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.