Jul/Aug 2001 Miscellaneous

Moby Dick: A Wicked Book

by Gary Sloan

Shortly after his American classic was published in 1851, Herman Melville (1819-1891) confessed to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne: "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb." Earlier, the book still in press, he said it was "broiled in hell-fire." Its secret motto, he told Hawthorne, is Ego non baptizo te in nomine.

The Latin fragment truncates an incantation by the monomaniac skipper of the Pequod, Captain Ahab, hellbent on smiting the elusive White Whale, Moby Dick, who "dismasted" him of a leg. In Chapter 113 ("The Forge"), Ahab baptizes the harpoon he will dart into the whale. As he anoints the barb with the blood of his pagan harpooners, he mocks the Christian baptismal formula. "Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris," he says, "sed nomine diaboli" ("I baptize you not in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil").

Not long before Melville began to broil his wicked book, he had, like the apostate Ahab, bolted to the devil's camp. Wakened by voyages on merchant, naval, and whaling ships, he began to reassess the Christian theodicy inculcated by his parents and the Dutch Reformed Church, an offshoot of Calvinism, in which he had been baptized, catechized, and reared. He had been taught to acquiesce in God's will no matter how unjust or cruel it might seem, for God, a deft magician, always plucked good from evil. When his father, a martinet who spelled "god" in all capital letters, died an excruciating death, the boy's mother admonished the children to eschew recriminations. The Lord, she reminded, moves in mysterious ways. "Love God, obey His commands, & your religious & moral instruction," she exhorted.

Her seafaring son darkened counsel. He began to suspect that the world is helmed by a truculent Skipper. In his Bible, he underscored Exodus 15:3: "The Lord is a man of war." The "universal thump," he observes in Moby Dick, "is passed around." In his serpentine travels, he witnessed on every hand disease, pestilence, catastrophe, destitution, racism, hatred, cruelty, and brutality incompatible with the providence of a benevolent deity. Reconciliation required obdurate sophistry.

In the South Pacific, he contracted an incurable aversion to Christianity. He whiffed the foul contagion of colonialism. On Tahiti, an influx of diseases from Christian Europe had whittled the native population from 200,000 to 9,000. In the Marquesas Islands, "the small remnant of natives had been civilized into draught horses and evangelized into beasts of burdens. They were broken into the traces and harnessed to the vehicles of their instructors like dumb brutes." On one island, he beheld Christian sailors frenziedly sating their lusts on nave Polynesian maidens.

On another, French gunners tested their cannons on natives assembled to greet them. Years later, on the lecture circuit, he was still dumfounded: "Who ever heard of a vessel sustaining the honor of a Christian flag and the spirit of the Christian Gospel by opening its batteries in indiscriminate massacre upon some poor little village on the seaside--splattering the torn bamboo huts with blood and brains of women and children, defenseless and innocent?"

Melville came to associate Christianity not with faith, hope, and charity, but with militaristic nationalism, ethnocentrism, slavery, hypocrisy, and predatory capitalism.

In Moby Dick, he routinely twits Christians. Blood bonding with the heathen harpooner Queequeg, Ishmael, the Presbyterian narrator, says: "I'll try a pagan friend since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy." As the Pequod readies to launch (on Christmas day), the money-grubbing Bildad, part owner of the ship, offers a mammonish benediction:

God bless ye, and have ye in His holy keeping men. Be careful in the hunt, ye mates. Don't forget your prayers, either. Don't whale it too much a Lord's days, men; but don't miss a chance either, that's rejecting Heaven's good gifts.

Melville's taunts occasionally turn bawdy. He recounts how a mincer, a whaleman who cuts blubber into thin slices the whalemen call "bible leaves," tailors himself a crude jacket from the foreskin of a whale. The vestment donned, the mincer performs his sacred office (slicing blubber): "Arrayed in decent black; occupying a conspicuous pulpit; intent on bible leaves--what a candidate for an archbishoprick [italics added], what a lad for a Pope this mincer."

In Chapter 94 ("A Squeeze of the Hand"), the bawdiness thickens when Ishmael describes how in a vat he manipulates spermaceti (whale sperm) to ready it for ointments, cosmetics, and candles. Melville spoofs the maudlin Christian precept that one must love one's neighbor as oneself:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers' hands... At last I was continually looking up into their eyes sentimentally, as much as to say--Oh! My dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Despite the snide commentary, Melville knew Christianity had no corner on iniquity. Everyone, in some measure, was a malefactor. He scoffed at "mooncalf idealisms" that envision humans as altruistic. "The glow of sociality," he wrote in his journal, "is so evanescent, selfishness so lasting." He concurred with the devil in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown": "Evil is the nature of mankind. The human bosom inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power can make manifest in deeds. The whole earth is one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot." As Hamlet tells Ophelia, "We are arrant knaves, all."

In Melville's diabolic wrinkle on Calvinism, fallen Adam didn't sire our knavish proclivities. God did. He is the Original Sinner, the only begetter of evil, the primal Archfiend.

With malice aforethought, he rigs us with the capacity to lie, cheat, deceive, connive, scheme, steal, harass, hate, torment, torture, maim, cripple, kill. With another turn of the screw, he fits us with a faculty for self-abuse: fear, anxiety, doubt, dread, suspicion, brooding, remorse, guilt, and other pale casts of thought. He further ratchets the misery with natural ills: hunger, thirst, poison, disease, plague, drought, lightning, tempest, volcano, typhoon, earthquake, tornado, and the bloody leapers and creepers of the animal kingdom. In this worst of all possible worlds, the demonic Prankster tosses in a little good to emboss the evil and to raise false hopes.

