Some parallels between Melville’s classic and the Obama Odyssey

Some parallels between Melville’s classic and the Obama Odyssey

The president has said he is a reader. Has he read Moby Dick?   

When President Obama was asked why he thought Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave him a book to read when he met the leftist at the Americas summit, the president seemed to take the gesture at face value, stating “I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book.  I am a reader.” The book Chavez gave the president was “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent” by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. I have never read Mr. Galeano’s book, so I will not prejudge it; nonetheless, I wish the fat dictator had given the president something from the American canon, and more in line with his rotund physiognomy- Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It would have come in more useful, for if the president has read the novel, he should reread it, as he must have forgotten everything of consequence in it; and if he hasn’t, he should do so immediately, for there is much he can glean from the book that would be of aid in his political Odyssey.   

Indeed, the parallels between Melville’s classic and the Obama Saga to this point are striking, and though some are of interest from a descriptive and literary standpoint, others are more substantive in nature. In what follows, we shall discuss three parallel themes between Moby Dick and the Obama Odyssey- the parallel of auspicious beginnings, the parallel of harmony, and the parallel of obsession and self destruction.  

The Parallel of Auspicious Beginnings 

As the reader knows, Moby Dick recounts the mad quest of Ahab, captain of the whaling vessel the Pequod, to kill the eponymous white sperm whale that took his leg during a prior expedition. Though it ends in disaster, the journey begins on a promising note one cold and bright Christmas day. Melville paints an idyllic scene of the launch of the Pequod through the words of Ishmael, the stories narrator, who recounts the verses sung by Peqoud captain Lank Bildad as the ship began its epic journey through the swells of the green winter sea: 

“Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,

            Stand dressed in living green.

     So to the Jews old Canaan stood,

            While Jordan rolled between.”

Ishmael was euphoric as Bildad sang the verses, stating that “Never did those sweet words sound more sweetly to me than then. They were full of hope and fruition.”

And so the Pequod was off that beautiful Christmas day. Ishmael and Bildad could not have known what fate had in store for them, only that their fortunes would rise or fall with those of their captain, just as the bow of the ship soared and plunged with the swells of the green winter sea. Forgive what may seem a glib comparison, but I seem to recall another endeavor begun on a beautiful winter’s day, full of hope and promise, and in the minds of some media commentators, under the auspices of a divine providence.  Indeed, just as the men of the Pequod found paradise that day on the green winter sea, many Americans were euphoric on inauguration day, cheering on the south lawn of the Capitol as President Obama took the oath of office and charted the ship of state on new course. As we began a new journey with a new man at the helm, there was a bit of Ishmael and Bildad’s romantic adventure in all of us, curmudgeons and Obama believers alike. We could not know what the future would hold, but there can be no doubt that, like the men of the Peqoud, our fate would be tied to our skipper’s, and that our journey was off to an auspicious beginning that cold winter’s day.

The Parallel of Harmony

For us, it was going to be a bold new adventure, which would take all of America to a far away post partisan and post racial political horizon. Or so ran the commentary in many of the country’s elite media outlets on inauguration day. Yet while the media certainly dramatized the importance of the racial and social change that underlay Obama’s campaign, election, and inauguration, there can be no doubt that his political ascendency has been a unifying experience for a nation with a discordant history of race relations. His success proved, once and for all, that the melting pot had really melted. Or so we can only hope.

In a surprising display of how life can imitate literature, the theme of racial unity that underlay the Obama phenomenon is one that features prominently in Melville’s classic. Early in the novel, Ishmael bunks with a South Pacific Islander by the name of Queequeg, who is not of Christian faith and is open about the cannibalism practiced by his native people (check on this). While at first terrified of Queequeg, Ishmael eventually comes to have great respect for his outstanding character, work ethic, and good sense. He and Queequeg become fast friends, and Ishmael comes to have a higher opinion of the islander than many of his shipmates of European ancestry, famously stating that it’s “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” As we know, the president is neither a cannibal nor a pacific islander, but a self professed Christian and natural born American citizen. Nonetheless, the lesson that people of a different race can be the equal of, or even superior to, members of our own, is one that Americans seem to have learned in the last 50 odd years, and it is evident in the political success of Barack Obama that many, if not all of us, have learned the lesson Queequeg taught Ishmael in our own way.

