Lockjaw of the brain: "Moby-Dick" and aesthetic experience, petrified
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For nearly a century we've feared Moby Dick 's Captain Ahab and used the artwork to peddle ideas about the good life. This dissertation seeks to understand why the popular and critical tradition have succeeded in turning Ahab into that terrifying figure against which every self-respecting reader defends himself. After examining Ahab's place in the popular imagination following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I demonstrate how the study of American Literature—from the time of Melville's contemporaries to the Melville Revival of the '20s; from the birth of the canon to the most recent interpretations—has made Ahab a sign of automatic atrocity. In order to explain how this consensus has taken shape and continues to inform our reading of Melville's artwork, I critique notions, like "monomania" and "totalitarianism," essential to our apprehension of Ahab. Inscribed within these notions lies a prescription for object-relations common to that form of knowledge—called here a discourse of atrocity—I hold responsible for hardening the reader against the artwork he's been taught to fear in the name of self-preservation. As the reader obeys this discourse's injunction to keep its distance from Ahab at all costs, it forfeits that aesthetic experience which first drove it to Moby-Dick in the first place and turns the artwork into an old wive's tale. To rectify this situation, I advance a concept of aesthetic experience in which the object of fear is not fled from, but approached with abandon. Developed in critical correspondence with the work of Theodor W. Adorno, the notions central to this aesthetic experience—shudder, self-abandon, mimesis—are then differentiated from their Enlightenment and fascist corollaries and reclaimed. After restoring to aesthetic experience that unafraid, fundamentally erotic, relation to objects it most desires, it becomes possible to approach Moby-Dick without turning it over for a profit or using it for easy consolation. I then follow Ahab's Pequod as it tears through the ocean in search of the White Whale, ignoring those signs of fate and obligations of self-preservation it has cast off as the lot of fools. Reading, here, strives to follow the dreams of youth without resigning itself to the penitent wisdom of old age.