Melville is weary of the Christian American culture too compromised with money and power and by the time of Moby Dick has left Christian orthodoxy behind him. In particular, the Protestant North struck him as hypocritical, though he also appreciated bits and pieces of Christianity. Having traveled the world, doctrinal arguments between Christians seemed absurd in a world where new religions were discovered on nearly every exploration trip.
Melville isn’t just Ishmael, but Ishmael is not inferior to anyone who says: “Call me Isaac.”
The day after my first devotional was published, my colleague Professor Yee noted (in the midst of an incisive, general disagreement with my reading of the book) that Melville is not just Ishmael. I don’t think my reading of the text depends on this, but on the residue of what is said about God and religion. What does Melville leave us with at the end? I think he sets the book up in the first-third with a picture of some good Christians (in the chapel for seamen), but also in the noble pagans like Queequeg.
Moby Dick (not just the narrator) favors certain religious ideas at the expense of others. What ideas are favored?
Many ideas are favored, this is a great book after all, so let me choose a few. Melville’s masterpiece strongly suggests the equality (“brotherhood”) of humans regardless of race and God’s acceptance of everyone regardless of creed (God as universal Father).
Is there even a God? Perhaps, though I think Melville is not certain in this text, but if one must be religious, then a reasonable man would embrace the perennial American religious idea: the “Brotherhood of Man and Fatherhood of God.” Dad used the phrase’s initials “BOMFOG” to shorthand this view which was a staple of American religious life in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
The “good” people in the text are many different races and creeds and whatever their liabilities, a lack of orthodoxy is not one Melville suggests. They don’t need the religious tracts that the owner’s sister (Charity!) provides them. Instead, all the children of Abraham (Isaac and Ishmael) are sons of a covenant, though each must find his own uncertain way in the sea.
From an orthodox point of view, BOMFOG might reduce the importance of the saving work of Jesus for all humankind, but it need not. BOMFOG is exceedingly elastic (by design) and BOMFOG is by no means dead. If we make BOMFOG gender neutral (brotherhood replaced by kinship, man by people, and fatherhood by parenthood), then the resulting KOP-POG (Kinship of People, Parenthood of God) is about where “spiritual, but not religious people are at today for some of the same reasons that people bought BOMFOG in Melville’s time:
- Our dominant political parties are broken.
- Our social and economic systems contain obvious injustices (slavery/bad distribution of wealth).
- Traditional Christians in America have developed an annoying sense of surety.
- Most Christians appear to be more interested in money and power than the teachings of Jesus and His church.
- American Christian culture feels stale and restrictive.
KOP-POG at least has a positive agenda, and a healthy dose of humility. Doubt and modesty about any claims are critical to the KOP-POG psyche and this is a very good thing. The Kinship of People and the Parenthood of God gives the KOP-POG something to do, unlike the non-religious who have almost nothing but complaints about religion. KOP-POG also can include orthodox Christians on many issues and so develops an inclusive agenda that might serve as a basis for social progress.
Whatever the limits of BOMFOG/KOP-POG, they begin with two truths: people are kin and God is our parent. This means that one cannot simply dismiss KOP-POG as “liberal.” Both the earlier (BOMFOG) and the later beliefs are compatible with many different degrees of religious orthodoxy.
Bomfoggery at the time of Melville was opposed to racism and organized slavery. The “brotherhood of man” was, after all, central to their beliefs. Of course, most of the opposition to slavery and racism came from traditional Christians. Melville may have been pessimistic about Northern Protestants and their faith, but within a decade of his writing Moby Dick, hundreds of thousands of White Protestants from the North would die to free the slaves and save the Union. When the soldiers sang “as He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free . . . ” they were not just bomfogging. They thought Jesus had died to make men holy and that “His truth was marching on.” Just as is true of the better KOP-POGs today, the BOMFOGs were not all wrong. There were problems in the Church and too much compromise with the world, the flesh, and the devil of slavery.
With the image of the great white whale, Melville pushed discussions of race beyond the injustice of slavery to the deeper issue of whiteness.
The Great Whale of Whiteness and What BOMFOGGERY hoped to do about it.
For most whalers the aggressiveness of the whale was the problem:
Nor was it his unwonted magnitude, nor his remarkable hue, nor yet his deformed lower jaw, that so much invested the whale with natural terror, as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults. (p. 178).
For Ishmael: “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” (p. 183).
In discussing whiteness Ishmael says: “this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe” (p. 183)
But after listing all the positive associations with white, Ishmael says:
. . . yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. (p. 184).
