Don’t Mess With My Head

In the post modern era of literature (1950’s and on), American writers wrote of classic struggles between tyranny and liberty, some from fears of Stalin’s Soviet Russia, others from the demoralization caused by America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was important, these writers thought, to show people just how horrifying government despotism could become. The British writer, George Orwell, had already spoken of the evils of totalitarianism, inspiring later writers to dwell on the horrors of politcal absolutism. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, John D. MacDonald’s Nightmare in Pink, and Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan each deal with the fear that governments can use neuroscience as a means to control people’s minds. Once the mind was manipulated in a certian way, writers dreaded that the common people would be subjected to the ideals of ruling parties and think nothing of it, all due to brain manipulation. Only stored information in books could be the best weapon against such devices.

Ken Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1963. The story centers on a mental health patient, Randle McMurphy, causing as much trouble as he can in a mental hospital. A large lady named Big Nurse rules the ward with an iron fist, but McMurphy believes her authority can be rebelled against. He doesn’t think her rules to be useful or authentic. Her powers only serve to make the other patients miserable. Though he manages to defy Big Nurse’s regulations and smuggles women into the ward, he is caught by the Nurse, who has no choice but to perform brain surgery on McMurphy. When McMurphy returns, he isn’t himself anymore; he no longer wishes to be a fun loving, exciting rebel. This instance illustates Kesey’s fear that those in power(symbolized by the Big Nurse) can perform brain surgeries so as to modify rebel personalities who threaten their control over people. Instead of executing rebels, rulers can simply use science as a means to conform people’s minds to their ideologies.

John D. MacDonald’s Nightmare in Pink, published in 1964, gives certian details as to how this brain manipulation occurs, what techniques neuroscientists were thought to be testing out. Travis McGee, a lady’s man who excels in recovering stolen property and solving crimes, is captured by a group of doctors in charge of a secret mental ward. Dr. Mulligan explains to McGee about the basics of brain surgery: “They go in at the temples, I believe, with a long thin scalpel and stir up the frontal lobes. It breaks the old behavior patterns in the brain” (MacDonald 193). By modifying the traditonal thinking patterns in the mind, doctors can change the way people actually behave. The patients will not have the same beliefs since their thinking has changed. The goal of the scientist will be to literally convert people to an idea or worldview. That way, they will simply not  rebel and stand for their own beliefs. They will go from being “dangerous” to friendly conformists.

Shock Therapy is seen by MacDonald to be an even more diabolical means of control. Dr. Varn explains to McGee about a female patient in the ward: “…an electrode was inserted into the area of the patient’s brain…the pleasure area…a transistorized field-current setup was then adjusted to the volume of the signal to give maximum stimulus…the completion of the task would give a ten second stimulus” (MacDonald 197-198). The doctors set up the woman’s brain to where completing a chore will produce a chemical pleasure, similar to highs humans get from eating and sex. No matter what the task is, the patient will perform it so as to experience the same thrill over and over again, as if they are addicted to drugs. In this way, those in power can get others to do whatever they wish for the same chemical high each time. If reward is involved, people are much less apt to rebel against those in authority. Subjects are now slaves to rulers in that their pleasures are used against them. Why rebel against something when it makes you feel comfortable and safe?

If a reward based manipulation doesn’t suffice, then neuroscientists may turn to simply modifying memory. Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel The Sirens of Titan, deals with this instance of scientific tyranny. Unk, a soldier on Mars, is preparing to assist an army in attacking Earth. His commanders have sent him from a mental hospital with a modified memory to where he no longer remembers his past. If he did, he may be less inclined to join a pointless, suicidal war. Afterall, the people on Mars stand no chance against Earth’s soldiers. Unknowingly, Unk has submitted to a kind of military authoritarianism.

But Unk is told by a man whom he executes to look in one of his barracks. When he does, he discovers a letter. The letter reveals that his friend, Stony (the one whom he killed), had discovered that they were being used to go to pointless war on Earth. The military wanted Stony executed for finding this out. Unk was his friend in this respect in that he confided the military’s secrets to him. Unk now knows he has just killed his only friend. The letter is a means of reminding Unk of who he is: “Keep this letter well hidden. And every time you change its hiding place, be sure to tell Stony where you put it. That way, even if you go to the hospital to have your memory cleaned out, Stony can tell you where to have your memory filled up again” (Vonnegut 131). It is a clever way for both men to fight the powers that be, a way to remind themselves of the truths the military is trying to keep from them.

The letter represents Vonnegut’s only hope against government tyranny: the written word. Unk discovers that it was he who had originally authored the letter: “Unk was the hero who had written the letter. Unk had written the letter to himself before having his memory cleaned out. It was literature in its finest sense, since it made Unk courageous, watchful, and secretly free. It made him his own hero in very trying times (Vonnegut 132). Vonnegut argues that literature can remind humans of the virtues and liberties that despotic governments try to find many ways to suppress. As long as the truth is out there, government cannot ultimately stamp out resistance to tyranny. People will discover the truths of humanity through literature and be reminded that there are things worth fighting for. Literature points people to history, which in turns teaches us about things we should support and things we should avoid. But if the government encourages ignorance, then the fight will be much more difficult. People will be unaware of the values that make them human and not mind-controlled slaves. They will be unaware of the freedoms that keep them from becoming caged animals.

The fight against tyranny still goes on today. And those who stand for liberty are well aware that literature is one of the important means in which people are reminded of important things. The truth that these writers express is that no one has the authority to make you think in one way; you, as an individual, have that right. No one else has the right to coerce anything into your mind.

Works Cited:

MacDonald, John D. Nightmare in Pink. New York: The Random House Publishing Group. 1964. Print.

