MOBY DICK SYNDROME:
Monomania & Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour in the Famous Authoritative Personalities of Literature, Visual Popular Culture & Politics
to Become Apocryphal History
Yusuf Eradam, TED University
BAKEA October 9-11, 2013, Gaziantep
Published in BAKEA Proceedings, 2014
A true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception and lies sincerely.
Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick should be taken as an archetypal work for monomania, a “conspicuously invisible” fetish book in many Hollywood movies. Captain Ahab’s monomania to kill the white whale that ripped off one leg of his justifies his quest for revenge. The aim in this paper is to give some examples from history and visual popular culture and other fields of popular culture that enhances and is fed by this syndrome. Fear-stricken masses are left with the ‘faith in justice’ by means of canonized, mediated or simulated realities of questionable authenticity, which they have no other alternative but take as reality. Therefore, apocryphal history is an effective vehicle towards the power-monitored hegemonic stability and globalization.
Özet: Herman Melville’in başyapıtı ve birçok Holywood filminde ayan beyan ortada fakat görünmeyen bir fetiş haline getirilmiş Moby Dick monomani hastalığı için de ilkörneksel bir roman olarak ele alınmalıdır. Romanın başkarakteri Kaptan Ahab, geri kalan hayatını bir bacağını koparan beyaz balinayı yakalayıp öldürerek intikamını almaya adamıştır. Bu makalenin amacı, tarihten ve görsel popüler kültür ve diğer popüler kültür alanlarından örneklerle bu sendromun nasıl beslendiğini tartışmaktır. Korku vurgunu yemiş kitlelerin adalete inançlarını kanonize edebiyat ve popüler kültür yapıtlarında, medyanın sunduğu ve simülasyon/sanal ve haliyle tartışma götürür gerçekliklerde arayıp bulmaları ya da kendi öznel doğrularını bu yollarla olumlamaları kaçınılmaz görünmektedir. Bu yüzden, apokrifal (doğruluğu şüpheli, uydurma) tarih, güç ile yönlendirilen hegemonik stabilite ve küreselleşmenin etkili bir aracıdır.
Key words: Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, monomania, apocryphal history, archetypal, monolythic novel, justice, revenge, the Turkish Republic, legitimization of imperial hegemony.
1. Introduction: Moby Dick archetype, the reason for creating this archetype.
Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick should, by no means, be taken as an archetypal work for monomania; however anachronistic it might sound, I named this syndrome after this novel and the whale’s name as the book has now become a “conspicuously invisible” fetish in many Hollywood movies. What makes this work archetypal and universal is Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal obsession to kill the albino (white) whale that ripped off one leg of his. This sort of binary opposition in color symbolism (white via black/dark is a recurrent symbolistic usage in Melville’s works, e.g. in Billy Budd too. (Billy, the white, searching for justice against the devilishly dark attired Claggart.) The justification of Ahab’s monomania and quest for revenge from a truly ‘innocent’ member of nature must not have been approved in Melville’s time, as his work did not sell, but later the novel became a major canonized work of American literature due to this very syndrome that has been ubiquituous in history and art.
Rome destroying Greece; the Crusades; Mehmet, the Conqueror’s capturing Constantinople, Hitler’s obsessive massacres on the way to wiping Jews, gypsies and homosexuals off the face of the earth are just a few we should remember. Behind the eighteenth-century American myth of the pursuit of happiness, which shaped Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues and influenced the American Renaissance, there lies the need to establish the idea/ideal of ‘the Frontier’, an American essential for the legitimization of the conquest of the whole continent at the end of the 19th century and also for the denial of the existence of a border, hence a never-ending horizon. This is a good example of apocryphal history established by the canon in literature and other artistic manifestations of the rise of the American empire, which was mocked in The Truman Show, in which Truman Burbanks becomes a monomaniacal outsider trying to get out of the made-up set for him, also trying to reach freedom symbolized by the horizon and the girl he is in love with.
