Micah’s Miscellany

Bob Dylan on Moby Dick

“Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.”

From the Nobel Prize lecture:

Moby Dick is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue. The book makes demands on you. The plot is straightforward. The mysterious Captain Ahab – captain of a ship called the Pequod – an egomaniac with a peg leg pursuing his nemesis, the great white whale Moby Dick who took his leg. And he pursues him all the way from the Atlantic around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth. It’s an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. He calls Moby the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil. Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now and again. You can anticipate what will happen.

The ship’s crew is made up of men of different races, and any one of them who sights the whale will be given the reward of a gold coin. A lot of Zodiac symbols, religious allegory, stereotypes. Ahab encounters other whaling vessels, presses the captains for details about Moby. Have they seen him? There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom. Says Moby is the incarnate of a Shaker god, and that any dealings with him will lead to disaster. He says that to Captain Ahab. Another ship’s captain – Captain Boomer – he lost an arm to Moby. But he tolerates that, and he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.

This book tells how different men react in different ways to the same experience. A lot of Old Testament, biblical allegory: Gabriel, Rachel, Jeroboam, Bildah, Elijah. Pagan names as well: Tashtego, Flask, Daggoo, Fleece, Starbuck, Stubb, Martha’s Vineyard. The Pagans are idol worshippers. Some worship little wax figures, some wooden figures. Some worship fire. The Pequod is the name of an Indian tribe.

Moby Dick is a seafaring tale. One of the men, the narrator, says, “Call me Ishmael.” Somebody asks him where he’s from, and he says, “It’s not down on any map. True places never are.” Stubb gives no significance to anything, says everything is predestined. Ishmael’s been on a sailing ship his entire life. Calls the sailing ships his Harvard and Yale. He keeps his distance from people.

A typhoon hits the Pequod. Captain Ahab thinks it’s a good omen. Starbuck thinks it’s a bad omen, considers killing Ahab. As soon as the storm ends, a crewmember falls from the ship’s mast and drowns, foreshadowing what’s to come. A Quaker pacifist priest, who is actually a bloodthirsty businessman, tells Flask, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness.”

Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale. Lots of facts in this book, geographical knowledge, whale oil – good for coronation of royalty – noble families in the whaling industry. Whale oil is used to anoint the kings. History of the whale, phrenology, classical philosophy, pseudo-scientific theories, justification for discrimination – everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational. Highbrow, lowbrow, chasing illusion, chasing death, the great white whale, white as polar bear, white as a white man, the emperor, the nemesis, the embodiment of evil. The demented captain who actually lost his leg years ago trying to attack Moby with a knife.

We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.

Tashtego says that he died and was reborn. His extra days are a gift. He wasn’t saved by Christ, though, he says he was saved by a fellow man and a non-Christian at that. He parodies the resurrection.

When Starbuck tells Ahab that he should let bygones be bygones, the angry captain snaps back, “Speak not to me of blasphemy, man, I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Ahab, too, is a poet of eloquence. He says, “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails whereon my soul is grooved to run.” Or these lines, “All visible objects are but pasteboard masks.” Quotable poetic phrases that can’t be beat.

Finally, Ahab spots Moby, and the harpoons come out. Boats are lowered. Ahab’s harpoon has been baptized in blood. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat and destroys it. Next day, he sights Moby again. Boats are lowered again. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat again. On the third day, another boat goes in. More religious allegory. He has risen. Moby attacks one more time, ramming the Pequod and sinking it. Ahab gets tangled up in the harpoon lines and is thrown out of his boat into a watery grave.

Ishmael survives. He’s in the sea floating on a coffin. And that’s about it. That’s the whole story. That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs.

“And That’s Still Not All Of It”

Bob Dylan on The Odyssey, from his Nobel Prize lecture:

 The Odyssey is a great book whose themes have worked its way into the ballads of a lot of songwriters: “Homeward Bound, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Home on the Range,” and my songs as well.

The Odyssey is a strange, adventurous tale of a grown man trying to get home after fighting in a war. He’s on that long journey home, and it’s filled with traps and pitfalls. He’s cursed to wander. He’s always getting carried out to sea, always having close calls. Huge chunks of boulders rock his boat. He angers people he shouldn’t. There’s troublemakers in his crew. Treachery. His men are turned into pigs and then are turned back into younger, more handsome men. He’s always trying to rescue somebody. He’s a travelin’ man, but he’s making a lot of stops.

