Here's literary relevance for you:
In the first chapter of "Moby Dick," called "Loomings," Ishmael considers why he chose to go on that momentous whaling voyage and concludes, half-kidding, that his decision must have been part of the "grand programmed of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago." He calls his adventure "a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances" and sees the providential bill as having looked like this:
Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States
Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael
Bloody Battle in Afghanistan
The first headline is set in large, elegant type; the third, in bold, block type. The lettering of the middle event is small and plain, as if it were being whispered on the page.
And here we are, you and I -- not about to undertake a whaling voyage, most likely, since whaling voyages are scarce and environmentally unpopular these days, but nevertheless about to undertake some small, private voyage of our own choosing, while around us, above and below, the more extensive performances of the world loom on: a grand contested election heating up, and some very bloody battles in Afghanistan.
Melville chose Afghanistan because it has always seemed the most faraway place on earth, perhaps at times to the Afghans themselves. In 1851, when "Moby Dick" was published, presidential elections must have seemed equally remote to the average citizen; thus by arranging his items on the bill, Melvile was also posing a question: what could the story of one solitary citizen possibly have to do with the big and violent doings of the world? When you ask a question like that, the answer, naturally, is: everything. But you have to prove it. The connections among Ishmaels, Afghans and presidents are rarely seen until too late, least of all by the Ishmaels who go about their solo businesses deliberately to avoid the big and violent doings.
Ishmael minimized the significance of his adventure, yet that turned out to offer as grand a contrast, as bloody a battle, as any. In fact, it turned out to be the essential journey -- the pursuit of the nemesis. It was not Ismael's nemesis being pursued, but he was on the ship, as tied to the pursuit as if he had dreamed it up himself. If Ishmael learns anything from his mad ride with Captain Ahab, it is that no performance is solo, that the one thing you may be sure of is that every human decision, no matter how slight or peculiar, is within reach of every other such decision -- as near as Afghanistan.
Call us Ishmael. Before us these days are two separate pursuits of a nemesis, one in the grand contested election, the other in Afghanistan. The lesser pursuit is Teddy Kennedy's, lesser because he is unlikely to win, and so the pursuit, while sincere, has a built-in governor. You watch the senator on television and your sympathy goes out to him. Mine does. He laughs too loud at his own jokes. The jokes are feeble, the slogans faint. He shows no compulsion to gain what he seeks, except, of course, the family compulsion that shouts, "Go to it, Teddy," which Teddy does, but without heart, without the heart of an Ahab, certainly. When he loses, then down in the public mind will go the taunting connection of the Kennedys with the presidency, and for them that will be all to the good.
But the Russians are something else, as they are always something else. You may say it's inaccurate to call Afghanistan Russia's nemesis, since the historical antagonism has always been Russia's. Yet oppressors make antagonists out of those who sit still. Now, at long last, Russia ends its frustration, giving the lie to the adorable Mishka bear, pulling on its "Potemkin" boots and pawing geniuses in the streets of Moscow. It claims that its target is limited, but so did Ahab. Older and wiser, the world knows a great white whale when it sees one, especially when the whale is the world.
So the world prepares itself, stiffens. It knows in a purely moral sense that the end of the pursuit of the nemesis always spells disaster for the pursuer, but in this case that is no consolation. Legislators call for war; panic accompanies determination; and gold goes up and down, creating an image of mammonism not seen since Mammon. So much for the extensive performances.
In the middle of all this, meanwhile, are you and I, with our solos and interludes. I have no gold to sell. My daily voyages take me to the post office, the general store and other places whose adamant serenity tries to persuade us that we are in control of Providence. Yet there was Ishmael, calmly explaining his decision to go to sea, fully aware that life could be tied to people with dark passions striding purposefully into hell.