Salem witch-hunts and Judge Hathorne, must have been one monomaniac, the novelist grand-grand son Nathaniel Hawthorne of The Scarlet Letter was ashamed of, as a result of which he put a -W- in his family name, which we now applause, and which might be one of the many reasons why Melville dedicated this iconic novel to Hawthorne.
What is monomania?
Monomania is an emotional or mental disorder that distorts the ability of the individual to interact with his or her environment in a balanced and productive manner. Essentially, monomania is a condition in which the sufferer is so focused on one idea or emotion that it is impossible to function normally. An individual who suffers with this disorder is often referred to as a monomaniac.
The term monomania is derived from the Greek word monos, which means one, and mania, which refers to an excited state. Being an obsessive person, I believe monomania also flirts with obsession or a furthered state of it with the additional feelings of hatred and the need to take revenge. Therefore, one may lose sleep when he/she focuses his/her attention to a ‘single’ person or emotion, like betrayal, love, deception, injustice etc.
If it flirts with paranoia as well, then the monomaniac might believe that others are trying to influence his life negatively. Others, then are antagonistic and they usually don’t understand him, if they do, they misunderstand him, which presents a real danger for the monomaniac and others as well as anything and everything is, as he believes, is related to him, he is at the center of all that has been happening around him, and finally he must do something about it; e.g., lose confidence in others, if not develop hostility towards them.
Monomaniacal characters in real life and history and also in apocryphal culture and history can be good hero-samples of success stories as well as devilishly, satanically destructive villains, like Abigail in The Crucible.
One deception/delusion of monomaniac characters is that they believe that the whole world is mad and that they are sane. They might be trying to avoid some unpleasant fate, or enhanced by selfishness as opposed to altruism, they may also end up in narcissistic behaviour to avoid that inevitable fate.
Unfortunately, monomania can also lead to an obsession with another person, group, race, and in Captain Ahab’s case it is a member of the non-human world, a rare whale. This gives away the need of attachment with a rare creature as a result of humiliation or loss of value. He may take the risk of oblivion on the way to wiping that enemy that is threatening his very being off the face of the earth, which is again Ahab’s case.
Myriad examples can be given from history, literature and visual popular culture including those of the cinema and TV series that enhance and is fed by this syndrome. Take popular songs about the revenge of the lover after humiliation or a broken-heart, or TV series like Spartacus, in which both the ‘slaves’ and the torturing rulers of Rome suffer from the same syndrome so that we empatize with either side. Turkish TV series like the Magnificent Century, which is based on the power games of Hurrem Sultan (Roxelena),the wife and haseki sultan of Suleiman, the Magnificent, and other characters in the Ottoman Palace life, their lives seem to be survival stories based upon this syndrome; to put the motto simply, “hunt the other if you do not want to be hunted.” This is a recurrent pattern in the plots of American literature and Hollywood, the most acclaimed canonized ones being Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, the dark romantics.
Some examples of monomaniacal political leaders, narsisism, authoritative personalities are Caligula, Hitler, Saddam Hossein, Stalin, Thatcher, the Iron Lady of the UK, with so many others; maybe you have your example from your own culture and history, from our near, very near past or present.
Timothy Sexton, a yahoo contributor likens President Bush to Captain Ahab in his essay “How President Bush’s Monomaniacal Leadership Compares to Captain Ahab’s in Moby-Dick” nicknaming ‘them’ politicians as “Whales of Mass Destruction”. Sexton sets his message clearly:
Ahab and his psychotic pursuit of an object he refuses to understand in any terms but
his own vengeful pride and arrogant will to conquest can be seen as a flawless mirror image of the same traits exhibited by the democratically appointed leader of our own country, and is a testament to one of the novel’s implicit themes and warnings. Rising above all the conflicting symbolism that permeates the novel, one theme is crystal clear and unadorned with any confusing trappings of duality. Bestowing power upon a man who is maddened by monomania, consumed with revenge, and bereft of the ambition to understand his adversary while content to label that adversary through ignorance as purely evil will always lead to death, destruction, economic devastation and the perpetuation of that indifference to apprehend.
