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?