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Moby dick: broiled in hellfire. (Humanism and The Arts).

Shortly after his American classic was published in 1851, Herman Melville (1819-1891) confessed to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne: "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb." Earlier, the book still in press, he said it was "broiled in hell-fire." Its secret motto, he told Hawthorne, is Ego non baptizo te in nomine.

The Latin fragment truncates an incantation by the monomanincal skipper of the Pequod, Captain Ahab, hellbent on smiting the elusive white whale, Moby Dick, who "dismasted" him of a leg. As Ahab anoints the barb of his harpoon with the blood of his pagan harpooners, he mocks the Christian baptismal formula. "Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris," he says, "sed nomine diaboli" ("I baptize you not in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil").

Not long before Melville began to broil his wicked book, he had, like the apostate Ahab, bolted to the devil's camp. Wakened by voyages on merchant, naval, and whaling ships, he began to reassess the Christian theodicy inculcated by his parents and the Dutch Reformed Church, an offshoot of Calvinism, in which he had been baptized, catechized, and reared. He had been taught to acquiesce in God's will no matter how unjust or cruel it might seem, for God, a deft magician, always plucked good from evil. When his father, a martinet who spelled "god" in all capital letters, died an excruciating death, the boy's mother admonished the children to eschew recriminations. "Love God, obey His commands, and your religious and moral instruction," she exhorted.

Her seafaring son darkened counsel. He began to suspect that the world is helmed by a truculent skipper. The "universal thump," he notes in Moby Dick. "is passed around." In his serpentine travels he witnessed disease, pestilence, catastrophe, destitution, racism, hatred, cruelty, and brutality incompatible with the providence of a benevolent deity. Reconciliation required obdurate sophistry.

In the South Pacific, Melville contracted an incurable aversion to Christianity. He whiffed the foul contagion of colonialism. In the Marquesas Islands, "The small remnant of natives had been civilized into draught horses and evangelized into beasts of burden." On one island, Christian sailors frenziedly sated their lusts on naive Polynesian maidens. On another, French gunners tested their cannons on natives assembled to greet them.

For the rest of his life, Melville associated Christianity not with faith, hope, and charity, but with militaristic nationalism, ethnocentrism, slavery hypocrisy and predatory capitalism. In Moby Dick, he routinely twits Christians. Blood bonding with the heathen harpooner Queequeg, Ishmael, the Presbyterian narrator, says: "I'll try a pagan friend since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy." As the Pequod readies to launch (on Christmas day), the money-grubbing Bildad, the ship's owner, offers a mammonish benediction: "God bless ye, and have ye in His holy keeping, men. Be careful in the hunt, ye mates. Don't forget your prayers, either. Don't whale it too much a Lord's days, men; but don't miss a chance either, that's rejecting Heaven's good gifts." Despite the snide comments, Melville knew Christianity had no corner on iniquity. Everyone, in some measure, was a malefactor. He scoffed at "mooncalf idealisms" that envision humans as altruistic. "The glow of sociality" he wrote in his journal, " is so evanescent, selfishness so lasting." As Hamlet tells Ophelia, "We are arrant knaves, all."

In Melville's diabolic wrinkle on Calvinism, fallen Adam didn't sire our knavish proclivities. God did. He is the Original Sinner, the only begetter of evil, the primal Archfiend.

With malice aforethought, He rigs us with the capacity to lie, cheat, deceive, connive, steal, harass, hate, torment, cripple, kill. With another turn of the screw He fits us with a faculty for selfabuse: fear, anxiety doubt, brooding, remorse, and other pale casts of thought. He further ratchets the misery with natural ills: poison, disease, plague, drought, tempest, volcano, earthquake, tornado, and the bloody leapers and creepers of the animal kingdom. In this worst of all possible worlds, the demonic Prankster tosses in a little good to emboss the evil and to raise false hopes.

