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{Empty title} | The Nation

This is an incisive piece. But I would suggest an alternative view on one little point made by Doctorow: "So that history, as we look to that part of the world [the Middle East], seems to be running backward, as if civilization is in reverse, as if time is a loop."

It seems to me that civilization is running perfectly, or rather, is perfecting the processes it has manifested since its beginnings 5,000 years ago: amplifications of centralized power, personified in "divine king" figures who aggrandize their power through appeals to religious backing and techno-bureaucratic instruments. Just ask the ancient Assyrians. Or contemporary Bushies. Or Melville's Ishmael.

Bush's assigned destiny was to help link American violence with Middle East violence, all of which is the secret sibling of the perfection of the rational machine that is civilization. Bush has succeeded in this marvelously, helping to open the doors to the next level of the abyss. And Melville already foresaw that fated abyss, the culmination of five thousand years of civilizing, in the American whaling ship the Pequod, whose mad quest for oil and "the phantom of life," Moby-Dick, led to its own splintering by the phantom of life, swirling down and under for good:

For an instant, the tranced boat's crew stood still; then turned. "The ship? Great God, where is the ship?"…And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.

[…]A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."