Vonnegut, Kurt. The Sirens of Titan. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1959. Print.

An Oriental Frame Tale

In 1704, Great Britain was introduced to a series of stories written years before: The Arabian Nights (the 1001 Nights). No one knows who authored the tales. But Richard F. Burton was the man who was primarily responsible for introducing them to the English public. I came across these stories in my first creative writing class in tenth grade, though I never finished them. But in the summer of 2010, I did. I could definitely use a reread, especially when it comes to the tales of Sinbad and Judar. Yet I enjoyed most of the stories, especially “The Fisherman and the Jinnee,” which inspired one of my short stories “The Wrath of Kabal.” The stories constitute a frame tale, which by definition is when there are many short stories that interlope together in one book, one leading to another (“stories within stories”). I personally believe the book is an instance of metafiction as well, which is a narrative that comments on storytelling itself. I have a general theory of this book and the novel: the book shows us how, formulaically speaking, a group of short stories can be the framework of a novel. If beginning writers start off with short stories, then they will have decent practice before tackling a novel. You could treat each chapter, in a sense, like a short story, and then get an idea as to how a novel is structured. If you read Agatha Christie’s short story collections and compare them with the Poirot novel The Big Four or read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, you might see what I mean.

King Shahryar, enraged at his wife’s adultery, goes on a killing spree: he executes every woman in his path, believing them all to be conniving and wicked. One night, he tells his new victim, Scheherazade, that he will soon kill her too. But the beautiful lady begs a chance to tell him stories to appease his wrath, which she most certianly does. The king is so pleased by her storytelling, he recants from his fury and marries her. His faith in the goodness of woman is restored. Feminists may enjoy using this collection of stories as an argument for early pro-female storytelling. Afterall, in ancient cultures, women were not always seen as second rate citizens.

When Scheherazade tells one story, a character in that story tells another, thus creating a long chain of tales. There are many different subjects the stories treat: greed, betrayal, love, sexuality, honor, wisdom, etc. Some are about jinnees, spirits who either fulfil their master’s wishes or violently slaughter people with long swords. Others are about  masculine adventures that involve women of high honor and integrity. Many of the stories have a religious base in Islam, constituting morality from the Koran. They can be seen, in one way, as a case of Islamic folklore. As far as setting goes, the tales occur in parts of the Middle East, China and Africa. They are “oriental” stories in that they tell of a deeply interesting subject to westerners in the 1700’s: the East, its culture and customs. There are instances of animal fables, where creatures such as donkies speak. Sinbad can be compared to the British Robinson Crusoe, for he, too, struggles with keeping his adventerous spirit in check and ends up sailing to dangerous places, unintentionally. There is also the popular tale of Aladdin and his lamp, similar and not so similar, to the Disney rendition. All these examples are just a part of what you’ll come across.

The Captain and the Whale

A symbol is an animate or inanimate object representing something other than itself. We see symbols all the time. The heart represents love, the skeleton with cross bones represents danger, diamonds represent opulence. Even colors highlight different ideas. White can stand for purity or righteousness, black can stand for evil or sinfulness, green can stand for youth or strong desires. Symbolism is a common artistic technique used to suggest other themes than those appearing on the surface. When we considered C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we inferred that the White Witch symbolized Satan due to Lewis’s religious inclinations. There’s times where we can figure out what an object represents if we have enough information about the author. Yet symbols aren’t always easily defined. While some authors are straightforward in their writing, or at least give enough hints as to what they mean, other writers present symbols so complex that they leave it up to the reader to decide what the text means for themselves.

In 1851 Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or the Whale was published in America. I came across the book in 2009 at a used book store in my home town. The front cover’s illustration caught my eye: a large white whale hounded by a few boats lidded with spear-wielding men. But the text wasn’t as interesting as the cover. Indeed, halfway through the book I almost gave up reading it altogether. Melville’s loose sentences, following each other like a group of anacondas, were hard to mentally digest, much less the learned vocabulary composing them. A series of thoughts about whales and the whaling industry interrupt the novel’s plot at certain times. One could say the book is as much a fictional journey as an analysis of cetology. If you’re looking for modern thrills, a straightforward story, Moby Dick probably ain’t the book for you. When it first came out it received far more criticism than favor. It didn’t commercially succeed as some of Melville’s earlier stories had. When Melville died, he died a starving artist, unrecognized as the artistic genius some refer to him as today. Only in the early twentieth century did some scholars take another look at the condemned white whale and bring him to more favorable recognition.

A first person speaker named Ishmael, an inquisitive, adventurous sailor, narrates most of Melville’s tale. Ishmael tells the story of how he sailed on the whaling ship The Pequod with a diverse crew of men, among them the cannibal Queequeg, a Quaker named Starbuck, the happy-go lucky Stubb, a fierce whaler named Flask, and two more harpooners with him, Tashtego and Daggoo. The crew ventures across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, determined to hunt down and kill as many whales as possible for sheer sport and economic profit. They also encounter other whaling ships and take a few more passengers on board to go hunting with them.

But Ishmael’s primary vision centers on the ship’s captain, Ahab, as well as Ahab’s targeted whale, Moby Dick, also known as the great white whale. Ahab intends to find Moby Dick and kill him for biting off his leg during a previous voyage. Consumed by an insatiable thirst for revenge, Ahab stops at nothing to pursue his goal, even if it means ignoring the dire advice of fellow whalers or even his own conscience. When considering Melville’s symbolism, we must focus on how both the captain and the whale are described by Melville and the fact that Ahab wants to destroy Moby Dick. I’ll try to suggest different ideas Ahab and Moby Dick might represent and what Melville might be implying through their intense struggle with each other.

