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Christopher Ohge contributes to Moby-Dick documentary

Dr Christopher Ohge, Senior Lecturer in Digital Approaches to Literature, has contributed to a documentary exploring the significance of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel in the USA today.

How is Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, relevant to America today? That’s the question posed by a new documentary produced by ARTE, the French/German culture channel.

The documentary – Mit Moby Dick durch Amerika (With Moby Dick through America) – directed by Peta Jenkin and Hai-Hsin Lu, explores contemporary America through the combined lens of social media and Melville’s novel, revealing a country riven by contradictions and divisions. Using the themes from the novel as a guide, the programme interviews young Americans about a range of pressing issues  – from consumer culture and the housing crisis, to racial justice and climate change.

Dr Christopher Ohge, Senior Lecturer in Digital Approaches to Literature at the Institute of English Studies and Digital Humanities Research Hub, contributes to the documentary as a Melville expert, reading passages aloud and providing analysis of the novel’s themes.

He explains that the world of the novel can be seen as a mirror of our own, not least in its depiction of the ravenous pursuit of profit that characterised the 19th century whaling industry.

As Christopher says in the documentary, “the whaling industry of Melville’s time was in many ways a precursor to the mining of fossil fuels that we’re now familiar with. It was a source of fuel and a tool for an increasingly materialist and consumerist, capitalist society, that was very exploitative, particularly toward poor workers.”

This capitalist mania has continued to this day, resulting in a society in which housing is increasingly unaffordable, homelessness is on the rise and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening.

Christopher also argues that the novel provides a lens through which we can understand the rise in political polarisation and conspiracy theories in the USA. Captain Ahab’s obsession with the titular white whale mirrors the deep vein of anger and suspicion found within parts of American society.

“In America today there is a lot of what Melville called ‘collective dread’ and anger towards abstractions, abstractions which sound a lot like the whiteness of the whale, but now have changed into other things like the ‘deep state’.”

Such anger, if left unchecked, can come to a boiling point, whether it’s Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of Moby Dick, or the storming of the US Capitol Building on 6th January 2021.

Of course, a novel about man’s attempt to master the natural world also raises questions about our own attitudes towards nature and the planet. In the context of accelerating climate change, the novel provides a stark warning to modern-day America, and the world.

“It seems like Melville positions nature as far more powerful than humans will ever be and that’s part of the spiritual crux of the novel. It's futile to try to control nature because it will win. If anything, you’ll destroy yourselves in that pursuit.”

Watch now

Watch the documentary on ARTE (English subtitles can be enabled within the video player).

Watch it now