Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ishmael on Religion

I've recently decided it's about time I sat down and read Moby Dick. If the novel keeps up like the excerpts below, I think I'm going to like it. Melville seems like my kind of guy. From Chapter 17:


As Queequeg's Ramadan, or Fasting and Humiliation, was to continue all day, I did not choose to disturb him till towards night-fall; for I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.

I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what-not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions abolut Yojo and his Ramadan; - but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avial; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all - Presbyterians and Pagans alike - for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.


Of course, if Queequeg started lobbying the local school board to have his peculiar beliefs included in science classes, that would be different.

From later in the same chapter:


Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person's religion, be what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don't believe it also. But when a man's religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.

And just so I now did with Queequeg. “Queequeg,” said I, “get into bed now and lie and listen to me.” I then went on, beginning with the rise and progress of the primitive religions, and coming down to the various religions of the present time, during which time 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 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 pereptuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans.


And finally:


After all, I do not think that my remarks about religion made much impression upon Queequeg. Because, in the first place, he somehow seemed dull of hearing on that important subject, unless considered from his own point of view; and in the second place, he did not more than one third understand me, couch my ideas as simply as I would; and finally, he no doubt thought he knew a good deal more about the true religion than I did. He looked at me with a sort of condescending concern and compassion, as though he thought it a great pity that such a sensible young man should be so hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety.

8 Comments:

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Beck said...

So it's a worth-while read?
It's one of those books I've had on the shelf forever, but just never got around to reading.

 
At 12:55 PM, Blogger Jason said...

So far I'm loving it, but it is a bit leisurely paced. Most of the chapters are very short, so chapter seventeen isn't really very far into the story. I'm about to start Chapter 28, and Cpatain Ahab is just now making his first appearance!

 
At 3:55 PM, Blogger Ereshkigal said...

Melville has long been one of my favorite free-thinking Unitarians.

Great reading!

 
At 2:48 PM, Blogger Peter Sattler said...

My suggestion about Moby-Dick: do not worry too much about the progress of the story -- otherwise, you will get frustrated at how little "progress" it seems to be making.

Think, instead, about the novel as a whaling story -- but also an adventure in words and ideas. Watch how Ishmael's mind is constantly trying on new concepts, stretching itself to its limits and then recoiling. Watch how Melville's characters reflect each other, becoming connected and disconnected. Watch as he takes words and metaphors to the brink of disintegration -- and still holds on. This is a novel you can soak in.

OK, I admit it. I love this book. It tries to encompass everything, swallowing all genres and all vocabularies. It is adventure and science, melodrama and philosophy, technical manual and dramatic monologue. It's about all the different ways we try to encounter and capture and dissect the world -- like a whale cut up and packaged on the deck of a boat. (And it has some of the best images of friendship and atheism and existential angst I've ever encountered.)

There is grandeur in its view of life.

 
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