December 8, 2006
“De Shark Well Goberned”: Armed Neutrality and the Two Sermons in Moby Dick
Melville once noted he loved all men who dive, all men who plunge the depths of life in search of knowledge only to return with red eyes. As Ahab clearly exemplifies, Melville’s men have no real free will in shaping their destinies; the only choice they are allowed is how to respond to their own futility. In The Long Encounter, critic Merlin Bowen’s study on Herman Melville, Bowen concludes that Melville’s major characters have three choices in how to approach life. Typified by “Bartleby”’s lawyer or Captain Delano, man can assume a stance of submission, the “way of weakness,” in which he refuses to confront or consider the darker aspects of life (Bowen 198). Alternatively, man can choose to see life for what it is, inevitably arriving at the knowledge that God is indifferent or nonexistent at best and hostile at worst. These “divers,” are further divided into two categories. Like Bartleby and Captain Ahab, man can assume a stance of rebellion, “the way of tragic heroism,” in which he attempts to battle fate, even unto personal or mass destruction (128). Finally, and for Melville, most admirably, man can assume the stance of the College Colonel and Moby Dick’s Ishmael: armed neutrality, “the way of wisdom” (234). The man who is able to plumb the depths of knowledge, unflinchingly confront it, yet ultimately maintain his poise, assumes this stance. Particularly in the case of Ishmael, this man finds not only comfort, but striking beauty in what can occasionally exist in this world. Ironic for such a complex novel, in Moby Dick, this beauty is manifested in quite simple concepts: community, brotherhood, self-governance and sacrifice, or in other words, the “Golden Rule.”
This ethos of armed neutrality is not located in the novel’s presentation of “traditional” Christianity. The novel’s theme of poise and an affirmation of humanity in the face of a spiritual abyss is not found in Father Mapple’s sermon, but rather in Fleece’s sermon to the sharks. While genuinely felt, Mapple’s Calvinist sermon is based in the avoidance of sin, the need for hierarchy, and the imperative of submission. In the Romantic sense, the sermon is sublime in its starkness and isolation. Because such Christianity also depends upon a rule-bound and even knowable order of the universe, it is ultimately a limiting worldview. Through Ishmael, Melville undermines Mapple’s Calvinism by scenes espousing the Golden Rule. Contrary to Mapple, Fleece’s estimation of Christianity is based in communalism, self-governance, and good works. Although starkly pessimistic about the sharkish nature of man and the God who made him, Fleece’s unheeded homily is Melville’s view of the true sermon of life. Indirectly, it the acceptance of Fleece’s bleak picture that informs Ishmael’s stance of armed neutrality ultimately embraced by the novel.
Roughly a century before Melville wrote Moby Dick, Edmund Burke defined the “sublime,” a term that would prove to be stylistically influential to both the British, and later the American, Romantics. Among other denotations, Burke identified the sublime as a privation so great because of its terribleness, vacuity, darkness, solitude, and silence. It is a power that demands submission so that “strength, violence, pain, and terror, are ideas that rush in upon the mind together” (135). In this sense, even before Father Mapple speaks, his chapel and personal stature evoke the sublime. A tone of isolation, deprivation, and awe pervades this scene. Ishmael’s first impression of the congregation is of “silent worshipper [s who] seemed purposely sitting apart from the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable” (43). “Silent islands” of men and women stare blankly at “frigid” grave markers of men killed at sea (43, 44). It is only the “savage” Queequeg who recognizes Ishmael, allegedly because he is illiterate and thus immune to the sobering inscriptions. Melville, however, implies that it is Queequeg’s lack of integration into Calvinist society that contributes to his warmth.
The man who eventually enters the chapel is nothing short of iconic. From his presence alone, Father Mapple is certainly presented as a worthy potential model for Ishmael’s emulation. A sailor and harpooner in his youth, Mapple eschews the frivolity of an umbrella or carriage, his “tarpaulin hat runn[ing] down with melting sleet” (46). The awe-inspiring sublimity of Mapple’s moral and physical height is echoed by the striking painting framing his figure. The painting is quite harsh, featuring “a gallant ship beating against a terrible storm off a lee coast of black rocks and snowy breakers” (47). The scene is not completely devoid of hope, however. Suggesting the presence of a clear moral order, an angel parts the dark clouds and seems to urge the ship to “…beat on, for the sun is breaking through” and “serenest azure is at hand” (47).