First we consider the novel’s protagonist, Captain Ahab. When in chapter 28 Ishmael mentions the captain, he refers to him as a ‘supreme lord and dictator.’ Because he’s the captain, Ahab has absolute authority on the ship. He issues orders as to how the ship is regulated and how the whales are to be hunted. Yet if he’s a ‘dictator,’ his rule oversteps its own boundaries. He may be too harsh in his judgments or place daunting pressure on his men regarding what he wants. His personality may be so domineering that it makes people cautious even during his absence. They comply to his power with a fearful resignation.

Ishmael further describes Ahab’s appearance: “He looked like a man cast away from the stake, when the fire has overunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them…..There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance…..a crucifixion in his face; in all the regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” Ahab follows a cause he deeply believes in, one which he will not soon relinquish, though it causes him anguish. A religious dedication linking him to the crucified Christ of the Bible. His zeal is so strong that it may even bring him to insanity. His views are controversial, so much so that others are tempted to kill him. Like officers executing a radical citizen. But Melville mentions that the executing fire ‘overruns.’ Does that mean the heretic’s punishment is unreasonable, going beyond its intended purpose? And besides, the punishment has failed; the person, or rather the faith they hold to, is still alive and well, causing trouble like never before. Ahab’s a man whose cause, though heavily suppressed, still marches on.

Ishmael later describes Ahab’s mortal enemy, the white whale Moby Dick. In chapter 41, called ‘Moby Dick,’ Ishmael discusses what the whale appeared to be to the average sailor: “a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high pyramidal white hump.” Then later on on the same page, “…his unwonted magnitude…his remarkable hue…his deformed lower jaw…that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults.” Moby Dick, having a ‘wrinkled forehead,’ may represent old age, since aging usually brings on wrinkles. However, the ‘pyramidal hump’ suggests something that isn’t merely old but ancient. The whale isn’t a modern challenge to Ahab but a plight mankind has had to contend with throughout history. A great, unequal suffering experienced daily. A problem society longs to solve. Having a ‘deformed jaw’ may suggest not only old age but crookedness. Something unnatural or unbecoming, something that should not be.

But the most intriguing aspect about Moby Dick is his color: White. As I mentioned before, colors are occasionally used in literature to symbolize certain concepts. Chapter 42 is entitled ‘The Whiteness of the Whale,’ one of the novel’s most famous passages; In it, Ishmael hints at several associations of the color white such as “beauty, imperial hue, the white man’s ideal mastership over every dusky tribe, gladness, innocence of brides, the majesty of Justice, divine spotlessness and power, the aspect of the dead, an all-color of atheism from which we shrink.” He makes no definitive conclusion as to what Moby Dick stands for. He only leaves the reader to wonder for themselves. Why would Melville use the color white and not another? In deciphering the mysterious creature, the reader must keep the color white in mind along with Moby Dick’s other aspects, treating it with special attention.

We could sum it up like this thus far: Ahab pursues a noble, enduring, controversial goal which consumes him to the point of madness. He uses his authority as captain to rule and tyrannize his men to carry out his mission. He wants to vanquish Moby Dick, the white whale suggesting an ancient power causing mankind heartache and pain. The whale who personally injured him. The further he pursues Moby Dick the more he has a price put on his head (in Ahab’s case, it is the Quaker Strarbuck who considers ending Ahab’s life due to Ahab’s fanaticism). Ishmael says it like this: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the white whale’s hump all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

Now let’s see if we can flesh out these generalizations. What can we further see in Ahab and Moby Dick and in the passionate voyage linking them together?

On the surface, Melville’s novel deals with whalers and whaling. In the nineteenth century, whaling was America’s top economic enterprise. In one of the introductory extracts Melville presents the reader, originally from Daniel Webster’s speech to Congress in 1828, we read, “’Nantucket itself,’ said Mr. Webster, ‘is a very striking and peculiar portion of the National interest. There is a population of eight or nine thousand persons, living here in the sea, adding largely every year to the National wealth by the boldest and most persevering industry.” Whaling was a bold industry because it required great courage. You had to travel many miles through an unpredictable sea, through waters which could turn turbulent any time, exposing one to sudden death. You had to spend many days in crowded and cramped areas with small rations of food, sweating laboriously under the hot sun. You had to outmaneuver animals which outweighed you by thousands of pounds, expertly hunting them down with sometimes fragile tools. A highly demanding job back then, to say the least. Yet through their hard work, whalers provided America with a vital commodity: ambergris, an oil extracted from inside a whale’s head. Whale oil was used for many things such as grease for rusted machines, perfume for women, and, most significant, for lighting lamps at night, both in homes and out in the street. Back then electricity wasn’t used like it is today. Americans depended on ambergris to provide an easier, more convenient life for themselves. The demand for it was high, giving businessmen an opportunity to make a substantial profit.

In this economic context Captain Ahab is a representative man, the fearless worker simply making a living. He’s dedicated to controlling his surroundings for his own profit. Afterall, economics is the science of how individuals manipulate their own environment for survival. As the average employer, he orders his employees to work efficiently and without laziness. Maybe being too stern about numbers, causing his workers to secretly fear and hate him while they toil without rest. Ahab chases a whale representing the universal, unchanging natural world mankind works to tame. Ishmael links ‘beauty’ to the whale’s white appearance. And certainly the natural world appears beautiful to most; enchanting skies, seas, trees, canyons, etc. But that impressive, beautiful environment can suddenly turn savage. You could get struck by lightning, have a tree crush your head, or drown in a raging wave. In an introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Moby Dick, Columbia University professor Carl F. Hovde (1926-2009) writes “For Melville, as later for Mark Twain, nature may be the mother of us all, but her violence destroys life as readily as she creates it; vigilance is the cost of survival, and even then we take great risks.” The natural world isn’t a light thing to tackle. Economics is a constant struggle. In his staunch determination to conquer Nature, Ahab risks his life and the lives of his men to make money. He already knows that Nature is deadly; afterall, he’s already lost one of his legs during a daily fight with the sea. Yet the captain painstakingly presses on, as if he were unphased at how dangerous the outside world really is and how terribly it’s already affected him.

