Mind & Matter


Gazing Into the Abyss

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Captain Ahab from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.


An insightful article in today’s The New York Times "Week in Review" by Randy Kennedy draws an analogy between the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Captain Ahab’s ill-fated pursuit of the white whale in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Kennedy reminds us of the high price commanded by whale oil in the early 19th century—an increasingly rare commodity that was then used for machine lubricant and smokeless lamp oil. With whale populations along the Atlantic coast nearly wiped out, it would take Edwin Drake’s drilling of the first U.S. oil well in 1859 to shift the focus toward a new energy resource.

The lessons in Melville’s story certainly resonate today. According to Andrew Delbanco, director of Columbia University’s American Studies Program, Moby-Dick is “a cautionary tale about the terrible cost of exploiting nature for human wants.... It’s a story about self-destruction visited upon the destroyer—and the apocalyptic vision at the end seems eerily pertinent to today.”

Although we blame Captain Ahab and BP for pushing technology to the point of failure in the exploitation of natural resources, modern society is also complicit in this pursuit. Delbanco states:“We want our comforts but we don’t want to know too much about where they come from or what makes them possible ... The oil spill in the gulf is a horror, but how many Americans are ready to pay more for oil or for making the public investment required to develop alternative energy? I suspect it’s a question that Melville would be asking of us now.”



Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:17 AM Thursday, June 17, 2010

    So Melville would have supported wind turbines and solar panels? I think that's a bit of a stretch. Might the fact that sustainable energy technologies are not currently economically sustainable have pointed out for him the flawed and ironic nature of all human pursuits in general? I suspect his questioning of our age would have been far more multi-faceted and profound than the cliche suggested by the post. You can't reduce a novel like Moby Dick to just one more trendy eco-consciousness session.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:02 AM Tuesday, June 15, 2010

    I think the most convincing interpretation of Moby Dick I have come across was the one given by Jorge Luis Borges who saw the whale, this Leviathan, as not only representative of natural forces, but as the great human nemesis that stands in the way of human happiness in general, the Leviathan at the heart of a fallen, imperfect world that stands in the way of the human dream of perfection. In the single minded process of combating this obstacle, that Ahab views as evil, the Captain comes to embody evil himself. Is that not also a warning to all those of us today who think that we can, through our human efforts alone, create a world of free of suffering and loss? Captain Ahab is the American equivalent of Dostoyevski's Grand Inquisitor and as such, he is as much a warning against the sometimes single minded utopian aims of the environmental movement (among other movements of similar ilk) as it is a warning against our unbounded plundering of nature. Either way, it lays bare the modern Promethian temptation of power.

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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.