By Charles Matthews

Monday, December 6, 2010

3. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 39-66

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter IX: The Sermon; Chapter X: A Bosom Friend; Chapter XI: Nightgown; Chapter XII: Biographical; Chapter XIII: Wheelbarrow; Chapter XIV: Nantucket; Chapter XV: Chowder
Father Mapple's sermon, naturally, is an exegesis of the book of Jonah, which is the Bible's venture into absurdist comedy: God commissions Jonah to cry out against Nineveh, Jonah runs away, gets thrown overboard as a jinx, is swallowed up by the fish, prays for help and is spit out again, agrees to cry out against Nineveh and prophesy its destruction, the people repent, God changes his mind and spares the city, Jonah thinks he's been made a fool of and pouts, and God asks why shouldn't he "spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" You kind of see God's point there, especially about the cattle.

Father Mapple, by Rockwell Kent

Father Mapple isn't much interested in anything in the story after the fish, of course. In his ship's-prow pulpit he offers "a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea" and begins his sermon "in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog." Perhaps because he's speaking to an audience of sailors, he points out that Jonah's port of departure, Joppa, is modern Jaffa, and he opines that the Tarshish he was bound for was probably Cadiz. Some of them would have been to those ports. The identification of Tarshish as Cadiz is questionable, but Father Mapple wants it to be about as far away from Nineveh as you can get, since his audience would have known something about traveling long distances at sea.

The rest is moralizing about repentance and its rewards:
Delight is to him -- a far, far upward, and inward delight -- who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him,  when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight, -- top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath -- O Father! -- chiefly known to me by Thy rod --- mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world's, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?

Stirring stuff. But for all the thunder of Father Mapple's rhetoric, it seems to have no effect on Ishmael, who returns to the Spouter-Inn and the intimate companionship of the infidel Queequeg. "Savage though he was, and hideously marred about he face -- at least to my taste -- his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul." He reminds Ishmael of "George Washington cannibalistically developed." Ishmael is no "patriot to heaven" here, though the tug of disapproval of Queequeg's supposed cannibalism remains. There is even a hint of disapproval of Father Mapple in Ishmael's taking the Stoic Queequeg as having "a touch of fine philosophy": "perhaps, to be true philosophers, we mortals should not be conscious of so living or so striving. So soon as I hear that such or such a man gives himself out for a philosopher, I conclude that, like the dyspeptic old woman, he must have 'broken his digester.'"

And so he takes a pagan friendship in preference to "Christian kindness" which "has proved but hollow courtesy." The friendship is reciprocated, "and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country's phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be." And Ishmael seals the friendship by parting company with "the infallible Presbyterian Church" in which he was raised, and joining Queequeg in the worship of his idol. Concluding that "the magnanimous God of heaven and earth" can't "possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood," Ishmael "kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed."

Juxtaposed with the rhetorical splendor of Father Mapple's sermon, this descent into idolatry would conventionally be treated as an act of blasphemy. But Melville is anything but conventional, and the cheeky irony of an "innocent idol" is heightened by their "marriage" and then the undressing and going to bed together. Again, the homoeroticism is playful, with "Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine and then drawing them back." They behave less like lovers than like ten-year-old girls at a sleepover. Ishmael even gives up his disapproval of Queequeg's smoking in bed, sharing his tomahawk pipe and demonstrating "how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them." If other stiffnesses are involved, he doesn't mention them.

And so Queequeg tells his story about growing up on an island "not down on any map; true places never are." The son of the king, the nephew of the high priest, he is given to wanderlust. Again, in retelling Queequeg's story, Ishmael returns to squeamish judgmentalism: ""There was excellent blood in his veins -- royal stuff; though sadly vitiated, I fear, by the cannibal propensity he nourished in his untutored youth." He tells how Queequeg, "this sea Prince of Wales," got himself on a boat and became a whaleman, "like Czar Peter content to toil in the shipyards of foreign cities." (Peter the Great studied shipbuilding in the Netherlands and in London, though hardly as a common workman.) But the discovery "that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked" disillusioned him: "Thought he, it's a wicked world in all meridians; I'll die a pagan." The experience also made him change his mind about returning home to assume the throne on his island: "he was fearful Christianity, or rather Christians, had unfitted him for ascending the pure and undefiled throne of thirty pagan Kings before him." Perhaps he would return someday, but "They had made a harpooneer of him, and that barbed iron was in lieu of a sceptre now."

Ishmael tells him of his plan to join a whaling crew in Nantucket, and Queequeg says he will accompany him. "To all this I joyously assented; for besides the affection I now felt for Queequeg, he as an experienced harpooneer, and as such, could not fail to be of great usefulness to one, who, like me, was wholly ignorant of the mysteries of whaling, though well acquainted with the sea, as known to merchant seamen." The next morning they pack their things in a wheelbarrow and set out for the harbor. "As we were going along the people stared; not at Queequeg so much -- for they were used to seeing cannibals like him in their streets, -- but at seeing him and me upon such confidential terms."

Interracial fraternization seems to have been uncommon enough for Melville to emphasize it, for the attention grows more unwelcome on board the Moss, a "little Nantucket packet schooner moored at the wharf." The passengers "marvelled that two fellow beings should be so companionable; as though a white man were anything more dignified than a whitewashed negro." One lout mocks Queequeg behind his back, so "the brawny savage" tosses him head over heels in the air. During the protest that follows, the captain of the Moss comes to the defense of the "bumpkin," losing sight of the fact that the crew has lost control of the main-sail and that "the tremendous boom was now flying from side to side, completely sweeping the enter after part of the deck." The bumpkin is swept overboard, but Queequeg quickly secures the boom and then leaps overboard to rescue his adversary. "All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump; the captain begged his pardon. From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive." (A poignant first bit of foreshadowing.)

They arrive in Nantucket, which strikes Ishmael as so barren that he strings out tall tales about the island, such as "that people plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in the summer time." The tales, he says, "only show that Nantucket is no Illinois." And that Nantucketers have good reason to go to sea in great numbers, and especially to become whalers, having "in all seasons and all oceans declared everlasting war with the mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood; most monstrous and most mountainous! That Himmalehan, salt-sea Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious power, that his very panics are more to be dreaded than his most fearless and malicious assaults!" (This is a curiously excessive bout of cetaphobic prose at this point in the novel. As for "Himmalehan," it's "Himalayan," of course. But the spelling isn't unique to Melville: Emily Dickinson has a poem that begins "The Himmaleh was known to stoop".) Melville goes on to laud the exploits of Nantucketers:
Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's.... The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation.... With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.
When Melville gets the old Shakespearean cadence going, he can't be stopped.

Try pots were used to render oil from whale blubber
Always alive to portents, Ishmael is startled when he comes across the inn that the landlord of the Spouter-Inn has recommended, the Try Pots, because the sign outside reminds him of a gallows.
It's ominous, thinks I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen's chapel, and here a gallows! and a pair of prodigious black pots too! Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?
But the ominousness fades when he samples the inn's chowder.
Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. The area before the house was paved with clam-shells. Mrs. Hussey wore a polished necklace of codfish vertebra; and Hosea Hussey had his account books bound in superior old shark-skin. There was a fishy flavor to the milk, too, which I could not at all account for, till one morning happening to take a stroll along the beach among some fishermen's boats, I saw Hosea's brindled cow feeding on fish remnants, and marching along the sand with each foot in a cod's decapitated head, looking very slipshod, I assure ye. 
Have I mentioned before how funny Melville can be, and is, in this novel? It's not what he's famous for, but maybe he should be.

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