[KB] Not Completely Gunned Down

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Sat May 3 21:07:59 EDT 2008

       As is often the case with old men, I awoke from the couch in the 
parlor in need of going to the bathroom.  While up, I checked my laptop.  The 
following post from Gregory Desilet popped onto the screen.  The Moby Dicksters and 
those who followed that discussion may be interested in what Greg, author of 
Our Faith in Evil: Melodrama and the Effects of Entertainment Violence, has to 
say about it.  I made considerable reference to his book in those posts.  I'm 
functioning here as paper boy.

Hello Prof. Appel,

While searching the internet for something else yesterday, I accidentally 
came across the KB conversation site and the recent discussion of Moby Dick. I 
read through the various postings and found them most interesting—especially 
when finding my book referenced. Authors are ever so heartened when discovering 
they have been read, not to mention “discussed.” In this regard, I must thank 
you for introducing my book to the postings and for discussing some of my 
thoughts on the subject.

It’s been some time now since I read the novel through and the postings 
helped jog my memory of some of the key chapters. Although I am most certainly a KB 
fan, I do not regard myself as a KB scholar insofar as my knowledge of Burke 
is by no means encyclopedic and here and there riddled with embarrassing gaps. 
When I write on Burke I try to fill those gaps along the themes and lines of 
argument most relevant to my current topic of interest. Besides, Burke is so 
rich it’s difficult, without making a career of him, to do more than focus on 
certain aspects of his work. Having said that, I have great admiration and 
respect for those of you in the KB society who have such a wealth of knowledge of 
his work.

So it is with high regard that I venture to comment on the thread of 
discussion and especially your comments, since you were the one to most extensively 
make use of my work from “Our Faith in Evil.” I only do so to propose some 
clarification of my thinking, as in places it seemed certain questions were being 
raised about what, more precisely, my thinking is.

Following Leslie’s post of Feb 5th, you say the following:

Being reminded of that Quarter-Deck passage, one must to some extent modify 
the from-what-through-what-to-what that Desilet makes much of in his critique. 
Starbuck's interpretation from start to finish that Moby Dick is just a 
bigger-than-average, maybe-more-ferocious-than-most, "dumb brute that simply smote 
thee from blindest instinct" is a construction Ahab grants as a possibility, 
also. But for Ahab the [W]hite [W]hale could be, maybe more likely is, a 
Transcendental Force, or agent thereof. The evidence offered in the final chapter 
strongly suggests that the [W]hale is not the purposive, predatory Being of 
Ahab's imagination. Desilet's treatment therefore does have some merit. What 
originally might have been the case in this "myth," as Clifton Fadiman calls 
it---Moby Dick MIGHT have been a Supernatural Being---can hardly any longer be seen 
as the case.

I thank you for these comments and also Leslie for what amounts to an 
excellent defense of my line of interpretation. Following this post David Langston 

If I am correct in seeing a number of figures for authorship and readership 
in Moby-Dick, then I think it follows that it would be reductive to say that 
the novel is either a tragedy or a melodrama. Would it be more accurate to say 
that the novel has tragic, epic, melodramatic, essayistic, dramatic, and comic 
threads running through it? Can the book escape every generic definition or 

In response I’d say that the “essayistic” and “comic” threads in the novel 
contribute to its “epic” quality such that I’d like to call it a reflexive 
melodrama in epic proportion where reflexive melodrama is seen as a close cousin 
of tragic drama. More on this below. Following David’s post you turn to a 
more general examination of melodrama.

I interpret Osborn and Bakke (SCJ, 1998), however, as undercutting the 
traditional tied-to-the-railroad-tracks "victim" as a necessary ingredient in 
melodrama. If Osborn and Bakke are correct, and I think they are, that melodrama is 
the "natural" genre of discourse in heated political debate in a democratic 
polity---or that there is at least strong partisan pressure in the direction of 
melodrama---then the "victim" motif is optional, not mandatory. Sometimes a 
victim will be front and center, sometimes not.

I haven’t had the opportunity to read Osborn and Bakke but I would agree that 
melodrama is a genre that appears “natural” in heated political debate in a 
democratic polity. But I find this to be a very unfortunate and unnecessary 
state of affairs. Following Anker’s definition, I find “hyperbolized, binary ‘
polarizations of good and evil,’” and “narrative ‘Manicheism’” to be ALWAYS 
counterproductive to the discussion of issues that, in the political sphere, 
when “heated” are also complex and worthy of strategies of appeal that are not 
so obfuscating in their blatant reductionism. I believe that Americans 
appreciate, and can learn to appreciate even more, modes of discussion that 
sufficiently acknowledge the complexity of specific “heated” topics. And we would all 
benefit from politicians who model this kind of discussion. In fact, as the “
information age” plunges inexorably onward I believe an increasing complexity 
in the structure and style of appeal will become inevitable—even in the modes 
of appeal we find in advertising. Similarly, I think our standards for what 
passes for “factual” will also rise as the internet makes it easier to do “fact 
checking analyses” even while coaching a greater need for vigilance on the 
part of information “consumers.”