The Father proceeds to ascend his lofty pulpit built at such a height as to require a ladder. He then drags up the rope ladder, rendering him “impregnable in his own little Québec,” to such dramatic effect, it causes Ishmael to suspect him of “courting notoriety by …mere tricks of the stage” (47). Ishmael retracts this judgment, however, reading this act of physical isolation as symbolic of “spiritual withdrawal… from all outward worldly ties and connexions” (47). In his “act of spiritual isolation,” Mapple can be identified as a voluntary “Isolato,” Melville’s own term for a man who chooses to live on a separate continent of his own (47). In his self-imposed isolation, Mapple also prefigures Captain Ahab, a man whose detachment is a product of his own megalomania. In his essay “Melville’s ‘Isolatoes,’” Critic R. E. Waters argues that Melville viewed such isolation, particularly voluntary or prolonged, as “either chill[ing] the heart or corrupt[ing] the mind – or both” (1140). To reconnect to Bowen’s stances, Mapple, like Ahab, assumes a stance of rebellion in his unwillingness to maintain equal or substantive ties to humanity.
Like Ahab, Melville intends Mapple as a character to be admired. Not one to submit, the former harpooner has clearly grappled with the harsher realities of life. His answers, although the product of orthodoxy, are deeply genuine. While ultimately spurned by Ishmael, it could even be argued that Mapple achieves a sort of enlightenment in his ministry: in the “hardy winter of healthy old age,” he merges into “a second flowering youth, for among all the fissures of his wrinkles, there shone certain mild gleams of a newly developing bloom” (46).
In his article “Calvinism and Cosmic Evil in Moby Dick,” T. Walter Herbert, Jr. notes that Melville often made thematic use of the Calvinist theology of the Dutch Reformed Church in which he was raised. Specifically, Melville was familiar with the line of attack on Calvinism that accused Calvin as having conceived a God who is not only wrathful, but brutally monstrous. According to Herbert, Melville actually wrote Moby Dick alongside this particular anti-Calvinist treatise, John Taylor’s Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin (1613). Indeed, the God of Mapple’s sermon is a cross between a monster and mobster, truly a force to be feared. Mapple implores his congregants to consider the urgency and scope of Jonah’s disobedient flight: “See ye not then, shipmates, that Jonah sought to flee world-wide from God?” (49). It is hardly a comforting refrain with which Mapple answers Jonah’s attempts at escape, pausing to impart, “But God is everywhere” (52). Like the climax of a gothic tale, Mapple stresses the “terrors upon terrors [that] run shouting through his soul” and “the hard hand of God that is upon him” (52). Certainly reverence appears to be elicited only through terror and punishment; the threat of annihiliation through storm extracts Jonah’s submission: “’I fear the Lord the God of Heaven who hath made the sea and the dry land!’” to which Mapple mercilessly adds, “Fear him, O Jonah? Aye, well mightest thou fear the Lord God then!” (52).
Melville parodies through exaggeration the concept of original sin. Note Mapple’s unwitting repetition of the word “sin” to the extent it loses meaning:
Shipmates, it is 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… (49) [italics mine].
Perhaps to underscore the absurdity of the sublime melodrama, Melville brilliantly echoes the macabre painting not only with Mapple’s diction and gestures, but with the weather. While Mapple preaches in mounting theatrics, “the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without seemed to add new power to the preacher, who, when describing Jonah’s sea-storm, seemed tossed by a storm himself…” (53).
Mapple further portrays an especially punishing version of Christianity is his pointed omission of a magnanimous God. University of Iowa Biblical and Jewish Studies scholar Jay A. Holstein in his critique “Melville’s Inversion of Jonah in Moby Dick” faulted Melville for including “not one reference to divine compassion” (19). Perhaps overlooking Melville’s artistic intention, Holstein argues that Mapple completely reworks the Book of Jonah to suit Calvinist ends. Mapple stresses Jonah’s fear, for instance, yet Holstein points out that the psalm he utters inside the belly of the whale “contains not a hint of fear” (17). Mapple also underscores the theme of “repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah” (49). However, as Holstein asserts, while the pagan sailors express fear and repentance, “there is not a shred of evidence to indicate that Jonah repents” (17). Mapple makes much of the “deliverance and joy of Jonah,” but in the fourth “climactic” chapter of Jonah, which Mapple completely omits from his sermon, Jonah is instead deeply disgruntled that God acted magnanimously in sparing Ninevah (Holstein 17). Why, then, is such a fearsome God asserted? Why does Mapple elaborate upon the “terrors upon terrors” when in the actual biblical text Jonah observes “I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (4:1-2 qtd in Holstein 20)?
