Humbug or bugbear | Riff 6 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (The Ramadan/His Mark/The Prophet)

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

I. In this riff: Ch. 17, “The Ramadan,” Ch. 18, “His Mark,” and Ch. 19, “The Prophet.”

II. “The Ramadan” again underscores Moby-Dick’s theme of death and resurrection. In Ch. 16, “The Ship,” Queequeg shuts himself up in his room to undertake a “sort of Lent or Ramadan, or day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” This “Ramadan” extends much further than Ish imagined it would, and he soon grows concerned that Queequeg may have fallen into “apoplexy.” He communicates his concerns to the inn’s chambermaid, who loses her head and yells for the proprietor, Mrs. Hussey, who loses her head in turn:

‘He’s killed himself,’ she cried. ‘It’s unfort’nate Stiggs done over again—there goes another counterpane—God pity his poor mother!—it will be the ruin of my house. Has the poor lad a sister? Where’s that girl?—there, Betty, go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with—“no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor;”—might as well kill both birds at once. Kill? The Lord be merciful to his ghost!’

The scene plays comically—Queeg is perfectly fine—but the comedy is an ironic prefiguration of Queequeg’s fate in Moby-Dick’s strange, tragic climax.

III. At the beginning of “The Ramadan,” Ishmael claims a largehearted, ecumenical open-mindedness towards “everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical. Ishmael sings a very different tune at the end of the chapter, however:

 I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense. I told him, too, that he being in other things such an extremely sensible and sagacious savage, it pained me, very badly pained me, to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his. Besides, argued I, fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved. This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans.

Is Ishmael’s viewpoint Melville’s authorial position? Or is Ishmael missing something in Queequeg’s mute devotions that Melville is asking us to pick up on?

IV. In “His Mark,” Ishmael introduces Queequeg to the Quaker captains Bildad and Peleg. Alarmed at his “savage” appearance, Peleg presses the pair for Queeg’s “papers” — for documentation that he’s converted to Christianity. Ish quickly supplies a lie, claiming that Queeg is “a member of the first Congregational Church,” but when pressed harder, turns his lie into a kind of truth of Emersonian over-soulism:

‘I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.’

‘Splice, thou mean’st splice hands,’ cried Peleg, drawing nearer.

V. While the Quaker captains are impressed by Ishmael’s spiritual oratory, it’s Queequeg’s skill with the harpoon that earns the islander a place on The Pequod. After he demonstrates his acumen by harpooning a speck of tar floating on the water’s surface, Peleg offers him a job:

‘We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye, Quohog, we’ll give ye the ninetieth lay, and that’s more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket.’

The chapter’s comic tone culminates in Queequeg signing his mark to a misappellation:

VI. As is so often the case in Moby-Dick, comedy shifts into more serious matters. Dour Bildad asks his comrade how he could not think of death and eternity in times of peril:

‘Tell me, when this same Pequod here had her three masts overboard in that typhoon on Japan, that same voyage when thou went mate with Captain Ahab, did’st thou not think of Death and the Judgment then?’

Peleg contrasts Bildad’s morose death-obsession with a drive to survive, to live:

‘Death and the Judgment then? What? With all three masts making such an everlasting thundering against the side; and every sea breaking over us, fore and aft. Think of Death and the Judgment then? No! no time to think about Death then. Life was what Captain Ahab and I was thinking of; and how to save all hands—how to rig jury-masts—how to get into the nearest port; that was what I was thinking of.’

VII. The next chapter is “The Prophet,” where leaving the Quaker captains, Ish and Queeg are immediately accosted by a severe-looking stranger:

 He was but shabbily apparelled in faded jacket and patched trowsers; a rag of a black handkerchief investing his neck. A confluent small-pox had in all directions flowed over his face, and left it like the complicated ribbed bed of a torrent, when the rushing waters have been dried up.

He asks if they’ve signed onto The Pequod, and tells them that they should worry about losing their souls, before mumbling that maybe a chap’s better off without one: “A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”

The stranger then warns them about Captain Ahab, who lost “his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy.” The stranger concedes that Ahab has enough soul to make up for all deficiencies of that sort in other chaps.”

Ishmael is not too alarmed by the man and asks for his name: Elijah. Named for the prophet who resisted evil Baal, Elijah is an ambiguous figure. Is he truly a prophet whose heedings should be followed, or simply a madman. Ishmael chooses to read him thus: “he was nothing but a humbug, trying to be a bugbear”; in other words, he was nothing but a hoaxer, trying to be a monster.

And yet the words Ishmael chooses phonetically splice into each other—humbugbear—pointing towards the novel’s shifting tones and ambiguous symbols. Elijah’s warnings have a strange effect on Ishmael:

…his ambiguous, half-hinting, half-revealing, shrouded sort of talk, now begat in me all kinds of vague wonderments and half-apprehensions, and all connected with the Pequod; and Captain Ahab; and the leg he had lost…and the voyage we had bound ourselves to sail; and a hundred other shadowy things.

A hundred other shadowy things to come.

1 thought on “Humbug or bugbear | Riff 6 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (The Ramadan/His Mark/The Prophet)”

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.