Captain Ahab would have made a heck of a football coach. The monomaniacal anti-hero of Melville’s Moby Dick was the harbinger of the death of civilization as we know it. But dang could he give a pep talk!
Well, ok, there’s probably more to being a good football coach than being able to give a pep talk. Probably, for instance, you need to know something about football. And football coaches aren’t really involved in the death of civilization, either. (More on that later.) But Ahab’s skill at getting his team up for the match, at getting them ready to sing out in unison, at the top of their lungs “A dead whale or a stove boat!” and really mean it, to believe with all their heart and all their rippling muscles that the only two options for a man in this business are to kill a whale or to be wrecked trying, that is a skill that any great coach needs. And Ahab had it all in spades. Even poor, wandering Ishmael, not much more than a second string place-kicker on the Pequod, gets caught up in Ahab’s “quenchless feud”. “My shouts had gone up with the rest,” he said.
My oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul.
I’m telling you, Rex Ryan has nothing on this guy.
Now, it is probably an utterly mad conceit to examine America’s national obsession with football through the lens of Melville’s Moby Dick. For one thing, the intersection between Melville lovers and football fans is probably, well, a lot smaller than Troy Polamalu’s hair. Moreover, the most obvious connection between whaling and football is the brutal and vicious nature of each; and for the purposes of this examination I would like to place that issue completely to the side. Without underplaying the importance of Greenpeace, we can all agree that theirs is not the most perspicuous or revealing perspective from which to encounter Melville’s work. So too, I submit, for the brutality of football. There is no doubt it is a brutal sport. But perhaps it is not bloodlust alone that draws our national attention to it. Let me propose what I think is a more revealing approach, one that focuses on moodiness and risk.
Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and others have made a breathless appeal, over the last twenty years or so, for the importance of the emotions in any account of ourselves. Affective neuroscience – the branch of neuroscience that studies the neural mechanisms underlying our emotions – is at that early and exciting stage of development in which it is just now publishing the enormous Handbooks that purport to cover all the basics of the field, and which will be discarded in another 15 years when we discover how much we’ve gotten wrong. Now, it’s not exactly a newly discovered secret that we have an emotional life; literary characters from Dido and Aeneas to Romeo and Juliet would hardly exist without their emotional side. And the slightly more sophisticated idea that our emotions bias our behavior and decision-making, or that they influence our ability to be rational, should hardly come off as much of a surprise in this literary context either. But against the background philosophical claim that our essence is to be rational beings – an idea that, it is often asserted, can be found in something like its current form all the way back in Aristotle – against this background idea it is probably right to think that the importance of the emotions hasn’t been given its due.
But Melville’s world – like the world of football – is much more than simply an emotional one. For emotions are usually understood as private, inner, psychological states, states like titillating happiness or lovesickness or personal depression. But the moods of Melville’s world, by contrast, are essentially public; like the mood of a football game, they set the tone for what a whole group of people can experience together. Public moods like these are shared with one another – they are literally contagious – and they change what we can see as important in the world and in the particular situation in which we find ourselves. When a moment of genuine athletic excellence occurs on the ball field, for example, an overwhelming mood of wonder and joy and amazement whooshes through the crowd like a tidal wave. People are brought together into a shared community by being caught up in this wave, and sharing such an experience with a family member or a loved one is setting down touchstones in a life that will bring you together through later periods of difficulty. Public moods, therefore, bring out an aspect of human beings that is not just a-rational, but is essentially social, communal, and infused with meaning. Football can literally bring meaning to life.
Indeed, Moby Dick presents public moods as the salvation of the West. Although a minor character in Ahab’s world, Ishmael is the biblically proportioned protagonist of Moby Dick who literally begins the world anew; he is the book’s only survivor when, at its completion, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” And Ishmael’s single most important trait is his moodiness, his ability to get in touch with public moods, to live in them, experience the world as mattering and valuable by means of them, be brought together in community with others by sharing them, and then to begin the process all over again. Moby Dick suggests that the Enlightenment account of human beings as rational, autonomous agents, as beings who create meaning in their lives through pure and individual acts of the will, is an account that leads to a worthless and meaningless existence. Ishmael stands against this philosophical conception of human being by embodying an open-ness to public moods. Ishmael would definitely have been a football fan.
Now, there is no denying that this is a risky pursuit. When Ahab gave his pep talk he brought together a group of people to share with one another a sense of purpose, a sense of the importance of the task they were engaged in together, and a sense of their dependance on one another. He gave to many of them a sense of meaning in their lives. But Ahab is also something like the devil in Moby Dick. Like the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost he is indignant, passionate, and often eloquent in his rebellion, taking along fallen angels by the horde. Indeed, Melville’s Ahab is even more dangerous than Milton’s Satan; for ultimately Ahab’s monomaniacal quest succeeds in bringing down the whole of the Roman Christian world. So organizing one’s life around a passionate commitment to meaningful community, as the football fan does, is not just a philosophically revolutionary pursuit, it is laden with world-historical risk.
But this is a risk that is essential to take. For every Ahab who would draw you to his side there is a Martin Luther King whose rhetoric lifts you up and makes you better; for every Jared Loughner whose crazy, paranoid, and murderous actions repulse there is a Daniel Hernandez whose background and sensitivity reveal for him his heroic path. In taking the risk of a passionate engagement, therefore, not only do we need to open ourselves to the shared community of public moods, we need to learn to distinguish those we should celebrate from those we should condemn or bitterly regret. A moody and passionate world is an eminently risky one, and we must hope for and cultivate leaders who reveal the world at its finest, rather than those who set a mood of darkness and deceit, who bring about in us moods of jealousy and despair. But the danger inherent in this passionate commitment is one we have to learn to confront. For the world would be an infinitely poorer place if 200,000 people had not allowed themselves to be caught up in the mood of Martin Luther King on the National Mall, if they had all just walked away for fear of the madness of crowds.
The football stadium – like sporting arenas generally, or the concert hall or the celebratory meal – is a proving ground for these broader and more noble experiments in human excellence. In its limited domain we learn to revere a certain kind of essentially human greatness, and to feel ourselves raised up together in its presence. That experience is something worth holding onto and cultivating in this world. Of course the kind of excellence we can hope to see in a football game is not the same as the kind we could get caught up in by listening to Martin Luther King. And if these moments of public worth are in some sense or another sacred moments of existence that is not to say they are identical with any particular form of religious worship. But they rightly elicit our wonder and gratitude, and at their best they bring us together in the shared celebration of one aspect of what makes us great as the beings we are. So we can all hope that this week’s Super Bowl raises us up together in the celebration of a certain kind of human worth.
I’ll be watching, with a copy of Moby Dick close at hand.