Ahab and the Gulf

Anyone who’s been around me these last weeks will testify to my mini obsession with what Moby Dick has to tell us about the Great Gulf Oil Vomiting of 2010. I’ve been listening daily to an audible telling of the great novel, all 136 chapters, available at Lit2Go from the University of South Florida (via iTunes.) In fact, the Pequod and all its crew but Ishmael, went to the bottom as I pulled into the garage this Friday. I sat of course, for a while, feeling the pressure of the watery grave. I’ve come to think that listening to the story, with all its erudite meanderings into amateur science, has been roping it into my dendrites much tighter than my former readings did. Perhaps it’s my age, or the year of this “reading.” But I get it now, more than I ever have.

They key point of comparison between the whale hunters and the oil hunters is that both, in their time, were the energy industry. Though wood and peat burning certainly provided warmth around the world, and coal had been mined since the time of the Romans there was nothing to compare to whale oil, especially sperm whale oil which didn’t smell as bad as right whale oil, for illumination, or for lubrication. As the whale population declined from voracious hunting, expeditions of 3 years and more as described in Moby Dick became the norm. Let’s call it far off-shore whaling. The essence of whaling was to pierce the animal with several sharp instruments — harpoons and lances– and bring the carcass alongside and extract the oil — from the blubber by refining it, and the precious spermacetti directly from the head. Call it sweet and heavy crude. The story of Moby Dick is, in a thimble full, the story of obsession, man’s drive to dominate, indeed revenge itself, against nature, and nature’s revenge against the world — the world of course being the Pequod with sailors and harpooners from every corner of earth.

It all seems impossibly predictive of what we see happening in the Gulf. Greed is more the driver than revenge, but domination of nature is still the mental set of those who have gone further and further off shore, to drive their deep drills into the earth to extract the precious stuff.

I’d been turning over a mid-sized essay to contemplate all this when lo and behold a pretty decent one appeared as the lead story in this Sunday’s NY Times, Week in Review. Randy Kennedy starts off:

“A quenchless thirst for whale oil, then petroleum, pushed man ever farther and deeper. And with great hubris, great risk.”

and continues:

A specially outfitted ship ventures into deep ocean waters in search of oil, increasingly difficult to find. Lines of authority aboard the ship become tangled. Ambition outstrips ability. The unpredictable forces of nature rear up, and death and destruction follow in their wake. “Some fell flat on their faces,” an eyewitness reported of the stricken crew. “Through the breach, they heard the waters pour.”

The words could well have been spoken by a survivor of the doomed oil rig Deepwater Horizon, which exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, killing 11 men and leading to the largest oil spill in United States history. But they come instead, of course, from that wordy, wayward Manhattanite we know as Ishmael, whose own doomed vessel, the whaler Pequod, sailed only through the pages of “Moby-Dick.”

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” — “Moby-Dick”

So I’m glad to recommend to you Kennedy’s piece. More judicious and less emotive than I might have been, nevertheless it’s worth remembering that man’s war against nature has been recognized for quite some while as a war that will not be won by the puny two legged creature, no matter how long his lances.