So begins one of the world's great books about obsession--the one Miss Elders tried to make you read in high school--"Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville.
Lately, I'm thinking we should all call ourselves Ishmael.
Like that edgy, storm-tossed storyteller, we've borne witness to our own national tale of obsession, destiny and ruin. For years we've watched George W. Bush threaten, mislead and browbeat others into following him through uncharted waters, like some latter day Captain Ahab.
In the end, Bush handled the killing of Saddam Hussein about like Ahab handled killing that whale.
He bungled it.
Taunts and curses on one of the holiest days of the Muslim year, crude gestures and death imagery, and last insults against ancestors of enemies. Such marked the final moments of that monster-turned-martyr, Saddam Hussein. He lives yet in a million re-enactments on the Internet. Sightings occur daily.
"Death to Moby Dick!" said Ahab, in Chapter 36. "God hunt us all if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!"
"We're on the hunt!" Bush said more than once, referring to Osama bin Laden. "Dead or alive," he vowed. The rapidity with which our war on bin Laden morphed into his war on Saddam Hussein is a measure of Bush's obsession.
To plumb the depths of such obsession is to enter a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. Oedipal issues regarding king-and-prince, blood vengeance, rebellion, license, betrayal, oaths and will-to-power mark our ongoing epic.
"He tried to kill my father," said Bush, who obviously regarded his father's decision not to finish Saddam off in the Gulf War as a mistake.
"Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter," writes Melville, in Chapter 41, "Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them...."
It's often been suggested that Melville saw Ahab's ship, the Pequod, as symbolic of the whole world. In the end, Ahab's obsessions lead to the destruction of that world.
Had Bush set out to destroy the world he could hardly have devised a better plan than the one we've seen him enact. Signs are that he intends to continue down the path of destruction he's laid out. More nukes, more war, more environmental degradation, more energy dependence, more catastrophic debt, more broken treaties, all likely await his final two years.
Despite warnings from Bush's generals and his own father's advisers; despite defeat of Republicans in the last election, the lowest poll numbers of Bush's career, the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, Iraq's slide into civil war, a death toll exceeding half a million by some estimates, including 3,000 dead American troops, Bush has made it clear he's staying the course in Iraq, at least for now. A finger in the wind suggests Bush intends sending 20,000 more troops to Baghdad. Ongoing construction of the super-expensive American embassy and military bases continues apace. Meanwhile an American fleet gathers in the Persian Gulf.
What does it all mean?
Seymour Hersh, writing in New Yorker magazine, suggested in November that Bush is rolling the dice. He's going double-or-nothing to try and pull his presidency-his place in history--from the drink.
Unless he meets a storm of resistance-perhaps even IF he meets such a storm-he'll likely bomb Iran's nuclear facilities sometime in coming months.
Because such facilities are spread out, and because Iran holds many more people than Iraq, the result could be many thousands more added to the ledger of lives lost to Bush's obsessive and misguided policies.
Meanwhile, Saddam lives on in digital space as well as hearts and minds. Iran and Iraq are mostly Shiite nations, and Shiites love to hate Saddam. But most in the Muslim world are Sunni, and many of them have a brand new martyr in Saddam. Most of us would like nothing better than to leave Saddam's hateful memory atop the ashes of 2006, but Bush's policies have made certain he'll be with us a long time to come, haunting our dreams and visions like some monster from the deep.