Like a fiendish twin of John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost to "justify the ways of God to man," Melville wrote Moby Dick to lambast God. Melville sided with Milton's Satan, Lord Byron's Lucifer, Shelley's Prometheus, and other indomitable scofflaws who said "No! in thunder" to the ruthless sway of the Almighty. "For all men who say yes," Melville averred, "lie." In Captain Ahab, Melville created a thunderous naysayer of his own.

Knowing any barefaced condemnation of the Almighty would rankle his readers, predominantly Christian, Melville indemnified himself by filtering Ahab's thunderous invective through a nominally Christian narrator, Ishmael, who brands Ahab an irremediable lunatic: "Human madness is often a cunning and feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into a subtler form. Ahab's lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted." By ascribing Ahab's blasphemies to madness, Melville could fob off querulous critics. (Actually, Ishmael cloaks his true allegiance. He is a surreptitious ally, a laundered counterpart, of Ahab.)

Melville further shielded himself with opaque symbolism. The uninitiated reader may be baffled by the hoopla surrounding a prolix narrative on whaling. In Melville's day, this Great American Novel was panned as an uneven sea yarn, marred by philosophical digressions, gratuitous ribaldry, and recondite allusions. Even Ahab's thunder can sound like a distant, muffled rumble. One isn't always sure just where or what the lightning struck.

The novel is one vast, hooded allegory. Throughout, cetology is code for theology. In Melville's Quarrel with God, Lawrance Thompson notes that "Melville's entire artistic contrivance in Moby Dick is his own esoteric and cabalistic commentary on God." All talk of whales (Moby Dick, above all) is God-talk.

Hence, rumor has it that Moby/God is "not only ubiquitous, but immortal." He is invulnerable to assault: "Though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he will still swim away unharmed." He transcends understanding: "The great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. One portrait may hit the mark nearer than another, but none can hit it with any considerable degree of accuracy." He is intelligent, powerful, grand, mighty. Some characterize him as bloodthirsty, vengeful, and malevolent, though one ship doctor, a prosaic diagnostician, opines: "What you take for the White Whale's malice is only his awkwardness."

Having never heard of him, some sailors doubt he exists. Others have heard, "but don't believe in him at all." The whale's whiteness is linked to "the heartless voids and immensities of the universe" and the "colorless, all-color of atheism."

To Captain Ahab, Moby Dick bodies forth a malignant universe designed to vex, baffle, and infuriate. Ishmael, who knows all, explains:

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.

Moby Dick is a mask of God. By harpooning the whale, Ahab hopes to strike the "unknown but still reasoning thing that puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask." Fluent in Ahabese, Starbuck, the pious First Mate of the Pequod, knows who the reasoning thing is. When Starbuck accuses Ahab of blasphemy, the Captain retorts:

How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me the White Whale is that wall, shoved near to me. He tasks me; he heaps me. I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the White Whale agent, or be the White Whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man. I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.

In Ahab's brainish apprehension, Moby God is a skulking ruffian who picks on pint-sized opponents: "I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies: Take some one of your own size; don't pommel me! No, ye've knocked me down, and I am up again, but ye have run and hidden. Come forth from behind your cotton bags!"

Ahab's sacrilege isn't always mediated by the whale symbolism. At one point, he grouses to a subordinate: "Ahab feels, feels. To think's audacity. Only God has that right and privilege." The unelaborated comment encrypts a sentiment Melville confided to Hawthorne:

I had rather be a fool with a heart than Jupiter Olympus with his head. The reason the mass of men fear God, and at bottom dislike Him, is because they rather distrust His heart, and fancy Him all brain like a watch.

Melville waggishly added: "You perceive I employ a capital letter in the pronoun referring to the Deity. Don't you think there is a slight dash of flunkeyism in that usage?"

With Machiavellian deviltry, the cerebral Deity--an "unearthly, cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor"--orchestrates Ahab's very blasphemies:

Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, or God, that lifts this arm? If the great sun moves not of himself, but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.

So Ahab rages at God because God compels him to. Or does God rage at himself? "I am madness maddened," says Ahab. One begins to see why.

Whether to mollify or to heckle Christians (or both), Melville dissociates the Christian deity from Ahab's God, the "unsuffusing thing beyond." In a tutorial prayer to the Godhead, symbolized by a "lofty tri-pointed trinity of flames" (three lightning-lit masts), Ahab says:

Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical.

Melville had mused to Hawthorne: "We incline to think that God cannot explain his own secrets, and that He would like a little information upon certain points Himself. We mortals astonish Him as much as He us."

Since Moby Dick emblematizes God, Ahab's vengeful quest has a predictable terminus: The whale destroys Ahab and all his crew--except Ishmael, who lives to tell the tale. Pious readers sometimes construe the whale's triumph as an exemplum on the folly of sacrilege. For Melville, the whale's rough-and-tumble retaliation was another instance of God-bullying.

Captain Ahab mirrors the tragic hero Melville limned for Hawthorne: "He declares himself a sovereign nature (in himself) amid the powers of heaven, hell, and earth. He may perish, but so long as he exists, he insists upon treating with all Powers upon an equal basis." To the end, Ahab is defiant and disdainful: "To neither love nor reverence wilt thou [God] be kind. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional mastery in me."

After Moby Dick, Melville began to slough off the neo-Calvinism and slither toward agnosticism. Still, he occasionally pined for the custodial Papa Above of his boyhood. Hawthorne, who understood Melville as well as anyone, said of him: "He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. He has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us."

A saintly devil, indeed.


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