“It’s better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” ~ Herman Melville
The novel is a classic of American literature. The high seas, Moby Dick and Ahab’s quest… and a narrator named Ishmael. Interesting name. Ishmael was Abraham’s son, the one birthed when Abraham attempted to produce an offspring without trusting God. A son conceived with his servant woman. A son conceived illegitimately.
And years later when Isaac, the true product of faith, was born, the animosity between the descendants of Isaac and of Ishmael became a perpetual conflict, still unrelenting.
As for this story, what is the meaning behind Ishmael’s name? Is it a commentary on the futility of Captain Ahab’s insane quest? The pursuit of this great white whale destroys not only Ahab but the lives of nearly everyone involved in the mad mission.
Abraham, according to the book of Genesis, was asked to attempt something impossible. Only God could do this impossible thing. How does that translate into Moby Dick and Captain Ahab? Should Ahab have quit the pursuit and trusted God to beach this great white whale somewhere on an island? Or have it go up a river and get stuck somewhere that it could not turn around as a whale did a dozen years ago near Sacramento?
If you have not read Moby Dick, it would make a worthy addition to your reading list sometime. I plowed through it after a literary friend insisted it was the greatest American novel and one of the top twenty of all time. It turned out to be a worthwhile read indeed.
Woody Allen pays tribute to Melville’s masterpiece in the film Zelig. The film is a sparkling demonstration of Allen’s genius. When the main character, Zelig, is undergoing therapy, he confides that he has never read Melville’s classic, but hid this fact in order to “fit in,” the film’s theme being our chameleon nature, Zelig’s root problem.
In literature and the arts, originality is the great quest. In mathematics and science, the great thinkers are likewise driven by the quest for an original idea. Einstein’s theory of relativity reverberated throughout the culture, verifying the power of an original idea. John Nash, in A Beautiful Mind, is mad with the passion to find and capture his own White Whale without which a Nobel prize is surely out of reach.
Back to Mr. Allen… His film-making career is a perfect example of the Melville quote that opened this stream of conscious exploration. His films have repeatedly shown a fluid originality that is uniquely his own. Yet he wasn’t afraid to take chances. Sometimes the comic elements didn’t pan out, and sometimes the medium got the best of him, but when you look at the range of things he attempted, you can see he never settled for imitation or formulaic devices. He made the movies he wished to make and many have been gems with real takeaway value.
The key is finding your own voice, whether as a writer, film maker, economist or just a human being. Who are you and what is your life message?
I used to think that it was the young who need to be dedicated to originality, that youth was a time of exploration. But why limit yourself? As long as you are breathing, the mind should be in inquiry mode. Life itself is a creative act. When it ceases to be so, you have ceased from really being alive.
Maybe this was Ahab’s fear: To stop pursuing the dream would be to cease from living. He decided not to be that boring old hack story teller at a port town pub reliving the life he once lived. Instead, he mustered all he had and gave it another shot. Winston Churchill put it this way:
“Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
If the dream is worthy, go for it.
I am fully aware that Ahab’s name is also weighted with meaning. In the Old Testament, there was a series of kings from Saul, David and Solomon onward. None were perfect, all were human, but some had a heart that strove to honor God and were considered “good” kings. Others, and the list is long, were compromised, or downright evil and hostile to God’s prophets. Ahab was one of these.
So, it is with this cautionary note regarding going after your White Whale. Don’t do it at the expense of everyone else, especially those who love you and care about you.
Do, however, strive to find your voice. Otherwise, you will learn the meaning of another weighty word: Regret.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com