Category Archives: Classic Books

Resurrection Day Three—lone survivor

 

This may please some of you. This should be my last post on Moby Dick.

Remember the “rainbowed air”? On the third day of the chase (I call it the quest), as in the Bible, there is resurrection. There is one more brief respite from the bleak world of Captain Ahab. That occurs on the very last page of the book in what is called the epilogue. In fact, as I learned from Lara Rae, this one-page chapter was an afterthought. Melville originally published the book without it, but people asked what happened to Ishmael? He was the narrator, but it seemed like everyone perished at sea after Moby Dick attacked the boats and the ship. How could he then tell the story?

So, in one final page Melville,  through his narrator, explains that Ishmael was about to drown with all the others when the coffin Queequeg had made for him when he thought he was dying, “burst upward” from the bottom of the sea and rose with great force beside him. The coffin became a life-buoy and floated by his side, and Ishmael was saved. Resurrected by a coffin. He floated on the coffin while “the unharming sharks, they glide by as if with padlocks on their mouths, the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.” With the death of Ahab, the war of man against nature was over.  Nature won.

After floating on the sea for a day, Ishmael was rescued by the Rachel who was still looking for her lost children in a quest in which Ahab had refused to help.  So, the Rachel “found another orphan.” Ishmael. Here was a genuine connection. Here was a genuine spiritual quest.

As a result, one of the crew of 30 men was not destroyed by Ahab’s monomaniac religious quest. And you can call him Ishmael.

And so ends this religious quest.

A Better Way: The Insular Tahiti

 

In Moby Dick we saw where hatred led. It led to the apparent death of all the men on the ship and the whaling boats. Total catastrophe. All of this is incredibly bleak.

However, I want to take a slight meander away from all this madness of the quest to something benign. Melville offers some amazing hints about this possibility. The quest need not be malignant. There is a better way.

Ishmael asked us readers to consider an alternative. This is what he said,

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal wars since the world began.”

 

That was one side of the story. Those wars are of course waged by sparring creatures such as sharks and men.  They seem interminable. Yet there is an alternative and Melville suggests we consider that. As his narrator Ishmael says,

“Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find strange analogy to something in yourself?  For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return.”

 

We have both the good and bad in us. The land and the sea. Ahab and Starbuck. We have choices. Starbuck offered it to Ahab. Ahab turned it down. This insular Tahiti is not just a far-off dream. It is real. Melville through his narrator Ishmael draws it to our attention at various times in this book to give us relief from the mad quest of Ahab. It is a place of peace in an otherwise often mad world of turmoil and strife.

Earlier in the novel, in pursuit of another whale, in fact a herd of whales, the ship

“glided between 2 whales into the inner most heart of the shoal, as if from some mountain torrent we had slid into a serene valley lake. Here the storms in the roaring glens between the outermost whales, were heard but not felt. In this central expanse the sea presented that smooth satin-like surface called a sleek…we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion.”

 

There was also the time the ship the Pequod found calm sailing in the heart of the Japanese cruising ground where,

“At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe,; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

Sometimes the turbulence and dangerous upheavals the sea is prone to, are quiet and peaceful and we forget about the monsters gliding by underneath.

Such times, occur even on land, and are dreamy and idyllic:

“The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hill-sides, as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-weaned children there are sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked. And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that the fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.”

 

Clearly, in Melville’s mind these times of peace are rare and brief. And it was acknowledged that such soothing scenes affected Ahab, though “of temporary effect” and “if these secret golden keys did seem to open in him his own secret golden treasures, yet did his breath upon them prove tarnishing.” Ahab could ruin even such golden days. Such blessed calms don’t last. “A storm for every calm.”

We get moments of peace even in our most mad quests. But they are not long-lasting. And in the end, Moby Dick midst “enticing calm” the hunters “allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes.” The serenity could be hideously deceiving. And woe to the person who forgets that. There is a tiger heart beneath.