The captain’s lust to control Nature hasn’t gone unnoticed over the years. Why would someone like Ahab be persecuted for wishing to make money? Though America’s economy boomed from whaling, all the hunting took a heavy toll on the numbers of whales in the oceans. Environmentalists and animal lovers alike cried out for stricter hunting laws in the hope that some whales could be conserved. Yet for all the regulations restricting fishing hours, whales are still killed in certain areas of the world today, such as off the coast of Japan. Human beings still pride themselves on hunting their more massive relatives. And as for Ahab’s tyranny over his workers, that still remains a troubling constant in the workforce, to a greater or lesser degree. Though employees have gone on strike and ransacked businesses to demand fairer treatment from their employers, the average boss simply terminates his rebellious workers and searches for new ones. Mass movements of frustrated citizens didn’t create as many opportunities to survive as Capitalism has, though the invisible hand may not touch everyone equally. The machine still works, in spite of being challenged by exhausted and demoralized people. So does Ahab continue to pursue Moby Dick, though some of his shipmates question his motives and actions.

A heavy duty boss at work isn’t the only person subject to challenges. Political leaders have had their fair share of pressure too. On re-reading parts of Moby Dick, I couldn’t help but notice Ahab being described as a king. In chapter 37 called ‘Sunset,’ the captain, after retiring to his cabin following his orders to kill Moby Dick, says “Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? This iron crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzingly confounds. Tis iron-that I know-not gold. Tis split, too-that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!” Ahab’s rule pleases him. He takes great pride in his power, deeply comforted by his divine status and position. Yet his authority weighs on him over time, as well as his kingly lust for wealth. What is supposed to comfort now torments. The stress of having to order subjects around and manage the affairs of a nation (not merely a ships’s crew) takes its toll on his health. But his nature is as much made of iron as the crown he wears. He was born for the job. He can handle the anxiety and confusion as well as others. He need not be intimidated by his limits. His pride presses him ever onward.

In his extracts, Melville alludes to a classic political text from 1651: Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan or the Matter, Forme & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiastical and Civill. The passage Melville gives us is when Hobbes’s further explains his title. In chapter 17 of Leviathan, we read “…that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speake more reverently) of that Mortal God to which wee owe under the Immortal God, our peace and defence. For by this Authoritie, given him by every particular man in the Common-Wealth, he hath the use of so much Power and Strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is inabled to form the wills of them all, to Peace at home, and mutuall ayd against their enemies abroad. And in him consisteth the Essence of the Common-wealth; which (to define it,) is  One person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants one with another, have made themselves everyone the Author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their Peace and Common Defence. And he that carryeth this Person, is called SOVERAIGNE, and said to have Soveraigne Power; and everyone besides, his SUBJECT.”

Hobbes writes of a state where a sovereign power is elected by the people, through representatives. This person, or group of people, is responsible for maintaining civil peace in the nation as well as safeguarding the country from foreign threats. The sovereign’s power is absolute and instituted by God Himself. Since the citizens pledge their allegiance to the sovereign when electing him, they can’t challenge his authority without guilt. To condemn the king would be like condemning yourself since he’s your representative. If the subjects break their oath, then both the king and God Himself will judge them. Maybe Ahab is the monarch Hobbes illustrates. Interestingly, Ahab’s crew is referred to as his ‘knights and squires’(The title of chapters 27 and 28, which introduce the crew). In chapter 36, entitled ‘The Quarter -Deck,’ all on board promise to help Ahab chase Moby Dick, pledging themselves to him. In the same way a subject promises the king that he’ll obey his laws, trusting his authority to protect him from danger. If they break their oath, they condemn themselves to death. The whalers cross their harpoons with Ahab’s as knights would with a king at a royal table. ‘God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death,’ says the solemn Ahab.

Moby Dick, on the other hand, represents everything subverting a king’s authority. Hobbes, in chapter 29 of Leviathan, writes about several things that can threaten the Sovereign’s power. The king could be too slack in his rule when he should be firm. His singular throne could split into branches of power, producing strife and derision within the ranks. Subjects could argue that the Sovereign violates their consciences through his edicts and therefore, in the name of Justice (the virtue Ishmael links to Moby Dick’s whiteness), they should disobey him. Moby Dick stands for that aspect of nature which is human. That psychological longing for freedom and justice. Moby Dick symbolizes the subject’s rightful, natural liberty brutally assaulted by the vicious Ahab. We mustn’t forget that Ahab is described as a ‘dictator.’ If Hobbes imagined a Sovereign who stood firm in the cause of liberty, then Ahab certainly doesn’t fit the bill. He has no regard for anyone other than himself; if he has to tyrannize his crew to chase Moby Dick, then he’ll do just that. As the power hungry monarch executes a rebellious citizen longing for freedom, so does Ahab madly chase the white whale down.

