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Week 1: Religion

This is my first read of Moby-Dick (and my first time posting as a Zombie).  I wanted to focus on religion in the first week’s read.

I don’t know very much about Melville.  I am planning to do some background work on the man, but I kind of like taking the reader-response tour of MD.  Of course, I think that works as a reaction to a book, I’m just not sure how valid it is when doing critical analysis (I’ll find out soon enough).

Reader-response aside, I’ll give a quick background to myself.  I am not a religious person.  I was raised Catholic but have since lapsed.  However, I have mixed feelings about religion: I’ve seen religious people do very good things, and yet, in general, I think it is a tool for bossing people around.

So, I’m not pushing any agenda here.  I’m just noting that religion plays a major part in this book, and I’m fascinated by it.

And it starts with the Extracts.

The first five Extracts are from books in the Bible.  And that might tell you something.

References abound in the text proper, too.  When he admits that he will sweep a deck if a captain asks him, Ishmael notes: “What does the indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament?  Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me… (15*).

In Chapter 2 we get references to Lazarus.  And in Chapter Three there’s talk of blessed Saturday and Sunday night.

But once Queequeg comes in, religion really comes to the forefront.

Queequeg is, as we know, a cannibal and a seller of New Zealand heads.  And yet, he is also something of a Christian (he is seen at mass after all).  And yet, he is, of course, also, a pagan, a savage.

When we first meet him, we see he is tattooed head to toe.  And Ishmael thinks, “he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Sea, and so landed in this Christian country” (30).

And yet, it is more with fascination than a seemingly expected horror that he watches Queequeg unveil what he at first thinks is a “black manikin … a real baby preserved in some similar manner [to the New Zealand heads]” (30).  But it turns out to be a wooden idol.

Queequeg sets out to worship by setting the idol up in the fireplace.  And again, it’s Ishmael’s attitude that I find fascinating: “The chimney jambs and all the bricks inside were very sooty, so that I though this fire-place made a very appropriate little shrine or chapel for his Congo idol.” 30).

Queequeg and Ishmael have a bit of a tussle over the sleeping arrangements.  The landlord calms things down.  The men seem okay with each other and we get this fascinating observation from Ishmael:

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (31).

So, just what is going on here?  There is a lot of talk about the Bible and Christians, and yet, rather than trying to convert the Savage, Ishmael not only welcomes him, but thinks he may be a better companion than some other Christians.

And then comes the famous sermon. Chapter 7 focuses on the Whaleman’s Chapel.  And Queequeg is there! (in another Chapter, it is revealed that Queequeg left his home land so that he could explore Christian lands).  The chapel contains plaques that memorialize dead whalers.  It also contains a pulpit that is mounted via side ladder found on a ship.

Father Mapple gives a lengthy account of Jonah and the Whale.  Now, I admit that I haven’t read the Jonah story in years (if I ever read the whole thing at all).  So, I don’t recall any of the backstory (about running from God); I assume that’s all true, and I do figure I’ll check it out one of these days). As such, I’m not sure if he is putting his own theories into Jonah’s actions (do the other shipmates really think that he is a criminal as soon as he steps on board?  I think I need to investigate that further).

This sermon (which is quoted in the extracts) is completely appropriate for the whalers.  And, given the deadly pursuit, it’s not surprising that there would be many whalers in the church.  And yet Ishmael writes, “But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts, she gathers her most vital hope” (41).  Religion as a desperate man’s drink?

But to me the most surprising thing is when Queequeg invites Ishmael into his own ceremony.  Ishmael ponders:

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood?

What I liked was his very open-minded resolution:

But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth- pagans and all included- can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?- to do the will of God? that is worship. And what is the will of God?- to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me- that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. (both 54).

Moving away from Queequeg, when we get to the Pequod, Captain Bildad (and indeed many other Nantuckers was a Quaker).  My knowledge of Quakers is that the are a peaceful, entirely pacifist lot, so to get this quote was very funny:

For some of these same Quakers are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale-hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance. (71).

And of course, Bildad has been studying the Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years.  “How far ye got, Bildad?” Captain Peleg wants to know (73).

The last bit of religion is Queequeg’s fast, which Ishmael calls The Ramadan.  Daryl’s already answered my question about this, with the logical assertion that Ishmael is just picking Ramadan because his religion is “other.”  And I think that’s fair enough.  Ishmael is reasonably well versed among Christian sects, but any further afield and it’s all Hindoo and Muslim to him.