One further note: melodrama identifies victims (front and center or not) 
whereas tragic drama shows the extent to which the interdependence of human 
relations places all sides of a conflict in the position of being some measure the 
victim and the perpetrator. This is not to say that in some cases such as the 
events of 9/11 there is no need for outrage. But the deeper the outrage, the 
more the need to understand the pathology and the particular type of victimhood 
manifested in the perpetrators. That is, what pathology “victimized” them to 
the extent they could fly planes into buildings? As I argue in Chapter 15 of 
my book, this need not lead us to hold hands with them and sing “kumbaya” (as 
you suggest below). But when response requires lethal force or military action 
it should be taken up with a measured attitude and understanding toward whom 
it is (human beings) we are pursuing. Difficult, but not impossible.

After mentioning Schwarze’s analyses (with which I also disagree), you go on 
to say:

I don't say Schwarze's view isn't something of an exaggeration. I do believe, 
though, that a completely negative view of melodrama is unwarranted. Out of 
exaggerated dialectical oppositions, maybe something closer to "truth" can 
emerge than if we just try to sing "kumbaya," and reach out to hold hands, in 
response to the outrages the other guys are up to.

Here I strongly disagree. I don’t believe anything like a closer 
approximation of the “truth” will emerge from discussion launched in the style of 
melodrama. Exaggerating the position of the opposition and their motives does not get 
us closer to the “truth.” Accurate (insofar as such is possible) and fair 
depiction of motives and positions and the reasons for those positions promotes 
a more refined assessment of what Burke called “situations” (“motives are 
shorthand terms for situations”). Understanding the opposition is a difficult 
process but it serves communities better than painting them in stark contrasts 
for the purpose of advancing short-term gain. This is where “third party” 
refereeing such as becomes available on the internet serves to funnel discussion 
more toward a triangulation that can promote more honest discussion of issues. 
And this sort of process need not resemble the “hand-holding” conciliation of 
singing “kumbaya” together. The gloves don’t need to come off. We just need 
to stop the sucker punches and hitting below the belt.

You go on to say:

Desilet's condemnation of melodrama is so categorical that he says, or seems 
to say, the scapegoat mechanism should never be resorted to, under any 

I think we should keep melodrama (defined much as Anker has seen it above, 
with emphasis on good/evil polarization of sides) around in the form of 
reflexive melodrama—the kind of drama that embodies melodramatic form only to turn it 
back on itself in a reflexive gaze for the purpose of illuminating its “tragic”
 consequences. This is melodrama used as “immunization”—a concept not 
foreign to Burke but one which I’m not sure he makes sufficient use of in his 
examination of the options for coping with the “scapegoat mechanism.” This form of 
reflexive melodrama can be, I believe, effectively distinguished from tragic 
drama—which, as you have noted, I define along the lines of Aristotle (as in 
Chapter 6 of my book) —for which I provide a thorough description and some 
embellishments via Burke (as in Chapter 11).

You say further:

Am I reading Desilet correctly: It was a good thing, on balance, that the 
first assassination plots against Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s were aborted? It 
was basically better that Hitler lived on to fulfill in so large a measure 
the "cleansing" he had in mind for Germany and Europe as a whole? If Hitler had 
been taken out, scapegoat-wise, the lesson such a violent act would have 
taught, and the example it would have set, would have wrought more net destruction 
on the human race?

Forgive me for saying, I have a question about that.

No, here you are not reading me correctly. Recall the passage you cite 
regarding Sam Keen’s description of the attitude we ought to take when taking up 
arms. I’m not opposed to the use of force, even, at times, deadly force. I think 
there are times when it is necessary, as Keen acknowledges. I don’t advocate 
radical pacifism. But if Hitler were assassinated in the manner you note above, 
the circumstances, in my opinion, would not necessarily warrant the label “
scapegoat-wise.” Yes, it would be possible for those involved in such an attempt 
to think of Hitler as a scapegoat for the evils that were befalling Germany, 
and that would be an unfortunate and counterproductive source of motivation 
for the act. But it would also be possible for those involved to have seen 
Hitler as an instance of a human being gone terribly wrong. The act would then be 
viewed as perhaps the lesser of many evils rather than a “scapegoat-wise” 

But it may also have been possible for those involved to have chosen a “
bloodless coup” or perhaps a well-timed defection to pass on crucial information. 
There are many options to consider before reaching the necessity of seeing a 
killing as the only viable option. I suspect it became an option for those 
involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler as a form of self-preservation, a way of 
salvaging some personal pride and a way to preserve Germany as a nation, 
rather than a full revelation about the horror that the human being Hitler had 
become. Had this latter been the source of motivation, I believe they would have 
found a way to succeed, come what may. But this speculation takes us a 
considerable distance from the main topic.

At any rate, I hope to have avoided structuring this response in a “
melodramatic” way. That is, I hope I have not polarized nor demonized you too much 
(just kidding here) in responding to your comments. I appreciate the fact that you 
found my work of some interest and used it to promote what seemed to me to be 
a provocative exploration of Moby Dick and the issues surrounding melodrama, 
evil, and scapegoating. Thank you!

With high regard,

Greg Desilet


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