As if to underscore Said’s concerns about metastasizing anti-Islamic sentiment, he himself was targeted for vociferous criticism following the editorial’s publication. In the media, there were insinuations that the influential author of Orientalism (1978), a U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent, was not “American” enough to be allowed to express such opinions. Eric Gibson, an editor at the Wall Street Journal reporting on Norton’s reissue of Moby-Dick on the book’s 150th anniversary, seized the opportunity to dismiss Said’s analogy while simultaneously parroting the “with us or against us” jingoism of those tense days:

Edward Said and his professorial peers can use “Moby-Dick” for whatever polemical purposes they like. For the rest of us it might be worth remembering that Melville’s great-grandfather immigrated [sic] from Scotland, while a grandfather joined the mob at the Boston Tea Party. “Moby-Dick” plays out the final act of a familial declaration of independence from the Old World, helping to create the New one that we are now defending.20

Indeed, some readers of Moby-Dick may perceive it in such wholly nationalistic terms. Still others may identify with Ahab’s defiant rejection of God or Ishmael’s wanderlust, propelled by alienation from society. But if we were to imagine a role for Tony de los Reyes aboard the Pequod, it is doubtful that he would be like the vengeful Ahab or the all seeing but non-committal Ishmael. More likely, he would resemble the First Mate Starbuck, a moderate pragmatist who understands very well the stakes in capitulating to Ahab’s obsessive, fatally flawed agenda and ultimately does nothing to stop it. (In the post-9/11 social climate, this role may be one that is quite familiar to many of us.)

In several works on paper, de los Reyes goes back into the Rorschach-like blots of bister to extract drawings from its surface. He gets under the skin of the pigment by gently abrading it with a water-filled airbrush that also serves as a stylus. These detailed yet soft drawings look like blurry photographic negatives. The visual effect of these skillful, sepia-tinged renderings of whaling scenes serves to expose the romantic understructure of Abstract Expressionism, whose practitioners looked to a far horizon of our cultural narrative for a path to circumnavigate the still-fresh disasters of the early 20th century.

Tony De Los Reyes, Scars And Scraps, 2008. Detail, Red Bister On Paper; Diptych, 75 X 85 Inches. Courtesy Of The Artist And Carl Berg Gallery, Los Angeles.

In one such work, Scars and Scraps (2008), de los Reyes depicts the Pequod’s mastheads, lonely roosts where spotters spent long hours scanning the sea for whales. The title proposes an assonant echo of the familiar “Stars and Stripes”, the name for the emblematic American flag. It could be that the trope-like “scars and scraps” refer to cherished remnants of nation building. Incomplete and distorted by time and re-telling, the narrative of these remainders fails to reveal the whole truth about our history and character.

In Chapter 35 of Moby-Dick, “The Mast-Head,” Melville likens the spotters to young philosophers, “romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded” Platonists who lose their identity, having been lulled into an “…opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie.”21 By linking the vigil on the mastheads to symbols of patriotism, de los Reyes may be suggesting that those who keep watch for our country can become dangerously and unquestioningly mesmerized by the “truth and beauty” of national ideals. Melville ends “The Mast-Head” with a note of caution for the young dreamer:

But an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.22

Scars and Scraps is related by title to the imagery of Wake (2008), a cluster of fallen, blue cast-resin stars that lay on the gallery floor. One of the more conspicuously allegorical works in de los Reyes’s series, it presents the embroidered pentacles of the U.S. flag in three-dimensional form. Wake suggests both the trail of destruction left behind the hard-driving “War on Terror” as well as a memorial to mourn those youths who have willingly sacrificed themselves for the cause.

A single white bronze star stands in for the narrator of Moby-Dick in Ishmael (2008). The same white star makes its next appearance clenched between the teeth of an overturned skull in Ahab (2008). In Melville’s “Ahab” (Chapter 28), the dreaded captain mounts the quarterdeck for the first time. Ishmael describes him as looking “like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness.” Despite such fearsome physical attributes, Ahab’s mien is still classically heroic. His “…whole high, broad form seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus.”23

Footnotes

  1. Eric Gibson, “Literary Leviathan Survives Critics, Harpooning Profs:Moby-Dick is America’s inkblot,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2001, http://www.opinionjournal.com/forms/printThis.html?id=95001439.
  2. Melville, 162.
  3. Melville, 163.
  4. Melville, 129.