All these things are not without their meanings | Riff 3 on rereading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Breakfast/The Street/The Chapel/The Pulpit/The Sermon)

I. Chapters 5 through 8 of Moby-Dick are all pretty short and showcase the novel’s ever-shifting moods. Ch. 5, “Breakfast,” brims with humor and energy, which extends through Ch. 6, “The Street.” However, by the time we get off the street and into “The Chapel” (Ch. 7), Ishmael takes a sober, somber turn, meditating on death. Ch. 8, “The Pulpit,” continues the serious, philosophical tone, setting the stage for Father Mapple to take over the narrative in Ch. 9, “The Sermon.”

II. “Breakfast” begins with Ishmael forgiving the landlord Peter Coffin for “skylarking with me not a little in the matter of [Ish’s] bedfellow,” Queequeg. Ish values the humor:

…a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.

“Breakfast” has a bustling comic energy. Ish describes the various whalemen setting down to eat: “a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.” (I encourage you to read that line aloud.) We also get the spectacle of Queequeg, “cool as an icicle,” eating bloody beefsteaks at the head of the table—with his harpoon no less!

Moby-Dick illustration by Barry Moser

III. The comedic energy carries out into “The Street.” Here, Ishmael describes for us a carnival of cultures in New Bedford, a pavement teeming with “Feegeeans, Tongatobooarrs, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians” as well as “other sights still more curious, certainly more comical.” He gently mocks “the green Vermonters and New Hampshire men,” who head to New Bedford “athirst for gain and glory in the fishery,” pointing out their tendencies to overdress: “No town-bred dandy will compare with a country-bred one—I mean a downright bumpkin dandy.” Ish’s portrait of New Bedford extends to a description of its wealth and its beautiful homes, parks—and women. We get the sense that he’s over those “hypos” he was suffering in the novel’s opening chapter—or, rather, he’s intoxicated by the newness of his adventure.

IV. The atmospheric shift in “The Chapel,” is announced with a change in weather: “The sky had changed from clear, sunny cold, to driving sleet and mist.” Ishmael makes his way to a church peopled by “a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors’ wives and widows.” (A “scattered congregation” strikes me as an oxymoron.)

In strong contrast to the babble and verve of the two preceding chapters, in the chapel “muffled silence reigned, only broken at times by the shrieks of the storm.”

Ishmael gazes upon marble placards memorializing dead sailors, sailors who never returned, and reflects,

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.

The line “refuse resurrections” calls back to Ch. 4, “The Counterpane,” where Ishmael gives us a rare glimpse into his past. Punished as a child to a kind of small death on the summer solstice (okay, he’s made to go to bed early)—the punished Ish hopes for a “resurrection” from his fate and is visited by some “nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom,” an ineffable something that simultaneously signals dread and hope.

Ishmael’s morbid pondering turns philosophical:

…how it is that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss; why all the living so strive to hush all the dead; wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. All these things are not without their meanings.

And then in bit of foreshadowing of the book’s catastrophic conclusion, our narrator, thinking of the countless sailors lost and dead at sea, indulges in a bit of self-talk: “Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine.”

V. “The Pulpit” isn’t a particularly memorable chapter, but it serves a significant rhetorical purpose. “The Chapel” gives us some of Ish’s most melancholy philosophizin’, culminating in self-talk about his own death. It’s an introspective, insular chapter; indeed, even as Ishmael furnishes us the details of the memorial placards, he confesses that he does “not pretend to quote.” Ish’s concern is ultimately not for the concrete particulars but for the abstract—the unnamed and unknown dead.

“The Pulpit” refocuses the narrative gaze, moving from Ishmael’s introspection to the imagery of Father Mapple ascending the stage to deliver his sermon.

VI. “The Sermon” is one of many chapters of Moby-Dick that can be read independent of the novel proper. It is one of my favorite chapters. Up until this point, we’ve largely been in Ishmael’s head, and the spare voices we get—a few lines of pidgin from Queequeg, some bantering with Peter Coffin—have the feel of reported speech. In “The Sermon” though, Ish’s consciousness gives way to Father Mapple’s. Mapple retells the story of Jonah in rapt detail, bringing “this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—” to vivid life. His Jonah is a sympathetic deject on the run who finds himself resurrected in the belly of a whale.