Mad Hatred

 

In the end we learn what hatred brings us. The whale approached Ahab’s boat.  One of the crew, Parsee, who had harpooned the whale the day before had held on so tight that the whale dragged him all night until he was stuck to the whale, lashed there by the harpoons rope wound round and round him. That is where hate brings you. Or at least the half of his body that remained was stuck to the whale after two days.

Now Ahab’s irrational hatred of the whale—hatred of his god—becomes alive.  Ahab “darted his fierce iron, and his far fiercer curse into the hated whale.”

Finally, the whale reacts to its relentless foe, becoming a “down coming monster” as a result of the thirst for revenge levied against it.  That’s what revenge creates—a monster.  Ishmael describes Moby Dick wheeling round to Ahab’s boat:

“in that evolution, catching site of the nearing black hull of the ship, seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethinking it—it may be—a larger and nobler foe; of a sudden, he bore down upon its advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam.”

 

Ishmael came close to admitting what Ahab always claimed, that the whale has “intelligent malignity,” but he just says it “may be” that it is “bethinking.”  What is certain, though, is that Ahab is a rational creature made irrational by hate, lust for revenge, and mad about his holy cause. Ahab says, “I grow blind.” Ahab asks, “Is this the end of all my bursting prayers? All my life-long fidelities?”  The answer is clear-yes! That is the end of mad quests.

The whale rams into the ship, with all the men on it, and the men gazed at the whale with “enchanted eyes,” as it moved

“his head side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad overspreading semicircular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled.”

 

Through his own hateful seeking vengeance, Ahab transformed the whale into exactly what Ahab was. That is the child of hate. Hate begat hate. Ahab realizes his ship is now just a “God-bullied hull.” Ahab realizes, “Oh now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.” He is a tragic hero of sorts. Yet even with that knowledge, Ahab does not relent.

Instead of relenting, Ahab thinks,

“Towards thee I roll, thou all destroying but unconquering whale; from hell’s heart I stab at thee, for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool, and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, thou tied to thee, thou damned whale.”

 

Of course, it is not the whale that is damned. Even as Ahab hates to the last, we note the reverential use of “Thee” and “thou” the phrases appropriate to conversation between human and god.

With that the Pequod and the whaling boats  and all the men in them all sunk into the sea even as the “faithful harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts.” They all go down with their ship. There followed an astounding image, of Tashtego, Stubb’s personal faithful harpooneer, a  Native American from Gay Head, the westernmost point of Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, sinking with a whaling boat, but still with his “red arm and a hammer” hovered” above the surface of the water in the act of nailing Ahab’s flag faster and faster to the subsiding spar.  Then a sky-hawk tauntingly came down “from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag and incommoding Tashtego there” but it got between the hammer and the wood, and still,

“simultaneously feeling that ethereal thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-grasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed; and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

 

Despite all the hatred of Ahab for nature—i.e. the white whale—nature won in the end. The obsessed man lost. The mad quest was over.

My wife Christiane used to wear a pin (until it was lost or stolen) that said, “Religion is no longer religion if it leads to hate.”  Maybe this is what Moby Dick is all about.

The Chase for Moby Dick—the Third Day

 

The third and final day of chasing Moby Dick was a “lovely day in “a new-made world.” It was a ‘summer house to the angels.” The Pacific Ocean again was tranquil. The calm before the storm. This time a metaphysical storm. The crew of the Pequod followed the whale “in his infallible wake.” Like so many true believers, they followed their god to their doom. “A fairer day could not dawn upon that world.”

 

Once again, the 3 boats each filled with a small crew of harpooneers, set out into the “wondrous blue” in search of Moby Dick. The sharks “know” that they should only follow Ahab’s boat. They ignore the others. Even Ahab sees this and asks, “who can tell…whether these sharks swim to feast on the whale or on Ahab?”

