“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”
“Whaling Voyage By One Ishmael.”
“Bloody Battle In Affghanistan.” [sic]
— Moby Dick, Herman Melville
My wife is a literature professor – but not the typical read-a-few-texts-and-give-a-quiz kind. She’s that rare gift to the world who can give students an experience in class so profound that it makes math majors want become English scholars. She even inspired me to start reading the classics, and when I finally cracked open a copy of Melvin’s masterpiece, I was surprised to find the above headlines in the first few pages.
I’ve been told that one of the marks of a work of great literature is that it captures something universal about the human experience, and Melville certainly did that with these headlines. At this point in the story, the character named Ishmael creates these three headlines as a way of imagining his whaling trip being a part of the major headlines that one might read in a newspaper on any given day.
It’s amazing and a bit eery to see how similar the typical events of 1850 were compared to the big news of our day. There are always wars in the Middle East, and there are always presidential controversies. I’m not the first to notice how tragically evergreen these headlines are, but I think Melville also offers us a chance to see something about our relationship to media itself.
If we think back over the links we click every day, does it seem as if they mostly to take us to articles and videos that rehash things we already know? Every once in a while something new happens, but in between we’ll settle for a “fresh angle” or a “new spin” that temporarily satiates our media hunger. Sometimes we know we’re just looking for fun GIFs and listicles, but even when we click on something that promises a serious exploration of a current issue, it’s often just a repeat of the same old things that get posted every year and every century: “Why the ‘X’ in X-Mas is a good/bad thing” “10 reasons the guy from the thing is wrong about the deal” “Why Easter isn’t really about the thing the other article talked about” and so on.
But Ishmael’s thought exercise isn’t just about media consumption. I think it also tells us something about the media we produce. Ishmael is engaging in a mental exercise not unlike modern social media, imagining his life as equally important as international events. Like many people today, I enjoy posting photos of my children and places I’ve been, but when I step back and consider what’s happening, it seems strange that modern media puts the everyday moments of my life alongside world events — very much like Ishmael imagined almost two centuries ago.
This Saturday, it’s worth thinking about the media we’ve consumed and produced over the past week, and asking ourselves, “Have I enriched my mind and soul with what I’ve consumed?” and “How have I portrayed my life and the lives of others?” The deeper we are immersed the the world of media and screens, the more we are encouraged to consume articles that say very little that is meaningful and to post things that make us feel significant for a few moments.
I’m encouraged by Ishmael to know that these are not necessarily new struggles for humans, but I also realize that the technology we have access to today affords actions that were once only possible in a person’s imagination. In Moby Dick, Ishmael eventually abandons the fantasy and choose to go on the whaling voyage. While you’ll have to read the book to get the whole effect, the result is that it reconnects him with the incarnate life and gives him a story that just might make the headlines.
Perhaps if we are a little more careful with what we click, read, and post, we might find the same in our own life.