Ahab, Entrepreneur

One thing is like another until it isn’t—a pine doesn’t resemble a coffin though as a boy I saw men inside each tree, my way to be less alone, talking as if I could force resemblance. Later they teach us this can’t be done. By the time one enters college one no longer sees murdered kings inside the lightbulbs on theater marquees. (The line is Robert Bly’s: “there are murdered kings in the lightbulbs outside movie theaters.” ) No, instead of the inner life with its Promethean distrust of static materiality, you hit campus at 18 vowing to be a pharmaceutical sales rep, or better, to be the maker of a new “app” that replaces sales reps with bots. Meanwhile there really are dead potentates in traffic lights; the souls of murdered animals swim alongside your shoes as you walk to the business college. Thank god they shook all that mumbo jumbo out of you back at Thomas Worthington High School and made you a proper little Prole.

I did talk to those trees when I was 6 years old. And there really were men inside those rough pines. Best of all, I didn’t have to tell anyone. Years later, reading the Finnish Kalevala I’d see I was a minor character in an ancient poem about wizardry. My job, the work of the inner life, was to never forget what the wizards had passed down. At the very least I should distrust standard issue real estate and transactional materialism. Even a simple pine tree is more interesting than is commonly supposed.

So I’m not a hit when talk turns to entrepreneurship—where the sole meaning of life is to invent faster ways to sell spiritually unnecessary junk. Look around on the average university campus: students and faculty are nowadays cheerleaders for the selling of selling.

The great novel of American entrepreneurship is Moby Dick. Melville’s whaling ship is a factory, a corporate office, a floating university, a bureau of weights and measures, a start up, an engine seeking to supplant older engines, a mania. Melville looked unflinchingly into the brutal, neo-puritan heart of American capitalism and saw all its soul gobbling darkness.

Had Melville lived to see the electric lightbulb he’d have seen dead kings in the filaments.

Entrepreneurship is charm commodified. Everyone will win, become his or her own boss. Make money. Sail the seven seas in search of a poorly understood creature, which is materiality itself. But of course things, stones, whales, cloud formations, are not susceptible to our covetousness. And the college student who isn’t taught this will be as lost as Ahab.

And to conclude with Ahab, I’ve always liked this quote by D.H. Lawrence: “Moby Dick, the Great White Whale, tore off Ahab’s leg at the knee, when Ahab was attacking him. Quite right, too. Should have torn off both his legs, and a lot more besides.”