 

Sure, the crew heard the whale before they saw him. It was a “subterraneous hum” after which all the men held their breaths when “a vast form shot lengthwise, but obliquely from the sea. Shrouded in a thin drooping veil of mist, it hovered for a moment in the rainbowed air and then fell swamping back into the deep.”  Melville hints at a resurrection. As the whale went down water, white water 30ft. high was pushed up, “leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round the marble trunk of the whale.” As Ishmael described it, “Moby Dick seemed combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven.”

Starbuck again tries to convince Ahab to relent. He says to him, as the whale goes down again, “See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly sleekest him!”

None of this persuaded Ahab to give up the quest.  For the true believer, nothing can convince him or her to give up a religious quest. That is one of the dangers of such a quest.

 The crew met up again with their mighty foe on this tranquil day. Not to be tranquil for long. After that we learn what mad hatred brings us.

The Chase for Moby—Day 2

 

The Chase for Moby Dick, “the grand god,” continued on Day 2. The crew of the Pequod were transformed by the chase. As Ishmael described it:

“The hand of Fate had snatched all their souls; and by the stirrings of the previous day the rack of the past night’s suspense; the fixed, unfearing, blind, reckless, way in which their wild craft went plunging towards its flying mark; by all these things, their hearts were bowled along. The wind that made great bellies of their sails, and rushed the vessel on by arms invisible as irresistible; this seemed the symbol of that unseen agency which so enslaved them to the race.”

They were one man, not thirty.

Like the American motto: e pluribus unum. Out of many one. But this crew, were one in this unholy chase. I have always said, the essence of religion is connection. The crew of thirty were connected in an unholy cause. But they were connected, even if the religion was black. As Ishmael said, they “were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.” Now blasphemously, Ahab had become their God.  “How they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them.”

Astonishingly, with the harpoons stuck to him, Moby Dick breached the surface:

“…not by the peaceful gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, show his place to the distance of seven miles and more…this breaching is his act of defiance… as in his immeasurable bravadoes the White Whale tossed himself salmon-like to Heaven.”

 

Or was it hell? Then Moby Dick turned upon the three “devoted boats” that had “planted irons in him.” They were devoted like true believers clinging to their god. But the god in fury turned on the 3 boats and “seemed intent on annihilating each separate plank of which those boats were made.” Finally the men in their mad pursuit had created the vengeful creature Ahab thought he was. The whale attacked Ahab’s boat from beneath the surface:

“Ahab’s yet unstricken boat seemed drawn up towards Heaven by invisible wires,–as arrow-like, shooting perpendicularly from the sea, the White Whale dashed his broad forehead against its bottom, and sent it turning over and over, into the air, till it fell again.”

 

The white whale almost succeeded in shoving Ahab toward heaven.

 

Starbuck again tries to persuade Ahab to give up the quest:

“Great God! But for one single instant show thyself,” cried Starbuck; “never, never, wilt thou capture him, old man—In Jesus’ name no more of this, that’s worse than devil’s madness…thy evil shadow gone—all good angels mobbing thee with warnings:–what more wouldst thou have?  Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last human? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh, impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”

 

Starbuck knows this chase leads to hell, not heaven. Ahab probably knows it to, but still can’t stop. Ahab says, “Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed.. Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fate’s lieutenant; I act under orders.” Ahab thinks, as so many do that are on mad quests, that he is following God’s ordersthe grand illusion of so many quests.

The Chase for Moby Dick—Day One

 

Some might think this long past due, but finally, we are drawing to the end of this mad quest. With 25 pages remaining in a 502-page book, Moby Dick, the great white whale is spotted.

Instead of giving up the mad quest, Ahab and his crew see the gliding whale with his white hump above the surface of the sea. Nothing did “surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.” Ahab has found God. The religious quest is over!

It was a calm day at sea. “Through the serene tranquilities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding rapture. Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw…the grand god, revealed himself, sounded and went out of sight.” God revealed himself only for a moment and disappeared again.  That’s what gods do.