But what if the roles were reversed? What if it’s the whale representing the timeless, malevolent ruler subjecting his people to slavery while captain Ahab is the radical, rugged individualist fighting for freedom? Hobbes wasn’t the first to coin the term ‘Leviathan.’ That word has also referred to other things throughout history such as a great sea serpent or even whales themselves. If Moby Dick is the political ‘Leviathan,’ then Ahab is the dangerous fanatic bent on defying his kingly rule. In this context, Ahab is another kind of representative man: the American Democrat. I couldn’t help but remember a piece of literature written just two years before Moby Dick was published, in 1849: Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience. The basic story around Thoreau’s essay was that, because he disobeyed the government by not paying his taxes, he was sent to jail for a brief time. Thoreau disapproved of the American war in Mexico in the 1840’s. By not paying his taxes, he is protesting what the government is doing in Mexico. His rebellion is in stark contrast to Hobbes’s unquestioning loyalty to the state. Thoreau writes “The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.” In recalling chapter 42 of Melville’s novel, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale,’ we saw Moby Dick’s color linked to an ‘imperial hue.’ Yet he also is described as having a ‘crooked jaw’ in the previous chapter, chapter 41. The rule of law in politics is not as virtuous as it is often made out to be. It may appear just on the outside, but it performs sneaky evils behind the curtain of ‘honest’ politics.

Melville links Ahab and his men to a Democratic cause, a communal struggle for justice in the world. In ‘Knights and Squires’ Melville writes, speaking of the spirit of pity and love within men, ‘But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that astounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!’ Ahab stands for the common subject under a civil government, the average voter, the average working man. Not only the captain but his crew as well, works together for a common cause: Democracy, a government represented by the common person and operated by the common person. But in order for this noble, even divinely mandated mission to succeed, Ahab and his men must defeat Moby Dick, the beast who symbolizes the deadly authority of a divine monarchy, the abuse of power in the sphere of the ruling class. Armed with their superior strength, the sailors face the seemingly overwhelming power of the state, the power Thoreau mentions that threateningly meets man’s physical strength. Thoreau writes “The state never intentionally meets a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.” The struggle with the white whale is a physical one, to be sure. Just as the whalers are enamored in the struggle to tame their game in the open blue sea, so do the fighters for liberty face the force of the law head on in their battle for democracy and liberty. And in addition, because not everyone will agree with the concept of Democracy, they will suffer persecution from their fellow man and not just their government, seen as dangerous radicals. Thoreau will not submit to the government and neither will Ahab to the power of Moby Dick. As Thoreau concludes in his essay ‘The progress from a limited monarchy to the a democracy is progress towards a true respect for the individual.’ Hobbes would scowl.

Thus far we have considered the struggle between the captain and the whale in the context of economics and politics. Ahab could be the working man struggling to make a living against the forces of Nature, or the troubled king trying to control rebellion in his kingdom, or conversely, the radical fighter for the cause of freedom against an oppressive government. Yet I believe there is another angle to consider the story. In my personal opinion, it is perhaps the most relevant.

Early in Melville’s story, Ishmael and Queequeg attend a Christian service at the Nantucket boatyards. In chapter 9, ‘The Sermon,’ a message is delivered by Father Maple, a bold and frank Christian minister. The minister preaches about Jonah in the Old Testament. God commands the prophet Jonah to preach repentance to the wicked city of Ninevah, but the messenger disobeys his order. As a result, God causes a great fish to swallow Jonah one night while he is riding in a boat with some other men. For three days and nights Jonah lives inside the fish’s belly while coming to realize his sin in disobeying God. After he acknowledges his guilt and repents does God cause the great fish to spit Jonah back out.

Father Maple gives his sermon a concluding thought after he finishes speaking: “Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation!” And then the minister gives a contrast. “Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight, top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. O Father, chiefly known to me by thy rod, mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own.” To sum the minister up, woe to those who serve the injustices of the world and the sinful pleasures of the self, but good for him who serves God first in all things no matter what the cost.

The reader must ask themselves: why does Melville go through the trouble of writing such a sermon down in his book? Does he wish to foreshadow certain themes the reader will confront later on? It seems almost certain. Melville gives us Christianity so that it will impress itself in our minds as the narrative unfolds. The voyage Ishmael and Queequeg are to embark on will have theological dimensions to it. There are not only political and economic angles to Melville’s tale but religious ones too.

Father Maple gives us a vision of the Christian as a warrior whose sole duty is to eliminate sin wherever it is to be found, to subject all things to the authority of Christ. As the captain’s wish is to kill and burn the white whale, so the Christian must kill and burn all non-Christian influence in the self as well as outside the self. Ahab sees his duty to kill Moby Dick as being divinely given to him by God Himself: ‘God hunt us all if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death.’ His purpose is Christian and puritanical. If he fails in his mission, he fails his God and sins against Him. In the economic sphere he could be trying to give God glory in his whaling life. ‘Do all unto the glory of God’ the New Testament mentions. In politics, he could be the king of old standing for the divinely mandated Leviathan, that government whose sole purpose is to bring honor unto God. Or maybe the Christian rebel who fights an ungodly and crooked political system is what Ahab represents. In a spiritual sense, he is simply the Christian fighting the powers of the Devil. Like the devil, Moby Dick is compared to the great sea serpent of the book of Revelation. He has a crooked jaw and a terrible malignity, a strong description of the believer’s adversary. And this battle against the Devil which the captain wages is communal and not merely individualistic; it involves every kind of nationality and language, just as the church’s message rises from all the ‘corners’ of the earth. Afterall, many different nationalities are represented by Ahab’s diverse crew. Perhaps he is like Father Maple, instructing his flock to fight the Devil. To conclude, Ahab could be seen as a Christian hero emulating the virtue of obedience to God’s commandments.

