It’s a few days past Thanksgiving, and tonight at dinner we were talking about terrorism, whale hunting and the new Moby Dick movie (In the Heart of the Sea – just found out it’s not a Moby Dick movie, but close enough to be included in this discussion).
The conversation got started got started because of the shooting today in San Bernardino, California. As of right now, authorities and the media are saying it could be “either workplace violence or terrorism.”
That lead to a discussion of what terrorism was. Was it called terrorism only if the perpetrators were Muslim? Why are school shootings not called acts of terror?
I thought maybe terrorism must without aim or purpose: terrorists are motivated by vengeance, but not against anybody specifically. Shootings often happen by personal anger, against people and the world. Terrorism is nihilistic and deconstructive – the point is the terror itself in the senseless act. Or maybe that’s just how I see it after reading Zizek. My kind of terrorism would be complete: you tear down the restrictive walls of belief by doing the things you do not want to do. (But that’s from my interpretation of Satan’s act of Terrorism in Paradise Lost.)
Then we talked about guns, and whether we should arm everybody or nobody. If you arm everybody, they would need to have the gun on them, in easy reach, loaded and ready at all times: otherwise you’re already too late.
We also mentioned how, in the shooting in Oregon’s Umpqua Community College recently, people were armed because that area was extremely pro-guns, but they didn’t engage shooters because police would probably have shot them when they tried to help.
I feel strongly that America has lost its gun-toting privileges, but this article isn’t about guns. It IS about whether the person behind the barrel is a good guy or a bad guy, and how to tell the difference, and whether or not moral integrity is completely subjective.
Somehow we then started talking about the new Moby Dick movie, which isn’t actually based on Moby Dick, but kind of seems like the same story: an evil whale smashes a whaling boat.
I thought it was going to be fascinating, because most people will probably side with the men as heroes, and the whale as monster – even though they were whale hunters trying to kill the whale, so they totally got what they deserved.
And even though everybody is really against whale-hunting right now, and upset about Japan’s plan to kill 333 minke whales (for you conspiracy theorists, that’s half 666).
Killing whales is bad; so how will In the Heart of the Sea work?
In Moby Dick, the whale isn’t exactly good or evil; though most critiques would say he’s the mystery of spiritual truth or something like that. Ahab’s hubris in assuming he could know and defeat the power of natural is the same as Faust’s evil desire for knowledge.
The same as Eve’s original sin.
If people watching the movie have Moby Dick in mind, they might think the men are heroes… or maybe they were punished for hunting the whale, and then redeemed through the ordeal.
If they were making a Moby Dick movie, they might make Ahab the villain… but there’s no hero. Ishmael is a loser, who doesn’t do anything heroic. Starbuck is a zealous prick. Ahab is the only heroic character, the only one who makes decisions and takes action and has plan, the only one who believes in science and self-reliance.
But a Moby Dick movie has to end in tragedy. Everybody dies. Nobody is saved except Ishmael.
I think Melville’s Ahab is based on Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (he even says some of the exact some lines!) But I also think both characters are heroic figures: take them out of their backgrounds and the fact that both lost in the end, they follow the exact same story as any of our modern heroes.
Some say that the fact that Satan and/or Ahab lost is proof that they were evil, and those not heroes, because heroes don’t lose. But we have tons of examples of people who lost tragically, that we still idolize and love. Vincent Van Goth, for example. Epic failures can without the come back can still count as heroism in most cases
Satan and Ahab don’t believe in external limitations, and wanted to prove their ultimate control over their own destiny. They resisted being boxed in, controlled, or told what to do. They refused and defied to accept defeat when they should have, persevering boldly into certain death.
These are heroic qualities, but because of our predispositions towards the text, Satan and Ahab continue to be interpreted as evil characters, who symbolize false pride and the limits of human ability.