Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Moby Dick Ch. 12-19: On Religions and Some Cultural Backgrounds

Ch. 12: Biographical

How relatable is this passage about Queequeg's origin to our present world. Son of a High Priest on his native island, he was rejected, bullied, and distrusted when entering the "so-called-Christians" land. Christians, who regard themselves as superior towards other races, but often behave lower and more savage than they whom they called "savages". Only Queequeg, so far (yes, not even Ishmael - see ch. 17!), who regards fellow human being as brothers/sisters - all race and nation is just the same - that's what I call humanity at its best. "It's a wicked world in all meridians; I'll die a pagan."

Ch. 13: Wheelbarrow

= A hint of cultural diversity, the hilarious story from Queequeg. And it's good that Queequeg throws the shade over Ishmael's laughing at him about the wheelbarrow incident. And actually it's not the first time - Ishmael will do similar thing at ch. 17. Those arrogant "boobies and bumpkins" also had their fair shares by bullying Queegueg!

= Another hint of sin and slavery (related to ch. 1 - the passage about "the two orchard thieves [Adam and Eve]) in "the intorelableness of all earthly effort" and "how I spurned that turnpike earth- that common highway all over dented with the marks of slavish heals and hoofs."

= Again, another hint of water as deliverance against dust/land (as in ch. 1), and as key to freedom.

= I admired Queequeg's humbleness; he was unconscious of his heroic action, which was exemplary to all (particularly to Christians) - "It's a mutual, joinstock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christian's." Bravo, Queequeg!

Ch. 14: Nantucket

I have found an interesting fact while researching about Nantucket. Remember Peter Coffin, the owner of Spouter Inn, whose name has thrown dark gloom over Ishmael? Did you know that the real Peter Coffin was one of the owners of Nantucket back in 17th-18th century? A Hussey – as in the Husseys, owner of Try Pots inn [ch. 15] was also the name of one of the owners.

[From Wikipedia] :
“In October 1641, William, Earl of Stirling, deeded the island to Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts Bay. In 1659 Mayhew sold an interest in the island to nine other purchasers, reserving 1/10th of an interest for himself, "for the sum of thirty pounds ... and also two beaver hats, one for myself, and one for my wife." [In] 1659, when Thomas Mayhew sold his interest to a group of investors, led by Tristram Coffin. The "nine original purchasers" were Tristram Coffin, Peter Coffin, Thomas Macy, Christopher Hussey, Richard Swain, Thomas Barnard, Stephen Greenleaf, John Swain and William Pike. These men are considered the founding fathers of Nantucket, and many islanders are related to these families.”

Interesting, eh? I imagined how Melville might have been amused while finding this name (Coffin), which really fitted the dark gloom he wanted to cast around chapter 3!

By the way, I loved the poetic description of Nantucketer: "....with the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales."

Ch. 15: Chowder

Another interesting fact: the chowder (but tell me first, can you read this chapter without salivating all over? LOL). Anyway, I always assume that chowder is a creamy soup. Is it the same in your place? But, again, researching about 19th century chowder, I realized that then, chowder was a layered casserole. I found this information in a post by a food blogger called The American Table.

“Traditionally, chowders are more like soupy casseroles, and that ‘chowdering’ referred to the process of layering ingredients. One of the first recipes for a chowder, for example, was published as a poem in the Boston Evening Post on September 23, 1751”:

First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thing,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o’er the Same again,
You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother ’em,
You’ll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather ’em.

The original chowder, I guess, would have looked similar to this:
[credit: Book Phantom]

Ch. 16: The Ship

First meeting with the owners of Pequod: Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad. I noticed first of two inconsistencies regarding religion and its practices.

= On Bildad: despite of "Ye have been studying those Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years...", Bildad treated his crews cruelly. And I loved how Melville picked the verse of Matthew 6:19-21 ["lay not up for yourselves treasure upon earth...] to be particularly cited by Bildad when he decided to "swindle this young man" by giving him "long lay". Tipping my hat to you, Mr. Melville, that's just brilliant!