Mapple’s sermon ultimately presents a dark and castigatory worldview. Melville pointedly uses a particularly harsh brand of Christianity to create an option based on obedience rather than contemplation, and self-flagellation rather than self-governance. Mapple’s world is mutually exclusive: “if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves” (49). A sense of community is negated throughout: the ship captain who profits from Jonah’s guilt, the fact that the congregants do not have bibles and must rely on Mapple, and the tableau of Mapple ‘Bastilled’ in his own imprisonment. Ultimately, this option is distasteful because it assumes both a hierarchy and a knowable order of things: a jealous and wrathful God speaking to his “pilot” from on high. As Holstein colorfully phrases, Mapple may be, unwittingly at least, “one in a long line of Melville’s …clergymen who point the way with the back of his neck” (13).
“The Sermon,” ends in the picture of ultimate self-isolation: Father Mapple kneels, hands covering his face, “till all the people had departed, and he [is] left alone in the place” (54). The sublime, isolated, and “I-thou” nature of “The Sermon,” is placed in sharp relief to Ishmael’s observations of a pagan in the proceeding chapter, “A Bosom Friend.” Upon returning to the Spouter Inn, Ishmael finds Queequeg similarly “quite alone” engaged in a religious act, but his is a portrait of tranquility (54). He is seated at the hearth before a fire, and gently whittles away at his idol Yojo’s nose. The spectacle is the first of a series of comparisons between Mapple the Christian and Queequeg the pagan. Symbolically, unlike Mapple’s worldview, Queequeg’s relationship with his god is quite literally mutable. Melville further invites a reading of Mapple and Queequeg as foils; just as Mapple inspires awe and respect, Ishmael pointedly notes that Queequeg looked “like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor” (55). As Mapple begins and ends his sermon in images of stark solitude, Ishmael notes that Queequeg never desires to befriend his shipmates, which strikes him as “almost sublime” (55). Queequeg’s solitude, however, is not that of the “isolato,” because of his “utmost serenity,” and his “content[edness] with his own companionship” (55).
In the ensuing events and commentary, Ishmael moves from the external to the internal to rationally arrive at the act that effectively subverts Mapple’s worldview. Ishmael quickly transcends Queequeg’s surface differences, first observing him as “hideously marred about the face,” then as “soothing,” with “honest heart” and “large deep eyes,” concluding, “You cannot hide the soul” (55). A warmth of soul, however, was an absent factor in Mapple’s sermon. Comparing Queequeg to an American forefather, or “George Washington cannibalistically developed,” Ishmael continues to integrate him into the familiar. Ishmael then notices a “melting” within him, realizing that “no more [was his] splintered heart and maddened hand… turned against the wolfish world” because “this soothing savage had redeemed it” (56). Should there be any doubt as to whether Ishmael regards his splintered heart unredeemable by the Calvinism in the previous chapter, he notes in no uncertain terms, “I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy” (56). This light-hearted sacrilege is further bolstered by Ishmael’s earlier comment in agreeing to share Queequeg’s bed in the first place: “…better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (36).
In juxtaposed chapters, Melville proffers two opposing belief systems: one sublime, the other beautiful. Where Mapple walled himself up in his little Quebec, Queequeg clasps his bosom friend around the waist, claiming he would gladly die for him. As the Father preached to his “silent islands of men” from on high, the brotherly savage divides his thirty pieces of silver into equal portions, insisting half go to his friend. Given the two choices, Ishmael emphatically elects the liberal view of “the good.” Although Ishmael here fancies himself a “good Christian, born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church,” his rationale is anything but doctrine: “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” (57). “Ergo,” Ishmael eventually concludes, “I must turn idolater,” as he blasphemes in prayer to Queequeg’s “innocent little idol” (57). Ironically, it is the “Golden Rule” of the Sermon on the Mount in which Melville undermines the “tradition-bound orthodoxy” represented by Mapple’s sermon. Or, as Holstein notes critically, “Melville broiled Mapple’s sermon in hell-fire and baptized it in pagan blood” (13).
Was Ishmael such a “good Christian” to begin with? Did he ever find the Presbyterian Church “infallible”? Perhaps enchanted by his new friendship or perhaps feeling blithe about religion in general, Ishmael later gives a short sermon of his own when Bildad questions “Quohog’s” church membership. Queequeg, Ishmael pontificates, is not only a member, but a deacon of the “First Congregational Church… the same ancient Catholic Church of which you and I… and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of the whole worshipping world, we all belong to that …in that we all join hands” (84). Yet, can Ishmael’s philosophy of brotherhood be so playfully insouciant? Melville does locate a darker view of God, humanity, and chaos in the novel’s second sermon, Fleece’s reluctant sermon to “thousands on thousands” of swarming, voracious sharks (236). It is only after this starkly affecting turning point that Ishmael’s notion of communalism in the face of sharkish depravity can be viewed as mature, poised, and defiant.