He’s stranded on a desert island. He finds deserted caves, and he hides in them. He meets giants that say, “I’ll eat you last.” And he escapes from giants. He’s trying to get back home, but he’s tossed and turned by the winds. Restless winds, chilly winds, unfriendly winds. He travels far, and then he gets blown back.

He’s always being warned of things to come. Touching things he’s told not to. There’s two roads to take, and they’re both bad. Both hazardous. On one you could drown and on the other you could starve. He goes into the narrow straits with foaming whirlpools that swallow him. Meets six-headed monsters with sharp fangs. Thunderbolts strike at him. Overhanging branches that he makes a leap to reach for to save himself from a raging river. Goddesses and gods protect him, but some others want to kill him. He changes identities. He’s exhausted. He falls asleep, and he’s woken up by the sound of laughter. He tells his story to strangers. He’s been gone twenty years. He was carried off somewhere and left there. Drugs have been dropped into his wine. It’s been a hard road to travel.

In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.

 

Day One—The First Immolation

Every life is in many days, day after day.
–James Joyce, “Ulysses”

Thupten Ngodup

Thupten Ngodup
April 27, 1998. Delhi, India

He lived in a small, neat hut near a rhododendron forest on the grounds of a monastery in Dharamsala, India. The Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu noted that “by all accounts, Thupten Ngodup seems to have been a light-hearted person who enjoyed an occasional drink and a game of cards.”

Born in a village in Tibet in 1938, he went into exile following the 1959 Lhasa Uprising against Chinese Communist rule. In 1963, he enlisted in the Special Frontier Force, a covert-action military cadre controlled by Indian intelligence. He saw action in Bangladesh and retired in 1983, moving to Dharmsala and becoming a monastery cook. He was not a particularly religious man but is remembered by friends as “honest, upright and a good companion,” Norbu writes.

Though “not politically inclined,” Norbu notes, “he unfailingly attended all demonstrations, candle-light vigils or meetings for Tibet.” In early April, 1998, he traveled to Delhi to join a Tibetan Youth Congress hunger strike. On April 27, following a second police raid on the strikers, he slipped into a public toilet where he earlier had hidden a plastic container of gasoline. “When he came out,” Norbu writes, “he was, quite literally, an inferno.”

He died two days later, shortly after midnight. Thupten Ngodup was 60.

–Sources: International Campaign for Tibet, Self-Immolation Fact Sheet; Jamyang Norbu, Shadow Tibet blog, “Remembering Thupten Ngodup.”

Collective Punishment in Tibet: “Smash Disorder”

In November, the Chinese Communist Party’s Work Department, Huangnan Prefecture, issued an “urgent notice” of new orders for fighting the wave of self-immolations in Tibet. The notice—translated here by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy—offers a glimpse into the mindset of Tibet’s rulers, their methods of collective punishment, and what they fear most: disorder. 

According the notification, recent self-immolations in the area are “incidents of instability [that]…cause serious damage to harmony and stability in the whole prefecture and [have] been a negative influence on the province and nation. The incidents are clearly a case of the Dalai group”—that is, followers of the Dalai Lama—“while wearing a cloak of religion, using self-immolation to encourage social grievance and incite unrest among students to create social disturbance in an attempt to split the nation.”

Translation of translation: there is a conspiracy afoot, comrades, a conspiracy against the nation. That is, treason.

The notice adds: “The masses in some areas, both monks and laypeople, are putting about random and nonsensical talk and being taken in by the incitements of the Dalai group through ignorance, believing the self-immolators to be heroes and even going to greet their family members and make voluntary donations to them.” This has created “a problematic scene and upset the normal social order.”

Translation of translation: it’s not just students anymore, it is spreading to the masses. We are worried. 

The solution? “Smash the small number of criminals who despicably manipulate people…smash disorder.”

And when we are worried, pain and suffering follow.