Like a fiendish twin of John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost to "justify the ways of God to man," Melville wrote Moby Dick to lambaste God. Melville sided with Milton's Satan, Lord Byron's Lucifer, and other indomitable scofflaws who said "No! in thunder" to the ruthless sway of the Almighty. In Captain Ahab, Melville created a thunderous naysayer of his own.

Knowing any barefaced excoriation of the Almighty would rankle his readers, Melville indemnified himself by filtering Ahab's invective through a nominally Christian narrator, Ishmael, who brands Ahab an irremediable lunatic: "Human madness is often a cunning and feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into a subtler form. Ahab's lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted." By ascribing Ahab's blasphemies to madness, Melville could fob off querulous critics.

He further shielded himself with opaque symbolism. The uninitiated reader may be baffled by the hoopla surrounding a prolix narrative on whaling. In Melville's day the novel was dismissed as an uneven sea yarn marred by philosophical digressions, gratuitous ribaldry, and obscure allusions. Even Ahab's thunder can sound like a distant, muffled rumble. One isn't always sure just where or what the lightning struck.

The novel is one vast, hooded allegory. Throughout, cetology is code for theology. All talk about whales (above all, Moby Dick) is God-talk.

Hence, rumor has it that Moby is "not only ubiquitous, but immortal." He can't be hurt: "Though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he will still swim away unharmed." He transcends understanding: "The great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last." He is intelligent, powerful, grand, mighty Some characterize him as vengeful and malevolent, though one ship doctor, a prosaic diagnostician, opines: "What you take for the White Whale's malice is only his awkwardness." Some sailors "don't believe in him at all." The whale's whiteness is linked to "the heartless voids and immensities of the universe" and the "colorless, all-color of atheism."

To Captain Ahab, Moby Dick bodies forth a malignant universe designed to vex, baffle, and infuriate. Ishmael, who knows all, explains: "All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down."

The whale is a mask of God. By harpooning the beast, Ahab hopes to strike the "unknown but still reasoning thing that puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask." Fluent in Ahabese, Starbuck, the pious first mate of the Pequod, knows who the reasoning thing is. When he accuses Ahab of blasphemy, the Captain retorts: "How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me the White Whale is that wall, shoved near to me. I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. Be the White Whale agent, or be the White Whale principal, I will wreak [my] hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy man. I'd strike the sun if it insulted me."

Moby/God is a skulking ruffian who picks on pint-sized opponents: "I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies: Take some one of your own size; don't pommel me! No, ye've knocked me down, and I am up again, but ye have run and hidden. Come forth from behind your cotton bags!"

Whether to mollify or to heckle Christians (or both), Melville dissociates the Christian deity from Ahab's God, the "unsuffusing thing beyond." In a tutorial prayer to the Godhead, symbolized by three lightning-lit masts, Ahab says: "Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical."

Since Moby Dick emblematizes God, Ahab's vengeful quest has a predictable terminus: The whale destroys Ahab and all his crew--except Ishmael, who lives to tell the tale. Pious readers sometimes construe the whale's triumph as an exemplum on the folly of sacrilege. For Melville, the whale's rough-and-tumble retaliation was another instance of God-bullying.

Captain Ahab mirrors the tragic hero Melville limned for Hawthorne: "He declares himself a sovereign nature (in himself) amid the powers of heaven, hell, and earth. He may perish, but so long as he exists, he insists upon treating with all Powers upon an equal basis." To the end, Ahab is defiant and disdainful: "To neither love nor reverence wilt thou [God] be kind. 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 mastery in me."

After Moby Dick, Melville began to slough off the neo-Calvinism and slither toward agnosticism. Still, he sporadically pined for the custodial Papa Above of his boyhood. Hawthorne said of Melville: "He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. He has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us."

A saintly devil, indeed.

Gary Sloan is a retired English professor in Ruston, Louisiana.
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Title Annotation:religion of American author Herman Melville
Author:Sloan, Gary
Publication:Free Inquiry
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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