The book Moby Dick starts off with a famous puzzling line. “Call me Ishmael.” Why does the narrator say that? Is that his real name? Or does he just ask us to call him that even though it is not his real name? It is a biblical name. It is a mysterious beginning. In the first sentence of the book, the truth of the tale is put in doubt. For good reason, in many ways it is fantastic.
Ishmael says, “I thought I would sail about a little and the see the watery part of the world.” “A little”, he said when he was starting a journey that would lead nearly around the world, and take 3 or 4 years, reaching the South Seas by way of The Atlantic Ocean, then Africa, then the Indian Ocean and finally the Pacific Ocean. The serene Pacific that was not always serene. As Ishmael said,
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul: whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing, before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword: I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.’
Ishmael is saying, at some time in their lives, pretty well everyone will have a strong desire to go on a religious quest. I think the sea voyage is a metaphor for that. As I will show later, the quest need not be religious, but this one definitely was religious.
The religious quest began on a damp and drizzly November of his soul. Ishmael says, “there is magic in it,” and if you are lucky and are supplied with “a metaphysical professor…mediation and water are wedded forever.” This journey was surely a mediation wedded to water. It was a religious quest. And you know it in the first pages.
Water has always been a religious symbol and it certainly is in this book. That is what is wrong, Ishmael says, with a journey in the prairies, even though there is a huge field of Tiger-lilies, there is no water. So it lacks spiritual sustenance Ishmael suggests.
Why else, Ishmael asks,
“Why is almost every robust boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some or other crazy to go to the sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the first Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove?
Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it, and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
The stage is set for an epic spiritual journey. And as Ishmael says, grandly. “how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!” On third page it is suggested this voyage is a misguided religious quest as it will end up in a very hot place. Not just the warm south seas either.