Moby Dick Seeks Thee Not!

“Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”

In my copy, these lines appear on page 599 of a 604 page book. Ahab is behaving the way we expect literary characters to behave at the end of a book; he is going to keep on pressing until there is some kind of dramatic resolution one way or the other. Starbuck is reminding him that just because it’s page 599 doesn’t actually mean anything; there is nothing objective about the situation that prevents Ahab from coming to his senses, turning the ship around, and taking everybody home.

It seems like a lot conflicts have this property. On top of everything else that makes up a conflict, there is the tendency for the combatants to cast themselves as playing a role in a great drama, and their range of options is restricted by the unexamined requirement that great dramas are supposed to have dramatic resolutions. This tends to crowd out plain old pragmatism, and also crowds out morality to the extent that the moral solution doesn’t correspond to one or both sides’ dramatic one (notwithstanding the fact that the holders of dramatic positions loudly proclaim morality to be unambiguously on their side).

The Israeli writer Amos Oz has made a similar point about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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