|The Ahab Parallax: 'Moby Dick' and the Gulf Spill|
Published: June 11, 2010
A specially outfittedattrezzata ship ventures into deep ocean waters in search of oil, increasingly difficult to find. Lines of authority aboard the ship become tangledintricate . The unpredictable forces of nature rear up, and death and destruction follow in their wake. “Some fell flat on their faces,” an eyewitness reported of the strickenafflitto crewequipaggio . “Through the breachbreccia, frattura , they heard the waters pour.”
The words could well have been spoken by a survivor of the doomeddestinata ad affondare oil rigpiattaforma petrolifera Deepwater Horizon, which exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, killing 11 men and leading to the largest oil
In the weeks since the rig explosion, parallels between that disaster and the proto-Modernist one imagined by Melville more than a century and a half ago have sometimes been striking - and painfully illuminating as the spill becomes a daily reminder of the limitations, even now, of man’s ability to harnessimbrigliare nature for his needs.
The British petroleum giant BP, which leasedaffittato the Deepwater Horizon to drilltrivellare the
Whaling was the petroleum industry of its day in the 18th and 19th centuries. The 40-ton bodies of sperm whales could yield dozens of barrels, some derived from blubber and the rest, the most precious kind, spermaceti, from the whale’s head. The oil burned in millions of lamps, served as a machine lubricant and was processed into candles distinguished by their clear, bright flame, with little smoke or odor.
In addition, whalebones could be used to stiffen corsets, skin could be cured for leather, and ambergris, the aromatic digestive substance, could be incorporated into perfumes. New England ports, the Houstons of their era, and fortunes were built with whale oil money.
At one point, the United States exported a million gallons a year to Europe, according to Philip Hoare, author of “The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea,”. “The whaler was a kind of pirate-miner - an excavator of oceanic oil, stokingalimentando the furnace of the Industrial Revolution as much as any man digging coal out of the earth,” Mr. Hoare writes, adding the observation of the English statesman Edmund Burke to Parliament in 1775 that there was “no sea but what is vexed by” New England harpoons.
While other kinds of ships sat nearly dark on the waters when the sun went down, a whaler could look like a floating Chinese lantern, the sailors luxuriating in the light produced by the fuel they carried. “He makes his berthormeggio an Aladdin’s lamp, and lays him down in it,” Melville wrote, rhapsodizing about an oil “as sweet as early-grass butter in April.”
But much like the modern petroleum industry, whaling quickly came up against the limits of its resources. Hunting grounds near North America were wiped outfurono cancellati by the early 19th century. And the lengths to which ships had to go to continue to find them led to the event that inspired “Moby-Dick,” the sinking in 1820 of the whaling ship Essex, which was rammedsperonata by a sperm whale in the South Pacific, more than 10,000 miles from home.
The Essex had headed there to hunt at a whale-rich site discovered only a year earlier. It was called the Offshore Ground, a name suggestive of the highly productive oil site known as Mississippi Canyon, where the Deepwater Horizon was at work when it exploded. Underwater fields like it have made the Gulf of Mexico into the fastest-growing source of oil in the United States, accounting for a third of domestic supplies.
But in the same way whalers had to sail farther and farther for their prey, oil companies are drilling deeper and deeper to tap the gulf’s oil, to levels made possible only by the most advanced technology, operating near its limits. The Coast Guard has warned that this technology
Of course, the spill has now rewritten the script for the debate about how the oil industry should be able to operate and scrambled the political calculus behind President Obama’s plans, announced in March, to open vast new areas to offshore drilling so as to reduce dependence on imports and win backing for climate legislation. The spill, loomingche appare, si profila as the worst environmental disaster in the USA’s history, might in itself be incentive to push the United States more quickly toward new energy sources in the way it once turned to petroleum.
Andrew Delbanco, the director of Columbia University’s American studies program and the author of “Melville: His World and Work,” said that one of the great underlying themes of “Moby-Dick,” is “that people ashorea terra don’t want to know about the ugly things that go on at sea.”
“We want our comforts but we don’t want to know too much about where they come from or what makes them possible.” He added: “The oil spill in the gulf is a horror, but how many Americans are ready to pay more for oil or for making the public investment required to develop alternative energy? I suspect it’s a question that Melville would be asking of us now.”
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