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Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is certainly one of the greatest works of literature in English or any other language. It gives up more meaning on every reading. And Moby Dick seems to be in the news a lot these days. Last week, Karl Rove insisted that he was the great white whale. Rove is a smart fellow, but I frankly have my doubts as to whether he’s actually read Moby Dick.
But perhaps to demonstrate just how universal these images are, look at this interview in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Stefan Aust, the author of The Baader Meinhof Complex, a work which is now established as the standard treatment of the German radical phenomenon that cast a shadow across Germany in the seventies and eighties, comes to the core of the story–and suddenly we find ourselves engaged with Moby Dick.
The Baader Meinhof days are getting a fresh examination in Germany today, as one by one the members of the gang are completing their prison terms and being released. The full story of the radical left gangs, whose assassinations and robberies cast a cloud of terror across Germany thirty years ago, has not been told. There are many open questions, notably including who funded and sheltered these young terrorists during their sojourn in the East, and why.
In any event, however, Aust explains how each of the members of the gang took a name from Herman Melville’s masterwork—and why.
Q: In the language of the RAF [Rote Armee Faktion] the state was not just “the pigs,” but also Leviathan, the Great White Whale, Moby Dick. Why did the RAF members use code names taken from Moby Dick?
A: Gudrun Ensslin had this idea, in fact she thought up code names for the group members, in order to mislead those who were conducting surveillance. She took almost all the names from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. The demonic, mono-maniacally crazy captain Ahab meant Baader, Starbuck was used for Holger Meins, the Carpenter for Jan-Carl Raspe, Quiqueg for Gerhard Müller, Bildad for Horst Mahler, Smutje for Ensslin herself. The whale Moby Dick, who appears in the book as a parable, a deeply coded complex of symbols, was taken yet again as a code. The whale is Leviathan, and Leviathan is a symbol for the state, a state whose papier mâché mask of deceptive appearances the RAF was committed to smashing. “For by Art is created that great Leviathan, called a Common-Wealth, or State (in latine, civitas), which is but an artificiall Man,” that’s the opening sentence of Hobbes’s Leviathan, which is quoted in Melville’s Moby Dick. This Leviathan-State, this white whale, was the object of the terrorists’ pursuit. That’s why this was an extremely appropriate parable for what the terrorists did. The figures that appear in Moby Dick correspond in fact very closely to the individual figures of the RAF.
That gives us two competitors for the starring role of Moby Dick: Karl Rove and the capitalist state that flourished in West Germany thirty years ago. With all respect to Ms. Ensslin and her impressive knowledge of American literature, Rove is a far closer physical approximation.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.
One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.
Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:
Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.
An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”
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“He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.”