Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Problem of Authority

In 1986, Christopher Durer wrote:
Like Adolph Hitler, Captain Ahab reaches for the “folksoul” of the crew, and manipulates their minds with the sinister skill of Joseph Goebbels. As in Nazi Germany, so on board the Pequod, the excesses of the will play a major role, as is illustrated in the various speeches of Ahab, and her fated course is, in effect, another triumph of the will… Ahab is in reality a prototype of a twentieth-century fascist dictator.

Drurer's claims were not without precedent in Moby-Dick criticism. In fact, Captain Ahab has been the subject of unrelenting critical disapprobation since WWII (and earlier)--so much that it is a commonplace of American literary scholarship to associate Ahab with fascism and Ishmael with democracy; and not to hesitate in taking sides.

I've been meaning to write about this for years, and I mean this post to be "but the draught of a draught" (as Melville says). My central argument is that there exists a certain mind, disposed by temperament or something earlier, that can only thrive in the presence of authority. Indeed, I suspect there is a fairly large segment of population (10%+) that might admit to this temperament if it were not for the feeling of embarrassment that might comes with admitting a hunger for authority. Plus, this phraseology ("hunger for authority") reveals the dulled side of the coin -- on the opposite side we can identify the less embarrassing psychological need: the need to rebel.

I am so convinced that this part of my personality developed early in childhood that I wouldn't even be offended or surprised if someone associated this element of my psychology with a kind of latent brattiness: "No, mom--I will not..." But I know from observation that I'm not alone. It is not unfair to say that anyone can recognize this temperament in others by the tendency to knee-jerk into a "No!" Everybody knows someone who just disagrees no matter what is being said. [Digression: I'm not sure how this feels for others -- I suspect it can be quite annoying. Personally, I'm always attracted to the rebellious mind, even if the rebellion is not (yet) "harnessed" or directed.]

Of course, growing up postmodern has been difficult for the rebel-mind -- for the most part (so it seemed, anyway) authority has been so subverted, subdued, deconstructed, and checked that the postmodern rebel resorted to dressing in black or listening to obscure music or refusing to associate with mainstream religious sects: all equally innocuous forms of pop-rebellion. But, unless I'm in a despairing mood, I like to think that rebellion can be a noble impulse...

Who are your idols? Bring them to me! I have a kiln and a hammer and a deep ocean to throw them in.

Back to Captain Ahab. In the 19th century, fear of "mob rule" was still a major part of any political philosophy. Melville would've understood with James Madison,
To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. (Federalist #10)

In my experience, few intellectuals have an understanding (anymore) of the dangers of what Madison frequently called "faction." Most of my collegues perceive their task to be solely to preserve the spirit and form of popular government--no concern for the public good or private rights against the danger of faction. Democracy is our keyword; Republic seems to be of little interest. Melville, obviously conversant with the founding documents of America, more than once played out the problem of faction in scenes of mutiny--rebellion at sea (see "Billy Budd" or ch. 54 in Moby-Dick).

So, concerning Ahab: yes, he went too far in the direction of authority. But the opposite of authority is a kind of impotent withdrawal, and does not strike me as any more ideal than authority itself does when taken to the extreme. See the continuum like this:

Irresponsible atomism -----------*---------- Fascism

And, if you're with me, understand that Ishmael's retreat into subjective observation is no more ideal than Ahab's tilt toward fascism (though Ishmael has been, with very few exceptions, a hero of democracy for two generations of critics). What if, instead, the asterisk represented the ideal?

The principle of middle-behavior is difficult to describe in contemporary terminology -- it would have been described as a kind of stoic manliness. A better way to describe it might be to borrow terminology from Albert Camus' tremendous study of rebellion (The Rebel, 1957) in which he differentiates between metaphysical rebellion and rebellion in the world. The rebel who never leaves the ground of metaphysics is represented by the figure of the "Dandy." He rejects all popular commonplaces and refuses all assent, including active anarchism power grabbing; his fingernails are too pretty for that kind of thing. Camus describes this as the first phase of an inevitable progression: "Human rebellion ends in metaphysical revolution. It progresses from appearances to acts, from the dandy to the revolutionary." Part of my question is, where is the tipping point? When will our theoretical rebellions be made flesh? What has to happen? When do ideas of refusal become 1776 or 1793 or 1848 or 1917?

So let me ask: is there a discernable difference between authority and fascism? In my experience, the academy is often quick to collapse the distinction. How do we recognize authority? Is authority always on the slippery slope, and if so, how do we prevent it from transforming into fascism? Could there be there danger in having too little authority?

As I mentioned above, this is really a very rough outline -- if you don't have a sense of my thesis statement, welcome to the club.

Recommended Reading: History and Utopia, by E.M. Cioran


Jon Sealy said...

Casey, I'm very excited for you to read Blood Meridian this summer--it's kind of like a Western sequel to Moby-Dick.

As far as your argument here, seems like you're juggling a few separate ideas: 1) a case for human nature wanting to be controlled, which sounds like the kind of argument Eric Fromm made in Escape from Freedom, which (I think) argues that existential responsibility is hard and that people get out of it by being told what to do.

2) An argument about government, and how many should rule. The spectrum idea is interesting, but you also have to consider where the line is between a functioning republic and an oppressive oligarchy.

3) An argument about Moby-Dick, and what Ahab and Ishmael represent. As a writer, I get nervous when critics start talking about a character representing one thing because it gets reductive, and you certainly don't want to reduce Moby-Dick. Maybe the symbolism of the doubloon is good to consider, how it means something different to everyone. That seems more in line with how Melville viewed the world than Ishmael=democracy and Ahab=fascism.

Casey said...

Jon -- I thought I was reading The Road first, right?

1. Existential responsibility is difficult.

2. I'm (always) trying to avoid arguing about government... I was trying to describe individuals with my spectrum -- or rather, personality types. In the academy, we're always ready to say, "You're a fascist!"... but I haven't heard the alternative lately: "You're a p*ssy!" Of course, neither should be used very often, but I think we do need a term to describe the problem with utopian pacifism. The Pequod's sinking was mostly Ahab's fault, perhaps -- my question is: could it (in any measure) also be the fault of the 40 crewmen? Do the people have a responsibility? See Camus' play, Caligula.

3. I half agree with you -- but I think that romantic fiction lends itself to this kind of response. After all, Ahab and Ishmael are not realistic characters of the sort that Henry James or Hemingway or Carver might create. Still, it's good to get nervous: most critics who lean in this allegorical-reading-direction tend to side with one representative-character or another. What I'm proposing is a panoply of character types, and a readerly responsibility to each... so that: dismissing Ahab as a "fascist" or dismissing Queequeg as a "savage" or Pip as "crazy" -- each of those dismissals acts as a limitation. As I understand him, Melville is presenting us with one great task: empathy for all.

How romantic! -- Wendy Flory might be able to explain this better... she's really into reading characters as "elements of psychology." Taken together, of course, this is anything but reductive: in fact, it borders on schizophrenia. Which makes it cutting edge and awesome, of course.

Haha. Thanks for the thoughtful response.