriate that he should call Hawthorne’s attention to the baptism as the master-key unlocking the ultimate meaning in Moby-Dick."
[The New England Quarterly, Vol 34, March 1961, pp 3-35]
There is a vision of hell vouchsafed readers some sixty pages before the diabolical baptism. It is in the chapter, The Try-Works, which describes the on-board furnace for melting down whale blubber:
"As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilised laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul."
The remainder of this paper will tack ways in which the Pequod symbolises the ambiguous American ship of state in May 2003 and Ahab the leader of that sole global superpower, George Bush junior. What Moby Dick, the whale, stands for is more elusive.
Moby-Dick, the book, as political allegory is neither startling nor new, and we shall return to some aspects of such readings. But in the immediate aftershocks of September 11 2001, Melville’s book was often adduced, its symbolism and possible allegorical readings tossed around in the oceans of media coverage, both electronic and print. This was the Moby-Dick of which Melville wrote: "A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it."
Among the sound bytes, there was some sanity and profundity. As ever, Edward Said drew out a telling strand. Ahab’s yearning for revenge on the creature that had injured him so grievously was "suicidal finality" said Said, who cautioned of the perils of mystifying Osama bin Laden, and of the dangers of America embarking on a punitive expedition like that of the Pequod. The subsequent imperial adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq show those warnings went unheeded.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Washington Post ran a comment piece headlined "Bush must steer clear of Ahab’s error". The article referred to Ahab’s destruction of his quadrant (Chapter 118, p.608), and noted: "It’s the moment when the hunt becomes irrational, leaving the ship nothing to steer by than the dictates of the chase itself."
It continues: "The administration appears willing to sacrifice almost anything – America’s alliances, its prosperity, even the security of its citizens – in its determination to oust the Iraqi leader from power." So too with Ahab, disdainful of the problems of other whaling ships he encounters, forsaking the trust of the Pequod’s owner’s and the lives of his crew.
A passage to vengeance, transitory and troubling: we speak both of "I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened" Ahab and of political and military power, united in vengeful intent. At the end of Sunset, Chapter 37 of Moby-Dick, Ahab rails:
"Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run ... Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!."
Unilateral, anti-dialectical, a terroriser of nature, a narcissist grievously wounded on his own quarter-deck: Ahab is akin to the leader of a global superpower, and the whaling captain’s "bigotry of purpose" makes him the archetype of imperial ambitions. The "reversible connecting factor" that plays out in the hunt for Moby Dick, the great White Whale, may yet
have its counterpart in contemporary ‘‘reality’’: "reality rises up within the spectacle and the spectacle is real", said Debord, even if in that moment of consummation, reality is the first casualty.
Reality was checked by the result of the US presidential election of November 2000. Eerily, even this may be said to be foreshadowed in Melville’s book. On the last page of the first chapter, Loomings, Ishmael imagines a performance billing topped by:
‘Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States’
‘WHALING VOYAGE OF ONE ISHMAEL’
and rounded off with:
‘BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN’ (sic)
The election referred to is the 1840 campaign, deemed to be the first such "rip-roaring" presidential contest. It put into the White House William Henry Harrison, who three decades earlier had twice defeated the Native American forces of Tecumseh and thus helped open Ohio and Indiana to white colonisation. Harrison and his Whig running-mate John Tyler defeated the Democrat candidate Martin Van Buren, but for Harrison, at least, it was a pyrrhic victory. He died after only a month in office, exhausted by the campaign.
The battle in Afghanistan refers to the rout of the British army at Kabul on 6 January 1842.
The fruits of the invasion, coup and occupation of Afghanistan one hundred and sixty years later can certainly not compare with the riches of Naboth’s vineyard, which Ahab, seventh king of Israel, acquired by murdering their owner. But the oleaginous doctrines applied by the Bush regime to Iraq have yielded that great boon to America: oil, the very same beneficent substance that whales bestowed on American economy and society in the nineteenth century.
The importance of whaling to American prosperity and industry is well set out by Melville, but most eloquently projected by Charles Olson, whose Call me Ishmael is a wondrous work indeed. I quote:
"So, if you want to know why Melville nailed us in Moby-Dick, consider whaling. Consider whaling as FRONTIER, and INDUSTRY. A product WANTED, men got it: big business. The Pacific as sweatshop. Man, led, against the biggest damndest creature nature uncorks. The whaleship as factory, the whaleboat the precision instrument. The 1840s: the New West in the saddle and Melville No.20 of a rough and bastard crew."
Melville had sailed on the whaler Acushnet down the river of the same name on that vessel’s maiden voyage out of Fairhaven on 3 January 1841 – three months and a day before Harrison’s presidency terminated. It was this voyage, ended when Melville jumped ship on the Marquesas the next year, that began the trickle that was to spout forth so extravagantly in the tale of Moby Dick.
