Donald Pease, "Melville and Cultural Persuasion"
The nineteenth century national identity was in large part formed by an elaborate scheme of inaction and subsequent justification for this inaction. This "cultural consensus" was not consciously established until F.O. Matthiessen, a member of another conflicted generation, gave it the title of the American Renaissance. Donald Pease makes sense of the canon by understanding its power to "silence dissent," and thereby, uniting the population against the opposition. Recognizing the opposition but failing to act against it marks the tension that Pease characterizes as the Cold War content in the American Renaissance.
Persuasion in 19th century America tied people to a set of beliefs, giving them a sense of united moral purpose. Jeremiads and doctrines of self-reliance allowed for such purpose without requiring any decisive action. In the case of the former an impression of resolution was given by providing a historical or biblical context to contemporary problems. And furthermore, jeremiads so greatly relieved America of its apprehension that it began to feel itself a representation of God's words rather than involved in uniquely present day problems. Similarly Emerson's Self-Reliance transformed a "private will" into a "sovereign will" whose power was found in motivation rather than action. Pease notes that once the external world's importance is diminished because the individual's reliance on their "sovereign will" is so great consensus turns into "psychological compulsion." However, the distinction between the two is blurred.
Moby Dick introduces an entirely new element of action to the Cold War of the American Renaissance. The character of Ahab confuses the boundaries between individualism and totalitarian rule, creating a character who must, "convert conflicting demands into a decisive form." (253) Ahab follows a model created by Andrew Jackson, or "King Jackson," who is driven by a motive separate from purely economic gain. But unlike Jackson, Ahab projects this quest for vengeance onto his crew, forcing them to take part in achieving his goal. Seen in the Quarterdeck Scene, Ahab epitomizes the Self-Reliant Man, but exercises this role with newfound ability, or desire, to act. Seen in a Cold War context Ahab confuses the distinction between American freedom and totalitarian rule. Starbuck is given the freedom by Ahab to dissent, but if he chooses to do so he must adopt the same wrath that he finds objectionable in Ahab. Here Ahab takes persuasion to new levels by addressing a common motivation but demanding action as a response.
Moby Dick has been recognized by Cold War critics as:
a survivor from the period of greatness in America's past, and a text which in its plot seemingly enacted the survival by a free man of the destructive actions of a totalitarian figure. Moby Dick in getting into American renaissance, seemed to prefigure America's power to get the free world through a war. (247)
However through this definition it is not clear if Ahab was the force America's was fighting against, or the figure embodying power over this totalitarian rule.
Ishmael's freedom lies in his awareness of the present. In his lengthy "rhetorical exercises" Ishmael contrasts Ahab's focus on the past and future shown in his need for revenge. Pease writes, "Ishmael can discover pleasure not quite in another world but in a prior world, in which the endless proliferation of possible deeds displaces the need for any definitive action."(272) And yet Pease characterizes their relationship as "mutually self-destructive," making it difficult to claim that Ishmael opposes Ahab as freedom would totalitarianism.
What are the limitations of classifying Moby Dick as a Cold War text? Does it present the same problems as Emerson's Self-Reliance within the context of the American Renaissance (acknowledgment of tension without any resolution?) By allowing for conflicting ideas, both within the text, and in the culture surrounding it, do we allow for any resolution inMoby Dick ? What is this resolution?