literature, the real world today

Captain Ahab and Lockdown in Melbourne

Historians (and I am one) will search for cultural archetypes that explain the strange delusions of power that have inflicted a captivity on the citizens of Melbourne and Victoria. In a state of 6.5 million people, there have been, on this day, 20 September 2020, a mere 14 positive tests for the presence of fragments, dead or alive, of an RNA virus, SARS-COV-2. Extrapolating from rates of serious illness and deaths, the likelihood is there will be no deaths and maybe one case of serious illness (SARS-COV-2) from these positive tests. And yet Melbourne, my city, remains in the longest and most severe lockdown in the world. It is subject to the first nighttime curfew in its history. Masks are mandated, even when walking alone in the sunshine. Grandmothers and pregnant women are harassed by police for sitting for a breath on a park bench or posting reasonable concerns on Facebook. People are arrested – and abused by police – for complaining about the loss of fundamental freedoms; Parliament is effectively closed; a legal regime of near martial law is declared; and human rights are breached consistently, flagrantly and thoughtlessly. The public health medicine is wildly worse than the disease. Why?

I am not at liberty to speak openly about my interpretation of events within the institutions of government, but I may ask about the cultural figures at play in this enigmatic scream at a mouse in the corner of the barn. What cultural virus has infected the minds of our ruling physicians and the Great Helmsman of Victoria?

It is curious that some commentators have turned to the resources of literature to make sense of the horrific tragedy unfolding in this state. In The Australian, John Carroll, the eminent cultural sociologist, explored the political psychology of the leader of the Victorian Government, and compared the Premier of the State to Captain Ahab from Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick.

“Andrews looks more and more like a solitary figure on a spotlit stage, surrounded in the shadows by subservience, somehow believing he can take on the pandemic monster single-handedly but registering failure after failure, to which he responds with inflexible indifference as his state becomes the laughing-stock of the nation, condemned to a woeful short to midterm economic future. Is there some subconscious mythical identification with Captain Ahab, who devoted his entire adult life to a self-obsessed pursuit of the white monster of the deep, Moby-Dick?”

John Carroll, “Brought low in pursuit of a COVID Whale,” The Australian, September 17, 2020

This article struck me not only because of the eminence of the author, who I remember reading as a student in the 1980s, on the recommendation of the great Frank Knopfelmacher, but also because the same figure from literature had occurred to me just days before. Captain Ahab seemed to me the perfect match for the troubled, obsessed, vengeful leader of the St Petersburg of the South, who pursued the elimination of the SARS-COV-2 like the White Whale, which had cleaved his leg away. Carroll extends the same analogy:

“The ferocious giant whale had, on one encounter, reaped away Ahab’s leg like a mown blade of grass. Moby Dick is of uncommon size and malignity; to chase him has become an act of superhuman impiety, and it destroys Ahab. The Andrews impiety seems similarly monomaniac, with the perverse twist that the more exhausted and rattled his own personal state, the more he seems driven to inflict ever more severe punishment on his victim, the Victorian public.”

John Carroll, “Brought low in pursuit of a COVID Whale,” The Australian, September 17, 2020

Who in Victoria will speak out, like Starbuck in the final chase, and say:

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

Hermann Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 135, p. 465.

Image Credit: Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick  Photograph: SNAP / Rex Features

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