Hello all. It’s Paul from Moby Dick. I would have loved to be posting here for Ulysses, but I assumed my work load would be too crazy for the summer, so I deferred). But since I had the Zombies spotlight, I couldn’t give up without saying a few things here.
I’ve been wanting to comment on everyone’s posts thus far, but I have in fact been quite busy. So, I’m incorporating some thoughts here (the rest of this is crossposted on my site too), and I hope to go back and re-read what everyone else has said too.
This is my third time reading Ulysses. The first time I was a freshman or sophomore in college and I signed up for a James Joyce class because, get this, the Canadian band Triumph had released a CD called Thunder 7 which was supposedly based on the 100-letter words in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake(which I had bought and found impenetrable). Our teacher was intense and tried to scare everyone off (which worked for some, but not me). The class was hard (first asignment : read The Odyssey over the weekend for a quiz on Monday). I enjoyed Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but I thought Ulysses was pretty daunting.
I read it again when I re-took the class with the same teacher (not for credit this time, but because I wanted to, imagine that). And that time I learned to really appreciate what Ulysses had going on for it. I was also inspired by it to try and write challenging fiction, paying careful attention to every single word, and even possibly using different writing styles in the same book. (The world appreciates that that never panned out).
But so the careful attention thing: Joyce spent seven years working onUlysses. Every single word was charged with meaning. He even made up his own words. And it’s very apparent that he was the inspiration for countless modern authors (for beter or worse).
I’m excited to pick the book up again. In part, because it was ranked number 1 on the MLA list of books, but also because for twenty-some years I’ve felt the book was fantastic. And I wanted to see if I would enjoy it without guided instruction.
I was curious about which edition to read. Since my class, when there was only really one edition available, many many editions have been published. There’s a great discussion about this at Infinite Zombies, and I considered getting the third one Judd mentions. But when I consulted with my old professor, he said the Gabler edition is still the best, so I went with that one. And that edition is littered with all the notes I took from class and from the supplemental resources.
I decided not to read the supplemental resources this time (although I can;t help but look at my notes), to see what I can get from the story AS A STORY.
I remember a bunch from the class, but one thing that I distinctly remember is that to get everything out of Ulysses, you need to understand Catholicism (the mass in particular), The Odyssey, European history–especially Irish history, and popular Irish culture circa 1920. It also helps to know Latin. And these are all things that Joyce would have known and his audience probably would have known. Every year we move away from its publication, means we know less about what he was writing about. But that’s all the little details and jokes and blashpehmies. I wanted to see (with some background, which certainly gives me an advantage) if I could enjoy the story without all the help.
My proper post begins at my site. Click here for more. And thanks for reading.
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.
Those who played along for the first installment of Infinite Summer may recall my post about the weird little reference in Infinite Jest to something dubbed the Coatlicue complex. Well, Coatlicue makes an oblique return in Bolaño’s novel in the form of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whom we see depicted in a mural in Charly Cruz’s garage. Wikipedia (I know, I always cite wikipedia; I’m lazy) suggests that some take the Virgin of Guadalupe to be a simplification of the Coatlicue myth. I don’t know that the Coatlicue baggage would really benefit Bolaño’s story very much, so I’m not going to lean too heavily on the vague association, but I was amused to discover the connection.
The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe does seem at least somewhat relevant to our story, though. In a nutshell, the story goes that one Juan Diego was out for a stroll one day 400 or 500 years ago when he spotted a vision of a 15- or 16-year-old girl in a nimbus of light who asked to have a church built in the area in her honor. Somehow, Diego figured out based on her request that she was the Virgin Mary. When he went to the bishop with the news, the bishop (ever the skeptical lot, those old religious folk) asked Diego to return and ask for a miracle to prove her identity. She told Diego to gather some flowers (though it was wintertime) on the hill where they met. He found some Castillian roses (indigenous to the bishop’s home but not the immediate locale). She then arranged the flowers for him on his cloak, which he presented to the bishop only to have the Virgin’s image appear on the cloth of his cloak.
This icon is of great importance to Mexican Catholics.
For our purposes, I suppose it’s worth noting that we’re talking about the ghost of a young woman roaming about Mexico. If the Coatlicue angle contributes anything at all, it’s also worth noting that Coatlicue is a mother goddess associated with life, death, and rebirth.
It’s also interesting to note, given the lack of much in the way of first-hand physical evidence of the person Archimboldi, that the existence of Juan Diego, in spite of his being integral to such an important piece of Mexican religion and culture, is heavily disputed.
Cruz’s painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe differs from the original icon in that it has one eye closed. On page 348, Bolaño brings up blind justice, and I can’t help drawing an association with this image, except that instead of blind justice, the image, in light of the negative portrayal of the police in this section and coming up and the fact that hundreds of murders of young women have gone unsolved, somehow represents justice closing one eye, looking the other way. And what better place for such an image than the garage of a man who displays a film associating violent (maybe nonconsensual) sex and death, a house in which Rosa Amalfitano later speculates her friend Rosa Mendez (a convenient sort of pre-double representing what Rosa A. seems destined to become) is probably dead.
As Fate is rescuing Rosa from her friend’s probable future fate by taking her away from Cruz’s house, he gets another look at the mural and notices that the open eye seems to follow him everywhere. Interestingly, some photographers and ophthalmologists have reported seeing figures reflected in the eyes of the original icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This, of course, is considered further proof of the miracle. But for us, maybe it means something different, that just as we can see justice (or a saint of virginhood, if you prefer) watching us, if we look closely enough, we can see ourselves reflected there, somehow implicated. We’re all, through our inaction, through our complacence, by indulging in art void of meaning or reference to social justice (take Johns’s selling of his body for money rather than for a higher purpose) — we’re all somehow culpable.
Maybe. I don’t know. I’m still noodling on it.
That we meet another character named Guadalupe who bears the heavy weight of the murders seems not insignificant. That she and Fate share an interest in finding out more — in doing something besides settling for inaction and complacence, something that I take to be a mission of Bolaño’s in this book as well — underscores the happy naming congruence.
Also of possible note is the fact that Spain has a Lady of Guadalupe as well. In that story, a virgin appeared to a shepherd and asked him to dig at the site of her appearance. When he did, he found a sacred statue. This virgin is one of only a few black representations of the Virgin Mary and so shares with Fate the privilege of being something of a rare specimen. The existence of virgins of Guadalupe on different continents with which Bolaño not only had ties but which figured in this novel and had been home to Rosa Amalfitano seems relevant given all the doubling in the book and its transnational porousness.