This quote carries a hint for my intention and my main reason to invent such a syndrome. Take poems like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and John Donne’s “Divine Sonnet”, in which death is personified and is seen as ‘the other’ in an obsessive manner by the two poets, as in both poems what is immortal is not death but the opus of the sculptor revealing itself in the metonymical frown on the face of the statue in the first poem, and the proclamation of immortality of the poet’s in the latter, by the very proof of the poem’s being immortal as we are reading it after so many ages. However, in Raymond Carver’s poem “Fear” in which he makes a list of contemporary American’s sources of fear including death which he mentions in the middle of the poem, yet again at the end of the poem, the last line to be, “but i have said that before” which marks the obsession with death, which I consider the one and only source of the inspiration and motivation needed for our deeds.
In stories like Edgar Allan’s Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”, at the beginning of which Poe defines a good revenge, and the end of which is ironic although the humiliating enemy is killed, the narrator is never relieved of his humiliation and cannot sleep in peace. That is why the latin proverb in pace requiscat at the end of the story is ironic as Montresor will never be able to sleep in peace again, after having killed Fortunato, because he cannot tell whether he took his revenge as defined at the beginning of the story.
Similar to Poe’s story, Melville’s Moby Dick, with the pseudo-success of Captain Ahab as he finally harpoons the white whale that symbolizes our fears in the depths of our subconscious, i.e. ‘the nether lands’, eventually becomes the story of the monomaniac character’s self-destruction as he enjoys “rolling in the deep” with the whale.
The plot of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is based on the same syndrome, as Jean Valjean’s search for redemption and Javert’s disability to believe that the lawful course to ‘get’ Valjean is immoral, cannot be reconciled, which eventually causes Javert to throw his body into the Seine, again another ‘end’ of the hunter in water.
Best-selling novels like Demons & Angels and their films, or many academy award winning movies like American Beauty, are also based on this syndrome enhanced by the wish to take revenge from the so-called ‘victimizer’. The pattern suggests that only when the victimizer is killed can the monomaniac, who believes he/she is unjustly victimized, be relieved. In the film, the only true individiual who dares to get out of the system, ie. Lester Burnham, the father, is placed at the very target for destruction, as towards the end every single character has a reason to kill the poor guy except for the Lolita stereotype, who happens to be a virgin, which makes the immoral Lester a unicorn which can only be approached by a virgin. The irony is that unicorns are hunted only by using a virgin during the hunting act, as it is even woven on carpets. Lester, learning that the Lolita stereotype Angela is a virgin, suddenly gives up having sex with her and becomes a chaste man with the Monolisa smile on his face saying “I’m great! I am great!” This end makes the film a best moral film as Lester sets a good example. However, this good guy is still dismissed or had to be picked out of the system like the little stone in the rice bowl by the lonely homophobic neighbor, who again narcissistically adores Hitler and militarism and hates the neighboring Lester because he is humiliated twice, first by his own son (“What a sad old man you are”) and secondly by Lester (“You misunderstood me”) when he dares to kiss him in the garage. Therefore, there is no exit for Lester but death, as he is like the white whale disturbing everyone’s peace, and it does not matter who kills him, as he wears the same smile of tragic grandeur both on his face and on the reflection of this face on his own blood ironically mirroring the cleanliness of this artificial beauty, which has got nothing to do with the American beauty Emerson mentions in his poem “The Rhodora.” (“Beauty is its own excuse for being.”)
The only disturbing reality of the ironic title “American Beauty” is that we kill, we destroy and create, in Baudriallard’s terms, “our superficial precipices agains our disappointed/frustrated virginity.” These created precipices are not authentic beauty, nor do they remind us of nothing but a cemetery, which finally is the destination of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, in which two monomaniacal characters inevitably meet to live symbiotic love or have sex to end only with the loss of one so that life can continue as if nothing has happened. The destruction of the fragile monomaniac by the vulgar proves how true Blanche’s immortal final line: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
The monomaniac characters in literature and film usually die alone, and sometimes together with their alter-ego-like other, similar to Ahab, but while they are ruling they need other characters who complete them, who challenge them, who praise them etc. Hence is the necessity of other characters in the novel who support the authority of the Captain.
