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Captain Ahab and his Watery Grave

by Michael Jager Saturday, Mar. 18, 2006 at 5:41 AM
mbatko@lycos.com

The novel Moby Dick appeared to Moltmann and others as the American myth. "Thewhite whale is the symbol of evil and Captain Ahab is the tragic hero. America's messianic dream becomes the tragic myth."

CAPTAIN AHAB AND HIS WATERY GRAVE

European-American Relations after September 11

By Michael Jaeger

[This article published in: Freitag 03, 1/11/2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.freitag.de/2002/03/02030601.php.]




Part I (Freitag, 1/4/2002) recalled Lenin’s explanation of imperialist wars. In capitalism, a disturbed economic balance can be restored through “crises in industry and wars in politics.” If this analysis is not dismissed as mad, there is no reason not to apply it to the relations between the US and the European Union (EU). European governments must clearly criticize the US without escalating tensions between the continents. A European distancing from the Atlantic military alliance would not be a peace policy at present. In the most positive case, a time will come when European and North American elites will alight from the unjust capitalist order. However this assumes – as Part I concluded – that they see their cultural difference as a problem and grapple with it.

Since September 11, many observers tend to describe cultural difference in religious terms. The Christian emphasis in the vocabulary or stance of the US president is striking to Europeans. To Europeans, Americans seem to hardly know what they are talking about. To learn about cultural difference and religious orientation, we turn first to a theologian, Jurgen Moltmann.

Jurgen Moltmann sees the Christian emphasis in the centuries-old orientation of American politics, not only in the vocabulary. However he describes this emphasis as arrogant and overbearing. In Moltmann’s view, the US ascribes to itself the role of Messiah that according to the Christian religion to which it appeals is only true for Jesus Christ. Republicans and democrats take part in this usurpation. “President Woodrow Wilson boasted that America has “the boundless privilege of fulfilling its destiny and saving the world.” John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson invoked the messianic faith of their forefathers. Richard M. Nixon insisted that our faith must be fulfilled with crusading zeal to change the world and win the battle for freedom. In 1993 Bill Clinton proclaimed: “Our hopes, our hearts and our hands can build democracy and freedom with all people on every continent. Their cause is the cause of America.”

This “political messianism” usurps the salvation formulas of the pre-Christian Hebrew Bible in seeing American existence in the constant movement of the Exodus. This religious connotation was clear in the origin of American society. The “pilgrim fathers” themselves who once boarded the Mayflower to freely live out their Puritan faith in North America compared their action with the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and with the Ascension. In this way, they stylized themselves as the chosen people, Moltmann explains. The idea of the chosen people was later “transformed to the `elect people’ and their God-given success.”


Since then, Americans fought for their political independence. Hey saw their continent as the region of peace and old Europe as a continent of incessant wars. They believed they had fulfilled one of the elementary Jewish-Christian promises. This conviction underlies the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine that denies the right to depraved belligerent Europeans to meddle in the interests of the “western hemisphere.” The term “the West” as a higher value had its beginnings here. One wonders how such great “peacefulness” could be consistent with the genocide on the Indians. The Indians, Moltmann said, reminded the immigrants of Canaan’s original inhabitants who indulged in the Baal cult and therefore had to be expelled so a land of peace could arise.

The simultaneous reference to Christian and pre-Christian-Jewish promises is striking and can easily be explained. Here a “people of God” distinguished as a nation from other nations and no longer as a church from other parts of one and the same society – as only the Jewish nation had done until then. The crossing of the Mayflower actually resembled the Jewish Exodus more than the Christian Ascension. Centuries passed until John F. Kennedy promised going beyond “new borders” to heaven (or in any case to outer space) and no longer in the trail to the West. Christian messianism was superimposed with the symbolism of the Jewish national religion in the origin of the American society.

A messianism borrowed from Christianity, not Judaism, conjures up an end time. The Christian end time is the “last hour” of the world when the church is called to missionize all people and prepare them for the dawn of God’s reign. This eschatological component first had an effect at the end of the 19th century when the US entered the imperialist epoch. Step by step, the US abandoned its isolation to give the world the model and standard of peace and freedom. When the US spoke of “democracy,” others saw nothing religious in that. Americans always grappled with “evil” on their missionizing way. “Crusades” had to be launched against “evil.” Americans were not evil; they were innocent! In 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson that it would take centuries “before we will be corrupted.” This dualistic and apocalyptic view of history was propounded in “westerns and science-fiction movies,” Moltmann writes.