As the three boats waited, the whale did return to the surface in time: he peered into the depths of the sea until “he profoundly saw a white living spot no bigger than a white weasel, with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned and then were plainly revealed two long spoked rows of white, glistening, teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom…the glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored, marble tomb.”

With its “malicious intelligence” that only Ahab could see, the whale ducked its head beneath the boat that carried Ahab in hot pursuit and shook it “as a mildly cruel cat her mouse…as the whale dallied with the doomed craft in his devilish way.” Ahab was in the jaws of the whale, like Jonah, but this drove Ahab even madder. “That monomaniac Ahab, furious with this tantalizing vicinity of his foe, which placed him all alive and helpless in the very jaws he hated.” The whale bit Ahab’s boat in two.

Yet Ahab returned to the ship, and they continued the pursuit. Nothing could stop him. As Stubb said, “O whale! The mad fiend himself is after ye!” The men of the crew had “growing awe of Ahab.” The men were in awe of Ahab, they should have feared him.

The chase was not over, but continued into the second day, with the harpoons in the great white whale.

A remarkable conversation

 

Starbuck, another member of the crew in Moby Dick, was clearly a  good man caught up in a storm. He was the first mate and was the voice of reason on the ship.  He was also a very religious man, even by the standards of the 19th century. He was a Quaker and came to realize that Captain Ahab was mad and that unless he killed him the crew would likely die and he would never see his wife and children again. He was the exact opposite of the Captain, but he just could not pull the trigger. Perhaps his religion restrained him. If it was, his God, God cost a lot of lives, as we know before the voyage is over.

 

Near the end when the ship was in the midst of a rare tranquil sea.  Ishmael described it this way, Ahab learns the painful truth.  “…he seemed to hear in his own true heart, the measureless sobbing that stole out of the centre of the serenity around.”

Near the end of the voyage, Ahab realized that  he had “forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep.”   For forty years he had declared war on nature. This is another great theme of the book, that sadly, I have been neglecting in order to talk about the religious quest.  Like the Israelites he had been in the wilderness. But finally, Ahab recognized his huge error. As he said to Starbuck, “for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul.” Ahab knows the quest has shriveled his soul. Not what religious quests should do. They should expand the soul. What went wrong?

Ahab realized he was

 

“whole oceans away from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? Wife”—rather a widow with her husband alive. I widowed that poor girl when I married her.”

Ahab finally has the knowledge of what he had done and it is not too late to turn back for home as Starbuck begs him to do. Instead of spending time with his lovely young wife he went a-whaling in mad pursuit of a white whale. As Ahab told Starbuck,

“I married her Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brown, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!”

 

The quest had turned him into a fiend. Ahab realized he had been a “forty years fool.” Ahab asks God to “crack my heart! Stave my brain.” Ahab begs his first mate Starbuck to “let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearth-stone! This is the magic glass; I see my wife and child in thine eye.” Finally Ahab has a connection. I would say a real religious connection; not a mad quest.

It seems like at long last Ahab realizes what a mistake he has made for forty years. So, Starbuck gives him one last chance. He begs him to give up this mad chase. “Let us fly these deadly waters! Let us home!”

Despite his new knowledge of his dreadful mistake, Ahab cannot give up the chase. He knows his quest is mad yet this is what he says:

“What is it, what nameless inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I? God or who lifts this arm?”

Is God at fault? Why? Ahab cannot resist the mad quest. He is helpless before it. That is precisely why he is mad and why the quest is mad. Any quest like that would be mad.

A marriage of heaven and hell?

