MOBY DICK AND THE PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
Following is a temporary hiatus from my blogging hiatus. As mentioned, I have had to cut back on the very lucrative business of blogging each week in order to dedicate myself to the equally lucrative business of working on my PhD and my next book project. Theoretically, I could sacrifice sleep and live for the calling but I’m too vain to willingly sport the zombie look before my biological clock capitulates. Now the following blog entry will seem quite random, but I ask if you have read this far already, just go with it. Maybe I am not getting as much sleep as I should but it would be nice to think that someone, somewhere, actually took the time to read this and it is not a bunch of blabber into the void. So here it goes…
This past spring I attended a one-day seminar on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street“ (if you haven’t read it, do. It’s not long and quite good). Our group of about 30 students from all over the world discussed the story’s use in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a fascinating glimpse you can get when you’re only one of two Americans in a room full of non-Americans discussing American literature. I’ve come to sympathize with those who, based on qualifiers and affectionate-sounding tones, obviously like America yet find themselves wickedly conflicted about a country that remains a rather unsolvable mystery. Problems solved long ago and solutions which are now so “self-evident” for Europeans such as universal healthcare, gun regulations, and free higher education are still actually topics of hot debate in the US. How can a country be so internet-of-things be so unapologetically yesterday? Now more than ever, many Europeans seem to be pounding their foreheads on their desks wondering “Why, oh why are you Americans so out of your blasted minds? You’re all so bat-shit crazy and you can bet your Wiener Würstel, you’re even proud of it to boot.”
So all this got me thinking about what it is that defines Americans in our souls and has long defined Americans in literature, films, and our self-image. This prompted me to focus a seminar paper I had to write on Moby-Dick on the Pursuit of the American Dream. I will spare you the entire 20-some pages but I thought, perhaps, you might be interested in the conclusion. I think it really may be what defines us to a certain extent. While Marxist literature critique paints “rugged individualism” as the problem of the American, and it may be indeed the trait that makes us all seem a bit Captain Ahab-like “bat-shit crazy” to outsiders, but it is likewise undoubtedly the very back bone of the American dream. In the end, it might mean we’ve placed ourselves at the helm of a Pequod, steering ourselves straight into oblivion in pursuit of the great white whale of a dream, but I hope not. I hope we can come to understand that there is a way to pursue and live each of our dreams without dragging down our fellow crewman into a watery grave. There is a way to pursue the individual dream together with the common dream. It’s there. We just have to strive for it.
Now the conclusion of that essay I promised:
Marxist theorists argue that writers do not exist in a vacuum free from socioeconomic and ideological influences, and hence writers’ works are also ideological in character. Tyson writes, “like all cultural manifestations, [a novel] is a product of socioeconomic and hence ideological conditions of the time and place in which it was written, whether or not the author intended it so” (63). If this is true, then in the case of Moby-Dick, the time of its revival during the Great Depression is perhaps as significant as the time of its initial publication during the American Renaissance. During the Renaissance, American authors tried to codify an American dream. During the Great Depression, when all else seemed lost, American readers may have been desperate for a concrete example of a man who still believed in something, even if it were an ill-fated dream. Lisman criticizes Marxist theory for what he considers its narrow view that economic factors are solely responsible for man and everything which controls him. Lisman argues that as readers, we admire characters who are concerned with personal relationships and existential or spiritual questions (84). He writes:
|To contend dogmatically that the best novels are those which advocate social change involves a failure to appreciate the formal requirements of good literature and a failure to acknowledge that there are other equally important subjects and themes. (Lisman 84)|
The measure of Captain Ahab’s greatness is not in his success but in his ambition, tenacity, and perseverance to pursue his dream regardless of the consequences. Indeed, had Ahab been successful, it is doubtful whether he would have lived beyond the last pages of the novel. Though references to the novel in an everyday context may now have become synonymous with megalomaniac ventures most likely destined for failure, for Americans, at least, the image of Captain Ahab is not an entirely negative one.
All men (and women) have the potential to be Ahabs and to willingly and even recklessly sacrifice everything in order to heed the call of their personal drummer, beating the message of what they are meant to do and be in their short time here. The protagonist of the American dream is the JetBlue attendant who grabbed two beers, pulled the emergency slide and never looked back, or the NYC bus driver who, after an exemplary 17-year-long career with the NY transit authority, decided one morning to take a different turn and just keep going. Since his birth, Ahab has come to stand for dictators, tyrants, corporate executives, presidents, but moreover, every single one of us. “Melville felt that whatever essential meaning lies in Moby Dick could be found in the life of a living Ahab by an Ahab himself” (Myers 19). In the American dream, fulfillment of one’s destiny, even in light of possible self-destruction, is far more preferable than bowing to a colorless life of mediocracy and non-individuality. Captain Ahab embodies the promise that man can be more on this earth than an indistinguishable drop in the puddle as interchangeable as the machine parts of Ford’s first automatized production lines. The American dream is not what is to be believed but what is to be done. It is that yearning, burning need to unearth one’s purpose here and pursue it to its ultimate finish, whatever that might be. It can be as practically-minded as a chicken in every dinner pot or as outlandish as the chase of a singular great white whale swimming somewhere in the big, wide, unforgiving ocean.
The ambitious drive of the individualist that holds a negative connotation in some countries and cultures, is a positive and admired trait in America. As Emerson writes in “Self Reliance”:
|There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide[…] no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him (qtd in Izaquirre 20).|
Captain Ahab’s quest to kill Moby Dick may have been doomed from the beginning. However, in his failure, he succeeded. He exercises his agency to at least try and proves himself a man by doing so. No what-ifs plagued Ahab during his final breath as his dream plunged him deep into ocean. Perhaps what Ishmael contends is true –who on this earth isn’t a slave? And yet in our brief time in this world, it is up to us to determine who and what we allow to be our master. In this manner, Captain Ahab and Bartleby are kindred spirits, both abiding their inner will as captains of their chosen destinies. They and they alone choose what to do with their time here. While Ahab exercises his self-evident right to action; Bartleby exercises his right to inaction. Both choices lead in the end to the character’s destruction. A Marxist might therefore argue that it is precisely the rugged individualism that is the destructive trait. Yet by criticizing this “cornerstone of the American dream” (Tyson 57), Marxist ideology drives a stake directly through the heart of an American conviction: within every man (and woman) resides a seed, that, like the majestic Redwoods of the American West, may need a fire for its release in order to become what it was always meant to be.
Every American is born with a thousand futures and every American will die with just one past. The American dream would have us believe that whether that past will be one of an eternal blaze of glory or a fast-fading fizzle of mediocrity is up to us. We may be equal in birth but it is our life that should forever distinguish what we’ve made of ourselves.