The religious connotation never disappeared even if it was not always as crass as with US president Ronald Reagan who saw the approaching end time battle of “Armageddon.” Moltmann also sees here a loan from the Jewish tradition. American crusades always aid at the complete elimination of the adversary as the troops of Pharoah were destroyed and not merely defeated. War-rivals cannot become friends afterwards as in classical European diplomacy because they stand once and for all as criminals against chosen America – whether named bin Laden or Milosevic.

THE PEQUOD

So much for Moltmann. Like many others he believes American politics understands itself as Christian although in truth it perverts Christianity. One could also interpret it very differently or even in an opposite way as a totally nihilist experiment. While president Bush may use Christian words, Helmut Kohl also did that without anyone thinking that Kohl neoliberalism reflected the Christian faith in the chancellor’s office. Moltmann recognized this. The novel "Moby Dick" published in 1851 appeared to Moltmann and others as the American myth: “The white whale is the symbol of evil and Captain Ahab is the tragic hero. America’s messianic dream becomes the tragic myth. This represents the profundity of this fictional work.” However the world of the novelist Herman Melville is a godless world. Ahab chases the whale that chopped off his leg since the whale embodies a completely desolate unavoidable death. “For me,” Melville has Ahab say, “this white whale is the wall standing in front of me. Nothing is behind it, I think sometimes. Whether the white whale is an instrument or the author of everything, I will overcome it with this hatred. Do not speak to me of blasphemy. I will strike the sun itself if it hurts me.”

We can easily recognize Ahab’s thirst for revenge after September 11. When the ship is on the sea, the captain calls the crew together and surprises them by saying they are the instrument of his revenge: “Aye, aye, and I will chase him around the Cape of Good Hope, around the horn, around Norway’s maelstrom and through the flames of damnation before I lose he hunt. Men, this is why I hired you! To chase this white whale on both oceans, in all corners of the world until it blows black blood and is dead in the water. Isn’t this the gesture with which president Bush appeared after the attacks saying before the cameras: We will hunt them to their last hiding-place. Didn’t the whole “hired” NATO face a very similar surprise as Ahab’s crew?

“Exodus” may not be the right word to really open up the American redeemer posture. A very nihilist kind of exodus in crossing every limit that ever existed and every price may be involved. “Exodus” could only be another word for an unconditional yearning for infinity encountering us in Christian and “secularized” applications. Wasn’t there a Christian meaning when President Kennedy called his nation four decades ago to cross “new frontiers” under which he understood hunger on earth and outer space? If that is an “exodus,” it no longer leads out of the earthly counterpart of Egypt for the Hebrew Bible since the earth itself was to be abandoned. The goal of America’s “exodus” was completely aimless and not an earthly counterpart to Canaan the Promised Land. After every goal is barely reached, one is already underway to new goals.

Melville described this completely nihilist movement metaphorically as the movement of the whaling ship Pequod. In his time, the ocean was a metaphor of the universe as an empty sky as depicted in the passages of Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner. US citizen Melville writes more crassly and openly than Nietzsche and Wagner: “the promise could be in the journey. But while we chase mysteries faraway appearing to us in dreams or pursue demonic phantoms arising before every human heart” – whether named Moby Dick or bin Laden – “by chasing these shadows around the globe, they lead us astray through dreary deserts or drown us in a watery grave.”

Our own nihilism is presented to us like a bill in this exaggerated American narrative. This “secularism” distinguishes the culture starting from Europe that includes the culture of the US from the rest of the world. In the US, secularism has a purer, more frightening form like everything else. The pursuit of the infinite can become a chase after a phenomenon named bin Laden. Once begun this is waged with a delusion of omnipotence. In normal non-totalitarian times, Europeans charitably hide from themselves that everything goes to pieces. Still this is the result of a culture that is the same on both sides of the Atlantic. The necessary European relation with the US is clear. Instead of making American exaggeration the pretext for a hypocritical delimitation, American excess is the top of the iceberg that Europeans are themselves.

In other words, Europeans must declare themselves in solidarity with the US. We actually sit in one boat with Captain Ahab. Since the US is a democratic land, our solidarity cannot exclude the Bush administration that in its “anti-terror war” is supported by the large majority of Americans. We only have our little chance when we adjust to that irrational pursuit. What the ally conceitedly exaggerates should be openly criticized. Our shared delusion should be critically dissolved. This means speaking in an enlightened way.

Who would not mourn that a non-warmongering Captain lost his leg? Who would not find it understandable that Ahab/Bush reacts to the loss with a desolate, irreligious and nihilist rage? Our own rage would strike us if we had as many weapons as the Americans.

[The quotations from the chapter “Political Messianism: The Redeemer Nation” are from Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, 1995.]



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