Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Comical Obligations

Moby Dick is about religion, that much is certain. Whether or not it is religious or anti-religious or just chewing on the fat of religion is a question I leave to each reader. Melville's own religion is a bit of cypher, despite much research on the subject. I trust the difficulty researchers have in figuring out his faith reflects Melville's own struggle with the task, and perhaps some of this endless going-on over six hundred pages is all just misery seeking company.

In Clarel, Melville writes of different religious impulses that Clarel first "marks", then is "awed" by ("Buddha, the Mongolian Fo, or Indian Saviour"), and then waxes on the "intersympathy of creeds" that confuses and entices the boy. But Melville then goes on to address not the sympathy but the hostility between creeds.

Are creeds hostile or sympathetic? This theme and question facscinate, but I find Moby Dick to tend toward the sympathetic, with much more attention to universal struggles of all creeds than to the particularities that may divide them. Still, there's stuggle enough in the book: don your favorite protective gear, grab your weapon of choice, and keep your guard up.

As a little aid to wending through the book, let's start by simply identifying the particular creeds that have adherants in the story. It's also a good chance to take notice of the main players (other than, of course, the Whale):

Ishmael: Presbyterian
Queequeq: Some form of south sea Pagan
Ahab, Peleg and Bildad, Starbuck: Quaker
Father Mapple: Congregationalist
Tashtego: Native American pagan
Dagoo: African pagan
Fedallah: Zoroastrian

I don't see Pip's, Flask's or Stubb's denomination identified quickly; we'll see if we come across them as we read. There will be more anon on each of these characters.

This is a small little beginning of a reading aid, and I will try to also focus on some of the places and discussions relevant to the interdenominational discussion, but it is good to keep each character's faith in mind throughout.

As Ishmael says in "The Ramadan" chapter:
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.

And much of this book is about cherishing the comical obligations of varied religions.

By the way, who is that Mongolian Fo, anyways?

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