Melville’s thesis that the business of whaling – ruthless and relentless commercial extraction of nature – contaminates all involved in it, resonates with what Debord described as "the obvious degradation of being into having" and the resultant "generalised sliding of having into appearing". [SS # 17] For many were – and are – the uses of whale by-products: ambergris, the waxlike, diffusing scent found in the intestines of the sperm whale yields constituents for perfume. (An aside on this odoriferous trail is that according to Beale, the leading whale authority of Melville’s time, ambergris is the hardened faeces of the sperm whale.)
And whale oil, sperm oil and spermaceti wax were converted into illuminating oil, lubricants and the raw material for candles. It was only after petroleum was found in Pennsylvania in 1859, eight years after the publication of Moby-Dick, that kerosene, paraffin and petroleum quickly replaced whale by-products in the manufacturing of heating and light.
Melville makes much of the mighty contribution of whaling in Chapter 24, The Advocate. Quote:
"And lastly, how comes it that we whalemen of America now outnumber all the rest of the banded whalemen in the world; sail a navy of upwards of seven hundred vessels; manned by eighteen thousand men; yearly consuming 4,000,000 of dollars; the ships worth, at the time of sailing, $20,000,000; and every year importing into our harbors a well reaped harvest of $7,000,000. How comes all this, if there be not something puissant in whaling?"
In fact, Melville under-reported the massive money tied up in whaling. According to Olson, 70 000 people and $70-million were involved by 1833; in 1844 the figure was up to $120-million and whale products trail only meat and lumber in export value. But Melville was correct, later in The Advocate chapter, to point out of whaling that:
"One way and another, it has begotten events so remarkable in themselves, and so continuously momentous in their sequential issues, that whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb." [Nut – mother of Isis, born pregnant and her twin foetus Osiris, who impregnated her; and Set/Typhon]
It was a real-life whale, Mocha Dick, named after the island of Mocha off the coast of Chile at 38 degrees south, 71 degrees west, that was reported to have pursued a whaleboat back to its whaling ship and flailed at it while it was being hoisted back on board. The terrible story of the Essex was recounted by its first mate, Owen Chase, in the very directly titled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket; Which Was Attacked and Finally Destroyed by a Large Spermacetti-Whale in the Pacific Ocean.
What heightened the terror and horror of the incident was that the surviving sailors were eventually forced to draw lots to decide who should be killed and eaten in order to survive in the small boats on which they tried to journey home.
The demonstrated power of their putative prey made whalemen of Ahab’s time cautious. They did not have the harpoon-gun that was at the disposal of later hunters or any of the sonar devices used by contemporary whale-killers. Nonetheless, the lure of progress towards the final frontier drew them on. Here is Olson, at the very beginning of Call me shmael:
"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America ...
I spell it large because it comes large. Large, and without mercy."
And, a few paragraphs on:
"Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only matter of space the average person ever knows, ox-wheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.
"To Melville it is not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby-Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource."
Saddam Hussein may or may not have had weapons of mass destruction.
[To be sure, those WMD the existence and location of which Tony Blair guaranteed to his cabinet colleagues, the British parliament and the people of Britain, seem strangely to have disappeared. But then, as the London Review of Books quipped, Blair is Britain’s greatest wartime prime minister since John Major.]
But Iraq is a royal resource of oil; indeed, one of the world’s largest reserves of it. Every other rationale for war was rehearsed and deployed by the willing coalition of White House and 10 Downing Street , from WMD to the so-called moral case for invasion to regime change. Of course there was no mention of oil. Or of the imperial precedent for meddling in Mesopotamian affairs. In 1914, then Great Britain invaded Mesopotamia. By 1918 the occupation and conquest of the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul was complete and a League of Nationas mandate granted Britain in 1920. The following year, on December 4th 1921 to be precise, Gertrude Bell, "had a well-spent
morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of Iraq". Bell was a brilliant Oxford student who became oriental secretary to Sir Percy Cox, the high commissioner in Baghdad. She was responsible for relations with the Arab population. Her little cartographic exercise was noted in a letter to her father and shows some of the astonishing colonial arrogance that has been visited upon what we must needs call Iraq.
There is a postscript to Bell’s map-making. In 1923, Iraqi army officers led a rebellion on the streets of Baghdad and in the Shi’ite centre and south of the country, an uprising quelled only after months and the loss of thousands of Iraqi, Indian and British lives. The campaign was marked as well by the systematic use of aerial bombardment by the colonial power.