Yet we must remember that Ahab is sometimes described as crazy or fanatical. Is Melville making a statement about Christianity here, or the state of American religion? What if Ahab, in his zeal to serve God, takes his devotion a little too far? What if he becomes lost in his religious convictions to the point where his original aim is lost? Is the Christian minister, or king, losing it? Over working his subjects or pastoral flock to the point to where they wish to kill him? Even though the church and government were invested with the doctrines of Christianity throughout history, that didn’t stop people from rebelling against them. The British novelist D.H. Lawrence suggested that Ahab represents ‘the maniacal fanaticism of our white mental consciousness’ that wishes to subvert all that is good in human nature. Lawrence shared a negative view of religion during his time. He saw religion as stifling, causing more harm to the individual than good. It was the white person’s religion which was causing unnecessary strife in the world. A fight whose purpose was pointless. Since human nature was an integral part of life, or the ONLY means to live, then fighting it in the name of God could only backfire. Maybe Lawrence is right. Ahab, in his religiosity, destroys more good than evil. The sinful flesh that Father Maple so vehemently condemns is more pleasant than corrupt. This view would be more humanist than Christian if one were to consider it as an interpretation of the novel.

In fact, ‘Ahab’ is a name more associated with rebellion against God rather than humble service towards Him. In the Bible, the Old Testament King Ahab is presented as a vile, wicked ruler who disobeys God at every turn. God punishes him and his kingdom as a result, cursing Ahab to a violent death. Maybe Melville is giving us another form of Father Maple’s sermon, his own rendition of biblical tradition. Like the pastor, he is presenting a rebellious, sinful captain bent on destroying Christianity rather than upholding it. A romantic hero who does not wish to give God any credit at all but to deny Him at every turn. Perhaps this is why some readers of Moby Dick saw it as unchristian when it was first published.

Moby Dick reminds us of God, particularly because of his infinite size, his holy aura of white, and the divine spotlessness that Ishmael hints at. And the captain is Satan’s messenger, trying to eliminate God and His influence from the world. From the beginning Starbuck thinks Ahab’s lust to kill the white whale is blasphemous. Ahab retorts back to the Quaker: ‘Speak not to me of blasphemy; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me!’ And later on he mentions that he will wreak hatred and havoc on the ‘white whale agent or the white whale principal’ if he can. It seems to me at least that this is Ahab’s poetic way of describing Christianity itself. An ‘agent’ could refer to an angelic messenger, and a ‘principal’ sounds like a doctrine or maxim. Either interpretation is bad news for the Christian reader: Ahab is either the crazy Christian who has lost touch with love and reason or the anti-Christian hell bent on eliminating Christianity from the world. Maybe Melville is presenting a warning to the world of what happens when either path is pursued. Afterall, the captain fails in his endeavor, washed away in the sea with the unconquerable white whale following him. Is this a more despairing look at life altogether?

In the end…the worker dies trying to tame Nature, the king is killed by his subject, or he kills them, the Christian ultimately fails in trying to conquer sin, while the non-Christian will ultimately suffer defeat at the hands of God, though his rebellion be brute and swift….either way, the captain fails to tame the whale, as the end of the story shows us, and once the reader figures out their interpretation of the whale and the captain, then they must think about the conclusion of the story and what it says about our real lives.

These views are only several ways to see Melville’s story of course. The novel has been seen through many lights over the years since Modernist critics brought it to light in the early 20th century. Some critics focus on race, for example, how the whale represents the power of white people in world history, particularly in Europe and America, and the fight involved trying to lower that power, a kind of Marxist reading of the novel as it were, or maybe, to the fear of whites, an anti-white message all around. Some link Captain Ahab to Shakespeare’s King Lear, focusing on Ahab’s royalty, pride, and old age. Others focus on the whale being described as inscrutable or intangible, hinting that Moby Dick either is void of meaning, or that he cannot be understood. This would be a kind of anti-symbolic interpretation of the story and even this is plausible. Perhaps there is no symbolism at all, or if there is, then we are dealing with a symbol whose dimensions are too broad to fully understand not only as readers but as human beings. Life is complicated, and when art tries to manifest this complexity, it only leaves us more astounded to the mysteries of the universe. Like Ahab, we try to plumb the meaning of life in what we see, only to face our own mortality and lack of sufficient answers.

It has been said in literary circles that ‘you bring yourself to a text.’ When considering a story whose meaning is hidden in poetry and seeming ambiguity, who you are as a person, and your experiences, will ultimately determine how you not only see a symbol in a piece of literature, but any book at all. This is true of any thing in life. Truth is in the eye of the beholder, the old saying goes. The book is like a lake, and we, like Ishmael, look on its glassy surface and see ourselves staring right back at us.

Three Jewish Tales of Terror

Almost everyone knows about the Holocausts, about how Adolf Hitler had thousands of Jews murdered for his own political ends. The debate as to why Hitler did so continues; some say it was because of Hitler’s own religious beliefs or maybe his views on society and economics. Regardless of why the German dictator did what he did, most will agree that it was one of history’s darkest periods. In my advanced world literature class and my sixth grade class, I came across some books detailing events that occurred concerning the Jews and the Germans in the 1940’s. The first two are 2/5, for I don’t think either were challenging reads. But the last was a level 3 book, for not only was it more detailed and dedicated to facts but also captured the tragic tone of what it was like to be a Jew at the hands of Hitler.

The sixth grade read was Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. It tells of a girl named Annemarie who lives with her family in mid 1940’s Denmark, where German soldiers are gathering up Jews to take to the concentration camps. She gets into a situation where she must hide her friend Ellen, who is a Jew, from the prying fingers of the soldiers. The novel grows in suspense, as the two girls desperately try to hide from the Germans, leaving house to house.