Ch. 17: The Ramadan

Inconsistency #2 was shown by Ishmael, when he criticized Queequeg's extreme practice of Ramadan. While keep saying that he (Ishmael) "cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations, never mind how comical...", he was obliged, nevertheless, to scold Queequeg "rather digressively" by bullying or making fool of his beliefs, or faith, or whatever you call it: "Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsia nurtured by Ramadans." I personally was quite surprised by this speech - I thought Melville (through Ishmael - or is he not entirely Melville's voice?) made a point of condemning Christian's superiority towards other religions/beliefs. Not believing in other religions (or religions in general) is one thing (and tolerable), but making fool of them publicly is disrespectful. By doing that, Ishmael acted just like the Christians he criticized. We might regard other religious practices are ridiculous, but we must pay respect to them all the same - each to his own belief!

Ch. 18: His Mark

Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg, each has his opposite view of religion.
- Bildad: studied diligently the Scriptures, but practiced none.
- Peleg: ignored the Scriptures, but practiced it.

Browsing Brona's post, I have found out that Melville was assumed to be Agnostic. I shrugged off this idea at that time (last week), since so far, Melville has diligently quoted Bible verses, telling stories from Bible, and named his characters from Old Testament - not mentioning the powerful my-so-far-favorite chapter: The Sermon. But then, I began to notice few inconsistencies in the previous chapter; and now, this Peleg's argument with Bildad. So, maybe the Agnostic idea was not entirely ungrounded, after all. I begin to feel that Melville, perhaps disappointed with his fellows Christians, began to dream of (or "converted" to) a religion beyond existing religions, which was based on humanity and nature (which explains Ishmael's feeling of freedom, related to sea). Well, let's see!

Chapter 19: The Prophet

For an Agnostic (if Melville was really one), he really borrowed Biblical aspect so abundantly for his book! :) Now he brings us the Book of Kings - Elijah the prophet and King Ahab. I'm excited to see where he'd bring us to with this line.

And so, it’s all for now. ‘Till next week!


  1. Fanda,
    I'm thinking the same way about Melville and his disappointment in adopting his own ideas (humanism/nature), and yes, that does mirror Ishmael's philosophy, which doesn't bog him down by someone else's rules. He follows his own way. Melville makes it look so easy and free.

    P.S. I'm making my own "Try Pots" clam chowder today. I cannot wait to try it. (I've never have before!)

    1. That doesn't sound right: "I never have before" or I have never before today..." : D

  2. I think Melville grew up grounded in the culture of Christianity, and the Bible was the literature of his time.

  3. I wasn't familiar with the concept of chowder as a casserole rather than a soup. Interesting.

  4. From my reading so far, Deb is correct in saying that Melville grew up in a Christian family, although that's probably not how they thought of themselves. They probably called themselves Protestants or Calvinists; I think calling yourself Christian is only a more recent thing (at least in Australia). I certainly don't remember anyone calling themselves Christian when I was young; people spoke about the type of Church they went to instead - Baptist, Church of England (as it was called when I was a kid), Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian etc.

    Anyway, Melville was very well grounded in the Bible and religious thought. At this time, the Bible was still generally considered to be a true, historical document, but this idea was beginning to shift as advances in science challenged this. For people like Melville, who were interested in modern science and thinking, this mismatch between their upbringing and childhood ideas with modern understanding about evolution, carbon dating, archaeology, astronomy was a difficult process to work through. Charles Darwin went through a similar crisis.
    The bible was the main literature that most families read and reread. It was the common language; its stories a shared experience. It wasn't until Melville started travelling when he was about 19 and saw the missionaries at work in Polynesian and Hawaii in particular that he began to really question the church and organised religion and the people who claimed to doing God's work.

    Nowadays there are more liberal, humanist interpretations of Christian thought and practice that Melville would have no doubt felt far more comfortable with. He was a man born before his time.

    As Hawthorne wrote in one his letters, Melville 'can neither believe, nor be comfortable with his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.'


What do you think?