Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Moby-Dick. Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty

I finally watched the first few episodes of Homeland, and as many have noted registered the resemblance of the Claire Danes character with the Jessica Chastain character in Zero Dark Thirty, the female interrogator/agent determined to zealously pursue al Qaeda terrorists at which the establishment blanches. Many have commented how the idea of the female intelligence agent seems to sanction government brutality by wrapping it under the mantle of feminism, or act as if the old-fashioned idea of authority is renewed if feminized; there is also the angle of Islamism’s views on women making Western feminism an almost inevitable corollary of the war on terror even if those waging it are au fond not particularly feminist. What I am interested in is how both characters persist in their quests even though their co-workers and superiors doubt them.

This could be likened to the ‘monomania’ exhibited in Moby-Dick (which I am current reaching) where Captain Ahab pursues the Great White Whale heedless of countless warnings not to do so for reasons of prudence, caution, temperance, and karma. The intriguing aspect here is that Ahab’s monomania is universally (and, in contrast, correctly) assumed to be bad, at least other than a few children’s edition s of the book which e. g. speak of Ahab as ‘an intrepid Yankee sailor’. But—and whatever our doubts about governmental excesses—the Chastain and Danes characters are assumed to be good in that nobody watching wants another terrorist attack. The two contexts are curiously comparable despite the huge time gap, as William Spanos and others have analyzed the ‘state of exception’ present in Moby-Dick by virtue of Ahab’s defiance of his employers’, Bildad and Peleg, mandate to concentrate on capitalist exploitation rather than revenge, and the presence of the quasi-Islamic Fedallah and the citation in the first chapter of a ‘bloody battle in Affghanistan’ do place it within the purview of the Islamic world. Is a female monomania, because more novel or softened by the good looks or soothing disposition of the characters, more acceptable than a more obviously fearsome male avatar? (Interestingly, the Danes character is far closer to Ahab than the Chastain by the very reason that she is given more vulnerabilities, those vulnerabilities in turn being necessitated by the greater narrative length of the project). Or do we have to face the fact that, as readers of Moby-Dick, we cannot unilaterally condemn monomania as much as we would like to do on first understanding Ahab? After all, the writer’s quest to finish the book, the readers quest to understand it, are, on the discursive ear interpretive level, as potentially monomaniacal as Ahab's quest to capture the whale, and indeed Melville and his readers are often praised for attempting the very thing that within the book Ahab is roundly condemned for pursuing.

Moreover, one cannot say all monomania is bad. Certainly Southerners thought not only John Brown but also Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson were monomaniacs on the subjects of slavery; yet it is good they were all so monomaniacal (even, in my view, Brown). It is easy for us to denounce monomania in a cause we do not believe in or are not affected by; what is there is a monomaniacal pursuit of something we admire, but which generates a disagreement with the means of its pursuit A real opposition to monomania would be to say: I urgently want this goal to be attained but I reject a monomaniacal way of pursuing it. And this would be a very hard stand indeed for most of us to maintain. As Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty show, there are any times we meet the monomaniac—and it is us. 

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