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Friday, October 26, 2012

Moby Dick - a whale of a time

Movie - Moby Dick
Year - 1956
Director - John Huston
Starring - Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn

After years of home schooling, I struggled my way through high school, where the book of the same name was required reading.  I guess my mind was far too "deshi" back then to understand the depth and significance of this monumental novel.  But, understand I do now, especially after spending a sleepless night watching this equally monumental film.

I should begin by explaining to my fellow expatriates that Moby Dick is neither a politically incorrect skit on SNL, nor is it just a book about a ship's captain who wants to kill a whale.  Rather, it is a thought-provoking and frightening look at the human condition, and the power and wrath of a formless but very jealous god who demands that humanity follows his laws or pay the consequences.

This One God and His limits on all of us are allegorically referenced as this great, all powerful whale, whose blubber and meat all men want, but none can have.  To go there is to be on a narcissistic trip, casting aside all but oneself and one's selfish dream for power and glory.

Such a man is exemplified by Captain Ahab, played to nothing less than perfection by the legendary Gregory Peck.  Mr. Peck puts aside his otherwise rugged, gentlemanly demeanor to play a mad-man, who, driven by a lustful, bloodthirsty desire to put an end to the whale who physically scarred him, leads a rag-tag bunch of rebels on an Odyssey-like journey to find and kill it.

Named after a pagan king who refused to listen to the Prophets, Ahab is clearly a mad man.  But there is something of us in him, his sense of detail, his calculating logic, his desire for glory, his false sense of immortality - all are idiosyncrasies that every man possesses to some extent.  And, to keep these under control is the mark of the mature man.  But, Peck brings them forward with eccentric pride.  The men he commands will see things that no others will see, and as is suggested by the eccentric sailor Elijah, no Christian man should see.

And while all of these men are supposed to be God-fearing Quakers, all are named after rebels and rogues from the Old Testament.  All are pagans, heathens, men who would forsake all, simply for an almost homo-erotic thirst to kill a sperm whale.  Each is a metaphor for both the fright and delight that we feel at rebelling against the norm, breaking the codes, pushing the envelope.  But, all hope, in a child-like way, that their indiscretion - to favor adventure over messianic warning - will be quietly overlooked in light of their fame and glory.

All that is, except Starbuck, the Captain's loyal first-mate and adviser.  Quoting passage after passage from the Old Testament, Starbuck tries to no avail to convince Ahab that the whale is a great demon, an immortal that should not be pursued lest one know the Wrath of God.  He struggles between loyalty to his leader and his own sensibility. In one poignant scene, he is ready to shoot him but shakes with fear at the thought of killing his friend.  A moral struggle, the question of God's laws versus man's own search for truth, is the pivotal point of both the book and the film, and it is with a certain telling bittersweet mood that we discover the crew's preference of one over the other.  The fact that religion, morals, and even basic decorum is rapidly dying in light of a post-modern world brings a similar feeling.  Man, in his thirst for control of his world, finds himself face to face with God Himself.

God is still somewhat on the mind of Ishmael, the sprightly young man who finds himself after church on the ship that his New Guinean friend chooses for them to sail on.  He is probably like a lot of us; faith held back by a sense of pragmatic skepticism.  But, the fact his cap resembles a yarmulke is obviously no coincidence.  Like the rejected stepson of Abraham, Ishmael's faith is his own to form, to discover through the strange adventure that he is about to embark on.  It is something hidden, but something that is always with him.   His adventure will end on a coffin that had been intended for his pagan friend. He is the only one who lives to tell the tale, his view of God now tempered by feeling the coldness and cruelty of a world without one.

The 1956 adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick is a stark examination of the Judeo-Christian world, and the rules and deep-seated fears that define it.  It will be a challenge to us expatriates, accustomed as we are to our pantheon of amoral deities who are seemingly appeased by our sponsoring rituals at our local temple.

But, as I write these words, I mourn the death of a 10 month old baby and her aging grandmother, both victims of an expatriate who like Ahab, thought he could break all barriers in his own thirst for power. Like Ahab and the mad-eyed crew of the Pequod, I can only feel both pain and solace that his eventual end will also be mete by same wrathful God.

Mohan's Measure - * * * * *