 

As Ahab refused to help the woeful Rachel and her captain, it became ever clearer, that Ahab is mad. His pursuit is unbridled madness. Ahab had returned to the very part of the ocean where he had been ravished by Moby Dick in their first encounter. It was also where the captain of the Rachel had said he saw Moby Dick. It was the very place where with “demoniac indifference…the white whale tore his hunters.” At the same time and place where they had returned, “there lurked a something in the old man’s eyes, which it was hardly sufferable for feeble souls to see.  As the unsettling polar star, which through the livelong, arctic, six months night sustains its piercing, steady, central gaze; so Ahab’s purpose now fixedly gleamed down upon the constant midnight of the gloomy crew.”

Then, the crew could feel their doom approaching:

“Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to fine dust, and powdered, for the time, in the clamped mortar of Ahab’s iron soul. Like machines, they dumbly moved about the deck, ever conscious that the old man’s despot eye was on them.”

 

The next morning however Captain Ahab was seen on deck on a day where the

“…the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with a long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep…the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks, and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.”

 

This was the world of the Pacific visited by the crew of the Pequod. In a remarkable description of Ahab Melville continued the theme:

“Tied up and twisted; gnarled and knotted with wrinkles; haggardly firm and unyielding: his eyes glowing like coals, that still glow in the ashes of ruins; untottering Ahab stood forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl’s forehead of heaven.”

Ishmael, the narrator, keeps talking about the masculine and the feminine. Is this the marriage of heaven and hell? On the one hand there is the beautiful azure sea, but there is also “Ahab’s closed coiled woe” and “that burned out crater of his brain.” Ahab could stand at the edge of the ship, lean over the side and see his shadow sink in the water

“the more he strove to pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul.”

Then astonishingly that azure blue sky had pity on the old man who had no pity for the captain of the Rachel whom he refused to help:

“That glad happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the step-mother world, so long cruel—forbidding—now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however willful and erring, she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.”

After all the madness of the quest, this gentleness, so near the end, seems impossible. Maybe its a miracle?

A shocking lack of religion

A shocking incident happens near the end of the book Moby Dick when the Pequod meets another vessel, the Rachel, in the middle of the Pacific. The Captain of the Rachel comes onto the Pequod. Ahab, as always obsessed with the White Whale can think of nothing else and asks the other captain immediately if he has seen the White Whale.  When the captain said he did, Ahab had to “throttle his joy” as that captain asked if Ahab had seen a whale-boat adrift. Ahab did not want to hear the story of the whale boat, he was intent on moving as soon as possible to pursue the white whale. But the captain begs captain Ahab for help.

It turns out that the Rachel had seen the White Whale and sent 4 whale boats in pursuit, like the 4 apostles. Unfortunately, 1 of those 4 whale boats was lost, like Pim had been lost and miraculously picked up.  That lost whale boat held the captain’s 12-year old son. The same age as Jesus when he rose out of his childhood. The captain begged Ahab to join him in the search for the missing boat with his son. But Ahab “still stood like an anvil, receiving every shock, but without the least quivering of his own.” The story did not resonate with Ahab.  Ahab felt no fellow feeling, no empathy. He was like an anvil.

As I have argued elsewhere in  previous blogs, it is my belief that fellow feeling or empathy is the common core of all religion.  Nothing else matters. With it you have religion. Without it you have nothing. And Ahab had nothing.  The Rachel’s captain knows that Ahab has a young son too. He should feel fellow feeling.  The captain of the Rachel begs captain Ahab: “Do to me as you would have me do to you in the like case.” He echoed the words of Christ—exactly the words that I assert are the core of all major religions. But Ahab demonstrated clearly, this core was missing in him. He was just an anvil. Ahab replies, “may I forgive myself, but I must go.” Ahab is too obsessed to give any time at all to the Rachel’s plight. He is prepared to let a 12-year old child die rather than take a little time in a 4 year voyage to help someone out. He must go.

 

As the Rachel left, alone, “By her still halting course and winding, woeful way, you plainly saw that his ship so wept with spray;  still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not.” The symbol of Rachel weeping for her children is drawn directly from the book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible. A deep suggestion of human compassion, entirely missing in Ahab.  Ahab has no religion!