The second read (in my advanced world literature class) was Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic. It tells of a girl named Hannah Stern who attends a Passover meal with her Jewish family in New York. One night over at her family’s house , she wakes to find herself transported back in time to when Jews were brought into the German concentration camps. Hannah assumes another identity, and learns first hand what life was like for Jewish women in the camps. What worries her is not only the brutal German administration, but whether or not she will return to her own time.

For me though, the third read, Elie Wiesel’s Night, is the most well written account of the camps. Wiesel and the story’s main character, Eliezar, share many things in common, for Wiesel based this story on his own horrific experiences. Eliezar lives in Hungary with his father, mother and sisters. He’s studying the Torah, the religious text of Judaism. Rumors have been floating around that the Germans are shipping Jews away, and it is not long before Eliezar and his family are first hand recipients of this care. They are sent to Auschwitz, the most notorious of all the concentration camps.

When he arrives at Auschwitz, Eliezar is separated from his mother and sisters and is left with his father. They are treated cruelly by the Germans, and the pain becomes so demoralizing that Eliezar abandons his faith in God. His father is the only one who gives him hope in the dire circumstances. When the Germans receive word that the Russians are coming to take over the camp, the Germans force the remaining Jews to leave. And so a desperate rush impels Eliezar and his sick father to run through deep snow for their lives.

These stories do well to present historical events, like Musketeers and Hunchback. Yet I must confess, the Holocaust, though it should be taught and reflected upon, is taught too often in the public education system; every public school grade seems to emphasize this tragic history over and over. That’s a serious educational problem to me, for it doesn’t give equal time to other events in history that are just as important, such as Stalin’s control over Soviet Russia. It seems like there are certain facets of history that the educational system wants to focus on, but that is a serious issue, because it doesn’t give students a broad education. It’s narrow, because you’ve only been exposed to certain events over and over. Such thoughts may be condemned as anti-Semitic, but I think they are based more on reason and logic. We do the victims of the Holocaust an equal disservice when we fail to look for injustice everywhere instead of in just one group of people and their history. If the holocausts teaches us anything, it is that injustice should be fought against, lest something more terrible than the Jewish massacres happen. God forbid. Yet there are acts of violence everyday that, though they may be less in scope, are equally as detrimental to society.  If your interested in learning about the Holocausts, pick up Elie Wiesel’s Night; it, in my opinion, does a better job than Stars or Arithmetic in bringing the realism of the time period to the reader.

The Ghost of the Paris Opera

A third french classic I stumbled upon in my advanced world literature class was Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. This novel contains one of the strongest beginning lines I’ve encountered in a book: “The ghost of the Paris Opera existed.” That line just has a way of pulling you in as a reader; it gets your attention. I rate this book as a four out of five novel like the previous two. It’s got a suspenseful plot as well as a nice romance to tie its main characters together.

Christine is a beautiful young singer who performs in the famous Paris opera house. Her fame grows with every performance. Raoul, a dashing young man, falls in love with her, desiring her to be his partner. But the romantic tone of the novel is counterbalanced by a darker mystery; some one has been performing tricks on people in the opera house. Rumors are flying around that it is all due to the mysterious “opera ghost.” With almost every performance on stage, another strange incidence occurs. Yet no one knows where the ghost lurks or even if he exists.

But Christine soon finds out exactly who this ghost really is. She meets a stranger who lives under the opera house in a deep dungeon-like cavern. The stranger wears a white mask that covers half of his face and a long black cape. His musical skills are exceptional; he plays the organ in his cave with ease. Before Christine met him, he had whispered words to her regarding her music. That was how she came to know him in the first place. After seeing what lies behind the mask though, Christine wants to banish him from her memory. The phantom, who reveals himself as Eric, refuses to let her go so easily, for he, like Raoul, is in love with her. As a result of Eric’s longing for the singer, he kidnaps her, prompting Raoul and a Persian friend of his to discover the phantom’s whereabouts and save Christine. But they will soon make an explosive decision regarding the future of the Opera house, for Eric, long shunned away from society due to his deformity (Quasimodo anyone?), wants vengeance on those who rejected him throughout his life.

This novel, in some ways, is a nice little mystery. No one, not even the reader, knows where the opera ghost lies hidden, for Leroux wants to reveal that later. For a while, I mistakenly thought this book to be a nineteenth century piece. It was first published around 1911. One can see connections to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In each case, there is a main character who is distanced from society because of how he looks. This theme plays out in a lot of classic literature in the 1800’s and on, especially from the Romantic authors. Novelists were often concerned about how individuals who seemed to get the short end of the stick in life, as it were (such as prisoners, the poor etc.), related to their society’s ideals and standards. Because it is a dark romance, you may even compare it to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as well. Both books contain love triangles involving interesting characters. Overall, this book is an easier read then Dumas or Hugo and definitely not as long as their works, so check this one out too.

Isolated in a Cathedral

Like Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo also excels in giving us deep literature. The second book I read for my advanced world literature class was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This read was more challenging, in some ways, than The Three Musketeers. Like Dumas, Hugo excels in presenting historical events with great clarity. Perhaps even more so. However, Hugo can be quite descriptive in his language and tends to elaborate for many pages on a single event or theme. Because of this, it takes a little more patience to read his work than Dumas. Nevertheless, Hugo’s themes are timeless and intriguing. His characters are thought provoking in and of themselves. His settings are colossal in scope. And his plots come together in both heart warming and tragic ways.

