Monday, December 9, 2013

From Hell's Heart I Stab at Thee

This semester, I'm teaching Moby Dick in a class on early American literature.  I've really enjoyed the experience--I love the language of the novel, the complicated, unconventional structure, and the depth of meaning in the imagery. 
But perhaps one of my favorite moments came at the very end of the novel, when Ahab finally gets close enough to Moby Dick to cast his harpoon.  When the whale is within a few yards of Ahab's boat, Ahab speaks to him:

"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.  Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!  Thus, I give up the spear!"

And with that, Ahab casts his harpoon at Moby Dick; the harpoon hits Moby Dick, but in doing so, the line catches Ahab around his neck and drags him under the water, where he "disappeared in its depths."

So, why am I talking about this here, on a website dedicated to fantasy and science fiction?  Well, because this same passage is quoted almost verbatim at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  In this film, Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise are being pursued by Khan Noonen Singh, a genetically superior man that Captain Kirk had sent into exile 15 years before the movie takes place.  In the film, Khan comes back from exile, seeking revenge on Kirk and his crew by using a device called “Genesis.” This device will reorganize matter and turn it into a habitable planet; using it on living things will reorganize their matter, thus killing them.

Near the end of the film, Khan is near death, but still manages to activate the Genesis device.  Believing that he has finally gotten his revenge upon Kirk, Khan says this:

Sound familiar?  This amazing final speech from what is perhaps Star Trek's greatest villain is taken word for word from Herman Melville's classic novel.  A little bit of digging on Google shows that Khan uses other dialogue from Captain Ahab throughout the novel as well.

While this allusion is interesting in and of itself (and demonstrates the richness of Star Trek), it also provides readers of Moby Dick with a different way of thinking about the novel.  Throughout the novel, Ahab is frequently read as the protagonist, both because he is aligned with the narrator of the novel (Ishmael) and because he is human.  Moby Dick, the whale he pursues, is the antagonist.  While these roles can be complicated by paying attention to some of the imagery and language of the novel, this basic understanding holds true, particularly for most initial readings of the novel.

But here in The Wrath of Khan, the roles are reversed.  Khan, aligned with Ahab through his words, is the antagonist.  Kirk, who is connected to Moby Dick, is clearly the protagonist of the film (and the whole series).  As a result, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan offers a slightly unusual way of understanding Moby Dick--that Ahab is the villain, relentlessly pursuing Moby Dick unto death.  Rather than cheering for the crew of the Pequod to kill Moby Dick, we should shift our thinking and start cheering for Moby Dick to get away.  And in The Wrath of Khan, this alignment can make us pause, even if just for a moment, and make us wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, we are aligning ourselves with the wrong man.

This connection is one of the reasons why I love both classic literature and science fiction/fantasy.  The wealth of meaning in novels such as Moby Dick brings that same depth to 20th and 21st century works that allude to them, and in making these allusions, texts such as Star Trek provide us with new, creative ways of understanding.  Such pairings are one of the reasons that I love doing what I do.

By Jen Miller