Somewhere beneath the breakers and swells of time lie the uneasy bones of those high school English teachers who watched, year after year, scores of students sail through their classroom, their curricular ocean, without catching their own appreciation for (or sometimes even reading) the Great Books. They flung their harpoons and lectures and assigned their essays for naught. From hell’s heart they must have stabbed at me because at the turn of the year I decided, unassigned by anything but curiosity, to read Moby Dick. It would have certainly capsized 17-year-old me[1]. It nearly capsized now-years-old me. There’s enough meat (and fat) in there to fuel a good many essays. To pick just one, as a resident of the Twitterverse, I have found the book surprisingly apropos of the strange characters, endless horizon, and general mayhem of social media at large, so that’s where this ship is headed. But first, for those whom the English teachers haven’t harpooned yet, here’s my crash course in The Whale.

A guy asks you to call him Ishmael. Bored but having some sailing on his resume, he hits Nantucket to crew up on a whaling ship. Meet cute with a heavily tattooed Pacific Islander named Queequeg[2] who is the kind of guy who owns his own harpoon. Sign on to crew the Pequod, which boat Ahab[3] is captain of. Starbuck[4] is the first mate, Stubb[5] the second, Flask[6] the third. Ahab has a peg leg, which is important to know. But he stays in his cabin for a long time. Sailing stuff. Finally, Ahab emerges and nails a gold doubloon to the mast and somehow convinces the crew to swear an oath to help him carry out vengeance against Moby Dick, which is the actual name of the whale that ate Ahab’s leg. Kill the whale, get the gold. More sailing; Ishmael waxes (at length) about a boatload of non-plot stuff; kill a whale and render it into barrels of oil (a messy business); various crew members nearly die; more sailing (pursued at one point by pirates?); hail other boats and Ahab doesn’t even really try to hide his obviously monomaniacal depression from the other captains as he presses them for news of the white whale (which literally everyone seems to have heard of—weird given there wasn’t even radio back then. Was everyone just writing letters upon letters about this one whale?). Starbuck begs Ahab to sail for home and family, considers murder. Finally, Welcome to Japan! The Pequod spots Moby Dick right in the spot he ate Ahab’s leg, contends with him for three days, and the whale wins[7].

I can see why Moby Dick could be considered one of the Great Books. Sure, so there’s some slack stretches (ok many) (many) (seriously quite a lot)—endless and outdated musings on whale taxonomy, anatomy, and mythology—and they drag. Keep going and, page after alabaster page, the book itself takes the form of a white whale, and you’re Ahab trying to run it down. There are these glittering passages like whales spouting in the middle distance. Enticing you on. What starts a great adventure under full sail undergoes a steady, infernal metamorphosis, and you’re looking into the red heat of the story till your eyes feel scorched in your head and the thing groans and dives through howling wind and leaping sea, steadfastly shooting its red hell further and further into blackness.[8] At some point you realize you’re not even talking about Moby Dick anymore. The tale has spilled the banks of the bookbinding and become an actual perspective. A lens the world keeps bending through even when you’ve set the book aside and started scrolling through Twitter.

What draws out the essence of social media is crisis, which is never in short supply.

Social Media seems a pretty far stretch for a book like Moby Dick. What could be further from the digital age than hopping on board a wind-powered wooden boat with a bunch of quasi- to il-literate semi-racists and spending literal years in the ocean without GPS, WiFi, or nothing, hunting something you’ve likely only seen in your imagination (or a mostly speculative illustration)? And to have that journey turn from something that was supposed to be adventurous, a little dangerous, and profitable into a hell-bent grudge match between an unhinged tyrant and the god which hobbled him. But, Captain Ahab (the aforementioned tyrant) is our way in[9].

If Twitter and Facebook and Reddit and TikTok and whatever else is out there have anything in common, it’s obsession. The object varies, the pursuit is constant. By that measure, you could use Melville’s world to sift through every stray fathom of the ether. Lest this essay grow as leviathanic as Moby Dick, though, let’s put up some rails. What draws out the essence of social media is crisis, which is never in short supply. In the fever pitch, social media best displays its Pequod-ishness. Other folks can parse the why; I’ll endeavor to limit myself to showing the how and weighing the health when we all board ship and set off on a metaphorical whale hunt of our own.