Whiteness is terrible and Ishmael associates it with death:
It cannot well be doubted, that the one visible quality in the aspect of the dead which most appals the gazer, is the marble pallor lingering there; as if indeed that pallor were as much like the badge of consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here. And from that pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap them. (p. 187)
On the invisible world and whiteness, Ishmael says:
Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me, as with the colt, somewhere those things must exist. Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright. (p. 191)
Melville is having Ishmael do two valuable pieces of intellectual work. First, Ishmael is pointing out to his mostly white readers that “white” is not always good and has many negative associations. Easy supremacy based on a color strikes us as bizarre, but it needed to be attacked in his time. White is not always good. . . not in the Bible, not in nature, not any place. This disassociation of white with virtue implicitly challenges the white governance of the world that Ishmael still takes for granted.
Second, Ishmael either has a deep hostility to Heaven, even God, and Heavenly things or he is suggesting that some power exists that has created this antipathy. He suggests that a being can be afraid without knowing the source of the fear, but that the fearful thing, a first cause of that fear, must exist.
Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me, as with the colt, somewhere those things must exist. Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright. (p. 191).
Ishmael feels safe in the world. It has boundaries, even the sea, and no matter how far one goes on the Earth one ends up at the starting place. The invisible, or white, world is not as the material world is. It is heartless and cold.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? (p. 191).
It is more than heartless, the immaterial may be dead.
. . .the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt? (p. 192).
The great white male has become, for Ahab, Ishmael, and some of the crew, a symbol for what they fear: the uncomfortable truth of meaninglessness and death. Yet at least some of the crew is insulated from these fears. Starbuck is free:
Starbuck’s body and Starbuck’s coerced will were Ahab’s, so long as Ahab kept his magnet at Starbuck’s brain; still he knew that for all this the chief mate, in his soul, abhorred his captain’s quest, and could he, would joyfully disintegrate himself from it, or even frustrate it. (p. 208).
There is not just the attitudes of Ahab and Ishmael. This will not end well for the ship and so we have reason to look elsewhere to see if the tragedy might have been avoided. Is Starbuck part of this alternative with his simple sanity?
The Great Whale is a very Great Whale and the Sea is Vast.
Amongst the virtues of BOMFOGGERY (and it had virtues) was its attitude toward reality and God. BOMFOG resisted an overly narrow orthodoxy and if this (sometimes) went too far and became vacuous, it also challenged too much certainty. Certainty breeds anger and madness in this text, because reality is too complex for our simple sense of justice.
Ahab has a different view:
Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. (p. 179).
Ahab must right the record, bring justice. He cannot rest until he does so and this is mad.
We have already seen that Ishmael may share a form of this madness with the trigger of “whiteness” causing the problem. Ahab has taken them on a quest to “kill” evil. In that sense, Moby Dick has become an anti-Christ figure: the incarnation of the devils.
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it. (p. 179).
This very human error, that evil could be killed forever if it could only be found, is common. We fall into it when we say: “If we could just stop that political leader. . . ” or “If we overthrew this social injustice, then . . . ” We quest, we demonize, often some other human beings, we kill. What good have we done? Most often, the result is worse than what existed before we began our quest to kill Moby Dick.
The entire quest is based on an intellectual error. Evil does not exist in the same way as goodness. There is no being that is perfectly evil, since that being exists and existence is good. There can be an incarnation of goodness, but not of evil. To think that anything is perfectly evil will cause us to do evil, we can justify any deed in our quest, and bring on madness.
Ahab is mad:
They were bent on profitable cruises, the profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint. He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge. (p. 182).
He defies his own nature:
But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab’s case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. (p. 198).
We are reminded of the infliction of suffering by God on Job as Ahab chases “Job’s whale round the world.” (p. 182). Ahab is not Job, who is afflicted by God, but a Job inflicted by Job (Job’s whale). Ahab is inflicted with suffering by his own demand for immediate justice, for the world to make sense to him, and for the ability to defeat evil now.
Ishmael and the text do retreat to epistemic humility. He knows his limits and having speculated about all of reality refuses to take his own speculations seriously. The brittle moral certainty of Northern, White, Protestants was not just irritating, but was choking off needed change and growth. They had turned religious orthodoxy into social orthodoxy and a self-satisfaction utterly unjustified by actual conditions.
The attitude is key:
—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? Who does not feel the irresistible arm drag? What skiff in tow of a seventy-four can stand still? For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill. (p. 182).
We get an early American expression of the “don’t take things too seriously” attitude that informs so much of our own pop culture. Joss Whedon is one example of the pop writers who will come to the edge of serious reflection and then crack a joke. Melville (who may or may not have had this infliction) certainly has some of the crew express it:
it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object. (p. 224).
It is this ability to ponder deeply through Ishmael, to present a moral man like Starbuck, and the “noble savage” like Queequeg that makes Melville so tricky. He throws ideas out . . . and some of them may be his. . . but like Plato, he is behind an authorial screen.
Always. You have to admire his ability to almost tells us what the Great White Whale is . . . who Ahab is (look the Biblical king!) . . . yet then suggest something altogether different. Oh and by the way, lest we become too certain that this is all quite deep, Ishmael does warn us that his book is just a story about killing a big, white, whale:
So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. (p. 201).
Herman Melville: literary troll.