Why Does Our Culture Embrace Only Starbucks (and Flasks)? Herman Melville Knew

CANNABIS CULTURE – It’s back. The comparison between marijuana outlets and Starbucks coffeshops has appeared in another hand-wringing article out of Seattle, pot dispensaries popping up faster than Starbucks.

As Dale Gieringer of California NORML points out, the comparison is inapt: Starbucks is an international mega-corporation that dominates the coffee shop market. Cannabis dispensaries are far more competitive, with hundreds of different local owners and operators. “One would hope that small-time entrepreneurs are outnumbering Starbucks outlets, but don’t expect our corporate media to grasp this point,” he says.

I contend this overused comparison has at its source a fundamental fissure in our culture and our psyches, highlighted in the book many consider the greatest American novel: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

The whaling ship where Moby Dick takes place has three first mates, interestingly named Starbuck, Flask and Stubb. Starbuck is a sober Quaker, a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy who is always trying to bring reason to the conflicted Captain Ahab. Flask is described as “a short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious.” He is consubstantiated alcohol. Stubb continually smokes a small pipe that resembles his nose, and the book’s narrator Ishmael speculates that Stubb’s constant puffing may have been a cause of his “peculiar disposition.”  Stubb is a jokester, loquacious and philosophical. Just like a pothead.

Moby Dick begins with Ishmael befriending Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Seas. Queequeg smokes a tomahawk/pipe, “which, it seemed, had in its two uses both brained his foes and soothed his soul.” He worships a small wooden idol called Yojo, and celebrates a Ramadan, during which he fasts and smokes himself into a trace so deep Ishmael thinks he has died.

Ahab, Stubb and Queequeg all smoke tobacco, but their pipes’ effects, and other clues, seem to indicate an herbal mixture or psychedelic forms of tobacco (eg Nicotania rustica). After Ishmael and Queequeg smoked together, “If there lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan’s breast, this pleasant, genial smoke we had, soon thawed it out, and left us cronies.” That sounds like a pot party to me, as does Melville’s description of shared pipes in his adventure novel Typhee.

“By salt and hemp!” cries Stubb upon setting sail. Hemp was used in ships’ riggings of the day, and was associated with the hangman’s noose, as an instrument of death. This theme too plays out in the book.

All the characters in the book have symbolic names, many of them biblical. Ishmael is the banished son of Moses who starts the Arab race. A character named Elijah serves as a prophet to issue an unheeded warning against the book’s fanatical Captain Ahab. In the bible King Ahab’s wife was Jezebel, a worshipper of Baal or Bel, the ancient Semite name for The Lord, consort to the goddess Astarte, to whom pagans burned incense, thought by some to be caneh bosom or cannabis. The prophet Elijah in the bible defeats the followers of Bel and slaughters them. Queequeg is called “son of darkness” and told to “spurn the idol Bel.”

Thus is set up society’s ongoing battle: civilized (white, Western, “Christian”) versus pagan (dark, Bel-worshipping, incense-burning heathens and Arabs).

Chapter 30 of Moby Dick is titled “The Pipe” and in it, Captain Ahab throws his own pipe into the ocean, saying “this smoking no longer soothes.” It is as though he tosses out his last link with humanity. That night, Stubb has a dream that Ahab kicks him with his ivory (white) leg.

After the “affair of the pipe” Ahab gathers his crew together and gets them drunk to gain their support for his vengeful mission against Moby Dick. The ship’s microcosm of humanity then parties together. The South Seas islander Tashetego, “quietly smoking,” remarks how silly the drunken sailors look dancing about. Flask has his day, as does Mammon: a gold doubloon is nailed to the mast as a reward for the man who takes down the White Whale.

In Chapter 60, titled “The Line,” Melville writes,

I have here to speak of the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line. The line originally used in the fishery was of the best hemp … Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirely superseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable as hemp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (since there is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold.

So too, with cannabis, Melville reports a judgment based on color, leaving behind the dark for the light. Calling it “a sort of Indian” connects it to natives’ use of cannabis as a sacrament and inebriant.

When it is time to go after Moby Dick, strange unknown Arabian sailors lead by a Zoroastrian named Fedallah appear to do Ahab’s bidding. Zoroastrians considered cannabis a sacrament. Ahab admits to a Zoroastrian past and in one of his rants calls out to “thou dark Hindoo half of nature.” The book even recreates the St. Elmo’s Fire, reported to have been seen during the Muslim Siege of Constantinople in 1453, seen as a sign that the Christian God would soon come and destroy the invading Muslim army.

Fedallah interprets Ahab’s recurring dreams of death and correctly predicts his mode of demise. “Hemp only can kill thee,” he tells Ahab, who takes it to mean a hangman’s noose. Ahab meets his end when a flying turn of hempen harpoon line catches him by the neck and drags him into the deep. But first Fedallah is killed, his body found lashed to the white whale, symbolic perhaps of white man’s enslavement of the ancient Arab, cannabis-loving world and the darker races. But it is Queequeg’s vision, in the end, that saves Ishmael.

Today, we can get jacked up on caffeine at every street corner, and drunk on alcohol from bars and liquor stores galore, but cannabis outlets are still seen as something dark and evil. It’s time to bring them, and the side of ourselves that cannabis opens up, into the light.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book: West Meets East: Cannabis and Consciousness in Literature.

Ellen Komp is Deputy Director of California NORML and a regular contributor to Cannabis Culture. She manages the website VeryImportantPotheads.com and blogs at Tokin Woman.