This week I joined the reading group at the Sacramento Central Library. We are reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I have started this book many times but never finished. One of the participants made a reference to the ending and someone cried. “Don’t spoil it.” He reacted in disbelief. “Didn’t everyone have to read it in high school?” Nope, and in college I was assigned women’s literature and the Russians.
I’m so glad I didn’t read it until now because our book club is giving it a dimension I am certain would not have come up in any high school discussion. This may be the first postmodern novel as Melville challenges us to look at the whale from every perspective without judgement. In asking, “What is the whale?”, he’s also asking metaphysical questions:
- Are whales sentient? Do they feel pain as we do? Can they seek revenge?
- Is killing a whale for corsets and lamp oil a crime against nature?
Moby Dick has even more current day relevance as I read the New York Times Review of Books “National Delusions” by Hannah Rosin. Melville’s naming of the whaling ship the Pequod after an Indian tribe massacred by the Puritans is part of his overall critique of manifest destiny, capitalism and “civilization.” The myths we tell ourselves about that first Thanksgiving started the magical thinking that has culminated in the lying liars residing in the White House.
In Rosin’s review of Kurt Anderson’s 500-year history of the United States, Fantasyland, she writes: “Reading a great revisionist history of America is a bookish way to feel what it’s like to be born again. Suddenly past, present and future are connected by a visible thread. Stray details and aberrations start to make sense. You feel ashamed, but also enlightened, because at least you have the named the sin: You belong to a nation of blood thirsty colonizers (Howard Zinn), or anti-intellectuals (Richard Hofstadter) or, in Kurt Anderson’s latest opus, a people who have committed themselves over the last half century to florid, collective delusion.”
Those Puritans who massacred the Pequod are the same who vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic who landed on their shores (and did). But we remember them as peacefully breaking bread with their Indians saviors and seeking freedom of religion. The long list of conspiracy theorists, survivalists, cults, and more that followed are part of an long American tradition. It’s not what you do, it is what your publicist says you do.
Apparently at the end of Fantasyland, Anderson tries to redraw a boundary: “You’re entitled to your own opinions and your own fantasies, but not your own facts–especially if your fantastical facts hurt people.” This may not be sufficient to save us. Rosin asks if anyone has anything more powerful, like a story powerful enough to call us back from our collective delusion.
Perhaps nature, who we’ve been at war with also since the beginning of our country, will have the last word. The Koch Brothers have purchased the Republican Parties fealty on “no such thing as climate change” but the recent forest fires and mega-storms really don’t care what the party plank is. Hurricane Harvey is real. In the end if reality doesn’t wake us up from our collective dream, then maybe we don’t deserve to survive.