Avast! There Be Spoilers Ahead!
Aboard The Pequod
“Call me Ishmael.” So begins Herman Melville’s maritime masterpiece. So too began my journey aboard the Pequod as I set sail from the harbor of the Lookingglass Theater this past Sunday, swept away in their matinee performance of Moby Dick. The whole of the theater enveloped the audience in the eerie depths of the haunting tale, taking us into the bowels of the ship or the whale himself; it was impossible to distinguish which. The formidable sea came to life, and the brilliant cast lured the audience like a siren into the seafaring adventure. It was a faithful rendering of Melville’s classic, interpreted not only through masterful acting but also through fluid acrobatics conveying the motions of sailors on – and under – the sea. The play sails for another month before docking for good, and for those in the Chicago area, I highly recommend climbing aboard!
After the curtain call, I continued to plumb the transcendent depths of this nautical literary treasure as a panelist for the Reflect post-show discussion on religion and spirituality in Moby Dick. The fathoms of meaning beneath the myriad symbols of Biblical allusion are as deep as the ocean itself, and I can but faintly skim the surface in this article. However, I would here like to touch on themes of the human understanding of God, vengeance, and mercy by contrasting two Biblical outcasts alluded to in the novel and play: Jonah and Ishmael.
Jonah and Vengeance
“Call me Ishmael,” the narrator extolls, implying that he has chosen such a name for himself. Ishmael calls to mind the outcast son of Abraham alone in the desert, and from the beginning our narrator expresses the loneliness of one with nothing to cling to and the freedom of one with nothing to lose. One might ask why he has chosen this Biblical outcast as his identity when a more obvious choice, for a seafarer, might be Jonah, who is cast out onto the open sea. Indeed, Biblical Jonah features prominently at the beginning of the story, but a look at his story in scripture reveals that there is another sailor aboard the Pequod who more closely identifies with this nautical prophet than does our narrator.
Before Ishmael sets sail, he ducks into the sailor’s chapel on Nantucket Island and hears Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah. In the sermon, God is depicted as a harsh taskmaster demanding obedience and chasing a foolish, sinful Jonah – who tried to escape his commandments and his wrath – to the ends of the earth! As Fr. Mapple says in his sermon:
But what is the lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God – Never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed – which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do – remember that – and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade.
So Fr. Mapple goes on to chastise fleeing, cowardly Jonah, upbraiding him as a miserable man “contemptible and worthy of all scorn.” In the process, he implies that God is vengeful, demanding the sacrifice of Jonah’s life for his disobedience and sending a storm to drown him and all who would come to his aid. Those aboard with Jonah only escape death when Jonah is thrown overboard and swallowed by a great monster of the deep. Only when Jonah prays from within the belly of the whale does God’s heart soften, because, Fr. Mapple tells us, Jonah prays not for his life to be spared, but for his soul. “He feels that his dreadful punishment is just.”
I must take exception to many of Fr. Mapple’s implications in this sermon, starting with the notion that it does not matter what commandment God gave to Jonah, but only that Jonah disobeyed. It makes all the difference in the world that God called upon Jonah to deliver a word of warning to the people of Nineveh, and that Jonah fled not on account of God’s vengeance, but on account of his own. Even being delivered from the belly of the whale and experiencing salvation from his own doom could not soften Jonah’s heart toward his enemies, the Ninevites whom he despised. When they repent and are spared, Jonah cries out to God in rage:
O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4: 2-3)
The story of Jonah shows a transition in the understanding of God by the Hebrew people who told the story. On the one hand, God relentlessly pursues Jonah, and it is implied that God will destroy Nineveh – and Jonah too – if they do not repent. Yet a reading through the lens of mimetic theory shows that Nineveh was in a mimetic crisis, a crisis in which the people, lashing out to prove themselves over and against one another, were blending together in a frenzy of violence. While traditionally a crisis of violence is resolved by a sacrifice, in which the mutual hatred of the populace converges on an unfortunate and innocent scapegoat, this story is different. Jonah has already been sacrificed, cast out, and he comes to Nineveh with an exhortation of repentance, counseling of God’s mercy. Receiving the message, the Ninevites turn from their violence and the crisis is resolved without bloodshed. Although the scripture says that God “changes his mind” and does not visit wrath upon Nineveh, it is clear that Nineveh was on the brink of self-destruction without God’s wrath. Taking the trajectory begun in Jonah further, one can surmise that God never intended wrath toward the city, and sent Jonah to preach a message of repentance not so that God could forgive (for God’s forgiveness is free and unconditional), but so that the people could receive a change of heart and not destroy themselves.
The one who is cast out into the utter doom comes with a message of mercy. Could this be the “sign of Jonah” to which Jesus refers in Matthew 12 and Luke 11?
Fr. Mapple appears to miss this trajectory and overlook God’s mercy in his focus on God’s power and wrath. And this focus on God’s outrageous might and unquenchable fury — an understanding of God that is turned upside-down by the Gospels – still tends to dominate the minds of many people today, and appears to be the dominant view of God at the time of our tale. This dominant theology plays a subliminal role, I believe, in the psyches of our characters. Believing in a vengeful God can reinforce an engrained human propensity toward vengeance.
