Aside from the head-turningly modern mish-mash of styles and form that Herman Melville tosses at the reader – adventure story, natural history, art history, theology, journalism, stage play, whaling textbook, tragedy, environmentalist tract, philosophy to name but a few – one of the most startling things about the book is the references.
Yep, big unctuous vats full of references. The Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, Shakespeare, Dante, Seneca and Kant all get a look in. Barely a paragraph goes by without Melville dropping some heavyweight allusion.
References anchor this most slippery of novels.
It’s fitting, then, that since its publication in 1851 Moby-Dick has in turn become one of the most culturally referenced works of literature. Beams of culture are refracted through this book, linking the distant past and the cultural present. It is a rare work that is the hinge between the musings of a Roman statesmen and that of a fictional civil servant from Pawnee, Indiana.
Moby-Dick has opened up its gaping maw and has chomped down on the cultural world without mercy. It’s serrated-teeth marks are everywhere, in plain view and lurking just under the surface.
So, here are some of those pop culture references (but not all: see also Family Guy; Futurama’s Mobius Dick episode; the second half of Jaws, etc) that catch us all in a hemp rope noose and drag us back to the original.
Let’s start with an obvious one. Every time you sip one of their skinny lattes, raise your cardboard cup to the Pequod’s sensible, grounded and ultimately doomed first mate, whom the coffee store is named after.
Tom and Jerry
Thanks to this barmy 1962 Tom and Jerry homage, Dicky Moe (set on the Komquat), you’re never too young to learn about suicide voyages, megalomaniac dictators, and mentally ill captains. As a bonus, it includes a child-friendly re-enactment of Fedallah’s macabre fate.
One of Moby-Dick’s great themes is Don’t Mess With Nature. Fitting then that Herman Melville’s great-great-great-grandnephew is the vegan, animal-rights activist musician Moby, who took his forefather’s message and name to heart.
Ron Swanson and Homer Simpson (Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons)
Forget CliffsNotes. Here’s all you need to know about Moby-Dick’s true meaning.
Speaking of “frou frou symbolism,” could Moby-Dick be responsible for naming one of cinema’s most famous metaphors? Bear with me on this one.
Orson Welles was a huge fan of Moby-Dick. He staged a stripped-down version of it on the London stage in 1955. He made a cameo in John Huston’s 1956 film as Father Mapple to deliver Melville’s booming sermon on Jonah. Welles also attempted to film it in 1971, but like many of his later projects, like a stove-in ship, it was abandoned.
But before tackling the novel head on, it may have provided him with one of his most lasting legacies. In Chapter 91 the Perquod meets a ship whose name is familiar to anyone who knows the opening words and closing shot of Welles’ Citizen Kane. The name, of course, is Rosebud.
Blue (Moby Dick) by Jackson Pollock
The jury is out on whether Pollock ever read Moby-Dick, but at the very least he was taken with its big themes of paranoia, uncertainty, brooding, and potential violence. The dominant colour scheme for all these things is obviously blue and black. Not white and gold.
Moby Dick by Led Zeppelin
A crueller critic might suggest that Zeppelin drummer Jon Bonham’s 15 minute drum solo is accurately capturing some of the tediousness of some of Melville’s more digressionary chapters. See also Mastadon’s album Leviathan.
Moby Dick: Cantata by Bernard Herrmann
A more generous critic might suggest composer Herrmann (who wrote several scores for Hitchcock including Psycho and North by Northwest) captures the grandeur of the novel much better than Led Zep.
Kahn Noonien Singh, Captain James T Kirk’s nemesis from Star Trek, read Moby-Dick once. And boy did he go on about it.
Quoting Captain Ahab’s hate-twisted words has proven to be a handy shortcut for film makers wanting to pepper bad guys with a bit of obsessive mania. The team behind Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ordered a bucket load of Ahab seasoning.
Khan’s hatred for Kirk is on such a Melvillian scale, he quotes from Moby-Dick with his last breath: “From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee… for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee…“.
Okay Khan, we get it, you read it.
The Baader-Meinhof Gang
Started Moby-Dick but never made it to the end? If so, you’re in revolutionary company. On the evidence of their chosen code names, the Baader-Meinhof gang – a left-wing group in Germany in the 1970s who committed a string of assassinations and terrorist acts – never bothered to find out the true fate of their alter-egos. While in prison they adopted names based on Moby-Dick characters: Ahab meant Andreas Baader, their de facto leader, Starbuck was used for Holger Meins, and so on. Leviathan, another name Melville uses for the white whale, was code for the State, which the gang was committed to bringing down. True to the spirit of their doomed monikers, their success mirrored that of the Perquod’s crew. Baader and Meins died in prison, a fate echoed by most of the Gang. Meanwhile, the State lived on.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Elsewhere in fictionville, Guert Affenlight certainly read Moby-Dick all the way through. Over and over and over again. For the president of the fictional Westish College, it takes on religious significance. So much so, he definitively refers to it as The Book. Harbach’s tale of confined men -confined by a baseball team, by Midwestern geography, by closeted homosexual relationships, by expectations, and by student-mentor dynamics – also constantly turns back to Melville’s novel of men confined by a ship to orientate itself. Affenlight is a Melville scholar who, in the 1960s, discovered a lost speech by the great man and wrote The Sperm Squeezers, a (fictional) seminal text on Moby-Dick’s homosexual undercurrents. Westish College features a statue of the author, and their baseball team is called The Harpooners in honour of him. And upon Affenlight’s death, his daughter reads Chapter 23 from The Book, The Lee Shore, as they bid him farewell. In many ways, The Art of Fielding is a beautiful expression of how the love of a book can define a life.
Ahab by MC Lars
MC Lars uses the power of hip-hop to pry open Ahab’s inner monologue. For a man who skilfully leapt between narrative styles, if rap had been around in the 1850s, Melville would probably have used it. Choice couplets include: “Call me Ahab, what, monomaniac /Obsessed with success unlike Steve Wozniak”; and “The first one to stop him gets this gold doubloon/Now excuse me while I go be melancholy in my room!”
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