Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Starting Moby-Dick, #10 and #11


Whaling is a crazy-dangerous enterprise.  Whatever his inexperience as a whaler, YS knows that “few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit” to the Whaleman’s Chapel.  It's a scary place, that Chapel, full of memorials to whalemen who did not return.  Maybe the visit counts as insurance?

Father Mapple ascends to his pulpit via rigging sailors climb at sea. It's almost too obvious: understand the whaling ship as a site of religious enactment. Mapple's sermon is best read with the entirety of the book in mind. Without knowledge of later events, the sermon can seem irritatingly over-long; you wonder why you need to hear it. Still, a few sentences jump out: "God is everywhere," and "Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the Face of Falsehood! That was it!" In short, everything has meaning, and there's a religious duty to tell the truth to the face of falsehood. Yet how account for God’s presence in the series of characters and events Ishamael knows? Moby-Dick shoulders these burdens. Mapple notes that such preaching is not easy: "Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal." This reads almost as Melville talking to himself. Placing this sermon early in the text, Melville lets all of the remaining events of the book play against its assertions.

For a moment, as Mapple ends the sermon, his subject becomes that particular delight known by the truthful teller: "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." Whether or not Melville's narrator knows this delight is difficult to say. Melville himself must have known at least enough of it to write Fr. Mapple's sermon.


Can Queequeg read? It seems unlikely, for he merely counts the pages of a large book, beginning again after he reaches 50, that being the highest count he can manage. So, unable to read the pages, Queequeg does with them what he can do – he counts them. Though Melville doesn't outright say so, he might as well: We may not understand the book of experience, might not be able to fully read it, but we can at least turn the pages one by one and try to keep count. Queequeg's determination fascinates YS, who notes that "you cannot hide the soul." In other words, the effort to read – even if it means only the effort to count pages – makes the soul visible. Still, Queequeg remains an enigma. He does not socialize. He is, YS realizes, miles from home and all he knows, yet he seems "entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost serenity; content with his own companionship; always equal to himself." Is this the condition to which YS and Ishmael aspire? Possibly. For merely to observe Queequeg produces a calming effect: "No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it." Even the recollection of Queequeg's self-possession calms Ishmael's mania. And here, as in any description of any of the Pequod’s crew, Ishmael writes of the dead, conscious that now only his words give them any semblance of life.

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