The Parallel of Obsession and Self Destruction

Ishmael and Queequeg may have found camaraderie and adventure on the high seas, but the obsessed Ahab cared about neither racial harmony nor adventure. He had taken to sea for one reason and one reason only- to kill his old foe, Moby Dick. Yet in a classic example of literary irony, once Ahab tracks down the despised cetacean, the whale ends up destroying the Peqoud on the open sea, and Ahab and his crew are doomed. Moments from death, Ahab still clings to his hatred for Moby Dick, and utters these iconic words to his foe:   

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”

After uttering this invective, Ahab is dragged into the deep by one of the harpoon lines that trailed from the body of his mortal enemy. As Ahab and the whale disappear beneath the waves, his men are left marooned amidst the wreckage of the ship, fighting for their lives on the open sea.

Though to draw any direct parallel between Ahab’s tragic story and the Obama Odyssey would be to engage in reckless hyperbole, as the President is not driven by hateful obsession, there is nonetheless a certain structure in Ahab’s tale of obsession that parallels the President’s health care debacle that simply cannot be ignored- for the President, captain of the ship of state, is chasing the white whale of government run health care. Indeed, just as Ahab went to sea in pursuit of a whale that had already come close to killing him, the President has already nearly been sunk on the issue of a public option for health care, but he pursues it nonetheless, even after the outcry on display at congressional town hall meetings during the August recess.

From a political standpoint, these waters are fraught with peril for the president, for though the White House may wish to characterize the protestors of August as part of the lunatic fringe, it’s not just the “right wing extremists” who oppose a public plan. If one assumes the public opinion polls are accurate, there is no doubt the pursuit of government run health care is deeply unpopular among many members of the electorate. And why shouldn’t it be? When the congressional budget office has said the plan will not be deficit neutral, but cost at least 1.6 trillion dollars, a cost that can only be covered if we pile more borrowing on top of a national debt that is 12 trillion dollars, it would be financial ruin to adopt such a plan.  And yet the President still says he is in favor of a public option. To expand on our parallel, it’s worth noting that Ahab didn’t just destroy himself with his reckless pursuit of Moby Dick- he destroyed himself, his crew, and his vessel. Similarly, the president may well destroy his presidency, his party, and bankrupt the United States if he burdens the ship of state with such a costly run government option.

We can never know what ultimately drove Ahab to his self-destructive demise, and I will not go into an armchair psychoanalysis of the president and the story he tells about his mother, who, as she lay dying of cancer, was arguing with the insurance companies about what they would and would not cover- but it seems to me we can offer an educated guess as to what may be motivating those on the left, including the President, when it comes to the issue of government run health care. Indeed, why would the left continue to pursue government run health care when they have almost been sunk so many times on the issue? If we retrace our steps, an answer of sorts may be alluded to in the verses sung by Bildad as the Pequod plunged into the North Atlantic. As the reader will recall, the pilot sang about the Jews catching their first glimpses of the Promised Land from the far bank of the Jordan river. Similarly, the far left had wandered for 40 years since the debacle of 1968. Upon President Obama’s election, they could finally see the political Promised Land, but they weren’t quite there yet. One thing remained- the passage of government funded universal health care. Indeed, ever since Ted Kennedy, that patriarch of left wing America, began his quest for government funded health care in 1969, the quest for public health care has been a quasi religious  and “moral” pilgrimage for the political left wing in the United States. But alas, just as one great patriarch would not live to see his people reach the Promised Land, Kennedy would die before the Promised Land was reached. And the August recess, with its torrent of angry town hall meetings, still stood between the left and health care reform just as sure as the swollen Jordan stood between the Jews and Canaan.

How can the president navigate his way through such treacherous political waters? In his speech on health care last month, the President cited Ted Kennedy’s (occasional) bi partisan approach to getting things done in Washington as a model of how we could move forward in the health care debate. The “post- partisan president” would be wise to follow the senator’s example, and strike a deal with conservative democrats and house republicans that would produce a market oriented solution to our health care problems, rather than give into his own instincts and craft a bill with left leaning members of the house and senate to create a costly government run option; for although President Obama, the blue dogs, and the congressional republicans would make for strange political bedfellows, the President should remember that it’s better to sleep with a sober Cannibal than a drunken Christian. Don’t chase the white whale Mr. President, for no matter how auspicious the beginning of your journey was that beautiful winter’s day, the success of your voyage will be judged not by how it began, but by how it ends. Please don’t sink the ship, because we are all in the same boat.