Due to the help of our friends or assistants we achieve our goals and some people are successful key figures via monomania and obsession, namely: William Cullen Bryant, Aleksandr Pushkin, Auguste Comte, Balzac, Abigail and Bronson Alcott Heinrich Heine, John Brown, Joseph Smith, Jr. [honorary], Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Victor Hugo and Ralph Waldo Emerson, like many others.
Among the monomanical achievers, Bill Gates is supposed to have “made it” by single-mindedly focusing on only one goal: a computer on everybody’s desk. Mahatma Gandhi, by never giving up his only aim to end British rule over India non-violently. Eminem, like many other popular figures, had no other way but be a famous rapper to get out of poverty; Vehbi Koç, the acclaimed late Turkish businessman, on whom a book by Erol Toy was written: The Emperor. (İmparator), he is told to have started selling bricks for constructions on the way to becoming one of the richest three men in Turkey and last but not least, Noam Chomsky is claimed to be a successful monomaniacal antiamericanist.
The question here to ask is: Is Captain Ahab’s monomania a success story or is he an achiever too? The answers, ironical enough, will be both yes and no.
3. Is Captain Ahab one?
As Maurice Friedman very well puts in his book Problematic Rebel (96), Captain Ahab of Moby Dick is “Godly but ungodlike.” Friedman compares Ahab to Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost and to Prometheus. Friedman also implies the reason for creating an other for one’s own misery, which manifests itself as “merely projecting evil on the nonhuman world.” (130) The world is either hostile or indifferent to man’s tragic conditions, which is peculiar to naturalism:
“What makes Ahab “crazy” is the fact that he personifies this evil in Moby Dick. Melville explicitly ascribes this association of all evil with the White Whale to Ahab’s delirium and his “transference,” a term which Melville uses in a manner not unlike its modern psychoanalytical usage.” (130)
Projecting evil upon a non-human creature like a rare, albino whale, seeing it as a personified one and his only enemy, and setting a vengeful duty to himself as the only way to fulfill his need to restore value and meaning only via the annihilation of the cause or source, is a monomaniacal trap to oneself, which also gives away/reveals narcissism and self-centeredness, because Captain Ahab thinks he can win/overcome and take his revenge upon this creature as he believes he is victimized by this animal, this evil force symbolic of an unusual deity of the nether world. Therefore, in the Deistic perspective, the White Whale could be the evil-doing concretized reflection of God, the deity that can only be in nature and be seen or observed.
In the personification of hatred, the other has to have some differences, peculiarities so that we can pinpoint-antagonize it as the evil-other. Hence is the whiteness of the whale. This also coincides or is in harmony with Ahab’s one-leggedness. Both are physically different and/or impared, the whale representing the immortal nether world and Ahab the surface, or the mortal earth. Still, both are at sea, and in between is the ship, standing for the State, as it does in Billy Budd too, with all the rest of the multicultural, multiethnic citizens of the country on board.
Captain Ahab and Moby Dick are like the twin towers connected to each other from below and if one is to go down the other has to collapse too, if they are considered as the alter ego of the other architecturally too. Therefore, Ahab with his inhumane vengefullness joins the nonhuman world, becomes Mopy Dick in Paul Auster’s mock-term in The New York Trilogy, lined to the whale by his own harpoon.
