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The Other "Moby Dick": Melville's "Benito Cereno" Is an Analogy for American Empire

Captain Ahab isn't the only Melville character that stands to teach us something about unhinged American power.

| Mon Jan. 27, 2014 3:34 PM EST

The Machinery of Civilization

There exists a near perfect inverse symmetry between the real Amasa and the fictional Ahab, with each representing a face of the American Empire. Amasa is virtuous, Ahab vengeful. Amasa seems trapped by the shallowness of his perception of the world. Ahab is profound; he peers into the depths. Amasa can't see evil (especially his own). Ahab sees only nature's "intangible malignity."

Both are representatives of the most predatory industries of their day, their ships carrying what Delano once called the "machinery of civilization" to the Pacific, using steel, iron, and fire to kill animals and transform their corpses into value on the spot.

Yet Ahab is the exception, a rebel who hunts his white whale against all rational economic logic. He has hijacked the "machinery" that his ship represents and rioted against "civilization." He pursues his quixotic chase in violation of the contract he has with his employers. When his first mate, Starbuck, insists that his obsession will hurt the profits of the ship's owners, Ahab dismisses the concern: "Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab? Owners, Owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience."

Insurgents like Ahab, however dangerous to the people around them, are not the primary drivers of destruction. They are not the ones who will hunt animals to near extinction—or who are today forcing the world to the brink. Those would be the men who never dissent, who either at the frontlines of extraction or in the corporate backrooms administer the destruction of the planet, day in, day out, inexorably, unsensationally without notice, their actions controlled by an ever greater series of financial abstractions and calculations made in the stock exchanges of New York, London, and Shanghai.

If Ahab is still the exception, Delano is still the rule. Throughout his long memoir, he reveals himself as ever faithful to the customs and institutions of maritime law, unwilling to take any action that would injure the interests of his investors and insurers. "All bad consequences," he wrote, describing the importance of protecting property rights, "may be avoided by one who has a knowledge of his duty, and is disposed faithfully to obey its dictates."

It is in Delano's reaction to the West African rebels, once he finally realizes he has been the target of an elaborately staged con, that the distinction separating the sealer from the whaler becomes clear. The mesmeric Ahab—the "thunder-cloven old oak"—has been taken as a prototype of the twentieth-century totalitarian, a one-legged Hitler or Stalin who uses an emotional magnetism to convince his men to willingly follow him on his doomed hunt for Moby Dick.

Delano is not a demagogue. His authority is rooted in a much more common form of power: the control of labor and the conversion of diminishing natural resources into marketable items. As seals disappeared, however, so too did his authority. His men first began to grouse and then conspire. In turn, Delano had to rely ever more on physical punishment, on floggings even for the most minor of offences, to maintain control of his ship—until, that is, he came across the Spanish slaver. Delano might have been personally opposed to slavery, yet once he realized he had been played for a fool, he organized his men to retake the slave ship and violently pacify the rebels. In the process, they disemboweled some of the rebels and left them writhing in their viscera, using their sealing lances, which Delano described as "exceedingly sharp and as bright as a gentleman's sword."

Caught in the pincers of supply and demand, trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with no seals left to kill, no money to be made, and his own crew on the brink of mutiny, Delano rallied his men to the chase—not of a white whale but of black rebels. In the process, he reestablished his fraying authority. As for the surviving rebels, Delano re-enslaved them. Propriety, of course, meant returning them and the ship to its owners.

Our Amasas, Ourselves

With Ahab, Melville looked to the past, basing his obsessed captain on Lucifer, the fallen angel in revolt against the heavens, and associating him with America's "manifest destiny," with the nation's restless drive beyond its borders. With Amasa, Melville glimpsed the future. Drawing on the memoirs of a real captain, he created a new literary archetype, a moral man sure of his righteousness yet unable to link cause to effect, oblivious to the consequences of his actions even as he careens toward catastrophe.

They are still with us, our Amasas. They have knowledge of their duty and are disposed faithfully to follow its dictates, even unto the ends of the Earth.

TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin's new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, has just been published.Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones's They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars—The Untold Story.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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