It should first be noted that just as Quequeeg is readily Father Mapple’s counterpoint, Mapple and Fleece are also foils. The two preachers have polar identities: one a purposeful patriarch speaking on the sin of being a reluctant prophet, the other a reluctant prophet himself. Compare Mapple’s crisp and “venerable robustness” to Fleece’s physicality as he, being roused from warm sleep, “shamble[es] along the galley,” because “like many old blacks, there was something the matter with his knee-pans, which he did not keep well scoured like his other pans” (46, 237). Fleece “shuff[les] and limp[s]” and “flounder[s]” along. As opposed to the erect posture of Mapple, Fleece bends his “arched back still further over,” resting on his cane sideways so as to “bring his best ear into play” (237).
Perhaps Melville elects a man in a bleak situation to deliver an essentially bleak message. The ocean is populated with voracity. Sharks always pervade the background, as seen in Chapter 66, “The Shark Massacre,” in which they “cannibally” and “viciously snapped, not only at each other’s disembowelments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound” (243).
The sharks are a metaphor for humanity. Their voraciousness is linked to human images: “wallowing in the sullen, black waters, and turning over on their backs as they scooped out huge globular pieces of the whale of the bigness of a human head” or “The mark they thus leave on the whale, may best be likened to the hollow made by a carpenter in countersinking for a screw” (236, 237). Melville takes the metaphor even further; sharkish humanity is not merely voracious, it is cannibalistic. Moreover, man’s figurative cannibalism is positively diabolical. Note here how Melville deconstructs any previously held assumptions of essential difference between human and animal natures:
Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasseled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and though, were you to turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be pretty much the same thing, that is to say, a shocking sharkish business enough for all parties… If you have never seen that sight, then suspend your decision about the propriety of devil-worship, and the expediency of conciliating the devil (237).
Stubb here assumes the comparison to the cannibal shark. Oddly enough, in eating the whale and through his identification with the ‘neck-biting’ sharks, Melville makes keener points about Stubb and perhaps about the crueler variety of Bowen’s “submitters”: it is he, not Queequeg, who is the more malicious cannibal. “Nor was Stubb the only banqueter on whale’s flesh that night,” as Melville links the two species, “Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness” (236). Note the alliteration of “m” and “f” sounds joining shark and Stubb as well as the mounting carnality of the cadence here. The following lines feature the consonance of “s” sounds underscoring sensation of slapping and smacking. Stubb is intimately linked: “But, as yet, Stubb heeded not the mumblings of the banquet that was going on so nigh him, no more than the sharks heeded the smacking of his own epicurean lips” (237).
Immediately after this striking exposition begins Stubb’s malicious jeering at Fleece, while carnally “darting his fork into the dish, as if stabbing with his lance,” calls “cook, you cook!” (237). As metaphorical cannibal here, Stubb feasts on virtually raw meat. Although he is of a far ‘lower’ order, however, Fleece is more humane: he is a cook (not a butcher), and is distanced from such bloody stabbing. Stubb berates Fleece, “rapidly lifting a rather reddish morsel to his mouth,” for the steak being overdone (237). Rather, he would prefer Fleece touch a hot coal to it and plate it. He even directly compares himself to the sharks: “Don’t I always say that to be good, a whale-steak must be tough? There are those sharks now over the side, don’t you see they prefer it tough and rare?” (237). The irony and humor lie not just in the language and absurdity Fleece’s sermon, but also in Stubb’s calling for it. After being so thoroughly being compared to the savage sharks, eating raw meat wishing it still more rare, stabbing it as though with a lance, he tortures a “fellow” man, rousing him from sleep, asking him to give a sermon on civility and moderation.
In a manner quite unlike Mapple’s, one must conclude that any God who created Shark, who created men like Stubb, is not a loving God. Famously and ironically internalizing the white view of American Indians, Queequeg observes, “Queequeg no care what god made him shark… wedder Fejee god [i.e., pagan] or Nantucket god [i.e., Christian]; but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin” (243).
