Having divested myself of my subscription to The New York Times some years ago, I rarely encounter physical copies of our former paper of record. It always comes as something of a shock when I do. The general smarminess and tendentiousness of the writing somehow always come as a surprise. Even leaving the politics to one side (something, alas, that the Times never does), there is a hard-to-define preposterousness that infuses its pages. Smugness comes into the equation, as does a certain element of pretentiousness. For those of us unused to the rhetorical cocktail, the effect is slightly emetic. All that knowingness, the unstoppable presumption, the fetid clubbiness that binds the paper to its chosen audience: I find it partly distasteful, partly absurd.
Consider, to take just one example from today’s edition of the Times, from today’s “Week in Review” called “The Ahab Parallax.” (“Parallax,” eh? “An apparent change in the direction of an object, caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight.” What are they talking about?) This little bijou, which comes decorated with a large photograph of empty ocean and sky, dilates on the supposed parallel betwen Melville’s character Ahab and his quest for the great white whale Moby Dick and — would you believe it? — the BP oil spill. “A quenchless thirst for whale oil, then petroleum,” we read in the story’s pull quote, “pushed man ever farther and deeper. And with great hubris, great risk.”
Feeling queasy yet? Read on, if you think your stomach can stand it:
In the weeks since the rig explosion, parallels between that disaster and the proto-Modernist one imagined by Melville more than a century and a half ago have sometimes been striking — and painfully illuminating as the spill becomes a daily reminder of the limitations, even now, of man’s ability to harness nature for his needs.
Randy Kennedy, the author of this drivel, quotes the Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco who informs us that “It’s irresistible to make the analogy between the relentless hunt for whale oil in Melville’s day and for petroleum in ours.” Now Andrew Delbanco is generally a sensible chap: was it speaking to a reporter from the Times that prompted this nonsense? Surely Delbanco knows that the analogy he proposes is eminently resistible, indeed that the whole comparison between Melville’s obsessive meditation on obsession and the modern harvesting of petroleum is at best a professorial fantasia, the sort of thing one might hazard in a graduate seminar but laugh at outside those woolly purlieus.
The unspoken but unavoidable assumption behind the story is that there is something culpable, even insane, about society’s search for energy (its “round-the-world quest for oil”). It betokens “greed,” “hubris,” and other unpleasant things.
What it really betokens is the application of human ingenuity to the problem of satisfying human needs. That’s what science and technology are all about. Using the scientific method he had outlined, René Descartes promised back in the 17th century, man would make himself “the master and possessor of nature.” Descartes was right, thank God, but neither Randy Kennedy nor the Times seems to have heard that bit of news that is certianly fit to print.