‘A mutual joint stock world, in all Meridians;’ a remarkable formulation uttered from the Pequod: that literary artifact of the long temporal nexus between colonial and industrial extractions. At that cusp, contests raged over the meaning of violence in colony and capital (all puns intended). Was the cannibal the colonized and untamed, in need of civilizing, or was it the vampirical force of capital that devoured bodies of every kind with such voracious appetite?
In the case of the latter, even the masters of industry were not safe from the degredations they oversaw. Ahab—in the course of a life spent feeding the home fronts of industrial production with oil to lubricate machinery and to illuminate the night (and extend the working day)—has been mutilated and merged inextricably, body and mind, with the object of his hunt. He has become part whale; a baleen prosthesis standing in for human flesh and bone.”
But there is no female counterpart in our culture to Ishmael or Huck Finn…It sounds like a doctoral crisis, but it’s not. As a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, my survival depended upon other people’s ability to envision a possible future for me. Without a Melvillean or Kerouacian framework, or at least some kind of narrative to spell out a potential beyond death, none of my resourcefulness or curiosity was recognizable, and therefore I was unrecognizable.
True quest is about agency, and the capacity to be driven past one’s limits in pursuit of something greater. It’s about desire that extends beyond what we may know about who we are. It’s a test of mettle, a destiny. A man with a quest, internal or external, makes the choice at every stage about whether to endure the consequences or turn back, and that choice is imbued with heroism. Women, however, are restricted to a single tragic or fatal choice. We trace all of their failures, as well as the dangers that befall them, back to this foundational moment of sin or tragedy, instead of linking these encounters and moments in a narrative of exploration that allows for an outcome which can unite these individual choices in any heroic way. I will also admit that I think fixed narratives can be pretty dangerous. As vessels that shape our sense of self, they can be narcotic, limiting, and boring, and our development as humans is directly tied to our ability to cut across these simplistic story lines rather than be enslaved by them. Keystones in the arch under which we pass into a landscape of adolescent narcissism—that is what I think of fixed narratives. But they also keep us safe. They mark our place in society and make sure we’re seen. Therefore, the only thing more dangerous than having simplistic narratives is having no narrative at all, which is deadly.
Why aren’t there any female Ishmaels?