Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Wicked Essay on Ishmael

Review by Pamela Mackey

"Call me Ishmael," says the Moby-Dick narrator. "Call me," he says, not, "I am called, my father called, my mother called," or "they call." A self-chosen name implies a history. The biblical Ishmael, son of two tribes, was banished (with his seduced and abandoned mother) after the arrival of a second, mono-ethnic, son. Ishmael the survivor grew silently, darkly, strong in his genes, his memory, his difference. In adopting his name, what code might Melville's narrator hope to transmit?

"I have written a wicked book," wrote Melville to Hawthorne on completion of the leviathan novel, "and feel spotless as the lamb." Call him a press agent born before his time. Call this cryptic quote the source of a sea of speculation, of which the present essay is a drop containing the germ of a possibility: the linkage of a name, a history and a wicked enterprise. Call the composition of a novel whose transposition of blackness and whiteness through the alchemistic reminiscences of a pseudonymous survivor whose chosen identity bespeaks duality, confluence, and the uses and limits of anonymity—a metaphor weighted, chained, submerged until the inevitable oxidation of time and progress set it free. Whose story is Moby Dick, anyway? Names, jobs, churches, affinities—separately and together—form a chart that can guide us, if we choose to sail, into some of the deepest, most dangerous currents of our collective past.

The name Ishmael, then, is the champagne bottle over the prow, the baptismal splash, the self-imposed witness protection program. Who I am, it tells us, O Reader, is a secret, for me to know and maybe for you to find out. I'll tell you what you need to know. Catch me if you can.

The self-named Ishmael begins his story by describing a work-life of wandering and contrasts. He's a teacher, actually, and while in the 1840s that didn't require college-level training and state certification, a man would have had to be literate, articulate, and of passably good reputation to hold down a job in a school. The narrator's voice reflects a polished intellect; his descriptions give evidence of training in the habits of observation and reflection. But then again, he's a seaman. While the Pequod voyage is his first encounter with whaling, Ishmael has sailed before. He is a man of moods, and the sea is his anger management program:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

It is also an opportunity to enlarge his social milieu:

No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one's sense of honour, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes.

Ishmael has obviously had access. A poor man may dislike bosses, even to the point of revolution. But if "one's sense of honour" suffers from the experience of wage-earning, then "one" has probably not been raised for rough employment. Ishmael may be broke, may need to earn his living, but his moral compass is internal and autonomous. He finds the hypocrisies of commerce more interesting/ironic than remarkable. He makes elegant use of context clues to read people and situations. His social reflexes are highly developed. At ease with the complexity and contradictions of human nature, its tribes and its classes, he is free of the prevailing prejudices, and can even overlook a little quirk like cannibalism in an otherwise all-right fellow. Not easily intimidated or put off, Ishmael behaves like someone who's been around the block and around the world.

And yet...

Ishmael's pre-voyage wanderings lead him into a pair of New Bedford churches. New in town, making his way through cold, unlighted streets, Ishmael chances upon the first, which he nicknames "The Trap." Drawn to its "invitingly open" door, its "smoky light" and "careless look, as if it were meant for the uses of the public," the solitary nomad stumbles in, upsets an ash-box, makes a racket. But when "A hundred black faces turned around in their pews to peer," he backs away. Why the hasty retreat? What might a well-bred, well-connected stranger find so viscerally disturbing in this God-fearing crowd? What's the real trap?

It can't be the old-time religion, since his later visit to the Whaleman's Chapel is a come-early-stay-late venture. Father Mapple's homily on the flight of Jonah takes place in violent daylight, in a chapel that offers a striking contrast to the "negro church" and its unified congregation. In the daylight church,

"Entering, I found a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors' wives and widows... Each silent worshipper seemed purposely sitting apart from the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable... [T]hese silent islands of men and women sat steadfastly eyeing several marble tablets, with black borders, masoned into the wall on either side the pulpit."

The white tablets stand for hard, cold death. They memorialize whalers lost in the merciless waves. Their black borders, in contrast, set visual limits to grief. The white worshipers, unlike their black counterparts, appear isolated, self-absorbed, oblivious. Yet in their presence, Ishmael seems, if not content, at least willing to stay. What reassurance might he draw from their oblivion, their disinterest?

Father Mapple's sermon, a reflection on the duplicity of Jonah, prefigures Ishmael's approaching employment interview. Jonah's passenger-screening Captain, sensing something fishy about the man before him, runs some tests. In Mapple's words,

Jonah's Captain prepares to test the length of Jonah's purse, ere he judge him openly. He charges him thrice the usual sum; and it's assented to. Then the Captain knows that Jonah is a fugitive.

Just so Peleg, the Pequod's HR officer, will soon challenge Ishmael's fitness for a whaling voyage and disparage the applicant's claims of prior experience:

Marchant service indeed! I suppose now ye feel considerable proud of having served in those marchant ships. But flukes! man, what makes thee want to go a whaling, eh?—it looks a little suspicious, don't it, eh?—Hast not been a pirate, hast thou?—Didst not rob thy last Captain, didst thou?—Dost not think of murdering the officers when thou gettest to sea?

Jonah's passenger status differs from Ishmael's position as hired whaler, a distinction of immeasurable importance to a man who makes clear at the outset that he travels as a "simple sailor." Perhaps it is this distinction that matters most to him. But to Peleg, the whaling ship's need for a crew is the deal-maker. Staffing a vessel whose captain's reputation for sanity is leaky at best, he hires the men he can get. Jonah's captain has a parallel business mentality, in Mapple's telling, that moves him,

...to help a flight that paves its rear with gold. Yet when Jonah fairly takes out his purse, prudent suspicions still molest the Captain. He rings every coin to find a counterfeit. Not a forger, any way, he mutters; and Jonah is put down for his passage.

Both Ishmael, then, and Jonah find their motives challenged but manage to get on board, and at the outset of their voyages, they experience parallel delusions of improving fortune. How hard it is not to wonder, Why this sermon, Herman? Just how far might these parallels extend? By definition, they continue to infinity. The lesson of Mapple's homily: "Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation!" Yet Ishmael, whose exit from the evening chapel was so remarkably hasty, has not backed away from this.

Melville gives us more, much more: the narrator's queer fascination with Queequeg, the messianic cannibal prince whose death, quite literally, lets Ishmael live. The prescient reverse anthropology of his walking tour of Nantucket and first impressions of the Pequod. The perverse animism of Ahab, doomed not by whaling, but by the identification of a particular whale as supernatural foe. The "Whiteness of the Whale," with its steady, insistent reversals of convention, its establishment of black as the standard, white the deviant form, of danger more terrible in whiteness surfaced than in blackness anywhere. The Biblical parallels—names and parables, floating in shadow and nuance.

The narrator, the man who asks us to call him Ishmael, submerges his true identity; in some way he can "not be true" because, for him, only "to be false were salvation." Is it possible that Ishmael's dualities have their roots in the core duality of his land? Has this teaching mariner, like his Biblical patron, experienced both "old established family" life and the torment of tribal exile? Is he a New World son of two tribes, the child of slave owner and slave? With such a story submerged like a depth charge—for more than 150 years—in the more familiar narrative, Melville's book is a wicked endeavor, indeed.


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