Whether there is a precedent there for the current American imperium in Iraq is a question the answer to which one awaits with foreboding. For, as John Berger suggested in an essay in Le Monde Diplomatique in February this year, America has "fallen into the hands of a coterie of fanatical(wanting to limit the power of everything but capital), ignorant (recognising only the reality of their own fire-power), hypocritical (two measures for all ethical judgements, one for us and another for them) and ruthless B52 plotters".
Berger prefaced this with a moving meditation on the New World Symphony by Dvorak, writing:
"In the symphony the horizons and rolling hills of his native Bohemia became the promises of the New World. Not grandiloquent but loud and continuing, for they correspond to the longings of those without power, of those who are wrongly called simple, of those the US Constitution addressed in 1787.
"I know of no other work of art which expresses so directly and yet so toughly (Dvorak was the son of a peasant and his father dreamt of his
becoming a butcher) the beliefs which inspired generation after generation of migrants who became US citizens.
"For Dvorak the force of these beliefs was inseparable form a kind of tenderness, a respect for life such as can be found intimately among the governed (as distinct from governors) everywhere. And it was in this spirit that the symphony was publicly received when it was first performed at Carnegie Hall on 16 December 1893."
Forty-odd years before, Melville was working on his book. The same spirit that animated Dvorak is discernible; in the view of Willie T Weathers:
"The narrative of Ishmael’s thoughts and feelings is the personal story of a man who cherishes democratic freedom; the tragedy of the Pequod and her Captain is an epic story of the democratic nation which bears ‘the ark of the liberties of the world’." [University of Texas Studies in Literature and anguage, Volume 1 (Winter 1960)]
Turning gain to Olson, we find him forthright on American imperial reach. Noting that Melville made Ahab "a khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of leviathans", Olson declared:
"For the American has the Roman feeling about the world. It is his, to dispose of. He strides it, with possession of it. His property. Has he not conquered it with his machines? He bends its resources to his will. The pax of legions? the Americanization of the world. Who else is lord?"
As far back as 1979, Melville scholar Michael Rogin pointed out, in his Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and the Art of Herman Melville, that Ahab "refuses to navigate with scientific instruments and throws away the quadrant ... because he has acquired its power for himself".
So too Bush junior, the ecocidal president who suggested prospecting for oil in the Arctic Reserve; who has burnt the Kyoto Protocol and suggested instead the euphemistically named "Clear Skies" that will increase greenhouse gas emissions by US producers and consumers; who has flushed away 30 years of nuclear arms control; and who favours so-called anticipatory defence, yet another linguistic sleight-of-hand for what, linguistically unadorned, is unilateral offensive war.
It is also an egregious offence against language, twisting it to new and undreamt of meanings. Ambrose Bierce, the acerbic journalist and sardonic wordsmith, would have a field day defining "democracy" and "freedom" for an updated version of his Devil’s Dictionary. His definition of politics, though, is timeless and applies to the anguished pursuit of rationales for the war on Iraq: "A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage."
The oilmen of Texas and Enron and the grandees of US vice-president Dick Cheney’s old firm, Haliburton, know all about that second definition.
In the time since September 11 2001, it has been impossible not to think of Bush junior as Ahab, in pursuit of the White Whale, the chimera of international terrorism. Whether Moby Dick the whale deserves to have Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein imputed to him is another matter altogether. I say chimera of terrorism with greater confidence because just this week, on thecover of its issue dated 26 May, Time magazine, a major voice of the American political establishment, declares – or perhaps that should be concedes – the impossibility of bringing an end to terrorism.
Yet now he hear of Pentagon musings of a pre-emptive attack on Iran. When I was finalising the title of this talk, Iraq had not been invaded although that seemed certain to happen. It was in a spirit of hope that I excluded it.
At that time I thought back to Guy Debord and the first Gulf War and the way a small cable news network TV channel had become a global entity by spectacularising the bombing of Baghdad through beaming images of its intrepid reporter Peter Arnett in his hotel, describing the fire storm over the Iraqi capital as a Fourth of July spectacle. That word – spectacle – cropped up again and again during TV reporting of Gulf War II. Debord was alive and well and living in the besieged city.
The media spectacle of the invasion and occupation of Iraq showed journalism plumb new depths. The degradation of journalistic ethics and the depravity of contemporary news values have rarely been more blatantly displayed than in the footage and reporting emanating from embedded and non-embedded reporters covering the war.