The Quarry and the Crew

Before you can really come to grips with anything else about Moby Dick, you have to nail down what exactly the white whale is all about. Alas, though, the whale is not exactly about anything. At least, nobody agrees. Some say Ahab is hunting God, conversely an incarnation of evil and suffering. Others say he’s pursuing a general dominion over nature (including, I guess, death). Then you get into the psychoanalytic corners of the literary world that say Ahab is trying to conquer humanity’s own subconscious (which, in our more modern parlance, might translate to an attempt to master one’s own trauma). Really it’s the universal translatability of Moby Dick that makes him such a powerful symbol. He’s the thing that strikes a nerve in Ahab (in plot terms literally—he bit Ahab’s leg off) that Ahab must eradicate from the earth if he’s ever to feel at home in this world again.

If you ever feel at home in the world, social media is a pretty swift cure. It’s oceanicly vast and teeming to say the least. It brings the world maelstroming into our pockets in a schizoid collage of the sublime, disastrous, triumphant, abusive, brilliant. Death hilarious[10].  If you care about people and about how they might treat other people, you’re never more than a post or two away from news of the worst if not the worst itself[11]. The way folks act, social media can bite your leg off a dozen times a day. The unrested awareness begs for action or at least for our voice as often as it beggars belief with its immense volume. And as we join the hunt for injustice and error, I find that we often settle into behaviors that mirror Ahab and a pair of his crewmen.

So, Captain Ahab. The driving force. His obsession perched on his whalebone leg steadily presses the Pequod on toward hell’s blue-skied heart. As often as he acts the devil—as in the stormy scene with the gold doubloon—he looks like a man being run by the devil in the way he consults the mysterious Fedallah[12] like an oracle. Or maybe he’s just a wounded old man who’s finally caved under unshakable pain. He’s a complicated monolith of purpose: Avenge what’s lost.

You put Ahab on Twitter, and he’s the one bent on using every ounce of his platform to run down wrong and stamp it out or go out trying in a blaze of righteous fury. He’s going 75 comments deep, verbally slugging it out with all comers and quote-tweeting the debate to fill his own feed and calls to arms against The Wrongness. As with hammers and nails, to Ahab, everything is a white whale.

Then there’s Ishmael. The insider yet outsider. He can be as brilliant as he is dull (it’s his soliloquies and meanderings that account for 100% of the sloggishness of the novel), but his highest aim is that you know the full scope of what it means to hunt a whale from a historical, biological, and metaphysical perspective. He speaks with such assuredness. He’s got the confidence of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking physics, but 169 years of oceanographic research has proved he has authority more on par with, well, Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing metaphysics[13].

Ishmael’s Twitter M.O. is the explainer. He’s supremely rational. Posting charts and graphs and statistics, long reads[14] to zoom you out and give you perspective and nuance. His blind spot is he thinks perfect logic can unmake the heart. Never forget that he’s on the boat, too. Riding the waves and preaching to the choir. Pitching from insight to arrogance and back, talking down. Trying to control the narrative[15], enabling the Ahabs as much as anyone else does.

There were 30 or 40 sailors on the Pequod, but just one more bears mention here. Starbuck, the first mate and the most precarious character in the novel. He has the conscience to doubt Ahab and perhaps even the position to oppose him. In the novel, Starbuck’s crisis of courage at the juncture of repentance and damnation cuts through the gathering doom like one last watery sunray at the brink of the final sounding to hell. The shape of his character and the opportunities he has to both plead with Ahab and even, at one critical moment, to kill him make the wreckage of the Pequod especially tragic. Even as much an indictment on him as on Ahab’s toxic leadership.

As the uneasy conscience of the novel, Starbuck stands in for so many prominent Christians on Twitter (did I mention he’s a Quaker?) who somehow fail to translate wisdom and faith into meaningful change, either to the tone of the ether at large or to how other professing Christians behave therein. Our Starbucks may rebuke the court evangelicals (and ex-vangelicals) on the left and the right[16], but it often only draws more attention to the poison without antidote. Starbuck, then, begs the question of how to make a meaningful mutiny against the worst of social media culture, even as manifested within (or merely nearby) the church. Sad as Starbuck’s failure is, that’s still the right question.

Sailing on 1,000 Pequods

So what to do with this array of straw men before us? I’ve got the roles cast in my head and I imagine you do, too. If we’re honest, though, we could probably see facets of all three of these whalemen in ourselves depending on the day and the angle of the light and when we last ate. At any given moment, we might find ourselves rallying others against a foe, offering what we presume to be convincing commentary and context, or rebuking the latest court evangelical in the name of all that’s holy or at least theological. We all respond to the monstrosities lurking in our torrential feed and the closer one cuts to the bone, the closer we hew to Ahab.

