Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Board The Pequod

For me, there are two quintessential American novels. Huck Finn is about the American heart. Moby Dick is about the American soul. It is perhaps no accident, then, that Chris Hedges -- whose subject is the tortured American soul -- wrote this week that,"We are all aboard the Pequod." For Hedges, if the American ship of state continues on its present course, the result will be catastrophe, not just for the nation, but for the planet:

We, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward 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 bow slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and 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. We have surrendered our lives to corporate forces that ultimately serve systems of death. Microbes will inherit the earth.

In our decline, hatred becomes our primary lust, our highest form of patriotism and a form of eroticism. We are made supine by hatred and fear. We deploy vast resources to hunt down jihadists and terrorists, real and phantom. We destroy our civil society in the name of a war on terror. We persecute those, from Julian Assange to Bradley Manning to Edward Snowden, who expose the dark machinations of power. We believe, because we have externalized evil, that we can purify the earth. We are blind to the evil within us. Melville’s description of 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.

He believes a collective madness has overtaken the country, a country which has forgotten the wisdom of its founding fathers. They knew, Hedges writes, that America's salvation lies in rebellion:

And so we plunge forward in our doomed quest to master the forces that will finally smite us. Those who see where we are going lack the fortitude to rebel. Mutiny was the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. It is our only salvation. But moral cowardice turns us into hostages.

Huck Finn is about moral courage. Huck is prepared to go to hell for helping his friend Jim escape. Huck, Twain wrote, is a boy with  "a sound heart and a deformed conscience." For Hedges, America is doomed as long as those with deformed consciences continue to captain the ship of state.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.


Kirby Evans said...

Interesting Owen. Though there are obviously many candidates for the novels that represent the heart and soul of America, these are two interesting ones and well thought out. If Huck Finn is the heart and Moby Dick is the soul, let me offer Catcher in the Rye as the twisted psyche, particularly of modern America. (Though I think that Infinite Jest or one of Philip K. Dick's novels my fit this bill better, but they are so twisted that they perhaps fall too far into the genuinely insane realm.) Catcher in the Rye reminds me of way the American psyche fell into an abyss in the mid-twentieth century. An abyss from which it has never emerged.

Anyway thanks for the post, food for thought.

Owen Gray said...

When I think about it, Kirby, Catcher in the Rye captures that tension between the soul and the heart.

Holden Caufield would like to save the innocents aboard the Pequod before they board the ship.

But the mad captains keep insisting that he's the one who's crazy.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hedges' take on Moby Dick dovetails with Jared Diamond's observation in "Collapse" of how civilizations end, often quite abruptly, when they're at their zenith.

Perhaps, as some claim in explaining why alien super cultures aren't present in our midst, advanced intelligence really is self-extinguishing.

Owen Gray said...

Certainly that was Melville's take on Ahab -- and other enablers of tragedy, Mound.

There is such a thing as being too smart by half.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Kirby, an updated Philip K. Dick novel could be an accurate allegory of the current disintegration of the human psyche and society. I would choose the novel 'A Scanner Darkly'. I would replace 'Substance D' with 'Substance O' (as in oil).

Owen Gray said...

Dick's world is pretty dark, Anon. Things are, I admit, getting darker.