Party operatives are thus directed:

  • “Cancel benefits [such as minimum income support and disaster relief] received by households of self-immolators.”
  • Stop projects “running on state funds in self-immolators’ villages.”
  • Townships with three or more self-immolation incidents will not receive “state-funded projects for the next three years, [and] leading party and government officials in those townships must be replaced.”
  • “Special personnel” must “swiftly put a stop” to “instances of greeting and making contributions to family members of self-immolators”
  • For those who persist in greeting and making contributions, “public security agencies must…smash them.”
  • Monks who “greet and make donations must be given corrective training” and benefits will be “cancelled.”
  • Laypeople and households making contributions to family members of self-immolators will have benefits “cancelled.”
  • Villages and monasteries making collective donations to families of self-immolators will have all benefits “cancelled” and will not “benefit from any state-funded projects for the next three years.” Projects already under way “must be cancelled.”
  • Monks and laypeople who organize to greet family members of self-immolators “must be swiftly investigated and once solid evidence of their activities is gathered, they must face legal proceedings at an early date and be smashed quickly and heavily, according to law.”

Read the full notice here:

 

They Eat Horses, Don’t They?


It’s been a tough few months for our equine friends. In New York, by the close of Aqueduct Racetrack’s winter meet, nineteen thoroughbreds had broken down—a polite term for suffering a catastrophic racing injury—and were executed by lethal injection. Nineteen. That’s a huge number.

Albany is investigating. Good luck with that.

Over at HBO, the terrific horse racing series, “Luck,” endured a third horse death in two years and was hounded to cancellation by the animal rights crowd. Or were the producers just using PETA as an excuse to bail out in the face of bad ratings?

Now this from the AP: the Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, New Mexico, has applied to the federal government for a permit to open the nation’s only horse slaughterhouse. The horses would be “custom slaughtered” and then “processed for human consumption at the plant,” the AP reports, citing documents obtained by the Albuquerque Journal.

Roswell will be sending the equine meat not to aliens but to Europe and Asia, which to many Americans is pretty much the same thing. They eat horses in Europe and Asia, don’t they?

We’ve been down this road before, a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. In 2006, responding to an uproar over slaughterhouse killings of the iconic American animal, Congress banned the use of Department of Agriculture funds to inspect the dwindling number of horse meat plants in the U.S. No inspection, no meat. The plants closed.

The result? The state of the American horse worsened: more neglect, abandonment, and illegal trucking of the big critters to chop shops in Canada and Mexico.

Congress reversed the measure in November. Now what?

Read the AP story here.

Tibet Burning

The International Campaign for Tibet today released a video of the January self-immolation of Tibetan Losang Jamyang in the city of Aba. A former monk turned to activism, he was 22. At least thirty Tibetans have set themselves ablaze in the last year.

Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was 26 when he set himself on fire in protest of his country’s attacks on his dignity and liberty, attacks at once vast and maddeningly granular–controls over speech and worship, controls over association, controls over where and how to sell fruit. Bouazizi ignited the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring. Losang Jamyang ignited only himself.

China is not Tunisia, not Egypt, not Yemen, not Syria. China is not even the former Soviet Union. But it is a country of fruit vendors too.

See the video here

WARNING: GRAPHIC FOOTAGE

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

They might as well. Race horses continue to die at American tracks in shocking numbers. My article about thoroughbred breakdowns, below, was originally published in the New York Times in August, 2006. Six years later, we are still having the same arguments, and too many horses are still dying. At Aqueduct Racetrack in New York, nineteen horses have died in the last four months. A special panel has been appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to investigate. Meanwhile, a flood of cash pours into horse racing from casino interests. More on this subject will be forthcoming. Stay tuned.

Justice for Barbaro

BARBARO, the tragic hero of this year’s Preakness Stakes, is on the mend and it’s back to business for thoroughbred racing. This weekend the celebrated Mid-Summer Derby — the Travers Stakes — is taking place at Saratoga Race Course. And this week, a panel appointed by Gov. George Pataki is scheduled to begin considering bids to run New York’s $2.7 billion racing franchise at Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont racetracks. The current franchise expires in December 2007…

Read More

Report: Tibet Self-Immolations & Religious Repression

Check out this December 2011 special report from the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

This CECC Special Report demonstrates an apparent correlation between increasing Chinese Communist Party and government repression of freedom of religion in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, and 12 instances in 2011 of current or former monks and nuns resorting to self-immolation.

Reporting from each of the Commission’s 10 annual reports (2002-2011) reveals a trend of deterioration in the environment for Tibetan Buddhism, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monastic institutions. The trend worsened significantly after mostly peaceful political protests swept across the Tibetan plateau in March and April 2008…

Read more here.

Fire in Paradise

Read the opening chapter of my book on the great Yellowstone Fires, Fire in Paradise.