Mapple’s sermon quickly edges out any of Ishmael’s stage directions, flowing out uninterrupted for paragraphs. It usurps the voice of the novel, prefiguring Ahab, whose voice will dominate in future chapters. Ghostly Ishmael seems to fall into the background of his own adventure at times, and “The Sermon” is an early rhetorical example of this phenomenon.

As Mapple’s sermon comes to its conclusion, Ishmael returns to the narrative, but he’s still at a distance, still a mechanical describer of sights and sounds, not an analyzer or thinker here.

And it’s the final line of the chapter that stuck out to me the most in this reread:

He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.

If he is truly alone, then how does Ishmael witness his solitude?

Jonah and the Whale — Arpad Illes

Jonah and the Whale, 1967 by Arpad Illes (1908–1980)

Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.

From “The Sermon,” Ch. 9 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Jonah — Albert Pinkham Ryder

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And here is “The Sermon,” Ch. IX of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby-Dick, in which Father Mapple gives us the tale of Jonah—


Father Mapple rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered the scattered people to condense. “Starboard gangway, there! side away to larboard—larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!”

There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a still slighter shuffling of women’s shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye on the preacher.

He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.

This ended, in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog—in such tones he commenced reading the following hymn; but changing his manner towards the concluding stanzas, burst forth with a pealing exultation and joy—

     "The ribs and terrors in the whale,
     Arched over me a dismal gloom,
     While all God's sun-lit waves rolled by,
     And lift me deepening down to doom.

     "I saw the opening maw of hell,
     With endless pains and sorrows there;
     Which none but they that feel can tell—
     Oh, I was plunging to despair.

     "In black distress, I called my God,
     When I could scarce believe him mine,
     He bowed his ear to my complaints—
     No more the whale did me confine.

     "With speed he flew to my relief,
     As on a radiant dolphin borne;
     Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone
     The face of my Deliverer God.

     "My song for ever shall record
     That terrible, that joyful hour;
     I give the glory to my God,
     His all the mercy and the power."

Nearly all joined in singing this hymn, which swelled high above the howling of the storm. A brief pause ensued; the preacher slowly turned over the leaves of the Bible, and at last, folding his hand down upon the proper page, said: “Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—’And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.'”

“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. Continue reading “Jonah — Albert Pinkham Ryder”

Jonah — Albert Pinkham Ryder

Jonah — Barry Moser

Alphabet Soup: J

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J is for Jonah, the reluctant Old Testament prophet. He’s been called by YHWH to bring the word to Nineveh–something he is definitely unprepared and unwilling to do. So Jonah hits Joppa Road and boards a ship sailing to Tarshish (this is pretty much as far away as one could get from Nineveh in the known world). YHWH is a wrathful God, and sets out in pursuit, sending storms to wreak havoc on the ship; the sailors panic and despair and pray. Jonah, meanwhile, manages to sleep like a baby through the whole thing. They eventually wake him up and he says, “Oh yeah, this is kinda my fault, throw me overboard.” At first the sailors are reluctant, but eventually the tempest leaves them no other choice, and they heave Jonah off the ship. Wrathful YHWH now shows his merciful side: he sends a “great fish” to swallow Jonah, thus saving him from drowning. In the belly of the beast, Jonah sends a prayer of repentance and thanksgiving; the whale then “vomits” him out onto the dry land of Nineveh where he preaches the word of YHWH. Jonah, however, is wrathful now–he hopes that the people won’t accept the word, and that YHWH will wipe them out. YHWH’s satisfied, however, and leaves Jonah outside of the city in the heat. A gourd grows giving Jonah some shade, but then a worm eats it, pissing him off again. He even gets suicidal sitting in the hot sun. YHWH asks him why if it’s right that he’s angry and Jonah replies: “I do well to be angry”–his last line in the story. YHWH then lectures him, reminding him that he didn’t make the gourd, and that furthermore he shouldn’t be angry at YHWH for sparing Nineveh, which is full of people and cattle.

The story, especially the episode with the whale, resonates throughout the history of myth and literature and into contemporary stories. But beyond the mythic echoes of Jonah and the whale, we just downright love the guy–he’s angry, lazy, and self-righteous–just like us.