Hugo writes of medieval Paris, a place mixed with royal authority and vagabonds. In the Cathedral de Notre Dame lives a priest named Claude Frollo, a respectable religious man. One day, he finds an infant on the doorsteps of the cathedral, a deformed child too hideous to stare at. Afraid that others will abuse the child for his deformity, Frollo takes him with him to live in the cathedral. As the child grows, he turns out to be a hunchback whom Claude names Quasimodo. Quasimodo spends his daily hours looking down on Paris, ringing the church bells, aware of his hideousness and therefore frightened of society. He finds comfort in his priestly father, the only one willing to take him in.

While Quasimodo lives peacefully in his sanctuary, La Esmerelda, a gypsy dancer, entertains the citizens of Paris. She doesn’t have everyone on her side; a recluse accuses her and her people of kidnapping her daughter. Therefore, only evil can come from gypsies. On the other hand, a captain of the king’s guard takes a look at La Esmerelda and likes what he sees. And likewise, Esmerelda likes the Captain.

However, Claude Frollo also sees the beauty of La Esmerelda and develops a deep longing for her, one that turns him into a demonic fiend. For instead of talking civilly with the gypsy, he devises ways of having her come to him against her will. She stubbornly resists the priest’s attempts, but is almost captured by some men. At that moment, Quasimodo rescues her and takes her safely into the cathedral, not to the knowledge of Frollo. Though grateful to Quasimodo, Esmerelda can hardly bare to look at the hunchback. She has never in her life seen someone so deformed. Yet she gets along with him as best she can. As Hugo’s story progresses, the action becomes more intense and the characters interact with one another in tragic ways, creating a lasting impression on the reader.

I give this novel a four out of five. Hugo’s characters are memorable in what they represent: timeless personalities. Though his descriptive chapters are quite a challenge to the reader, I respect such depth in an author. It makes one think through what they are reading. I’ll never forget the chapter in which Hugo spends around thirty pages describing Paris. He does the same thing in his 1862 tour de force: Les Miserables (sorry, can’t give a correct accent). That is another book review for another day. Check out Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s one of the French’s finest works. Both Les Mis and Hunchback are really the only works from Hugo I’m into. if I read anything else form Hugo, it might be his poetry, or maybe another novel of his called Toilers of the Sea. Who knows?

My First Classic Read

Once upon a time, Devin Stevens was assigned a summer read for his tenth grade advanced world literature class. The selection in question was Alexandre Duma’s The Three Musketeers. Devin finished the book in a week under a scorching hot sun. Little did he know he had just taken his first step into the world of the classics.

D’Artagnan is a young man in 1675 France who wishes to join the musketeers led by M. de Treville. Adventurous in heart, he meets three soldiers under Treville’s service: the religious Aramis, the flirtatious Porthos, and the mysterious Athos. At first, the three do not think D’Artagnan suitable for the chivalrous position, until he assists them in fighting off a regiment of guards. From then on, he becomes friends with them and begins to learn the ways of true swordsmanship.

D’Artagnan, while enjoying himself with his new comrades, soon unearths a secret kept from the king of France, namely, that the queen is having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham. He falls in love with one of the queen’s servants, who begs him to help the queen avoid Louis XIV’s prying eyes.The reader also sees into the lives of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, even as he or she is following D’Artagnan’s adventures. Cardinal Richelieu, desiring the Queen’s secret to be discovered, plots against D’Artagnan and the musketeers, threatened by their ingenuity. He enlists the help of his female rogue, Milady, who develops a dangerous, personal feud with D’Artagnan. Richelieu also has the young man’s mistress kidnapped, prompting D’Artagnan to search hopelessly for her. As the novel rears towards its climax, the suspense builds to a pitch, including expected, and unexpected, conclusions.

If I could rate this book, I would give it a 4/5. The novel contains many different elements all interwoven together: romance, suspense, history, deception, adventure, you name it. Dumas definitely put a lot of work into making the book as multi-layered as possible. Looking back on it, there are several reasons as to why I need to reread it. First, as it was my first selection of classic literature, I didn’t see into the book as well as I could have, not being used to the deep vocabulary and historical events that classify most classics. Overall, though, it wasn’t as difficult a read as, say, Moby Dick, or The Sound and the Fury. Yet a reread wouldn’t hurt to better understand some of the plot elements, such as the relationship between the man in the red cloak and Milady. There was also the fact that D’Artagnan showed Cardinal Richelieu a fragment of a letter that got him out of trouble? I’m not so sure. My mind sort of zoned out during the time Milady tried to have the musketeers killed. But for the most part, I recall a lot of things I liked about the novel: the way Milady slowly escaped from a prison, D’Artagnan keeping France’s king from discovering his wife’s infidelity, the fact that D’Artagnan always lost hold of the mysterious “Stranger,” and the suspenseful conclusion where Milady is chased by the musketeers.The second reason I would need to reread this novel is because, apparently, it is the first of a series of books Dumas wrote about the musketeers. There are three (or maybe four or more books) in all. The last in the series is The Man in the Iron Mask. This one was turned into a wonderful film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. As for the books that occur in between Musketeers and Mask, I believe one is called either Twenty Years After or Twenty Years Later. There may also be some stories in french titles which we as Americans have difficult access to. If I reread Musketeers, then I would definitely like to read all the books to get the full story of D’Artagnan and his friends.

I definitely see myself returning to Dumas in the future. For one, he wrote one book with another author about the Nutcracker. The Nutcracker is my favorite Christmas story, so reading Duma’s take on the tale would be interesting. But of course, there is also The Count of Monte Cristo. This whopper of a book is around 1300-1500 pages, depending on what version you buy. From what I’ve heard of the story, it’s got all kinds of plots to it, creating one long story of suspense. I got my sights set on it for the future.

Check The Three Musketeers out. You will not be disappointed. It’s the pure definition of storytelling in its most balanced form.