Saturday, January 1, 2011

I don't give reasons. I give orders!

In 134 chapters Herman Melville writes about the quest for the white whale. Ray Bradbury, John Huston and Norman Corwin condensed and reshaped his words for the cinema.

There is a most wonderful little english teacher's joke about the book. The teacher asks, "What is the first line of Moby Dick?". The student answers, "Call me Ishmael.". "Alright, Ishmael, what is the first line of Moby Dick?".

Ishmael is the narrator and sole survivor, yet most are drawn to Captain Ahab and his vengeance quest for the white whale. Monomania is the word. Ahab is mad, in both respects angry and crazy. Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab justifies himself, "I don't give reasons. I give orders!"

Starbuck talks, to Stubb and Flask, in arguing for mutiny, "It is our task in life to kill whales, to furnish oil for the lamps of the world. If we perform that task well and faithfully, we do a service to mankind that pleases Almighty God. Ahab would deny all that. He has taken us from the rich harvest we were reaping to satisfy his lust for vengeance. He is twisting that which is holy into something dark and purposeless. He is a Champion of Darkness. Ahab's red flag challenges the heavens." He reads from a book, "A captain who, from private motives, employs his vessel for another purpose from that intended by the owners, is answerable to the charge of usurpation, and his crew is morally and legally entitled to employ forceful means in wresting his command from him." The answer he gets back is the captain is the law. There will be no action taken to prevent the disaster that Ahab will commit. A fatal surrender to fatalism, a surrender of reason and justice to personal power.

Starbuck is the only one who opposes Ahab, in the novel (cf. chapters 36, 109) and the film; he thinks of shooting or arresting Ahab. He tries to convince others to take the ship home. Starbuck is unsuccessful.

Melville takes care in naming characters. There is a biblical overlay. Achab is the king of Israel that marries Jezabel. He opposes the prophets, especially Elias (Elijah).

And Achab the son of Amri did evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him.— III Kings xvi. 30.
And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD above all that were before him.— I Kings xvi. 30 kjv
Now, Starbuck is a supporter of commerce, of the moneyed interests, that equates work (that creates wealth for others) that supplies a need as worthy of the praise of God. Ahab interferes with the primacy of commerce, and is therefore derelict. Ahab is a crazed tyrant. Starbuck does not oppose him for that essence, but for his blasphemy of capitalism. Ahab is the father of disaster, and should be opposed for it.

What makes Ahab an hero is that he is not a coward, he will act himself. The rest of the crew permits his misrule. Now, this is marvelous fiction. We live in reality. We suffer leaders, really suffer leaders, legitimate or not, whom lead us to disaster. They are unaccountable. They have support from the people they destroy. We see this in the country, at work, in the church and elsewhere.

"I don't give reasons. I give orders!" Ahab is nakedly honest, the usual tyrant of to-day is not so forthright. This sort of 'leader' needs to be opposed.

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