The white whale


For the last two nights — ever since the most recent whitewash, this one in the case of Eric Garner — the skies above my neighborhood have been full of the maddening, monotonous thrum of hovering police helicopters. In one way, I suppose, it’s a good sign. It shows they’re scared of us. And well they may be. The sins of this guilty land, to borrow my man John Brown’s phrase, remain unexpiated. When the dam finally breaks — and oh my God, may I live to see it — the thin blue line will abandon its lethal toys and shed its uniforms and call out to the hills, Cover us!

I happened to pick up from my disorganized shelf an old tattered falling-apart copy of Moby-Dick tonight — I had carefully written the date on the flyleaf: May 1, 1977.

(I don’t do that anymore. Too many books have come and gone.)

It’s a very remarkable book, and if you haven’t read it lately, I recommend it. People talk about the Great American Novel, but it’s been written; case closed. There may be some doubt whether Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn is it; but one way or the other, no American writer is ever going to beat either of these, and in fact the sooner the category of ‘American writer’ becomes archaeological, the better.

Moby-Dick is a much better book than this guilty land deserves to have produced. Lit-crit thumbsuckers love to read it, somehow, as an allegory of the Amurrican project; but if it’s an allegory of anything, it’s an allegory of something much more important than this blighted slaveocracy’s lamentable history, the sooner done with and forgotten, the better.

On the other hand, it is, undeniably, a very Amurrican book. Only this country, in its early years, before the radical fatality became so obvious, could have produced it: back when the curse and the promise seemed to hang in the balance.

The curse won, of course. As we all now know, who have eyes to see.

A few hundred years hence, the only good thing posterity will be able to say about us is that we produced Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, and a few others. Edith Wharton, I’m sure, will still give the kind of pleasure Jane Austen gives; and John Singer Sargent will still delight.

Even the Visigoths did better; but let’s console ourselves as best we can. Our nation was a suppurating chancre on the face of the earth. But we weren’t all bad.

19 thoughts on “The white whale

  1. Even more than the Great American Novel — the most prophetic; breathtakingly, staggeringly so. None of us can say we weren’t warned!!

    I’d add Steinbeck to the list of delights.

    • I don’t have a canon, and I’m not excluding anybody from it. I just mentioned a few names that came to mind. I’m a big Nabokov fan too.

  2. Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives, this is more wonderful than that an iceberg should be moored to one of the Moluccas. Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.

    how can words be such a visceral pleasure?

    anyway, aren’t you short-changing american music?

  3. “We learned some folks.”

    So you folks got to be such sharpsters by reading all those fancy books, huh?

    I read some of them, and yeah, they were truly great. But I’ve arrived at a place where greatness doesn’t seem to matter so much. Don’t know why, really. I have all these odd little quirks, y’know?

  4. I took possession of my elder brother’s Modern Library Giant edition with the Rockwell Kent woodcuts (one shown above here) and I occasionally flipped through the pages to look at the woodcuts on boring Sunday afternoons throughout my teens. In my thirties I decided to read the book after an encounter with Bartleby (or was it Billy Budd?). What an odd creation Moby Dick is with its interfiling of chapters of whaling lore with chapters of Ishmael’s narrative.

    I adopted the procedure of skipping the cetology as irrelevant to the story and then went back for it later when the Rachel had saved our hero. I don’t know today whether I can honestly claim to have finished the whole whale. I wonder how many other unreliable readers have followed a similar path?

    Then I read White Jacket with pleasure and felt a Melville momentum building but I misstepped next to The Confidence Man, seduced by Penguin’s handsome cover illustration and soon found myself becalmed in the Doldrums from which, lacking the energy to row myself out to brisker winds, I have remained, insofar as this author is concerned.

    Still, various patches of Melville’s metaphysical struggles revealed in Moby Dick, usually in the words of insane Ahab, have stayed with me and are recalled with a smile and a sense of kinship.

      • Fair point.

        And who said irony is dead:

        “Moments after the report was released Tuesday morning, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, gave a lengthy speech on the Senate floor describing the tumultuous history of her investigation and calling the C.I.A. interrogation program “a stain on our values and our history.

        “Releasing this report is an important step to restoring our values and showing the world that we are a just society,” she said.”

  5. 5 years to demonstrate what every sane speculator said about the program on the basis of almost no confirmed information and said from the day the news first broke.

    The enhanced interrogation was never about intelligence gathering rather more of a rite of passage like Nazi SS guys strangling their raised-from-a-puppy best friends.

    This nation is run by psychopaths served by gullible patriots lacking independent judgement, therefore willing to implement any order.

    Worse to come. See Johnstone at today’s Counterpunch and Thad Beversdorf linked through today’s Paul Craig Roberts site.

  6. Not that I ever valued the psychology profession, which is on par with selling snake oil but the details about these psychologists collecting $81 million to devise torture techniques and “administer” them themselves go beyond my low opinion of this profession. I bet they had connections to some head motherfucker who awarded them this contract. Ok, so we can’t go after the sacred cows (Yoo, Bush, Cheney, etc.) but why not go after these sick fucks who are no small fish with the amount of wealth that they’ve accumulated? They haven’t received immunity and in fact, their CIA contract stipulates a 5 million dollar sum for their defense expenses!

  7. This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.

    also recommend his diptych, the paradise of bachelors & the tartarus of maids.

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