To a degree, the 1991 Gulf War had prepared us for the hurrahs and propaganda-peddling of journalists who were very much in bed with the media-savvy US forces. On that subject, here is Anselm Jappe, who wrote the intellectual biography of Debord, recalling a particularly notorious bit of reporting:
"During the Gulf War, the long list of Saddam Hussein’s crimes was eked out by the worldwide distribution of the picture of an innocent cormorant soaked in oil, the presumed victim of Iraq’s destruction of wells; only after the war did someone point out that no such cormorant ever visited the Gulf region during the spring, at which point it was admitted that this was a file picture of a bird caught up in an ecological catastrophe in Brittany years earlier. More important, for all the media’s chatter about the ‘global village’, the fact is that we were never told how many Iraqis died in the Gulf War. Fifteen thousand? One hundred and fifty thousand? No one knows. All information released had to conform absolutely with the interests that controlled its sources. Sometimes there may be comfort to be drawn from the fact that the world may not be quite as terrible as it appears in the media; on the other hand, we have to reckon with everything that the media systematically conceals."
Debord had dealt with this in one of the longer theses of The Society of the Spectacle, No.24 (SS, p.19). Quote.
Debord committed suicide by shooting himself on November 30 1994. Snidely, a number of obituaries colluded in assessing his life as a case of drinking too much and writing too little. That trivialisation was to be expected. While he lived, Debord’s ideas were deliberately neglected by the academies and intelligentsia that ought most to have welcomed them; that full stop has been subtly extended in death.
But, as Jappe notes in his book, Debord himself concluded: "I have no thought of complaining about anything, and certainly not about the way I have managed to live."
Melville, on the other hand, died in obscurity. He left not only a world masterpiece but a number of enduringly elusive questions about Ahab and the White Whale. Is the whale fatally stricken or simply shot through with harpoons? While Ahab won’t, will Moby Dick live to fight another day?
Such questions about the survival of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein must be exercising hawkish minds in the Bush junior administration. As they turn their pre-emptive gaze to Iran, one is reminded of the steely resolve of Ahab, most wrenchingly displayed in his heartless reaction to the captain of the Rachel. Having lost a whaleboat, among the crew of which is his son, Captain Gardiner begs Ahab to help in the search.
"Avast," cried Ahab – "touch not a rope-yarn;", then in a voice that prolongingly moulded every word –"Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good bye, goodbye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go. Mr Starbuck, look at the binnacle watch, and in three minutes from this present instant warn off all strangers: then brace forward again, and let the ship sail on as before."
This passageway to perdition will not comfort those who believed that Iraq was the terminus of American ambition in the Middle East. But perhaps the fates will intervene in future fraught with dangers. After all, Ishmael survived, to be rescued by the returning Rachel, still weeping for her lost child. We need to remember that in Hebrew, Ishmael means "God hears". And it is Ishmael who makes all the difference in the book’s epic struggle between self and not-self. As Richard Chase declared:
"To be Ahab is to be unable to resist the hypnotic attraction of the self with its impulse to envelop and control the universe. To be Ishmael is to be able at the last minute to resist the plunge from the masthead into the sea one has with rapt fascination been gazing at, to assert at the critical moment the difference between the self and the not-self."
(Chase, R. [1962 ed] Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, p. 59)
Perhaps the new world nation that Dvorak apotheosised and whose demise many lament, will assert itself anew. For, as Alan Heimert reminded Melville scholars,
"And Ahab too was taken to his doom, not by the Whale alone, nor even by the sea that engulfed the Pequod, but – in fulfilment of the Parsee’s enigmatic prophecies – by two symbols of the American System: a ship whose visible wood was American, and a bow-line of Kentucky hemp."
[Moby-Dick and American Political Symbolism, American Quarterly, Vol.15 (Winter 1963)]
That bow-line is the rope that drags Ahab into the deep behind Moby Dick.
I would like to leave the last words to the late Harold Beaver, a great scholar. Even Guy Debord, who wrote in Thesis No 30 of The Society of the Spectacle that "the spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere", might have been encouraged by Beaver’s notion.
In a moving memoir in the London Review of Books of 3 April 2003, his son Jacob wrote:
"I found a Japanese brush drawing of a whale, clipped from a magazine. I found a pale pink receipt, all in Thai, with a pencil note saying ‘Gosford Park’. "All this was news to me, except the whale. In the early 1970s, when my father was teaching at Warwick University and I was at primary school, he edited Moby-Dick for the Penguin English Library (the ones with orange spines). He was always drawn to whale pictures. He used to have a whale paperweight on his desk, which went into storage with his other possessions when our family broke up. The paperweight stayed in storage for 13 years until my father took time out from travelling and rented a flat in Holland. It was now back in storage. Apart from two light bags, this suitcase had been all my father required. He was like Ishmael’s roving ‘metaphysical professor’ in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, for whom ‘water and meditation are wedded for ever’...
" ... As I was closing the empty suitcase, I remembered something my father once told me. He was talking about wisdom – ‘not a word you hear much in universities these days’ – and he quoted a line by a Buddhist monk: ‘The first step is to learn to be at home anywhere, and the second is to be at home nowhere.’"