By Karen Malpede
I’ve been reading Moby-Dick out loud at night, slowly, with my partner. We were on chapter ninety-three–in which the castaway Pip loses sanity after being left adrift alone in the ocean for too long while Stubb and the others rush to harpoon a whale (not the white one)–the night the Paris attacks took place.
The book is a great parable, certainly of American–perhaps of all–national life, in which the chase after the Leviathan (as Melville calls them) destroys everyone but the lowliest boatswain narrator, who miraculously lives to tell the tale. Someone must survive for otherwise all knowledge of human folly would equally be lost. That is, perhaps, the novel’s point, but it is hardly its experience which gains mightily from application of the human voice–Moby Dick out loud becomes as tumultuous, vast and roiling as the oceans. Reading or listening one is swept away as Melville and his contemporaries must have been flocking to hear a great fire and brimstone sermon.
The book out loud is full immersion into a Romantic sensibility, Melville’s, which often feels as comprehensive and particular as that of the One Creator in which he and all his readers, facing the facts presented in the story, need struggle mightily in order to believe. The language of the book when taken off the page and voiced is spell-binding. Reading out loud feels like taking part in the act of coming to consciousness, yes, of being born. Rearing one’s head into the natural world.
Why are we here, for what, is the question of all catastrophic historical moments and of each great literary monument to the human catastrophe of being.
And so, my partner and I are going to Paris to make art on behalf of the earth while that city reels from terror and the French, Russian and American governmental leaders clamor for revenge and vow, again, to end the scourge of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh).
We are going to take part in ArtCop21 in just two weeks, while the city will still be under emergency rule and the bombing sorties will still, as they have been ever since shortly after September 11, 2001, be taking place–killing civilians in Raqqa and elsewhere in Syria and Iraq by necessary mistake we call “collateral damage,” although we will never know how many Muslims, Christians or unbelievers in either country die; we will never see their faces or read their stories in the pages of our press even as we mourn the faces and brief lives of the Paris dead.
The affronted world’s Ahabs, crippled by attack, vow vengeance and a show of might.
Or is it the great Leviathan of Western power that is smashing its ferocious tale against the castaways and throwaways, fearing refugees on their rickety boats equally with the members of the so-named Islamic State?
Melville plays a trick of hand throughout; we root for the whale then for the whalemen interchangeably. Each death of every mammal, sea or land-bound, feels like extinction. For pages on end, we are immersed in boiling blubber. We’re not quite certain with whom our own morality tells us side.
We know that whale slaughter provides the fuel–divine oil–then as now, for civilization to proceed, and the financial well-being, scant though it may be, for the hired crew and their families at home. What else is there to do but hunt (drill or frack) until nothing is left to take?
We understand the whales ought to swim free in the sea, unmolested. But once threatened, they become all too dangerous and cunning. On the other hand, the men have powers of reason and steely wills. The adversaries are matched. There is to be no end to the battle. There cannot be.
We’re going to Paris to tell a different story. Is there a different story to tell? And if different, isn’t it, by default, a lesser tale, one not endowed with fire and brimstone, patriarchal history, or human nature’s essential, captivating and obsessive will to power? If we were to tell the story of a sustainable future, one in which humankind sought and found its limits, and vowed to live in harmony with all–would this not be recognized as a great snooze on the one hand and denigrated as foolishly naive on the other?
Don’t we want to labor in the darkening light of lost salvation? Mustn’t we have our follies driving us and at the same time loose our heroic wills–to folly?
If the Paris climate talks were able to take place without the shadow of the Paris shootings and so to captivate the world with a new vision… but it is too late to wish now for that halcyon state. We have fallen, once more, into the pit or our own dastardliness. The young have taken guns and opened fire on the young. The castaways have slain the light-heartened, those with lives to live have had their lives unmercifully taken by those who felt they had no life at all but this, to kill and blow themselves apart (though one or two are on the run, suddenly, their lives might seem strangely precious and their wish be somehow to survive).
Now, climate change will be visited in the midst of human desperation. Our fight with the whale has become our fight with our own selves–as, indeed, it always was–the whale a symbol merely. Actual nature, the living web of the living world, is relegated to something unimportant, to rubble; it will be bombed and blasted, and nature’s terrified creatures do not even figure in.
We forget, before we even bother to humble ourselves, how small we are, how insignificant before the rising seas, the gathering storms. How soon we shall mainly all be refugees on a reeling planet like those we say we can’t take in.
Our safety is an illusion. We can neither close all borders, nor bomb all warriors, nor detect all terrorists. We know this and it’s making us bluster harder, sing national anthems far more loudly and, with sentiment, proclaim our love of freedom.
The pity of it is that at a time Earth needs our full attention, we are convulsed by vengeance, as if we cannot put the old ways down–not even to save ourselves and the all the beauty of the natural world we love.
Melville gives us the antidote to Ahab in the form of the jolly English captain sporting an ivory arm after Moby-Dick has shorn his real one. He’s done with the hunt, he tells Ahab. One arm is quite enough to give. Ahab spins in disgust on his ivory leg and rushes back to the Pecquod. Ahab cannot, will not, restrain himself from doing battle with the whale.
Man against nature. Man against himself. Man against human nature. Man going down, down, down because he is incapable of giving up the fight.
The climate talks in Paris, and the civil society gatherings around them most of which will be severely curtailed by the new emergency rules and the artistic expressions of the ArtCop21 appear nearly utterly futile now. Almost superfluous amid the rising battle cries, growing death counts, and the floods of refugees. This is the future staring us in the face. Everywhere: disaster. The Syrian Civil War began, in part, because of an influx of desperate rural people into the cities due to drought. The Iraq invasion was for oil. Both climate change-based disasters gave rise to the self-proclaimed Islamic State. And to the wild flailing calls for vengeance on all sides.
That a few are still determined to try another way, to make visible another human narrative–this one of care for all that is fragile, all that must whither and pass away, to hold life like a bud or a new born in the palm of ones hand, to stop to wonder, yes. To look out at the world with the purity of the animal’s gaze, the light in the eyes of those who seek to control only what they need to live, who take no captives, store no excess wealth, who live upon the land, or in the sea, and speak simply with the grace of their movements, their undulations and their gaits, the dignity of their quiet, unassuming ways.
This is why we go to Paris now and will dare present a play that attempts to tell this story, the story of the struggle to warn, protect and save.
We climate change activist-artists are kin of Ishmael. Would that we might sing of our fellow creatures with the astonishing particularity of that voice.