United States vs Moby Dick

EDITORIAL, 4 Nov 2019

#611 | Johan Galtung – TRANSCEND Media Service

From: L’Alfàs del Pi, in Valencian; no longer Alfaz in Spanish with z, zeta, bestowing dignity on this lovely place.  Punctuation marks ‘ and ` bestow even more.

Versus, vs, in the legal sense, one winning, one losing, with some room for compromise and “the case is dismissed”?  Yes.

Or a state against a whale, even the Big White Whale, Moby Dick?  Yes.


Because Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, written in 1859 (602 pp in Borders 2004 edition) is a national epos for the United States. Italy has Dante’s Divina Commedia defining Italy; Germany has Goethe’s Faust defining Germany.

And the United States has Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, beautifully written with an incredibly rich vocabulary, defining US.

A national epos for the United States in America, not of America. The American-Caribbean continent has 35 states, the US is only one; adding Canada for Anglo-America, AA, still makes only two of them. But AA is an important concept, pitted against the 33 in Latin America-Caribbean, ELAC, Estados Latino Americanos y el Caribe.

A national epos communicates a national ethos.

What is the national US ethos communicated by Herman Melville?

Man against Nature is one.

Man, humans we would say today, is destined to fight Nature.

And destined ultimately to win even if by paying heavy prices.

We know that theme from the Spanish corrida, the bullfight.  In one session, watched by the thousands, six black bulls are tortured, and ultimately killed, by two “matadores“, three for each of them.

They are colorfully, beautifully dressed, pitted against dark bulls, black for dark forces.  The choreography almost guarantees that Man wins over Nature, confirming that key theme again and again.

But not quite so.  A bull may get the matador on the horns, and the killer matador may even become a killed matador.

Many of the thousands watching no doubt see that as justice being done.  They may even secretly hope for a matador at least wounded by, or on, the horns.  And reject how the cards are stacked against the bulls to overcome their incredible force.

Why do we still celebrate Man over Nature; Nature as represented, by whales or bulls?  Maybe because our mastery of nature is recent, and these are old traditions from the time Nature was master.

So, in Melville’s book, Ahab the captain ends up killing the whale that once bit off one of his legs.  Man has won.

There is another theme in the Melville national ethos: Science.

A huge amount of knowledge of whales and whaling is displayed.  Melville is, indeed, showing off his vast readings and observations.

A psychologist might see him as so obsessed by whales that they ultimately possessed him.  A psychiatrist might go one step further: he wants so badly to be a whale that he suffers from not being one.  Sensing their power over him, particularly that of that Big White one, he has to kill him in the end.  Using his knowledge, his science.

Adoring and admiring whales; controlling and killing whales.

There is that US ambiguity to nature, and to using its Science.

No country has wrestled so many secrets from Nature as the US, using its huge Science complex–watch the Nobel Prizes.

On the one hand, the US trying to keep nature natural in natural parks; “park” meaning controlled, tamed, not killed, and even nourished.

And an incredible amount of pharmaceuticals to make money, but also intended to prolong and save lives.

On the other hand, no country has developed so effective killing machines also to kill Nature as the US in the nuclear bombs devastating Hiroshima-Nagasaki.

On the one hand, maybe no country has wrestled so many secrets from Nature as these United States in America, using its huge Science for the good, for long and healthy lives, overcoming some of the devastating effects of the market system.

On the other hand, maybe no country has so effectively put up a STOP sign to prevent the exploration of those devastating effects of a market system–maybe more sacred than cows in India–letting people with no money to pay the market entrance ticket and die of starvation.

So, who will win in the longer run, Man-US or Nature-Moby Dick?

Neither.  The whales are already well controlled.  The US may be in the process.  So far it looks as if no “deep whales” have appeared.  But there is increasing mention of a US “deep state”, meaning by that the Jewish element; 0.2% of humanity (13.9 million), 5% in the US?

However:  While we get myopic focusing our eyes on old controversies and dichotomies, others may be coming up.  What does it take to make moon landscape–or Mars landscape–on Planet Earth?

Possibly just what we are doing, as described again and again by brilliant authors.  While we are busy exploring whether there is intelligent life on other planets, we might spend more time–and intelligence–exploring whether there is on ours.

We want to preserve ourselves and some nature.  The concepts of “basic nature needs” and “basic human needs” are basic to know what that takes.  Nature needs diversity and symbiosis.  So do humans, adding freedom–having options/choice–and identity.

Feasible?  Of course it is.  As Gandhi pointed out: “There is enough for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed”.

Basic needs are basic, hence basically unchangeable.

Greed is changeable.  We must make it as immoral as bigamy.

For Moby Dick, the metaphor for Nature, to survive.  And for the US, the metaphor for us, to survive.  Not Versus.  Both-And.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of TRANSCEND International and rector of TRANSCEND Peace University. He was awarded among others the 1987 Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize. Galtung has mediated in over 150 conflicts in more than 150 countries, and written more than 170 books on peace and related issues, 96 as the sole author. More than 40 have been translated to other languages, including 50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives published by TRANSCEND University Press. His book, Transcend and Transform, was translated to 25 languages. He has published more than 1700 articles and book chapters and over 500 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service. More information about Prof. Galtung and all of his publications can be found at transcend.org/galtung.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Nov 2019.

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5 Responses to “United States vs Moby Dick”

  1. Earth, air, water, fire and space, which are scattered form in the universe, are in consolidated form in man (humans). Hence man (humans) is a miniature universe. Therefore, to protect universe (environment) is to protect man (humans).

    Education for Environment and Peace
    By Surya Nath Prasad, Ph. D. – TRANSCEND Media Service
    Presidential Address at the Euro-Asian Congress, Giresun, Turkey on 2 August 1997
    Published by Lund University, Malmo, Sweden (1998)
    Distributed by U. S. Department of Education (ERIC)
    Available in National Library of Australia

  2. Akifumi Fujita says:

    Thank you for your very deep and inspiring essay. I like it very much. The present metaphor of US vs Moby Dick has to be transcended to the future metaphor of both US and Moby Dick in order that both will be able to survive. For that we will have to understand that humans and Nature are one. In other words, the unity of life. It reminds me of a phrase by John Ruskin “There is no Wealth but Life.” Personally, at present, I’m interested in how his criticism of art (“The Modern Painters”) leads to his criticism of political economy (“Unto This Last”). The effort to understand the process may be time-consuming for me, but I feel I will have to do it at least to some extent so that I will never lose the sense of humanity.

  3. […] more time – and intelligence – exploring whether there is [intelligent life] on ours.’ See ‘United States vs Moby Dick’. The problem is that once we terrorize a child, the terrified adult who emerges from childhood […]

  4. […] more time – and intelligence – exploring whether there is [intelligent life] on ours.’ See ‘United States vs Moby Dick’. The problem is that once we terrorize a child, the terrified adult who emerges from childhood […]

  5. […] more time – and intelligence – exploring whether there is [intelligent life] on ours.’ See ‘United States vs Moby Dick’. The problem is that once we terrorize a child, the terrified adult who emerges from childhood […]