The Magazine

Call Me, Ishmael

An antiquated tale that’s never out of fashion.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks,” Ahab declares. He must thrust through the mask to get at what is tormenting him. “How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.” Ahab will work his will, however indecent his obsession: “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” This is an eerily compelling obsession.

Philbrick hits some jarring notes at times in using hackneyed progressive ideas to plead for the text’s relevance. Thus, Ahab is compared to “a profit-crazed deep-drilling oil company in 2010.” The author admiringly notes that the Pequod “could sail around the world without using a jot of carbon-based fuel.” (Global-warming fanatics might not be quite so pleased with the Pequod’s try pots, used to extract the oil from the giant corpses, heated by great stinking fires fed with carbon-based whale bits.) We are lectured that “our addiction to what has replaced whale oil—petroleum—has contributed to global warming and sea-level rise.” But such discordant commercial interruptions for politics are rare, simply because Moby-Dick is so much deeper than all that.

Edward Achorn, deputy editor of the editorial pages at the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.