I am one of those people who believe that the World Trade Center tragedy was an inside job and other historical events after which the same ‘word’ (rumor/truth) is spoken out in the media to get the masses to believe that such events are used by the power sources and authoritative politicians for retribution or retaliation (‘Revanche de Dieu’). The reason is hidden in symbolism, as Devrim Kılıçer states in her book Tower Power:
“These commercial palaces are like precursors of the early skyscrapers in their
function and symbolism” (39)
because they are, like the whale Moby Dick huge and monumental that in shape functions like a rival phallus like the aspiring-to-be ‘Manhattan’ district of Istanbul,
since they make visible and “look back” to the subject in the street, reproducing repressive spaces which both celebrate entrepreneurship and individualism while unleashing aggressiveness, threatening to castrate (cast out) the ones who are doubtful of the celebration. (84)
All sorts of narratives since the beginning of human history and even canonized literature and popular culture, therefore, present some a priori approval or affirmation and/or justification for the means of atrocity, for the politicians’ misconduct to destroy human lives because ‘revenge’ due to this syndrome is considered ‘only natural’ once a ‘number’ of victims have been created. Thus, this syndrome in the process of othering or antagonism among groups of different identities is inevitable, and it is a means for the power sources to control or destroy the ‘other’.
If we assume that the albino whale is an allusion to the Turkish Republic, Ahab can be any one, any politician that antagonizes and wishes and works for the annihilation of our young Republic of ninety-years old.
I do not want to offend the readers’ intelligence, but still I need to clarify what I mean by this corrolation. Similar to Hitler’s obsession with other races and people with different ethnic and sexual orientations and identities, we may be witnessing some narcissistically monomaniacal antagonism between the governmental acts and discourse of hatred of the present government directed to individuals, to groups, to anyone who are not registered to their group in Turkey and the established republic, which we have been enjoying for almost a century now.
4. Monomaniacal, narcissistic authoritarian figures, their deeds and discourse of hatred:
Similarly and symbolically, the whale is antagonistic as it is white. Its whiteness, its being an albino whale brings in the question of othering and xenophobia as it can easily be estranged and considered to be evil as it is not within our classification of the ‘normal’, therefore not threatening. Captain Ahab and similar characters need an individual, group or institutionalized other to preserve their authority. They are not obsessively indulged in vengeance because there is this evil antagonist, it is the other way round:
The discourse of hatred leads to the discourse of a dictator imposing choices upon masses, insulting their historical tragedies like naming a bridge after their oppressor or via assigned tolerance using such language: We opened the Sumela monastery to these…for prayers.
Years ago, when Sally Fishkin came to Turkey, she had given us her formula for peace in a multicultural society: Know the other, Respect the other, Tolerate the other. I was on the same panel and though I agreed with the first two steps I remember I got goose bumps after I heard the word tolerate, as to me the third step should be: Acknowledge the other. Moreover, when we utter the word ‘other’ we have already succumbed to the discourse of antagonism, hence given in to ‘othering’. When I uttered these ideas of mine on the panel, I remember academicians who hated being negated and loved labelling some different opinion of betrayal.
Popular figures like Fatih Terim, the emperor trainer of football teams or Hülya Avşar, the top prime-time entertainer may also be suffering from the same syndrome as they also hate being negated.
Monomaniac generations cannot live unless they take their revenge: once bitten forever smitten. And this hatred speech and discourse takes them to their end but with no tragic grandeur, because as they are registering to be pulled down when they are pulling down a monument/statue, established state. Therefore, in Moby Dick, the Pequod/the ship they are in is destroyed by the whale and all but the narrator die and in Billy Budd, the ship and the crew are saved as Captain Vere knows that the ship stands for the State and for the benefit and welfare of the state, no matter how innocent may Billy Budd be, the laws of the ship, ie. Justice by the book, must prevail and therefore Billy is hanged. However, we know that Vere, with some homosexual implications, looking at the stars to mean love for Billy is as real and good as the love for Jesus nailed to heavens, which makes the captain a character of some tragic grandeur.
5. Apocryphal history:
It is infested by such characters and works with protagonists or antagonistic villains that become iconic because of some psychological problem. It would be absurd for an academician to underestimate the value and power of popular culture and apocryphal history. Saying that they are not authentic, not true, not of real aesthetic value or that they are based on fiction rather than realities might lead to ignoring or not seeing their impact upon masses, which is clearly manipulated by the owners of power and authority.
