Tuesday, September 23, 2008

White Whales, Cat Pee, and The Other

Via Normblog, here's Mick Hartley discussing Moby Dick and a certain fuzzy shibboleth:

One of the reasons Moby Dick is so popular in literary circles is that it's one of those texts - indeed, one of the seminal texts - where you can introduce that concept so beloved of literary critics, the Other. With a capital O. Moby Dick is a symbol of the Other. He's different, being white, very big, and, well, a whale. So naturally Captain Ahab hates him with a passion. He's Other. The Other.

It explains a lot, this idea of the Other. ... If something's different, it could well qualify as being the Other, and therefore become the object of our irrational hatred.
Well no -- and I think this is Mick Hartley's point by way of irony -- the characteristic trouble with the Other is that it doesn't explain anything. It occupies the space where an explanation should be; it displaces an explanation. But isn't that the way with passion? Isn't the best way to kill a joke always to explain it? And isn't the same true of love or hatred?

It's not that Captain Ahab is without his reasons for hating the white whale: for starters, he lost one of his legs to it. It's easy to go too far in imbuing animals with human-like agency, but then again, I get pretty mad at my cats when they pee on my shoes, so I can understand developing a rage at a smarter animal that inflicted a greater harm. And yet that doesn't quite cover it:
'Vengeance on a dumb brute!' cried Starbuck, 'that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.'

'Hark ye yet again, -- the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines. Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends' glarings is a doltish stare! So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go.
Yammering about the Other is vague but that's because our motives and emotions are often nebulous, as are the motives and emotions of some of the best literary characters. It is a way of calling attention to the gulf between reason and passion; 'the Other' covers what Ahab tries but fails to explain as he declaims against an animal.

Hartley continues:
So, inevitably, a BBC programme with a whole hour to devote to the subject of whales will end up discussing Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. You see the connection? The Other. Why do we hate (or rather, why are we encouraged to hate) Osama Bin Laden? Because he represents the Other. ... We attacked Iraq because Saddam was, for us, the Other. Not because he was in breach of UN resolutions, had invaded two neighbouring countries, had conducted a genocidal campaign against some of his own people, was in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and was setting up a dynasty of psychopaths in the heart of the Middle East. No, it was because he was the Other.
I didn't see the BBC documentary under discussion but I've encountered similar presentations. Yes, we can cite reason after reason -- none of them vague -- for why Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden deserve our enmity. But does that really cover it? Is there not something to the way they look, speak, and otherwise seem that contributes? I think so.

No comments: