As anyone who has ever worked with me knows, I’m a Trekkie. Have been since I encountered the original TV series in Saturday afternoon reruns as a kid. Memorized the dialogue, went to a convention or two, wrote some fan fiction, built a replica of the Enterprise… the whole shebang. So it was inevitable that someone (in this case, our Starbuck Justin Ryan, followed by most of the rest of the cast) would bring up the connection between Melville and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.
Which is, by the way, the best Star Trek movie. Don’t argue. Just read.
Watch it and look carefully and you will see a copy of Moby Dick on Khan’s bookshelf. The other books are instructive as well – especially the TWO copies of Paradise Lost, which was one of Melville’s favorite books. I’ve already written about the through-line from Milton’s Lucifer to Claggart in Billy Budd, but there’s a lot of that Dark Angel in Ahab, too.
And of course, Khan quotes Moby Dick several times in the movie, including as he arms the Genesis device in a last, desperate attempt to destroy Kirk, his mortal enemy. “To the last, I will grapple with thee. From hell’s heart, I stab at thee, for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee…”
So I guess the interesting question is why – why of all the super-villains in history and literature did the writers of the film pick Ahab on whom to model Khan and his unceasing quest for revenge? Melville certainly didn’t set out to create the Ur-villain of American literature, and I wonder if he would be surprised at how much Ahab and his whale have crept into pop culture. Because if people know nothing else about this book, they know it’s about a crazy guy chasing a whale he can never catch. Ahab has become a symbol for obsession, for the quest you can never achieve – and the whale himself becomes almost apocryphal, as though he doesn’t exist.
If Ahab did actually catch Moby, I think it would be a let-down, wouldn’t it?
Because he’s more useful to us as a symbol of intellect and passion gone wrong. He speaks to something very dark in the human psyche and we all recognize it, even if we don’t give into it. Not super-villain or super evil, but all too real.
“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” says Milton. Khan agrees, and so I think would Ahab. Defiance, anger, obsession and intellect, all bound together.
Melville in space – I think he’d be delighted.