[This is actually unsurprising.  When Dewey created his Decimal System (in 1876), he created a section for Religion.  200 is religion.  220 is the Bible 230 is Christian theology.  240 is Christian moral and devotional theology.  250 is Christian orders & local Church.  260 is Christian Social theology.  270 is Christian church history.  280 is Christian denomination and sects and then 290 is Other and comparative religions [294 Religions of Indian origin, 295 Zoroastrianism, 296 Judaism, 297 Islam, 299 Other].]
So Queequeg’s Ramadan is played for comic effect, certainly. And yet, the joke is not really mocking.  For he and Queequeg are now fast friends.  And while he fervently wishes that Queequeg would fully convert (as does Captain Peleg who demands to see Queequeg’s papers: “He must show he’s converted” (83).) he still respects Queequeg as a human being and as a harpoonist (harpooner?).`

So, what to make of Ishmael?  He states matter of factly,

Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him (81).

And he’s also quick to comment

This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling (82).

I don’t know that I’ll be pursuing the religious thread in future posts, but I was really fascinated by this mix of Christian attitudes and yet wholly open-minded attitudes towards non-Christians.  It was quite a surprise for me.

* I am using The Norton Critical Edition for my page notes.  If we decide on a standard citation, I’ll update accordingly.

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  1. Joan
    May 24, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    You’ve definitely hit on what I think is one of the major threads through the novel – the religious themes and allusions are legion. I think my favorite example of Ishmael’s open-mindedness is in Chapter 18. I love how when questioned about Queequeg’s conversion Ishmael gives a brilliant “sermon” on the first Congregational Church – all of mankind. And to think that in the British version this is almost wholly excised/revised leaving British readers to believe that Queequeg is indeed a convert to Christianity.

    This same chapter has some of the most comedic bits so far as well – the whole Queequeg/Qhohog/Hedgehog bit had me laughing!

  2. May 24, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    I think it’s really interesting to note that Jonah is a very short book of the Bible. Father Mapple suggests as much (I forget how he puts it — something to the effect that it’s two strands long, by which he means more or less two pages) but then elaborates greatly on what the Bible actually says about the story, which I reread after reading Father Mapple’s account. I really like this chapter and this sermon, and it’s one of the things I want to write about eventually, but I think it’ll be better to write more about it closer to the end of the book (we have our own whale yet to encounter, after all). Those who were with us for 2666 may recall that Barry Seaman’s speech has been compared to Mapple’s sermon. The similarities didn’t strike me this time around, but I didn’t read them right next to one another and so probably missed a lot of obvious similarities.

    Like you, I like how open Ishmael is (it’s part of what makes me like him so much), but notice how toward the end of this week’s reading, he also takes a more condescending stance without, apparently, being aware of how the criticisms he’s leveling apply to his own lofty sect’s views as well.

  3. mattkish87
    May 24, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Like Paul, I was nominally raised as a Catholic but by parents who could very accurately be described as “filthy hippies.” Trips to church were few and far between, and somebody screwed up somewhere because I wasn’t baptized until I was 9 and the only reason was so that I could receive the sacrament of communion when I was 10. Religion was something the whole family observed, in the truest sense of that word, rather than participated in.

    Fortunately, my parents were exemplars of religious tolerance and this attitude was passed down to me from a very early age. In elementary school, I remember seeing my father reading a collection of Arthur C. Clarke stories entitled “The Nine Billion Names of God” and asking him how God could possibly have so many names. He explained to me as best he could that there were billions of ways of seeing God and these names were just what different people all over the world (actually, I think he said all through the universe) called him.

    This laid the foundation for me, as a reader, always observing religious elements in texts but being able to keep them at arm’s length. Whether that dilutes the impact or not depends on the text. Paul’s initial interest in the religious aspects of “Moby-Dick” is fascinating to me because he is capable of seeing the narrative in ways I might never be able to. While Ishmael’s revelations about “the First Congregational Church of all mankind” and the inherent grace of a cannibal savage may have been revolutionary and shocking to 19th century readers, to me they seemed to echo what my parents had taught me long ago and have always been part of why I felt the text was so timeless.

  4. May 24, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Mapple says that it is four paragraphs long, I think. The text of Jonah is available here. (I hope that html worked.)

    • May 24, 2010 at 2:39 pm

      Okay, the HTML worked. So, the Jonah passage doesn’t mention anything about Jonah going on board the ship or the sailors suspecting that he had done wrong (or even the part about paying ahead of time–and being charged extra!). It is only even mentioned parenthetically that he was running away from God.

      That’s a fascinating inclusion. I wonder if readers at the time would have known that these were embellishments.

      • May 25, 2010 at 7:52 pm

        Paul, I pretty strongly suspect that Melville’s contemporary readers would have caught the differences between King James Jonah and Father Mapple’s Jonah. I mean, I’ve only read Jonah probably twice or so, and I haven’t been to church in a very, very long time, and I recognized what he had invented–I’m sure folks who grew up in a much more explicitly religious educational tradition, in a more religious time, would have been quicker on the draw than I was.

        And Daryl, I agree, I didn’t see much in the way of similarities between Father Mapple’s sermon and Barry Seaman’s pulpit pitch for his cookbook… 🙂

  1. May 25, 2010 at 2:50 pm
  2. May 27, 2010 at 9:11 pm
  3. May 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm

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