Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We are All Starbuck

I’ve been reading Moby Dick in preperation for class tonight. It’s not really a literature class, but it’s about colonialism and empire, and Moby Dick is also very much about Moby Dick and empire. I was fortunate to have a reason to read it (the assignment), otherwise I migth have let myself be intimidated by its weighty reputation and heft.

So: Moby Dick is an awesome book. I don’t necessarily recommend it to everybody… if you don’t like the first three pages, it’s not going to get much better until the last fifty pages. But I loved the wry humor, the setting, the rich characters. So maybe you should check it out. The Dover Giant Thrift Edition (biggest dover edition ever, let me tell you) is five dollars. You might want one you can mark up.

But the point of the post is this: one of the major characters in the book is Starbuck, whose name you might recognize. For those who came in late, and hit themselves in the face with a rake on the way in, there’s an international coffee corporation named after him. I kept wondering why one would name a coffee corporation after him, and I never figured it out. I did, however, come to a new appreciation of having Starbuck’s name strewn so thoroughly and insidiously throughout the land.

You see friends, we are all Starbuck. Starbuck is the second in command of the Pequod, behind Captain Ahab. I read Ahab as representative of the West’s insane lust for power, the mad and maddening drive to categorize, control, and consume everything that is other, everything that is wild or different. Starbuck is a pious, good man, a guy who just wants to do his job well, to serve the Lord, and to return home safely.

And: Starbuck is perhaps the only one who ever has a chance to stop Ahab. There’s a moment, when Starbuck is alone, outside Ahab’s quarters, when it’s become clear that Ahab’s rage and drive will likely lead to the deaths of all aboard. There, outside of Ahab’s quarters, Starbuck takes a rifle from the rack on the wall, and considers ending it all there, by smashing through the door and destroying Ahab. But he doesn’t. After a moment of consideration, he puts the rifle back, and the Pequod continues on its fateful errand.

Sisters and brothers, we are all Starbuck. I believe that if we look carefully, we all can see the deep trouble in our nation and our world. We can see the way our violence and imperialism, our destruction of the earth and our deeply ingrained racism, are driving us slowly to destruction. And we have the power to derail it.

Like Starbuck outside Ahab’s cabin, we suspect that this system can only function with our consent. When we begin to object to it, to drop out, to resist, to throw our bodies and words and passionate hopes under the iron wheels of the Empire, we can destroy it. We can derail the insane lust for domination. I’m talking especially to you: white people, rich people, straight people, US citizens, men, non-disabled people. We have a measure of power that our fellow global crewmates might not share. We are like Starbuck, with access to the power that can stop Ahab.

We stand outside the cabin and wonder.

May you consider this, as you walk by all those coffee shops…


cbroadwe said...

Thanks to Wikipedia, I can now tell you how Starbucks got their name:

"The company is named in part after Starbuck, Captain Ahab's first mate in the book Moby-Dick, as well as a turn-of-the-century mining camp (Starbo or Storbo) on Mount Rainier. According to Howard Schultz's book Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, the name of the company was derived from Moby-Dick, although not in as direct a fashion as many assume. Gordon Bowker liked the name "Pequod" (the ship in the novel), but his then creative partner Terry Heckler responded, "No one's going to drink a cup of Pee-quod!" Heckler suggested "Starbo." Brainstorming with these two ideas resulted in the company being named for the Pequod's first mate, Starbuck."

So there you go.

cbroadwe said...

Another thing that has always bothered me about Moby-Dick: the title of the book is spelled Moby-Dick with a hyphen, but the whale itself is always spelled Moby Dick without a hyphen in the book. The only place the hyphen ever appears is on the cover. And, I guess, the title page. But I don't know why.

I managed to get almost all the way through college without reading Moby-Dick, waiting until my very last semester to take a class in nineteenth century American literature (kind of impressive for an English major, I know). At first, I had a pretty hard time reading the book because not very much happens during most of it. There are a few chapters where there's action, but most of the book is this nineteenth century "scientific" description of whales. And it's not very interesting. But I began to appreciate the book more when the professor explained that it is written this way because that's the way that whale-hunting trips happened: Long periods of time with nothing to do but sit around and braid rope and think about whales, interrupted by short, frantic, exciting whale chases.

My favorite nineteenth century American literature? No. But still classic.

Liz said...

But if we're all Starbuck, that means the only way to stop the system is to shoot it in the face.

p.s. I am currently in a coffee shop. Though not actually in a Starbucks.

David Reese said...

Well, yeah. I think that we're going to have to do some pretty serious deconstruction if we're going to, you know, save the world and bring about liberation.