“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” The sea may be changeless, but how it is seen may have changed. Our view of the Great Waters in movies has altered over the years. In place of the scene where Freddie Bartholomew staidly cast a wreath into the deeps to remember those who go down to the sea in ships, we now have the miracle of state of the art special effects.
We shouldn’t be too hard on modern movie makers. It must be bold soul who will attempt a story without at least one pitched gun battle, spectacular explosion or face off these days. The author’s forum on Amazon asks if there are there any adventure books with no sex. Would you dare write one without it? If you had to re-make Moby Dick there would be a real incentive to cut out the famous sermon scene and all the talky parts. It’s action that sells. Imagine yourself trying to produce a sequel to the movie Gandhi. What would be your tagline? Maybe this: “In a world where discrimination is rife, only one man can bring equality. He’s back, and this time, no more mister nice guy. Gandhi II. The revenge.” Look at how Melville’s old book has been recast.
But what choice did the scriptwriter have? Moby Dick was written for an audience that was familiar with the Bible. When Ahab spoke, he alluded to texts that were as familiar to the audience of yesteryear as names of popstars are to audiences today. To expect modern viewers to even know the name Ahab comes from the Old Testament would be risky business. When history and tradition are destroyed certain things become literally unspeakable. The language that was once used to express certain ideas is now gone. As one of Orwell’s characters once put it: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” And it’s no use lamenting their loss. Certain words, feelings and concepts were meant to be destroyed, at least in our multicultural, nonjudgmental universe. Increasingly we are waking up to a world where those words are already dead and buried.
Sean Kelly, writing in the New York Times philosophy section argues that we are now learning to live a new kind of happiness, one that does not depend on the old values, the old beliefs. It has been 125 years since Nietzsche wrote, “nihilism stands at the door”. Maybe it’s time we let him in, at least part of the way.
Herman Melville seems to have articulated and hoped for this kind of possibility. Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events.
And that’s about it. One day when you’re feeling low, remember that you don’t have to worry about the meaning of life. Just hop right out and rent a copy of that immortal classic, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. Why settle for “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” when you can have megalodons at 40,000 feet?