Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ahab's Quadrant

I was struck by a particular moment in Moby Dick, when Captain Ahab violently destroys his own navigational tool. ( I started the novel months ago on jury duty, as I mentioned in a previous post. I finally finished) In terms of plot it provides another step in recognizing how his monomania and obsession is ultimately self destructive. But who is immune from noticing deeper symbolism in this, the great American novel?

After spending a significant amount of time and effort calculating the ship's position using a quadrant, Ahab declares, "Thou sea-mark! thou high and mighty Pilot! thou tellest me truly where I AM--but canst thou cast the least hint where I SHALL be? Or canst thou tell where some other thing besides me is this moment living? Where is Moby Dick?"

 He then fiddles with the tool and declares, "Foolish toy! babies' plaything of haughty Admirals... the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more! ... Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man's eyes aloft to that heaven..."

Why is Ahab so furious at both the tool, (the quadrant) and the kind of thinking it represents (science)? Science and technology only describe the Universe as it is, but cannot give direction or guidance in the way that he wants. Or, for that matter, in the way that many religious fundamentalists want. Reality and its assessment may challenge parts of the narrative that they are basing their lives on.

But, as the poor sailors on the Pequod are well aware, knowing where you are and what is going on can be quite useful indeed. An honest, unblinking assessment oft can be very helpful in avoiding looming disaster, if nothing else. And it may be a great gift from God himself that our species has the ability to form such tools to help us see the world as clearly as we do. 

At least when we are paying attention. 

The next time that I read or hear about a religious or doctrinaire dismissal of facts in support of their worldview, I think I will picture Ahab smashing his quadrant. It is not a pretty picture. 

P.S. The novel is great, but for REAL fun, I can't recommend the pop-up version by Sam Ita enough. It will surprise and amaze you, and change the way you look at pop-up books!

1 comment:

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

the pop up book sounds like something i'll get through and really enjoy.