But even belief in a merciful God does not necessarily incline one toward mercy, especially if one is hellbent on running from that mercy to sustain one’s own merciless desires. Such was the case with Jonah, who fled not for the sake of God’s wrath, but for his own.
Who aboard the Pequod most resembled Jonah? Captain Ahab himself! Unrelenting, unrepenting Ahab, following his relentless bitter fury to the ends of the earth. In pursuit of the monstrous white whale Moby Dick, who devoured his leg and his pride upon his last voyage, Captain Ahab is ready to sacrifice not only himself, but all he holds dear. All traces of mercy, all tenderness and affection, Love itself, must be forsaken to his madness and rage. Like Jonah, Ahab fled from Love into the jaws of death, though unlike Jonah he was never delivered out. The white whale consumed Ahab long before the fatal battle that swallowed up his crew.
Ishmael and Mercy
Our narrator, by contrast, experiences the mercy of God in the most unexpected manner. The name Ishmael is apt, for Ishmael means “God hears.” God indeed hears Ishmael in his loneliness, and I would venture to suggest that Ishmael’s “salvation,” his deliverance from the dejection he apparently feels when he describes the restless state of mind that drove him to the sea, begins before he even climbs aboard the ship. God mercy comes to Ishmael in a form many might miss, yet Ishmael, attuned to God’s compassion, receives it as a blessing, even if unconsciously. For I believe that the mercy of God is made manifest to Ishmael in the person of his pagan friend, Queequeg.
Queequeg is described as a cannibal, one with whom Ishmael would probably not choose to associate but for a circumstance that brought them together in a most intimate manner just before they set sail together aboard the Pequod. Unable to find an empty room at any inn near the Nantucket harbor from which he would depart, Ishmael must share a room and bed with this strange stranger from a remote (fictional) island in the South Pacific sea. Dark skinned, tattooed, unbaptized and “savage,” Queequeg first frightens Ishmael, but soon proves not only innocuous, but kindhearted and eager for Ishmael’s friendship. (Their relationship, taken from the book but enhanced by the play, is one of the most delightful aspects of the performance.)
In a passage of the novel that will scandalize some but endear others, Ishmael explains how, to honor the will of God, he joined Queequeg in prayer to an idol, rationalizing thusly:
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 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.
Many in Melville’s time and today might balk at Ishmael’s logic and accuse him of blasphemy for taking the Golden Rule too far. (Oh, the irony!) Yet through the lens of mimetic theory, it is clear that the idolatry most blasphemous to God is the worship of violence, the nurturing of enmity, the judgment of one human being over and against another. Ishmael’s intuitive recognition of God’s mercy helped him to discard the prejudices that had seeped into him through his culture and extend humility and grace to Queequeg, who mirrored it back to him. The mimetic logic of the Golden Rule is that, as we imitate one-another’s kindness, we reorient ourselves toward the all-embracing love of God and better magnify God’s image. So in humbling himself, though he knelt before a wooden idol, Ishmael offers true worship to God, cultivating a friendship with a fellow image-bearer of the Divine.
Ishmael recognizes Queequeg as a fellow bearer of God’s image, though many of his time, and even now, would not. I would even go so far as to say that if any character could be interpreted as a Christ figure, it would be Queequeg, salvation in an unlikely package, subverting all expectations of where God is to be found!
Queequeg even proves to be Ishmael’s salvation in a far more literal way. At one point in the novel, Queequeg falls ill, and, believing himself to be dying, has a coffin fashioned. He goes so far as to lie down in the coffin, but, recognizing he is needed, arises and shakes off his fever. In the end, it is Queequeg’s coffin, floating as a life buoy, to which Ishmael clings to escape from drowning! One might then say that Queequeg’s death (and the death of so many others) was a sacrifice that ultimately allowed Ishmael to live, since the life-vessel to which he clung was only big enough for one. And yet, like Jesus, it was not so much the death as the empty coffin itself that saved! Queequeg climbed out of his coffin, and the empty tomb became the saving grace of Ishmael! He lived not because Queequeg died, but because he lived, and their friendship saved him first from depression and then from death!
It would be easy to look at Moby Dick and see the wrath and abandonment of God. Yet as in the story of Jonah, the fury and vengeance of Moby Dick is human in origin, residing in Captain Ahab, “an ungodly, god-like man.” God-like was Ahab in terms of our perception of God – vengeful and formidable. Yet God subverts our expectations of vengeance with mercy, mercy personified in the most unlikely of persons, where those who have an exclusive, harsh perception of God would never think to look. Such it is with Jesus; such it is too with Queequeg. God comes to the cast out in the form of an outcast.
Jonah, sailing the seas to nurse his vengeance, is embodied by Ahab. Our narrator, the outcast who found mercy, is aptly called Ishmael. Jonah is the outcast who refuses to hear God; Ishmael is the outcast whom God hears.
Yet, one might ask, where is the mercy for the crew of the Pequod who fall pray to the heartless sea? It is a worthy question, and there may not be a satisfying answer. But as God’s love is stronger than death, I wish to conclude with the words of the Psalmist:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139: 7-12)
Image: Queequeg, from the playbill for the Lookingglass Theater production of Moby Dick.