Apocrphal history is worse than meta-history because it is an outcome of mediocre minds and politics based on othering, antagonism and/or discourse of hatred today, with the help of ego-oriented social-media like twitter and facebook or the youtube etc. It gains the quality of mediocrity, if not kitsch and I find this very dangerous as then the masses enjoy mocking the leader and authority as if it is some source of entertainment missing the gist of standing up against it via civil disobedience methods. Therefore, the aspect of the discourse must not fall into slang and jokes to arouse laughter only because we laugh and may forget it (katharsis), and soon the oppressor’s discourse and methods become some kind of popular culture entertainment, and this process is so slow that we do not notice we are changing as we watch him as a virtual/pseudo-being or a TV character committing his crimes, with our wishful thinking that he will soon be punished left as an extravagant expectation.
This is far worse than the official tolerance by the narcissistic authority or rule put on the rebel.
6. Dangers of canonizing such works with monomanical so-called ‘heros’:
A most important danger is almost conspicuously invisible and that is the contribution or rather the ability of such works in the mediocratization of such acts of hatred and antagonism. The masses get used to and they are even entertained by news on TV listening to ‘them’ leaders even while they are eating or during the most valuable time they need to spare for their children and find themselves arguing some matter they are in no way a cause or a solution. They get indifferent soon to the victimization process of this kind of authority in the office as the cruel deeds of the oppressor is nothing but some audio-visual imagery and metaphors on TV or in the social media. Causing the masses to have fun, giving them the illusion that they are, doing their best against the oppressor, which is ubiquitious as he might have bought most of the media and the police force or might have passivized the military forces.
Since all his existential stance is this monomaniacal act, the victim of this syndrome who becomes a victimizer has to take one of the either…or solutions, and this road is usually not the less taken and as Elias Canetti says: “There is no desire the price of which you will not have to pay. The highest price you will ever pay for your desire is its coming true.”
Just before he thrusts/darts the harpoon at the whale Captain Ahab says:
‘I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-pointed prow,—death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! 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. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! THUS, I give up the spear!’
The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the grooves;—ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone. Next instant, the heavy eye-splice in the rope’s final end flew out of the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea, disappeared in its depths.” (1947: 530; 1981: 519. )
The epilogue of this iconic and archetypal novel, which has now turned into an identity fetish in American culture, also reveals a well-known tradition in American narrative tradition, the self-conscious narrator, including the works of Washington Irving and Sherwood Anderson, or in films like Natural Born Killers or even Kieslowski’s trilogy Les Trois Couleurs and that is the survival of the witness to become the narrator.
This need to tell the story of another’s experience and not let it drown in the waters of oblivion enhances and underlies the need of the author to put tragic grandeur upon the central character, ie. Captain Ahab. In other words, apocryphal history is very much related to this tragic grandeur, which sometimes becomes almost the axis mundi via katharsis or empathy with the humanly aspects of the character if and as he/she dies away, ie. Victimized in whatever mystical way he may be gone. Though Ahab vanishes with the whale, the twain meet in one body and get lost in the nether seas, symbolizing our subconscious. The universal message is thus clarified, we may all become a captain Ahab if we are given the circumstances and/or opportunity of authority.
Fear-stricken masses are left with the ‘faith in justice’ by means of canonized, mediated or simulated realities of questionable authenticity, which they have no other alternative but take as reality. Therefore, apocryphal history is an effective vehicle towards the power-monitored hegemonic stability and globalization.
Masses give in to mediocrity by enjoying the superficial humor and/or satire via the social media because contemporary media is bought by the power and have to use the discourse of that power, and those masses that are against this power can only enjoy the illusion that they rule or are still the majority. This is unfortunately the poignant contemporary situation of our country at this very moment.
As the Turkish proverb says “If you are to be either of these two, be the mallet and not the stake (“Olursan kazık olma, tokmak ol”).
What is paradoxically sad is that both the mallet and the stake are working together in google visuals.
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