How many voices do you actively follow or otherwise encounter at any given URL[17], each a potential Ahab? Social media can embark us not on a single whale hunt but on hundreds. The constant exposure to news and outrage begins to feel like swaying on the deck of not one infernal ship but thousands, each with its captain flinging harpoons into our timeline, imprecating us to rage with them at The Thing That’s Wrong With The World.

It may be time to jump ship.

If I might only jump to another boat, Heart of Darkness sheds an extra ray of light[18] on our predicament. As Marlow pilots his steamship up the Congo, he at one point laments:

When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily.

If you’re not familiar with Heart of Darkness, Marlow says this as he recounts navigating his steamship to find Kurtz (who, it’ll turn out, has gone thoroughly off his rocker). Marlow’s boat is flimsy. He has to fastidiously avoid any half-sunken logs and shallow rocks lest he capsize and, I don’t know, drown or get eaten by hippos and crocodiles. Marlow says “luckily” of the hidden truth, I think, because if all the surface detritus hadn’t distracted him—if he’d had time to reflect on the darkness he was steaming into[19]—he would have never taken the helm. Because social media is so torrential with new news, it cuts against depth. It captivates us with the surface. One injustice approaches and before we can reckon with it, another whale breaks the surface. Endless.

In crisis, social media becomes Mobius Dick[20]. An infinite, self-feeding loop of outrage and counter-outrage. Everyone is Ahab and simultaneously someone else’s whale. Explainers spout condescending perspective, acting all above it all. Even the Starbucks’ pearls skew pretty swinish. All means and no end. What unites Ahab, Ishmael, and even Starbuck? They all stayed in it to the bitter end. Not even Starbuck left the boat. They indeed caught some whales. But (spoiler alert) they couldn’t catch The Whale and, except for Ishmael, they all died trying.

Bending Harpoons into Ploughshares

When the world bites off your leg, you have to get a tourniquet on it[21]. We cannot bear the weight of the entire world’s injustice. Triage though it is, this is not an essay to say shut up. Social media brings awareness of injustice that you cannot un-know.

Awareness is vital. If we are to truly be people of light, we have to know where darkness is and what shape it’s taken. This means knowing about deaths like George Floyd’s or Ahmaud Arbery’s or Breonna Taylor’s (just to name three from 2020). We can learn about injustice on social media, and we can encourage others that they aren’t the only ones who think something is wrong. If we don’t incarnate our action elsewhere, however, it degrades to merely vain spouting off.

In The Presence of the Kingdom, Jacques Ellul reflects on World War II and laments the triumph of the Nazi spirit in spite of the Allies “winning” the war. By the Nazi spirit, I take him to mean being efficient in eradication. Using power better than your enemies in order to crush them. In other words, if the only way you defeat a Satanic power is by being more skilled in the administration of death, you may have been had.

Social media at its most Ahab-ish looks like trying to use the tools of rhetoric, public shaming, and mockery to eradicate bad ideas and the people who have them. Bad, of course, being only in the eye of one or another particular Ahab. If we in fact work against Satanic strongholds like racism[22] and nationalist nihilism, are any of these the appropriate tools? Ellul makes a point heartbreaking in its blindsiding obviousness. In a spiritual battle, our primary weapon isn’t bombs or words. It’s prayer.[23] Thoughts and prayers get a bad rap, but imagine if the church was as good at actually praying[24] as church-adjacent politicians are at tweeting that they’re praying. I imagine it would change enough hearts that the Kingdom might appear a little more often on Earth as it is in Heaven. Though I still doubt if you’d be able to see it on Twitter.

You’d be able to see it in neighborhoods, though. Just as Starbuck begged Ahab to stop sailing against the storm and let the powerful winds carry him back home to Nantucket and his wife and son[25], at some point it’s healthy to turn away from the raging storms and white whales on social media and let those winds carry us back to the real world. To the place where we can wrestle with one thing a while, long enough to think, learn, and maybe grow. On the macro level, the world is broken. Social media, by its scope, gives us a heaping spoonful of the macro. But on the micro level, in our little pockets of human presence and deep attention and care, the world is at least redeemable. No guarantees, but I do believe in the power of communities to change if the members see each other more like people and less like characters on a screen. We must not let global bad news drown our hope and work for local good news.