And yet, even in the face of this God that made Shark, according to Fleece, there is salvation in the governance of Sharkishness: “Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is nature, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked nature, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned” (238). And yet, even if the face of the God that made “Massa Shark hisself,” the Golden Rule is asserted: “Don’t be tearin’ de blubber out your neighbour’s mout, I say…” (238). Civility is asserted: “Now look here, bred’ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale” (238). Community is affirmed: “I know some o’ you has berry big mout, bigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts sometimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness ob de mout is not to swallar wid, but to bite off de blubber for de small fry ob sharks, dat can’t get into de scrouge to help demselves” (238).
Of course, even this forced altruism is undermined. Neither the sharks nor Stubb, “such dam g’uttons,” heed his message (238). Rather than maintaining poise, Fleece is disgusted by his futility, pointing out, there is “no use goin’ on: de dam willains will keep a scrougin’ and slappin’ each oder, Massa Stubb” (238). Perhaps unwittingly making a larger comment about “Schopenhauerian” notions of voracity, he states that sharks won’t listen, “till dare bellies is full, and dare bellies is bottomless” (238). Even the Golden Rule is turned on its ear; the scene ends with Fleece wishing “by gor! whale eat him, ‘stead of him eat whale” (240).
Stubb says of Fleece’s overall preaching, “Well done, old Fleece! That’s Christianity; go on,” but ironically demeans Fleece even more, particularly about his half-formed ideas about an afterlife. In one of the cruelest parts of the scene, Fleece responds to Stubb’s question about where he plans to go after he dies: “Up dere,” replies Fleece, “holding his tongs straight over his head, and keeping it there very solemnly” (240). Stubb cannibalistically attacks even this innocent hope, asking “So, then, you expect to go up into our main-top, do you, cook, when you are dead? But don’t you know the higher you climb, the colder it gets? Main-top eh?” (240). Critic Sanford Sternlicht’s estimation is “…the men of the Pequod who sense that God is dumb, brutal, and inscrutable; and who in fact see God himself. Thus, it is Fleece and not Mapple who preaches the true sermon of life as Melville saw it, and who is chosen by that author to state emphatically his darkly pessimistic view of man’s role and fate” (52).
Upon reading the concluding chapters narrating the end of Ahab, the end of the Pequod, the end of the defiance of fate, it may seem anti-climactic to interpret what remains as an affirmation of the simplest of themes: brotherhood, self-governance, and the Golden Rule. This worldview is not a shallow one, however; it is not that of Melville’s submitters, his lawyers and Captain Delano’s. All that Ahab and even Fleece see and cannot reconcile, Ishmael, as their narrator, sees and makes peace with. This path of acceptance is what Merlin Bowen referred to as “armed neutrality,” or “the way of wisdom” (234). Ishmael’s stance may further be described as one of “resistance without defiance and acceptance without surrender, of an indifference that is not apathy and an affirmation free of all illusion” (235). As evinced by the epic he relates, Ishmael encompasses the yearnings and horrors of all his dead shipmates. The mature narrator that survives to tell his tale, however, has attained a broader perspective, realizing “the world, like the ocean, ‘brims with natural griefs and tragedies; and into that watery immensity of terror, man’s private grief is lost like a drop’” (Melville qtd. in Bowen 235).
Arthur Schopenhauer, the “philosopher of pessimism” who arguably influenced or paralleled Melville’s work, once wrote of the human condition:
…a man never is happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something which he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbour with masts and rigging gone. And then it is all one whether he has been happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than the present moment always vanishing; and now it is over (35)
Elements such as the quest for an allusive thing that will make man happy may be applicable to Ahab. The latter, “…whether he has been happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than the present moment,” ironically, may be applied to Ishmael, who ultimately rejects pessimism. Ishmael could have justifiably concluded his epic with the horrific massacre of the chase’s third day, and yet he chooses this ending:
Buoyed up by that coffin… I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan. (427)
Ishmael picks these experiences as singularly significant: his savage bosom friend’s salvation from beyond the grave, the ship who had been refused Ahab’s kindness but who nonetheless offers it, and almost miraculously, the angelic escort of sharks “well goberned.” The sea may be unflinching, rolling on “as it rolled five thousand years ago” (427). Life may be a horrific whiteness, utterly void of meaning save what is projected onto it. It may only be a collection of fleeting moments, but the wise man chooses to focus on those of community, brotherhood, and self-governance.
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 Admittedly, Melville is fond of humorous cynicism and exaggeration as shall be seen in his self-conscious scenes of brotherhood that border on the absurd and homoerotic.