 

Strange Candles

 

In the novel Moby Dick, as the ship Pequod got closer to the seas where the white whale was known to haunt, things got strange. Very strange. It was a night of corpusants or St. Elmo’s fire. According to Professor Google, that is a lightning charge surrounded by an ionization of the surrounding atmosphere. The three tall masts of the ship were hit by lightning and were “silently burning in that sulphurous, air like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.” What an incredible image!

The men are naturally fearful and for good reason.  Ishmael described the scene as if the book of Daniel from the Bible was transformed to a 19th century whaling ship:

“To sailors, oaths are household words; they will swear in the trance of the calm, and the teeth of the tempest; they will imprecate curses from the topsail-yard-arms, when most they teeter over to a seething sea; but in all my voyagings, seldom have I heard a common oath when God’s burning finger has been laid on the ship; when His ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin’ has been woven into the shrouds and the cordage.”

 

Those words of course come from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. King Belshazzar held a great feast where drinks were drunk from vessels looted in the destruction of the First Temple. A hand appeared and wrote those words on the wall. King Belshazzar called wise men to read the writing to him,  but they could not read them. The Queen advised him to call Daniel instead. Daniel reminded King Belshazzar that his father Nebuchadnezzar was thrown down when he became arrogant and until he learned to submit to God. Daniel said Belshazzar failed and his kingdom would be given to the Medes and the Persians. That very night Belshazzar was killed as prophesied. The lesson Belshazzar had to learn was humility. That was the very same lesson Captain Ahab had to learn and also failed.

The pagan harpooneers in particular were wildly affected by the strange candles. For example, “Queequeg tattooing burned like Satanic blue flames on this body.”

Ishmael said that on the Pequod, “every soul on her decks was wrapped in a pall.” Starbuck, one of the 3 mates on the ship, slowly saw the face of Stubb’s, another mate, “glimmer into sight,” as “the high tapering flames were beheld with redoubled supernaturalness in their pallor” and “the lofty tri-pointed trinity of flames.” They were like a trinity in hell.

At the same time, Parsee, who was not a Christian, like Ahab supposedly was, but a Zoroastrian said that at one time he worshipped the clear spirit of clear fire in the sacramental act that so burned him that he was left with a huge gash of fire spent on his face. Ahab had a face scarred by lightning. Ahab said that he knew the Parsee’s

“right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill: and all are killed. 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, unintegral mastery in me…but war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.

Ahab comes from a place of fire and knows what it feels like to have lightning flash through his brain.:

“the lightning flashes though my skull; mine eyeballs ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling in some stunned ground… Oh, oh,! Yet blindfold Yet I will talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness: but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee… There burned the flames! Oh magnanimous now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother I know not…oh thou omnipotent. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all they eternity to whom all they eternity is but time, all they creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it. Oh, thou foundling fire, though hermit memorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my fire. Leap! Leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee, would fain be wedded with thee; defyingly I worship thee.”

I confess I don’t know exactly what is going on here, but it seems to me I would not want to worship some clear spirit of foundling fire which my scorched eyes somehow dimly saw. It seems to me that would be worshipping something from hell. Ahab was prepared to do it. Not I.

Starbuck, a good Christian, who hears Ahab say this is fearful for the voyage he is on. He pleads with Ahab to forgo the pursuit of the whale. “God, God is against thee, old man forbear! ‘tis an ill voyage ill begun, ill continued.” Starbuck knows it is madness and sinful. Of course, the pleas go unheard. Ahab cannot end the murderous quest so close to its goal. Starbuck considers mutinously killing Ahab to end it but he does not do it. He wrestles with an angel, but lays down his musket which had been shaking in his hand like a drunkard’s arm. He does not do it even though he thinks “this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him.” Instead Starbuck cries, echoing the words of Christ on the cross, “Great God, where art thou?”

And that is the question. You tell me. That is what the quest is all about. Where is God?