Let’s end where we started, then: with Ahab. We shouldn’t forget that, really, a whale bit his leg off and that must have really hurt. For all the obsession that warped him until he was the kind of man who would drag a whole ship of souls to their deaths, he had his root in suffering. Our obsessions come from our hurts. If we can have some mercy, some understanding that others may be hurting in different ways than us, that they may be hurting others out of their own hurt, we might at least understand them. Not that we should justify hateful speech or murderous action, but mercy can humanize The Whale in our minds. Maybe even enough to pray for them.

[1] I fastidiously shirked all assigned reading in high school with the exception of the 1972 novel Deathwatch and the short story “Leningen Versus the Ants” (that latter only because I recognized someone stole the plot for an episode of MacGyver).

[2] As a testament to Moby Dick’s standing in the world, spellcheck flags Queequeg. It doesn’t flag Dumbledore.

[3] Whom I pictured more Geoffrey Rush than Gregory Peck, but such actors didn’t anchor tentpole films in 1956.

[4] Reserved. Quaker.

[5] Salty and loquacious. Pipe smoker. Very not serious about it all.

[6] Honestly a bit hard for me to distinguish from Stubb. Guess that’s why he’s only 3rd mate.

[7] The ending is almost literally this abrupt.

[8] Chapter XCVI (you do the math on the Roman numerals and realize with despair there’s still 200 pages to go…) “The Try Works”

[9] But I’d say the monomania and general feeling of disorientation ring truer and truer.

[10] Blood Meridian (a book that itself owes quite a debt to Moby Dick), Cormac McCarthy, ch. IV – Attacked By Commanches

[11] If we can take the Sermon on the Mount sincerely, none of it is just words.

[12] Himself a potent symbol albeit executed in a probably more than just quasi-racist way in Melville’s portrait. Definitely a reminder that you’re dealing with a 19th-century novel.

[13] You see that cheap shot? That’s my Ahab side.

[14] And here I am, being Ishmael.

[15] And in the end, he’s the one who lives to tell the story. Make of that what you will.

[16] There is, after all, at least one court each for the majority and the opposition parties.

[17] Including all the other voices the algorithm serves up so it can keep your hopper full of content. Seeming to beg for affirmation—this person liked this thing, don’t you like it, too—but really, to social media, we’re all the whale. Our attention span, the thing to be hacked as much as a sperm whale’s oil is the thing to be harvested. Our occasional inattention, as infuriating as a bite in the pocketbook. Our purchase power and our votes, the hunted thing so they can be sold to whatever corporation or government wants to buy such precious ambergris. See? There’s a multitude of essays in here.

[18] Irony!

[19] And on behalf of. He’s basically in the employ of Satan if you’ve been reading between the lines.

[20] Futurama season 6, episode 15. Such a great pun.

[21] When I’m on Twitter, I think often of Ellis’s line here in No Country for Old Men: “All the time you spend tryin to get back what’s been took from you there’s more goin out the door. After a while you just try and get a tourniquet on it.”

[22] I’m indebted to Ekemini Uwan in her interview for the Cultivated Podcast. She was the first person I heard refer to racism as a Satanic stronghold and it was a real thunderbolt moment for me.

[23] The Presence of the Kingdom, p. 16

[24] For her own repentance in equal proportion to justice against wrong.

[25] Ch. CXIX, The Candles

1 Comment

  1. Great piece on Moby Dick. Never read it in high school (I did read Catcher in the Rye; in my opinion, Holden Caulfield spent his high school years stuffed in lockers or getting towel-snapped in the shower after gym), but I think I will one day. Anyway, a few random observations are coming.

    1. I did read “Leningen Versus the Ants” in high school; incidentally, it was adapted into a movie called The Naked Jungle in 1953 (George Pal produced, Byron Haskin directed, and it starred Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker). The MacGyver episode you cited made liberal use of the ant attack scenes.
    2. Moby Dick shows up in Star Trek: The Original Series. Norman Spinrad’s “The Doomsday Machine” is Moby Dick in space opera dress. And in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…see The Gospel According to Star Trek: The Original Crew by Kevin C. Neuce and his chapter on the film, which also cites The Tale of the Whale.
    3. Richard Basehart played Ishmael in Moby Dick alongside Gregory Peck’s Ahab. Later, Basehart would contend with whales of Moby’s stripe on a couple of episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
    4. There was also a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, Moby Dick and Mighty Mightor, which alternated six-minute episodes with the Great While Whale as friend and protector of two brothers, Tom and Tub, who were lost at sea. Mightor was a prehistoric superman with a flying dinosaur sidekick.
    5. And speaking of Hearts of Darkness, it was the inspiration for Apocalypse Now – although I don’t know what Joseph Conrad opinion on the smell of napalm.

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