I’ve been reading Moby Dick. I don’t know why I put it off so long, I guess the monolithic reputation, maybe, and it’s been dogged with the descriptor ‘boring’, probably the result of being featured in multiple high school English lit classes (never any of mine), though I’m not exactly sure how gay cannibal whalers on a quest for vengeance led by an insane captain against his nemesis, the monstrous white whale who ate his leg, is boring, even in high school. Maybe it’s the chapters about Ishmael’s proposed classification system for whales.
Anyway, somehow, it ended up on the shelf, unread for much too long, though I’ve always found Herman Melville delightful. (And he had magnificent whiskers. )
I expected it to be about whales, and whaling, and humanity and obsession. I didn’t expect it to be so profoundly concerned with religion: religion as an institution, personal belief, the effects of that belief. I don’t mean I expected it to be devoid of religious reference (unrealistic in 19th century literature, for a number of reasons) but I also didn’t expect overt championing of religious tolerance, and especially not tolerance extended beyond Protestant sects.
I guess it makes a sort of sense if you consider Melville as a product of his time in the context of the Second Great Awakening & the reform movements of the era (his occasional remarks about temperance crack me up), and I suppose it makes me a product of my time & culture that I’m surprised there wasn’t huge American controversy over it–if 21st century American religious groups can get hysterical enough over a fictional boy wizard to burn books, you’d expect homosexual idolaters to cause a moral panic in the 19th. Apparently not; as far as I can tell via some cursory googling, the British censored some of the text for sexual content and sacrilege (and insults to the monarchy lol), but I didn’t find anything similar regarding the US edition; it was largely ignored. Not to worry! It took 150 years, but America managed to ‘catch up’ to the point of banning it, in the form of a Texas school board, wouldn’t you know.
I love this passage (from the end of Chapter 10):
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? 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. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.
What fascinates me is how Ishmael chooses, impeccably, to sin and thereby please his God. That what he does here is to put love for his fellow man above obedience to scripture, and thereby love both God and his fellow man. None of this ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’ crap, just love. And it begs the question, is a sin, according to the letter of the law, committed in service of the spirit of that law, still sin?
My surprise might also be colored by recent association with the Godly. I’ve been hanging around some internet Christians of late—not regular people who happen to believe in the Christian God and consider the Bible a good general guide for how to be a decent person, but some capital X Christians, the kind for whom Religion is their primary identity and things like idolatry and false gods are srs bsns. I have a hard time imagining someone with that kind of belief, even 150 years later, in a similar situation choosing love above technical obedience and joining Queequeg in his ritual, or even allowing Queequeg to worship his idol as he will, suspending judgment and without interfering and attempting to ‘save’ him. (Just in case you were thinking I sit around by myself pondering idolatry. There’s context, people.)
On a side note, a concerned gentleman recently made me aware that I’m unclean, having been contaminated by sex, drugs and rock-and-roll and my flesh corrupted by fornication, and this renders me unfit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (Also there was something about gay sex, but I stopped listening because I didn’t think that part applied to me.) I’m a little suspicious of the authenticity of his Bible; it’s been a while, and I could be wrong, but I don’t recall that particular book addressing ‘rock-and-roll’ at all, but I thought you should know anyway, in case I’m spiritually contagious. I promise not to intentionally fornicate you with my impurities, but accidents happen.